Interview with Nasim Aliev: "Knowing the cultural code is the key to success".
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Interview with Nasim Aliev: "Knowing the cultural code is the key to success".

Nasim Aliev began his career in Russia, on the cusp of global changes for the entire region. After a successful start in banking, he moved to Kazakhstan. He then moved to Vietnam, where he launched the SmartPay wallet with several million users, followed by a move to the Philippines. Everywhere he went, he sought not so much money and success, but rather the spirit of rock 'n' roll. Four countries, four success stories, one philosophy.

In this interview, we discuss everything from personal philosophy to how to launch a project and succeed in a new 'territory'.

Brief Synopsis
Nasim Aliev is former Head of Product at Russian Standard Bank and Impexbank, ex-CEO of Renaissance Credit Kazakhstan, ex-CEO of Revo technology, CCO of SmartPay. Currently, he is actively building a FinTech company, Breeze Ventures, in the Philippines.

The beginning of the journey

My path began in a period of transition for Russia (the 90s, the collapse of the USSR), with an engineering education behind me, which ultimately went unused. Living in Moscow, I had a rough idea of where the world was going, especially since I always tried to look into the future. Then I had the feeling that big changes were coming.

I started to learn English, I just thought it was the right thing to do. And the language became a real foundation for me: I got my second education at the first American institute in Russia (American Institute of Business and Economics ed.). That was the step that changed my view of the world and my understanding of what was going on.

"Education is the foundation. It doesn't just give you a profession; it also allows you to raise your own level of consciousness. I have only now begun to realise that the main work of individual is to work on himself. Everything else is secondary and comes with the first. Even The ancient Greeks said: "Know thyself".
First projects and successes

I started my first project with a foreign partner at the age of 27. The company still exists, but without me. I was too trusting at the time, relying on a gentleman's agreement. I went to work, had no days off, and lost a lot of weight. But I never got my share. It was an important experience, a good life lesson.

What's important. First you create your own potential, then opportunities come.  But only if you're ready for them.

In a treatise written 300 years before Christ, The Art of War, there are two basic concepts:

  • Potential. When you have drawn the string of your bow.
  • Exodus. When you let it go and use it.

So you create potential, at some point you release it, something happens. In other words, " If you are truly open for an opportunity, the right solution is bound to find the way in".

My next steps were related to the potential I had created. I went into the bank because I knew the language and could analyse. It was Russian Standard, the analytics department, and I became its head. I was hired by a British guy who was working there, he was looking for a way to build a dialogue with the rest of the staff — the intercultural difference was huge and a problem. In the end he left and I stayed.

Photo from personal archives.

I started out in analytics: a company needs to know more about people and the market than anyone else, to see the customer from the inside and the outside — from all sides. Analytics helped me to understand the market and myself in it, to understand my position, what was missing, what was the next step in the evolution. We became the best. That was my greatest achievement as an analyst. And then I became head of product.

"And then there was Impexbank. The market was growing at an unbelievable rate, and the first POS loans (point of sale — loans granted in a shop, when buying goods, etc.) were already being offered 20 years ago.

Specialists were scarce, the race for people was crazy. Soon Raiffeisen bought the company where I worked and changed the staff almost completely. The Raiffeisen management probably thought they had made a good deal, but for me our guys are more aggressive in their work and understand the customer better. It's all about different cultures. I was the person who understood both cultures, and it was obvious to me that they were having difficulty getting along. At the time I was offered to move to Austria, to the head office, but I was young, emotional, I thought Austria was a sleeping country, and here it was rock and roll. In general, I prefer dynamics, speed, frantic rhythms, both in life and in my work, maybe it is in my blood, like lezginka.

That is how I ended up at Renaissance Credit, and then in Kazakhstan, where I was the first CEO who was not a foreigner, or at least not from far away. I liked the country and I still have warm relations with some of the people there. But after a while, as I got used to it and Kazakhstan became "my territory", I realised that I either had to settle down and stay for good, or move on.

On the one hand everything was good, everything was organised, but on the other hand I was young, I wanted new things. I thought at the time that it was wrong to be satisfied with what you had, to stop moving on, to stop trying and creating. But now, looking back, I can say that the time I spent in Kazakhstan was one of the best times of my life.

Social usefulness

I came back to Russia for a while because I wanted something more, something socially important. Maybe that is the point. If the project makes money at the same time, that's great; if it doesn't, at least you've done something good for people.

