Pictured: Roy Zakka, CEO and Founder of Layer
Roy Zakka is CEO and Founder of Layer, a leader in the financial technology industry that “helps banks digitalise their banking stack, delivering an enhanced customer experience for customers and employees alike, while retaining their core legacy systems.” Mr Zakka believes that digital transformation is critical to the survival of traditional banks and that it is by unifying data and functionality from existing core systems that banks can simplify and accelerate their banking digitalisation to create a seamless digital customer experience.
What are your main priorities and goals in your role?
I started this company in 2011 because I was frustrated by my banking experience. Our goal is to help banks digitalise rapidly, providing the banks’ customers with a much better experience, and also to provide bank employees with the digital tools and services necessary to run the bank remotely, and to launch new products and services from a single platform. Day to day, communicating on behalf of the company with shareholders, clients, and government entities is my main focus. Developing partnerships with the broader FinTech and financial services sector is also a key focus for me. And above all, ensuring that we are helping our customers to continually improve and innovate their banking services through our banking platform.
What are your biggest challenges as CEO?
Over the last 18 months, COVID has made it difficult to connect with our clients – existing and new – because we haven’t been able to travel, but on the positive side, it has drastically increased the need for banks to digitalise quickly, and so our offering has seen very strong demand. We have done several remote on premise implementations over the last 18 months, which shows the power of the functionality of the Layer platform.
How do you keep your team/staff motivated?
Our team is distributed across Europe, Africa and the Middle East, so regular update calls, and face to face meetings when travel is permitted again, keeps us connected. We celebrate our wins by sharing news at regular monthly team meetings. We have almost doubled in size to 75 team members over the last 8 months, so I’m looking forward to meeting the new team members in person over the next few months.
We have almost doubled in size to 75 team members over the last 8 months, so I’m looking forward to meeting the new team members in person over the next few months.
What are the challenges facing the industry going forward?
Disintermediation of the big banks
This is coming from all angles. Gone are the days where banks compete with other banks in a highly regulated market. With the lightening of some regulations to allow competitors enter, PSD2 for example, banks are facing competition from various industries. The big tech companies already have a huge footprint in the payments space, like Google Pay, Apple Pay, Venmo, Paypal, etc. The rise of the challenger banks such as Revolut, N26, Chime, Square Cash, Monzo and Starling, to name a few, are providing serious competition to traditional banks globally.
These new players can do everything the big banks can do for a fraction of the budget. The only remaining barrier to entry is the banking licence itself, which is extremely difficult to obtain. But a lot of fintechs are just focusing on payments or pre-paid cards so they can avoid the long and difficult banking licence application process.
The pandemic has accelerated the drive to becoming fully digital. Banks and their customers have realised that branches are no longer essential and that if the mobile experience is good enough, customers prefer to interact with banks in that way, in the same way as they manage all their other essential services.
Banking customers are becoming more and more demanding. They are using apps everyday that are beautifully designed and easy to use. Banks unfortunately cannot deliver the same experiences due to their legacy tech stacks. That’s where Layer comes in.
If you talk to a millennial or a Gen Z today, they’d rather bank with Apple or Google or Amazon. The customer trust element banks had for centuries is slowly eroding.
Business Model Change/Embedded Finance
Years of low interest rates have squeezed margins enormously and Basel IV (capital controls) has dramatically hindered their profitability. As a bank, if you can’t lend money, how do you make money?
But what if these factors are not the only key driver in their decline. What if, in fact, their centuries-old business model needs to be redesigned? What if the next account you open or the next loan you take out doesn’t come from your bank, but from your favorite e-commerce shop? Or clothing line. Or your favourite sports team? Alibaba has seen tremendous success in China providing such services to SMBs. Embedded finance players are the new competition
Banks and their customers have realised that branches are no longer essential and that if the mobile experience is good enough, customers prefer to interact with banks in that way, in the same way as they manage all their other essential services.
What new trends are emerging in your industry?
We are seeing massive change in digital banking. Specifically in the last few years. Automation has grown in importance. Banks are now utilizing AI and machine learning to automate processes and tasks that previously would have taken thousands of people to complete.
Embedded finance is another key growth area. Simply put, embedded finance allows non-banks to become banks. Any brand can offer financial services using the Layer Platform and we already see some of the biggest brands in the world offering debit cards, credit cards and loans.
