Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
My name is Yavor Petrov and I’m the CEO of iCard - a unique and 100% digital bank account alternative.
I’ve always been passionate about technology and the ways to use it for the sole purpose of making people’s lives easier. The early days of my career got me acquainted with my co-founder and a majority owner of the company - Mr. Christo Georgiev.
Together, we’ve been building iCard since 2007 and today , our app and services support the daily payments of people in over 30 European countries.
We are a leading e-money institution that builds payments infrastructure and end-user platforms.
The jewel in our crown is the iCard Digital Wallet - a payment solution for Android and iPhone that is intuitive and packed with awesome (and free) features like:
- Debit cards
- Virtual debit cards
- Instant transfers
- Domestic & international bank transfers
- IBAN accounts
- Mobile payments
- Loyalty Cards
- and much more …
Let’s meet before we get to the story and the details. This is me, in my office, in a photo shoot for a recent interview I did for Investor.bg :
Since the launch in late 2017 , the iCard app got around 500,000 downloads. An increasing number of our users opt to use our accounts for getting salaries paid in because of the security tools we have embedded. Everyone has their own particular favourite feature, but spending money in a way that provides better than expected funds protection is the main conversion point and we seek any opportunity to emphasize it.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
My co-founding team and I had an idea, or a dream, to innovate and redefine card payments and make them more accessible and affordable. The idea for the so-called e-money solutions came to fruition way before the legislative body of the European Union defined guidelines, drafted laws and regulations for our industry.
Together we created the company from scratch and built a new real-time transaction processing system directly integrated with all major card schemes such as VISA, Mastercard, AMEX, JCB, UNION PAY.
Being a pioneer means going places no one has visited before.
We’ve faced numerous challenges from both legal and technical perspective.
For the past 30 years, we’ve been witnessing enormous digital progress. The big US market leads the way to tech adoption with consumers changing their perceptions on a mass scale.
I remember the days when the majority of people were afraid to use their credit and debit cards for online payments. Then the market boomed and we saw the emergence of behemoth online retailers like Amazon and eBay, who were a major driving force for the build-up of trust in tech.
Next was the adoption of mobile devices. I was very optimistic for all of this because these new, tiny computers were packed with digital horsepower - from the start, smartphones were as fast as desktops and laptops. The big difference? They came into our lives and stayed with us 24/7.
The concept of technology taking up more and more of our personal attention was actually the driving force for creating the iCard digital wallet.
The concept behind iCard
We want to make payments easier and more affordable while opposing the long-standing banking model. We are providing an alternative because banks always find reasons to slap you fees for things that do not even incur administrative costs.
Our strategy is different!
We give out most of our services for free and only charge small usage fees for processing transactions we have expenses for.
Besides saving money on fees, we give people something even more valuable - a way to save time by not having to visit bank branches anymore.
Things in Europe are different than in the US … or in China, who is a leader in mobile tech adoption with centrally governed and unified digital services.
As much as we would like to take advantage of the 2-times-bigger-than-the-USA European market, it proves to be a challenge with 24 official languages, different connectivity and technology penetration levels.
Still, the relatively slower technology adoption pace on this side of the Atlantic, along with the market vacuum that the language differences create … was tempting.
Fast forward, I’m happy to keep busy building an awesome product and creating long-lasting relationships.
It’s a pleasure running a team of over 250 highly-qualified professionals in software, finances, customer service, and marketing.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
Now, iCard is a digital wallet and we wanted to make it as feasible as possible - to look like a real wallet. The first designs included a leather wallet appearance with debit cards tucked into it.
Have a glance at this screen from approximately one and a half years ago:
The idea of iCard was to fit pretty much all your cards, so we needed to design a wallet that can hold all of that. The cards you see above are just a small number of what you can fit into iCard. You could scroll and rearrange them, which is especially valuable if you have stored all your discount and loyalty cards, or if you have 20 virtual cards.
Coming up with an idea is the easy part. Making it appealing, legal and trustworthy takes many long and sleepless nights.
