Ziina, Feat. Cofounder Sarah Toukan

Making payments easier.

Our recent demise of cash has accelerated worldwide. Pre COVID-19, most of the population started transacting via ‘wallet-less’ money via Venmo and Apple Pay. Today, the world’s population not only has a smartphone to administer quick & convenient transactions, but also has new priorities: safety & hygiene. 

About Ziina

Ziina is bringing the next generation of financial services to the Middle East. As the UAE’s first licensed peer-to-peer payment app, Ziina is on a mission to simplify finance for everyone. Send and receive payments with just a phone number—no IBAN or swift code required. Ziina offers bank-grade security and end-to-end encryption, never holding onto your money so every transfer goes fast. Currently available to UAE residents on iOS and Android, the app provides a seamless way for friends and family to split the cost of takeout or a grocery bill. As Ziina grows, we’re committed to creating a new age of money in the Middle East and redefining how people use technology to transform their finances.

Would we now be in the midst of an official switch towards virtual currency?

Using cash to shop is not completely démodé, yet. The New York Times states that in Europe alone, “before the pandemic, bills and coins were used for 80 percent of the transactions, and there are few signs that the pandemic is about to wipe it out.”

Martinsville Bulletin states that cash-less platforms such as Apple Pay and Venmo in the USA have helped speed up the transition from paper to virtual currency. “PayPal shares have surged 65% while Square has more than doubled so far in 2020 and both stocks are at all-time highs.” Therefore to no surprise our standards around banking have changed, especially around Millennials and Generation Z: “In the West, Square has transformed to be looked at as a ‘cash app,’ functioning as a local community bank branch for those in their teens and 20’s.”

In the GCC, the newly launched Ziina was born in response to the need in the market for a way to pay friends or businesses in quick, easy ways. Ziina cofounder, Sarah Toukan, states they started the app ultimately for the users. She adds, generally “people resort to paying each other back by cash, or to paying by bank transfer which requires them to collect and submit IBAN details, a swift code, bank address, etc. Both routes are cumbersome.” The team’s ultimate goal is to help users “send and receive payments with just a phone number—no IBAN or swift code required” making transactions the most effortless possible.

1. Briefly tell us about how you and your co-founders came to develop Ziina.

In the spring of 2019, my cofounders Faisal and Andrew met at a hackathon event in San Francisco that Andrew won. Within 24 hours he had built an application that allowed for the transfer for Ethereum with just a phone number. They hit it off and started brainstorming technologies that could be applied in MENA that would make sending payments seamless. Meanwhile, in London, I was attending FinTech events and was very inspired by the developments in product I was witnessing.

The three of us banded together to launch Ziina at the end of 2019, with the goal of democratizing finance for every individual in MENA. We conducted need finding interviews and users kept bringing up the desire for frictionless payments, so we decided on payments as a first use case. This is just the start and we intend to introduce many features that empower our users.

2. Which kind of customer is the app meant for and how does the app work exactly?

Our target customer is anyone with a smartphone who doesn’t want to carry cash everywhere. The amazing thing about this pain point is that it isn’t restricted to any particular demographic. We’ve conducted countless user interviews and have spoken to parents who want to pay their children an allowance, colleagues that want to split a Careem ride, and roommates that want to split rent. The applications for day-to-day payments are limitless. Ziina is very straightforward to use. After downloading the app, users can follow four simple steps:

  1. Complete signup [this takes less than a minute]
  2. Link their bank account
  3. Search for a contact by name [no IBAN or swift code required]
  4. Enter an amount to send them. Done!

3. What makes ZIINA unique from other virtual payment platforms?

The product we’re building doesn’t exist in the United Arab Emirates yet. Instead, people resort to paying each other back by cash, or to paying by bank transfer which requires them to collect and submit IBAN details, a swift code, bank address, etc. Both routes are cumbersome and we hear organically on a regular basis how much people wish a service like Venmo or Cash App existed for the Middle East. That’s why we decided to bring Ziina to the Middle East, after securing the license to provide peer-to-peer money transferring services in the UAE.

4. Do you consider ZIINA a customer-centric/customer-focused product? How so? 

Absolutely. Customer-centricity is one of our company’s four core values and all our decisions internally are guided by the customer-centric methodology.

We practice this methodology by:

  1. Launching fast and launching lean. We released the first version of Ziina within four months of development, having perfected the peer-to-peer feature, with no extraneous features. We wanted to get our product in the hands of real users fast, so we could focus on getting real feedback and using that to build on what we had built
  2. Running weekly sprints. Every week we conduct at least 5 in depth user interviews, where we discover issues that users are having, and distill insights on new features that can add value. We then bake these learnings into the next release of our product
  3. Basing our roadmap on our users. We maintain a product roadmap, and the features we are planning to roll out are based on strategy, market context, as well as user feedback
Cofounders of Ziina

5.  What was your step-by-step process when designing the app user-interface?

First, we defined what Weebly’s David Rusenko calls a Minimum Remarkable Product. The Ziina MVP product went through different phases of ideation and in-depth user research before settling on peer-to-peer payments as our first use case.

Second, we created rudimentary wireframes, and sat with users to get feedback and use this to optimize the user journey. We kept the interface simple and easy to use, to provide a seamless experience for users.

Third, we went through multiple revisions of branding styles and user interface designs with our designers before deciding on the final design for the first ZIINA release.

Lastly, as previously mentioned, we launched the application and are currently performing continuous interviews with users to continue to improve on the interface. Our engineering team is also doing work to continuously strengthen our application’s security and robustness.

6.  What advice do you have for aspiring brands, innovators and entrepreneurs in the region?

We are very optimistic about the Fintech industry landscape in the Middle East. This is driven by a combination of startup-friendly regulatory frameworks, young talent and attractive funding opportunities. While the region is still behind in fintech innovation compared to many parts of the world, we think this is a unique environment for local innovators and entrepreneurs to thrive.

Our advice is to challenge the status quo, stay flexible and listen closely to the customers. We actually pivoted from the very first idea we had late last year and ended up launching Ziina to target an underserved segment because we discovered what customers actually want!

7.  What is in Ziina’s future?

Our ultimate vision is to use our platform to roll out more services and build a wallet that provides the next generation of financial services for all of MENA. This can include anything from a bill splitting feature, to paying a merchant, to investing through an integration with a robo-advisory. But for the next few weeks, we will focus on growing our user base and building loyalty through our marketing campaigns. Stay tuned and join us on our journey to build one wallet for MENA!

"We are very optimistic about the Fintech industry landscape in the Middle East."