To get to the office floors of the hulking HIU Building in Binh Thanh one must first cross the lobby of Hong Bang International University. That TymeGlobal should choose to be surrounded by young people is no coincidence — many of the engineers working at the digital bank’s Tech Hub are recruited on campus, fresh from the coding furnace. And thanks to the bank’s efforts to attract more female tech talent, new graduates find a well-balanced work environment at Tyme, explains the company’s Director General for Vietnam Chris Bennett.
Headquartered in Singapore with offices in Hong Kong and Johannesburg (plus the global tech hub in Saigon), Tyme focuses on designing, building and operating digital banks for emerging markets. As Asia’s digital banking race is picking up speed, the large population of unbanked individuals and small businesses across the region are poised to benefit from access to financial services.
With its success in South Africa, where the bank has reached 3 million customers, Tyme has entered into an agreement to launch a digital bank in the Philippines — an expansion made possible thanks to $110m in investment raised earlier this year. Will Vietnam be next? Chris is hopeful: “As soon as we find the right partner.”
For our ‘How I Manage’ series, we ask Chris about building a multi-country digital bank and how broadening economic participation will unlock human potential.
Neobanks vs traditional banks: what benefits do digital banks offer that the incumbents don’t?
They are two completely different beasts. Historically, banks were focused on the corporates, whereas with neobanks you have a really strong theme of doing things for the customer. The difference is subtle, but you can see how receptive people are to this approach: they come to us because we are trying to do something for them. And considering how new digital banking is — as recently as 10 years ago what we are doing today was in the realm of science fiction — this is indeed a very exciting time to be in the banking business and in Vietnam.
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As a South African company, what was behind the decision to open a SEA headquarters in Singapore and a Tech Hub in Vietnam?
One of the strongest reasons for choosing Vietnam as our tech hub is the entrepreneurial spirit of the Vietnamese people. Almost everyone you meet here has a side hustle or is helping a family member run a shop or is juggling several jobs. And this go-getting spirit comes through in how the Vietnamese work in an office setting.
Additionally, we see Vietnam’s high growth rate driven by low costs and high-quality tech talent as an opportunity. In fact, the market demand for skilled professionals is growing faster than the universities are able to supply. So we are being proactive in our hiring approach by leveraging freshly graduated engineers from the universities. Our recent expansion into the Philippines will create a massive opportunity for the engineers to work on the latest and greatest technologies at our hub.
Your team of engineers in Vietnam gets to work on some seriously snazzy technology. What’s in your tech stack?
We are lucky that the industry started only recently so from the very beginning we have been using the cloud and the latest tech making it very attractive for our new joiners who have never experienced the culture of traditional big banks before. They have much more freedom to experiment than they would at a big bank.
We make big use of Amazon’s cloud technology, Java, Kubernetes, as well as Android and iOS both of which we run as native. We also do testing and business analytics, data analytics and machine learning here. Tyme’s onboarding kiosks in South Africa run on our proprietary tech that really sets us apart from all these banks globally. While they engage with customers on the app, our kiosks offer people a physical experience. Your fingerprint and your photograph are taken on the spot and the machine issues your personalized debit card right there. The entire process takes less than 5 minutes. All with no paperwork.
Tyme specializes in building digital banks for the masses. Why focus on this segment?
Financial inclusion will always remain our priority but we do find that our clients come from all segments of society, because we offer good value. So now we have a good mix of those previously unbanked and wealthy clients, and we were able to quickly adapt to the needs of a broader audience. As SEA markets grow, we want to grow with them and bring them into the banking system. We want more people to have access to the loans to start a business, for example.
One of your stated goals is guiding customers towards better financial fitness. How is this achieved?
Many people find the world of finance complicated. How much are the fees? What is the interest rate? It’s not easy to see. One of our principles is to keep our products simple. That’s what financial fitness means to us — making sure our customers know exactly what they're doing with their money. We offer advice on various platforms: there’s the website, YouTube tutorials, the call center and the app, of course. We are proud that Tyme is one of the world's fastest-growing digital banks, onboarding more than 120,000 customers per month, and that Forbes named us the second best bank in South Africa.
With US$110 million in fresh investment, what new banking products can the customers look forward to?
We are taking Tyme to the Philippines, as well as expanding our ‘Buy Now, Pay Later’ product that’s currently in beta in South Africa. In emerging markets short-term advances at no cost to customers are a novel concept, and with the latest investment we will be able to bring this fantastic product to the developing world.
You’ve been with Tyme for over 4 years, first in South Africa and now in Vietnam. How successful was the transfer of the company culture to the Vietnamese soil, in your opinion?
We are not an outsourcing company, so the culture that our new recruits find when joining Tyme is that of ownership. Compared to the South Africans who are far more direct and like to debate things, the Vietnamese are less confrontational. To help with relationship-building, we send our new joiners to SA to play some soccer and enjoy a braai or two with the local Tyme crew. It makes a huge difference later on when you’re on a Zoom call and need to understand what your colleague is worried about.
On these trips they also get to see our kiosks in action. One of the best insights we’ve ever had was when one of our Vietnamese developers said he never realized South African ladies had such long fingernails. We use a fingerprint scan to register new customers, so getting this bit of tech right was crucial. The team solved the problem by simply changing the angle of the fingerprint reader. Today, with travel restrictions, it’s all Zoom and no travel, but we will be resuming our field trips as soon as borders reopen.
What are some of your advice for young professionals who want to work for a digital banking builder like Tyme?
Like other product building companies, we look for people with high ownership spirit. At Tyme, we are all mini CEOs who are expected to own and understand the product. You must constantly update your knowledge while contributing to the team. My advice is to be confident and be curious about everything you do.