"At the time, telemedicine was booming. It was obvious that everything was going to be digital. My colleagues and I started to build a platform that would allow us to communicate with doctors remotely. The idea sounded simple: why travel 2-3 hours to see a doctor when you can do it from home? The doctors themselves thought one visit was enough, for psychological reasons; generally, analysis and symptomatology would suffice. We created a robot that could partially replace a therapist.

In the process, the project changed: modern medicine prohibits diagnosis without a personal visit. The company still exists and no longer needs a cash injection or my involvement. It was important to me, and I did it, but it was time to move on. ‍

Now

My former colleague, Marek Forysiak, who is the ex-CEO of Renaissance Credit, approached me. We decided to build a digital wallet in Vietnam, named SmartPay. Now it has about 700,000 merchants and several million physical users. We built it from the ground up, laying the foundation with what was, once again, rock and roll-style work.

The project that occupies my time today is building a full-fledged bank overseas. This is the hardest project there is.

A team in Vietnam. Photo from personal archives.

Starting a project in a new market

Two important questions

There are common questions you ask yourself each time you launch a project, and you answer them in a different way each time. Because you change, you get wiser. These questions are simple: why and why not.

"Why does this market need you?

"If you have a clear answer that takes into account not only the needs of customers and existing players, but also the needs of government agencies, then it makes sense to move forward. You need to be sure that you and your expertise have something to offer all stakeholders.

But. Thinking only in terms of past experience is wrong. When you make a decision in a new environment based on past experience, especially if it's a quick decision, past experience doesn't always work. Once you're out of your notional 'comfort zone', it's important to train yourself not to give in to initial cues and follow the beaten path. Many real business monsters fail in new places.

Take Sberbank, for example. It is building its business on the basis of past models. But this is a mistake. A mistake that leads to failure or even closure.

Our brain, by design, is like a spotlight that illuminates the simpler option from the whole mass of information, discarding the other options. A person does not see the whole picture. Remember the video where you were asked to count how many balls were thrown into the basket? You're so focused on the task that you don't notice a man in a monkey suit walking by in the background. The same thing happens in business.

Second question: Why will you be successful?

It's worth answering in detail. What are the conditions for success? Will you be able to play to your strengths? Are others interested in your success? Look at what is already in place. Technological and analytical part, existing base - the more things are taken into account, the higher the chances of success.

Area study
I can tell you from personal experience that even if you have used the services of a large consultancy, you should not rely on the results of their work alone. You need to do your own market research on the ground.

We started during the pandemic when no planes were flying, and everything was closed. We were working remotely, and as much as we wanted to be on the ground, it was impossible. The quality of information you get in face-to-face meetings with people who are doing business in the country is a whole other level. Working remotely is like travelling on television.

First steps in a new place

The first thing to do is to draw up a plan of action: from the basic to the operational. Even at the planning level, a number of issues will be resolved, so you need to start with concrete steps.

Next, you need a product that you will offer in the new territory; launching it will help you to really get a feel for the situation around you.

About markets

Main differences

I like to get into the behavioural psychology of people and try to make sense of it. When I first got into banking, I wanted to get to the bottom of what money means to people. I read in a book that people talk about sickness easily, but no one talks about how much money they have (laughs). Money is extremely important to us. It is the part of life that is responsible for vitality. Basically, people are very similar to each other. Foreigners are not Martians. But there are objective cultural differences. Do they affect financial behaviour? Absolutely.

Photo from personal archives

Consider the historical context. Here's an example.

In the Philippines, just like in the CIS countries, people are constantly discussing the possibility of losing their savings or money. And it's not about people, it's about historical events. If the country has been economically stable for decades, people do not even think about it. That's why it's reckless to enter an unexplored market and hope that everyone will suddenly start keeping money with you.

I've drawn some conclusions here (in the Philippines): you can't give big loans in the early stages. You can't wait long for a person to start paying back. You can't be pushy with collection activities. Otherwise the person will just hang up and stop answering the phone. Although in Russia this usually works. We have a completely different conversation script. It all comes from the cultural code.

Culture is very important when communicating with people. You have to be careful, especially in the early stages when you are building trust. Abroad, you have to be aware that you are different and no one is going to trust you overnight. After a certain level, you can introduce your own requirements and standards, but not immediately. This applies to the whole chain: from the partner to the ordinary employee. Many people know how to run a business. But not many can reformat their consciousness, change it and adopt a different culture. And then apply that to communications. That is the key to success.