Lifestyle banking is something we are really focused on at Layer. It’s the addition of non-banking products and services to your banking app; essentially giving you a super app where you can order food, buy concert tickets, book an appointment with your physio or have an online consultation with your GP. We’ve already implemented this with one of our newest clients.
Crypto is very much in the spotlight recently. We see the likes of Visa working with crypto stable coins now so crypto is slowly being integrated into traditional financial markets and it will be even more prevalent in the coming years.
CDBCs (Central Bank Digital Currencies) is a new one on the radar. It is yet to be seen if this would be good or bad for banks. But it will completely change that game as now we will have programmable money, which gives central banks and governments huge power over the financial system. We are still years away from this but this topic will be red hot over the next few years.
Are there any major changes you would like to see in your sector?
- Easier Access to payment rails
- More aggressive enforcement of PSD2
- Standardisation of APIs and integration between different jurisdictions
As banking is a regulated industry, working with traditional banks and regulators can be slow and frustrating. Each jurisdiction as they own rules and laws which makes scaling a global company like Layer difficult. Areas like payment rails, enforcing of current laws like PSD2 and a standardisation of APIs to enable easy integrations with partners and government entities.
At the moment these things take months, when they should take weeks.
As an employer are you finding any skill gaps in the market?
Yes. We are actively hiring right now and trying to find the right people has been difficult. There is a lot of competition for developers and especially those with the specialised skill sets that we require to build out our capabilities.
How did your strategy develop in the context of the banking crisis and economic crisis?
It provided us with the opportunity to enter markets that were largely unaffected by the financial crisis, in the Middle East and Africa.
How has Brexit affected you, if at all?
No impact really, as our focus has been on Africa, Europe and the Middle East to date. However as we move into Europe, the UK and the US, I expect we will see more of the impact of Brexit.
How has the COVID-19 crisis affected your business/sector, if at all?
We have always been a remote company. Our team is based all over the world. In over 12 countries. So from an operational point of view, nothing has changed.
From an opportunity perspective, COVID-19 has accelerated everything. Especially around digital transformation in FS. Our platform is perfectly suited for any FI or business who now realises that we are living in a purely digital world and there is no going back.
You can see it across Ireland and the world where banks are either leaving or reducing their physical footprint. Banking through digital channels will be the focus for the short and medium term and we just so happen to have the perfect solution for any bank who needs to rapidly transform their technology.
From an opportunity perspective, COVID-19 has accelerated everything.
How do you define success and what drives you to succeed?
I guess seeing something my team and I have created doing good in the world. We sometimes forget what privilege we have living here in the west. Specifically financial privilege. There are billions of people around the world without access to money or credit. Money is the social fabric of society. Giving those in need access to financial services can be a matter of life and death. That sounds very grandiose. But it is true. Seeing the Layer product in the hands of someone who has never used financial services before is very rewarding. It can literally change their lives.
Also, I have worked with some of the same people for over 20 years now. Working and growing together give me great pleasure to see them succeed in their careers and in their family life. To work with friends and family creating something that will improve people’s lives. That’s a fantastic feeling.
What’s the best advice you’ve been given in business?
Make or do something that you’re proud of; something that will drive change and good in the world, so you leave the place better than you found it. Your belief and passion for what you’re doing will inspire your team, and delight your customers.
What have been your highlights in business over the past year?
It has been manic to say the least. Our platform is now serving over 20million end users. We’ve doubled our staff to 75 in the last 8 months and are still looking to hire more. And we rebranded at the beginning of this year.
Our Digital Banking Platform is helping banks all over the globe to revolutionize their business models and grow and succeed in these ever changing times. It’s very satisfying to see all our hard work in action.
What’s next for your company?
Our focus now is three fold:
- Our expansion into Europe and North America. We are in late stage conversations with some really exciting partners and clients that we will be revealing very soon.
- Series A funding round of 10m
- Developing partnerships with large FinTechs and non FI customers, as our platform can be used to digitalise any business, anywhere in the world
Where do you want your business/brand to be this time next year?
I see a rapid expansion of our growth into 2022. The Layer Marketplace will be an ecosystem providing banking and non-banking products and services to banking and non-banking clients.
We also are maturing our SaaS and BaaS offerings to enable us to scale a lot faster.
I see the Layer brand being a very well recognised name in the banking industry this time next year. And it will be our clients who are promoting us. Because the impact and ROI that our platform delivers is simply unquestionable.