How Prajit Nanu’s Fintech Startup Nium Became A Unicorn—And Where He’s Taking It From There

By Chong Seow Wei

The co-founder and CEO of Singapore-based Nium shares his thoughts on the company's billion-dollar valuation, purpose and dealing with failure

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Cover  Photo: Courtesy of Nium

In 2013, Prajit Nanu could feel his frustration rising as he tried to transfer money overseas to pay for a friend’s bachelor party. The process was so cumbersome and costly it left him itching to take the bull by the horn. And so he did.

“I saw a huge gap in the cost efficiencies of cross-border remittance and decided I would create my own solution to this problem,” says Nanu, who is based in Singapore. 

He began building his business from his apartment with a colleague, Michael Bermingham. In 2015, they launched Instarem. The startup’s name is a portmanteau of “instant remittance”, as its goal was to make cross-border money transfers easier for consumers. Business took off and Instarem’s network spanned across 55 countries, all of which generated transactions worth up to US$4 billion annually. 

After four years, the company announced the launch of Nium. This time, it took its name from the word “neeyam”, which means “rules” in Sanskrit. It targets the B2B market, “enabling enterprises to implement a host of cross-border payment services, from issuing virtual and physical cards to sending and collecting money worldwide,” says Nanu.

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Prajit Nanu. Photography: Darren Gabriel Leow
Above  Prajit Nanu, co-founder and CEO of Nium. (Photography: Darren Gabriel Leow)

Nium currently operates in more than 100 countries and processes over US$8 billion annually for banks and payment institutions, including Indonesia’s Bank Bri and global foreign exchange company Travelex. 

The company’s global expansion has also attracted a number of major investors, such as Visa and Temasek. This past July, Nium joined the unicorn club after raising more than US$200 million in Series D funding. The company plans to use the funds to expand its operations in the US and Latin America, and may pursue an IPO in the US within the next two years.

Below, Nanu shares what Nium’s billion-dollar valuation means to him, how he deals with failure and his realisation about the role of a leader.

See also: Meet the 2021 Gen.T Honourees Who Are Driving Change in Singapore

Nium recently became a unicorn. How does it feel?
It’s still hard to believe we’ve just reached this milestone. This certainly took a lot of sacrifice and hard work over the last six years from a team of dedicated colleagues, investors and advisors. When we made our first-ever live payment transaction back in 2015, we had just three employees and an outsourced tech team to support us. Today, we’ve a team of over 700 employees worldwide. I couldn’t be prouder, but I know this unicorn status is just the beginning of our journey. There’s so much more we can and want to do.

What advice do you have for other entrepreneurs striving for this coveted status?
Don’t believe in glass ceilings. When we first started, so many people told me that they weren’t sure if Nium would get anywhere. They also reminded me that there has never been a fintech unicorn from Southeast Asia. We’ve proven them wrong now, and I believe there will be a few more unicorns popping up across Southeast Asia over the next few years. You can achieve anything if you set your mind to it.

As leaders, we can’t go through the journey alone
Prajit Nanu

What motivates you to do what you do?
From day one, I’ve envisioned a future wherein any business, regardless of its size or industry, can benefit from fintech and derive a significant portion of its revenue from financial services. I wanted to achieve this by helping to build a world free of old financial constraints. It is this vision of the future that gets me out of bed every morning.

What’s been one of your biggest career moments?
Being able to secure over US$200 million in our recent Series D funding round was one of the most significant moments in my career, not because of Nium’s new unicorn status, but because of the company’s US$15 million share buyback that followed in August.

After the share buyback, my inbox was flooded with thank you messages from our employees around the world. One of them told me that they could now afford to pay for their wedding; another said that they could place a downpayment for a new house. 

This struck a chord in me, as I had always thought that I would be the happiest when I bring Nium public or when I sell the company. After reading all those heartfelt emails and messages, I was overwhelmed. And in that moment, I knew I was on the right path as I was helping people. I remember thinking to myself, “This is what it means to be a leader”.

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Entrepreneurs have said that running a company is similar to parenting. You eat and live the business, and as a leader, you’re responsible for looking after your staff. Being a dad yourself, how does this resonate with you?
I agree. I see a lot of parallels between running a business and parenting. Both are about nurturing and guiding someone to reach their full potential. I often tell my team that it’s my dream to support theirs. If that dream is to start and run their own company, then I’d love to help. I encourage them to reach out to me if they ever want advice on starting up their own business or launching a new product idea. Many have already done so, and I’m proud to have witnessed a handful of Nium employees launch their own businesses.

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Above  Photo: Gettyimages

What was the main challenge you faced in the last two years and how did you overcome it?
While I am a CEO, I am foremost a father. Family will always be my number-one priority, so striking a work-life balance will always be a challenge for me. This has been the case over the last two years, a period in which we’ve seen Nium’s growth more than double. 

Fortunately, I’ve been able to find balance. With remote work becoming the new norm, I’ve been able to spend less time on the road and more time with my loved ones. Virtual meetings have actually allowed me to build more personal relationships with my business partners around the world. For instance, my daughter recently fell quite ill and so she sat on my lap throughout a virtual client meeting. With these lines blurred between work and home life, the client was kind enough to understand the situation. We're all in this together, and sharing these experiences with business partners only makes our relationships stronger.

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What’s one thing you think entrepreneurs should talk more about? 
I think we need to talk more about our failures. Failures are such an important part of an entrepreneur's journey; they shape you on a personal level and they usually lead you down an even better path.

I believe I’m a very candid person. I like to talk not only about my successes in life, but my failures too. Before the pandemic, Nium was closing a significant funding round. But as soon as the pandemic hit in early 2020, investors backed out. This was really memorable, because I was not prepared for it to happen at all. Then again, who was prepared for the pandemic?

As a founder, I felt I had failed those who were relying on Nium's success. I wasn’t sure about our future. Fortunately, we were able to overcome this thanks to the support of one of our key investors, Vertex Ventures. While other investors had backed out, Vertex called me up to reassure me that they would continue to support us, which gave us the reassurance we needed to keep going. 

The experience reminded me that having the right support, whether tangible or emotional, is key to overcoming seemingly impossible scenarios. As leaders, we can’t go through the journey alone. 

What’s next for Nium?
Nium will continue to focus on global market opportunities in embedded fintech, cross-border transfers and card payments. We predict that these areas will boom over the next few years. In fact, we estimate these global trends to have a total addressable market in the trillions of dollars. 

We will also continue to invest in building out our payments infrastructure and adding to our current capabilities. And we’re exploring opportunities to acquire new technologies and companies that will allow us to aggressively expand our product set, while building deeper inroads within our core verticals. Our growth journey is just beginning!

See more honourees from the Finance & Venture Capital category of the Gen.T List 2021.

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