Making the first product
Have you ever created a website? Your idea seems clear, it even got designed and now is in the process of being built. Then, you get a tiny new idea to tweak one part just a bit and make it better. All this can shift your production timeline drastically because even the slightest change can require a series of connected adjustments.
To avoid this, we decided to use agile methodology in building our systems and processes. Building something and testing it in the real world is the best way to see what we’ve been missing in the conceptualization phase.
To make payments easier and more affordable , we needed to just launch as soon as possible. Building onto our past experience in the payment industry, we created our first app that lets people use basic payment features such as IBAN account, debit card.
And licensing was not an issue, because we were already in the business of electronic money and payments.
So, we designed the wallet, built it in a couple of months and let it run on our proprietary infrastructure, while observing how the users react and interact with it.
People’s feedback was our number one driver for improvements. With time, a lot of additional product features came to fruition.
We still have the leather designs for our top fans. Just recently, we even launched the trendy “dark mode”:
Describe the process of launching the business.
We are a 100% digital company, meaning that we do not have client-facing offices. It’s the technology that helps us cater to users in a very cost-effective way, which essentially transfers the savings back to the client.
We are very focused on our online presence as well.
Take a look back at the first version of our website, dating back to 2010:
This is us in 2019:
This comparison uncovers a great deal of progress - it reveals how much experience we have gained and how much web technology has progressed.
Nowadays, our website is undergoing changes on a daily basis.
But, to us, the mobile app is even more important and it needs to behave perfectly and do the job right - every time.
The market fit
I’ve researched the market extensively and it’s quite amusing :)
We have a segment of users who choose our digital wallet for its safety features, only after they get “burned”.
Here is the concept: Your cash can get damaged or lost. You are so used to handling notes and coins, you don’t even realize the dangers are persistently following you in your daily life. Then you lose a wad of cash, or it gets stolen, and you realize it has been a mistake all along.
This is how people find our app - when looking for a solution to their current problem.
The solution for this segment of users is simple to explain:
- Lose your phone and your money stays safe - you have a debit card to use for payments.
- Lose your wallet with your bank cards - you still have your phone to Tap & Pay contactless or order money transfers.
We solve real problems, but to be successful, we need to present these problems in a rational way.
So, reaching the perfect potential user at the right time, with the right message, is a challenge.
Many localized markets in Europe behave in their own ways.
Incoming bank transfer fees are just another example of a problem that needs to be realized.
In our view, incoming money transfers to your classic bank account has barely any administrative expenses, yet some banks can charge up to $35 for that.
It’s now 25 years after PayPal was created to solve the problem of costly money sending and making it instant. Yet, PayPal could not really penetrate into the daily lives of people on our largely conservative continent.
Here is one more fact that we work to change:
More people search Google for “Cheap money transfers” than “Free money transfers” and when they find iCard, they are skeptical. It’s a mind-shift that we need to encourage and it takes a lot of trial and error in the process.
Launching, launching, launching
Nowadays, we are launching new app updates on a weekly basis, with new releases opening up new services or just perfecting the old app features.
For us, it’s always been very important to be agile and launch services quickly.
We’ve launched 2 other mobile apps, before iCard digital wallet, and many other B2B services. We are not the classic example of a garage-startup and all of that past experience helped us launch a totally awesome, rich and reliable service while financing it with own funds.
See what we launched in the last few months in this video:
Measures are relative. You may think that 100,000 clients is a good number, but that’s far from true for someone like me - someone who aims to make the lives of millions of people better.
We’ve seen a steady growth in numbers since launch, mostly due to people referring others to connect in iCard and send/receive money instantly and for free.
Check how we are doing in the last 6 months:
The lessons we learned
Putting together an e-wallet app with an account and debit card was just the beginning.
Lesson 1: We have learned 1 very important lesson - we need to constantly talk to our users and optimize accordingly.
A change that we implemented after listening to client feedback, was the ability to try some of our app features for free, without going through the full account identity verification process.
Since then we have included:
- iCard Messenger
- QR code payments
- Worldwide mobile minutes top-up
- Loyalty cards
- Gift cards
- Currency exchange
Lesson 2: We also learned that being mobile-first is a good market fit with the younger people.
