IQPay is a solution that embraces contactless payments. In this interview, Michelle Ruiz, the CEO of IQPAY shares her journey from her early career managing hospitality initiatives to venturing into the startup world. She credits Raise for our valuable assistance in equity management and navigating the complexities of fundraising, emphasizing how Raise's holistic approach empowered her team.
Please give me a brief introduction about yourself.
I’m Michelle Ruiz and I'd worked for a company that was eventually purchased by Oracle where I looked after their hospitality initiatives here in South Africa in the food & beverage, hospitality sectors providing software solutions. In 2017, I opened my first startup which was also in the hospitality sector. And I had a successful exit from that startup in early 2021. And that's when we launched IQPay and started building the current system.
Awesome! What actually inspired you to start your company? What’s the background story behind IQPay.
IQPay was born out of necessity. We were in the hospitality sector at a time when Covid obviously was very relative and hospitality was really hard struck, and we looked to innovative ways of bringing new technology to market. That complemented the way the world was going in terms of understanding contactless payments.
We really got excited at the point when we realized that we could build a product that was not only disruptive, but also protective. IQPay not only provided innovative contactlessness solutions, but also had a massive ability to mitigate fraud and that's really where it evolved. It was an understanding of that opportunity and at a time when I think there was a huge shift towards commerce payments, as well as contactless payments.
Interesting. How has running a startup been so far?
I think that, until you run a startup, you never really believe what people say about the highs and lows, and I think that that's really what the journey has been reflective of. I think that what it's taught me is just that resilience is first and foremost a quality that every founder and startup needs. And I think that along with that resilience is the ability to understand opportunities that we took for granted in the corporate space because it's really a comfort zone. But as a founder, you must learn to create the opportunity and drive it from within. So it's been exciting and it's been tumultuous. (laughs). Also it’s brought a huge amount of not only growth as a business, but personal growth. I think that you start leveraging skills that you were not aware that you had and you also learn that you are responsible for your own growth and development, which you should never take for granted. So I think it's been an incredible journey.
I don't think I've often taken enough time to reflect on how much that is impacted, whether it's me as an individual or the growth of my team, but it's definitely something I'm aware of. We are currently embarking on some incredible opportunities and we have finalized a partnership with an enlisted distribution company for our product in 10 African countries. Before we get to that point, we're about to finalize some of our certification and some other things next year. So while we have primarily focused on South Africa, by mid next year, we hoping to have our products available and in a few more countries in Africa and we have really started partnerships with a payment gateway based in Europe, with one of the largest footprints. So we also hope in that will bring us to the European market mid to late next year.
Now let’s talk about equity management for IQPay. How did you hear about Raise?
On LinkedIn, through Caleb of Tech Safari. I attended one of the Raise x Tech Safari webinars, and obviously we were fundraising and one of the things that is always foremost for us is knowing what we don't know. I was very intrigued but by the Raise offering from the get-go.
I think one of the things that really stood art was the professional engagement from the onset. I really enjoyed the approach, the understanding and in many ways and even just where we lacked, because very often as a founder, we always think that we have it all together. But for me, it was quite nice the approach where your team were able to point out and what was lacking in terms of our readiness for funding. It was done in a very practical approach. So I think that for me just solidified the fact that Raise was a great partner and we really enjoyed that engagement. I even brought the feedback from Raise into sessions with our angel investor and we received incredible feedback about Raise’ work from him as well.
Tell me about the challenges you encountered before catching the Raise flight?
I think that Raise was the only one that offered a holistic approach to equity management. What I mean by that is, they were various ways in which we could get valuations, but I don't think it was the same approach and methodology behind it. And I don't think it was done in a collaborative way where we felt that we were actually empowered to draw up the valuation of our business, which I think was a big learning point for us.
So I think there are various services out there that we'd used but they were very segmented. We were approaching a lawyer for advice but typically the lawyers that you encounter, don't have that experience with VCs and fundraising for startups, they don't understand the landscape. So the result of that was our sort of shareholders agreement that was then reviewed. And when we looked at it from the perspective that Raise gave us, it really did give us a far greater understanding of how we needed to position our business, interactions, our contracts, it really had a knock on effect and impact and almost every aspect of our business.
What were the Raise services you subscribed for?
Valuations & Equity Clinic.
Were the services able to help you streamline your operations and interactions with your investors?
