Son of an emigrant Middle Eastern family, US-born Faisal Toukan was a natural-born salesman, making in his early twenties some 50 daily sales calls for Oracle.
He traveled frequently, including trips to and stays in Saudi and Jordan, during which he examined technology contrasts between East and West geographies and grew an early fascination with tech, particularly fintech.
At the tender age of 21, he was drawn into a cryptocurrency project.
“I was pulled into the Ethereum community back in 2014, built a product that 45,000 people used, but couldn’t find a way to monetize. So I had to shut down one of the first companies I co-founded,” Toukan told AMEinfo via a video conference.
“I met my Ziina co-founder, Andrew Gold, at an Ethereum hackathon. We bounced ideas while looking at a global map of next-generation finance, and the Middle East stood out as the region with the most glaring gap in fintech services.”
Toukan said Ziina was born to address this gap in the Middle East, a region having one of the highest mobile penetration globally, where 250 million digitally savvy individuals are 27 years of age on average.
“The opportunity was that nearly 60% of this region’s natives are underbanked, not to mention that today’s user-experience (UX) in financial services there had a lot of room for improvement,” Toukan added.
Today, Toukan is 27 himself and running a startup that garners interest in the P2P payment space from Silicon Valley, global and local investors, and talent from Apple, Uber, Careem, Coinbase, Oracle, and Stanford University, to name a few.
Ziina, the UAE’s first Peer-to-Peer payment solution, became the third company from the UAE to be selected this winter for the elite start-up accelerator’s program: Y-Combinator.
It joined a pedigree of Y-Combinator-backed brands like Airbnb, Stripe, and Dropbox who have all disrupted their industries and are worth a combined $200 billion.
“Over the past month, we have been mentored by the co-founders of Stripe, Brex, and Airbnb,” said Toukan.
Ziina’s latest successful funding round was led by OTF Jasoor Ventures (the VC arm of Oman Technology Fund), with participation from Class 5 Global, Long Journey Ventures, Graph Ventures, Jabbar Internet Group, FJ Labs, and Wamda.
The round also included funding from early employees and current executives from Revolut, Stripe, Paypal’s Venmo, Brex, Notion, and Deel.
“At Ziina, we are bridging the services that current demographics need and deserve. We are big believers in being agile, so we are learning from feedback and making the product better.”
How does Ziina work?
Once you open a mobile app account with Ziina, it’s easy to find other app account holders using Instagram-like search themes where one can locate people, portraits, and profiles with a few clicks and initiate a bank transfer to the desired family member, friend, or business partner.
From splitting a lunch bill to paying for a group trip, from helping a friend in need, to sending remittances to family members or investing money in business opportunities, Ziina is the perfect platform for such quick, safe, and easy transactions.
“We have done our global research and we set our benchmark to $11,000 Dirhams as a transfer ceiling, and we do monitor transactions for any suspicious activity,” revealed Toukan.
“We know we have validated the need for our app because we are seeing 40% organic growth in volume, month on month, but we are taking and summoning users’ feedback to make needed enhancements to the app,” he added.
So let’s talk safety
For security, the Ziina app is a layer on top of the banking system, where users need to log in with the same one-time passwords (OTPs) required by the bank.
“Upon a transfer, either side of the transaction needs to know their banking credentials which are end to end encrypted and stored. No one, including Ziina, have access to that info,” said Toukan.
“We can work with either a digital or conventional bank. We need an account to store our users’ funds in. The bank provides operational expertise around the inflow and outflow of money. and we provide the technology and muscle behind it,” he further explained.
Ziina is already live with 12 major banks in the UAE.
What makes Ziina unique?
The short answer, according to Toukan, is “the social component”.
Toukan explained: “The largest gaming franchise in the world today (Assassin’s Creed) is worth $300- $350 million, but then came Fortnight which layered a social component on top and now they are valued at $4 billion.”
“From day one, we are layering social with finance. Finance is a social element by itself. You earn money from a job you are passionate about, you send money to loved ones, and you spend money on things you love.”
He continues: “It’s like texting money. We are artfully using our platform like social media and it’s what makes us different.”
Also, the fact that Ziina is part and parcel of users’ earned relationships with their banks, the app’s trust is gained much faster and Ziina becomes distinct in these users’ eyes.
What’s the future for Ziina?
Toukan said Ziina’s an application for the youth, aged 20-35, and that many of these are people today who have an interest in cryptocurrency.
“Whether we choose to build this option in-house, or via a 3rd party provider, we will become an aggregator of many types of financial services,” said Toukan.
But Ziina will gear its revenues away from its B2C model and nearer its B2B model.
“We are going to minimize the fees our retail clients pay because most of the money will be made from margins on the business side. More and more small businesses and merchants are signing up with Ziina because they have the same payment pain points that consumers have,” explained Toukan.
“We believe there is a better margin to make from the business component. If you receive 6 transactions or more per month, we charge you 2% on the 6th transactions and above,” revealed Toukan adding, “For consumers, it should be something they can use quite freely.”
Ziina is building on its current application with plans to expand its product offering to include simplified payments for freelancers and small businesses.
Finally, Toukan hinted at the launch of its newest product.
“Ziina is a product that allows us to learn about users’ needs and why they are using it. We have taken that feedback to an application that we believe will address a large component of users’ pain points on a day-to-day payment basis. Like how to prioritize payments to certain individuals or how to communicate those payments, and we turned this into a product that can store your money,” he said.
“Essentially, we’re introducing a digital wallet soon.”