I lost two people in Vietnam by pointing out their mistakes in front of everyone. I wasn't trying to insult or humiliate anyone, just point out what should have been done differently. For me, it was simple - lessons learned, move on. But in Vietnam, if you make a public comment, your relationship is over. At first you don't even realise what's happening, the person just doesn't get back to you, his mother suddenly gets ill, force majeure happens. Only with time did I come to realise the situation and the wisdom that cultural understanding is the key to everyone and everything.

Trends

Everyone follows the successes of others, particularly the market leaders. They observe what is being done right, who has more capitalization, who has less income, and so on. I prefer to follow smart market players and analyse what made them successful. But I also look at myself, guided by the saying: "If you know your enemy, you can win; if you don't know yourself, you will never win. In other words, you can never win if you don't know yourself.

Right now it's particularly interesting to watch the Latin American market, especially companies like Nubank. Asia is also unique. I like Vietnam, with its hustle and bustle, its start-ups, its digitalisation, its own production of electric cars, phones. I wouldn't be surprised to see Vietnam become an advanced market. African countries also have great potential, provided they can overcome their political instability challenges.

"Europe is a different story - there could be hard times ahead. The economy could go down. The economy of Germany, the driving force of the European Union, is already stagnating and many businessmen are moving their projects to other regions. So if we are talking about trendsetters, I would look at Asia and Latin America.

The link between innovation and need

The link between needs and innovation is direct. We develop, invent, and innovate when we have a need. This is how human beings are structured. Take, for example, the structural irregularities of markets. If a service is needed by a large number of people but doesn't have to be expensive, you set up a cloud server and develop an application. That's it; people can then use it. And if no one else in the market has done it before you, you have to take advantage of it.

The problem with large organisations is the hierarchy and the culture, the reluctance to change. Sometimes the managers on whom decisions depend are simply not aware of how much the world around them has changed. This prevents them from creating and encouraging innovation.

Traditionally, bankers have been stable and big "uncles", and it would not occur to them to give way to the young. They also prevent progressive employees from developing. Today, in this environment, projects are emerging that go beyond traditional boundaries and thrive. This is what has happened with wallets, which have essentially taken over banking functions. There's GCash in the Philippines, with a base of 60 million people, most of whom are active. There's another project with over 20 million people. But there are no banks that are actively using transaction services. Why is that? They did not even look in that direction, they did not see the need to satisfy the people and make the processes more democratic.  In this way, necessity gave birth to innovation.

The Future

Artificial intelligence in finance

Expect big changes in five years' time. Artificial intelligence did not appear yesterday, and it is already being actively used; we have been using it in risk management for a long time. Self-learning models are so effective that even their creators don't fully understand the limits of what is happening. This territory is frightening mainly because it is inexplicable and unpredictable. Where does it end? What will it lead to?

However, all of these concerns are overshadowed by the incredible economic impact.

Saving money, sending money, arranging credit - all these tasks can be delegated to a machine. The potential answers are limitless. I see a world where artificial intelligence adapts to you. It remembers when and where you book a table, where you prefer it to be delivered from. It also helps with routine tasks. I believe in it and always have.

Simplicity

Today, we've moved into the attention economy - companies make money when a customer spends more and more time in their apps. The concept of the SuperApp has emerged: everything in one place. On the one hand, the functionality has to be huge, but on the other hand, everything has to be as simple as possible. This is a conflict that all companies experience.

It is important to understand what a person needs, not for everyone in general, but specifically for each person. There is also the fact that what is simple for one person may be very complicated for another.

The move towards personalising the experience is very important. Applications need to be personalised. Understand that one customer needs the 'investments' button before 'loans', and that it is important for his friend to see 'cashback' on the home screen, not a thousand banners with new offers.

Advice to readers

Learn to love yourself. Powerfully. I've learned this myself and I teach it to my children. When you love and understand yourself, life becomes much easier and simpler. Don't plan ahead and let your potential grow. The twists and turns of life are impossible to predict. At the beginning of my career, I never imagined that one day I would be working with foreigners, doing business with them, working abroad... "Never say never" - that's for sure.

Ну а сейчас самое время пройти тест и понять, насколько вы финансово грамотные. Поехали!
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