A hundred percent. I think it's poised us to have more meaningful discussions. On the back of that, we completely changed the terms of our fundraising. And the most value we got from that equity clinic is the structure of how we should raise to allow us to retain maximum equity as founders.
I think it was, as again, as founders, just sort of getting to the cycle that we need to raise, we need to raise and that…but I was very impressed with the optimization of how it was explained and positioned and it just really resonated with us as a team. I think that they're just brought incredible value. I think if I had to sum up what Raise actually allowed us to do is to retain more equity than we would have before when we were not on the journey with you.
That's great. Would you say that the services have been very impactful for the growth of your startup so far?
Without a doubt. We've even gone so far, further offerings in terms of commercializing our business and our model. We put that foremost in our budgets to allow further ongoing engagements and without a doubt, we’d be coming back to you for future sessions to enhance what we do.
Awesome! What do you think Raise can do better at?
I think from an offering point of view, Raise already has so much more than most startups would be able to use because it's all about time and being able to make the effort. What I would actually suggest and is just more exposure. I know you do a great amount of PR and online and I've interacted with a lot of people from Raise. But the one thing I must say is that there are a lot of startup programs that are out there and would really benefit from an earlier stage, an almost light introduction of what Raise can do for their businesses. I think for me, I’d just love to see people exposed to your offering more widely in the startup ecosystem. Because that one thing that I haven't seen. I think the one thing that every startup always talk about is fundraising. But the reality is, without the foundation and the readiness that you offer, 90% percent of them are probably not going to raise funding.
What are some of the growth strategies that you've been able to implement so far for IQPAY?
I think that the first thing was developing before we even had our MVP ready and…we were ambitious. So we started engaging with a lot of the industry leaders in different sectors that we wanted to feature in or we understood had access to the clients that we were trying to access very early days. And we also had a very strong value proposition around that. And we were very fortunate because I think we had a lot of champions alongside us who understood what we were trying to achieve and we had a lot of guidance. The other was to really find the right mentorship and advisory board and we were very fortunate in that. We managed to get the right people inside our structure to help guide us.
I think that especially when you work in a small environment, you very often aren't as critical and in terms of the strategies that you deploy. To have someone outside of that look at it objectively really helps. We found strength is that. From a fundraising perspective, business development and marketing, really relying on those advisory members to help guide us and give us usable feedback.
How have you been able to navigate challenges, obstacles since you've been building?
Keep getting up. (laughs) The reality is that, I know it sounds almost counterproductive but the more mistakes you make, the better your business is for it provided that you don't make the mistake the second time.
We just tackled them head on. And I think the most important thing is, very often I’ve heard people say that they like investing in startups that have more than one co-founder. And until I was in this particular startup, I didn't realize how incredibly important that was to have someone who holds you accountable.. And the best way we've managed to navigate that is to compensate for each others weaknesses. Understand the strength of your team and just keep innovating and keep finding a way through the obstacles because whether we like it or not, they exist.
In terms of fundraising and partnerships, what advice would you give someone who's trying to navigate that process?
I think it's always so hard because as a founder, we've all been sort of groomed to believe raising the investment is actually the sort of milestone or achievement. And that's somehow the means by which we've all started and judging ourselves with. Have we raised investment? If we have, we are successful and if we haven’t, we're not. I think one of the things we take for granted is that the real value of the business is being able to convert and do business and fund the business on the back of that.
For me, one of the most valuable lessons is that we need to try and bootstrap as much as we can and get better valuation. Again, it's a very hard thing as a founder not to take the money just because it's an investment, but to take it from investors that bring strategic positioning your business and value.
What are the key lessons that you've learned from your startup journey so far that you like to share?
I think that the first is that there's a lot of opportunity to collaborate. I think on this journey, exposing ourselves to the startup ecosystems that are out there and the various platforms, whether it's events or networking, you learn a tremendous amount not only about other businesses but about your business and the perception.That's almost the early sort of litmus test as to how your product is received etc. You can't build your business in isolation especially if you building a product for markets. You've got to be in that market. That was one of the biggest learnings.
The other is that, as a business we made some expensive mistakes. I think that if I was to give any other founder any advice, it would be it’s better to take a product to market that you're not proud of, and try to be the perfectionist because you can always fix it in a later version if you have a market, but if you don't have a market and you run out of funding, then you won't have a product anyway.