So, we are going to very soon launch a full-blown web platform and the exquisite Visa Infinite debit card with higher limits to cater to a whole different market segment and gain even more trust.
We actually just launched the iCard Visa Infinite in our homebase market, so have a look at our teaser video:
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
It’s really intriguing playing around and testing different digital marketing tactics for improving our web presence.
What is the best form of Marketing? That’s happy clients referring a product.
But marketing on its own is not enough without a product worth being recommended.
By now, we’ve managed to create a super-rich app that fits within the needs and lifestyles of different types of users.
And it proves to be working.
Word of mouth for us is the best channel for attracting and activating users.
Here we go beyond marketing.
To keep a person happy, they need to get the job done right - to send the money easily or to make the payment with no friction.
Launching quickly and sorting any issues later may seem counterintuitive in the context of having a software product that does the job well to retain customers.
However, the missing piece of the puzzle is customer support.
I, personally, am more focused on the technical side of the business and I’m happy to work with great people around me, who handle customer concerns.
We go far and beyond expectations to resolve issues 24/7 … and the process involves a lot of explaining, guiding, comforting and assuring people that their money is safe and having an issue is our chance for improvement and getting closer and closer to serving a perfect app.
So, the people at our headquarters in Varna are vibrantly collaborating, effectively tackling problems and keeping users happy.
Here is what works really well
Challenging people, serving them with interactive web campaigns and giving as much personal attention as possible is key to success.
We test and launch different interactions, games and contest.
We ran a game called “iCard around the world”
It was run in social media and asked our users to take pictures of their card when visiting different landmarks, during holiday. Participants had to guess where the picture was taken for a chance of being selected to receive one of our limited edition NFC wearables for contactless payments. The game brought a lot of interest and revealed that iCard really does work anywhere!
Here are some of the game posts:
We ran the referral campaign: “Keep tapping with friends”
We took advantage of the growing interest towards our NFC wearables and created a referral campaign and a challenge. Everyone who used the “Invite friends” option in the app, and 2 of their friends passed video identification, received an NFC wearable. Again - a great amount of interest and a lot of new clients.
This type of marketing works really well and we are even adjusting the dynamics right now to scale up the effort.
Here is how we welcomed participants:
Ratings work the best
One more thing that works really well for attracting users is our app presentation and rating in Google Play and App Store.
It is a combination of product, marketing and customer support that brings in user reviews and a score.
Right now, we are fluctuating between 4.4 and 4.6 Stars in Google Play.
Organic traffic is our number one traffic and download source , but getting there took us quite some time to prove we are worth it and get an excellent trust rating.
So, your focus, just like ours, should be on making clients happy.
And we keep pushing to do exactly this:
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Today, we are doing … differently, in different European markets.
Our product adoption varies from one country to the next and depends on technology penetration, population age, money habits, competitors and of course the language.
Our app now runs in 8 different languages out of the 24 official EU languages.
Bulgaria, for example, is our home market. It performs really well and it’s not a surprise because on top of using an excellent product, our fellow countrymen and women support technology developed at home - that is prestige and recognition, mixed in with a hint of nationalism.
Beyond home, the northern European countries are leading the block with card payments taking over cash payments.
Germany and Switzerland are known to stick to their cash use.
So, we are constantly looking for ways to either break the old habits and get established in people’s minds as a modern and secure alternative to their old banks or to become the alternative when people are frustrated with their current account providers.
It’s very important for us that we do not depend on external contractors and service providers.
This is our way to keep agile and keep control in our hands.
We build our systems in-house and integrate our processes vertically.
Our team deals with getting licensed and complying with regulations.
We develop all the software at our headquarters.
Support is also handled at home.
All this allows us to see, act and predict better … and it shortens the communication channels, which is crucial.
We are not a bank
As a licensed e-money institution, we are not allowed to provide loans. Banking license is different and we are an alternative to banks.
This means we can’t collect revenue from the interest rate on loans.
At the same time, we give our many services for free, in order to compete effectively with the long-standing banking institutions.
Providing excellent bank-like services at minimal or no cost at all is part of our long-term strategy. We are well aware and prepared to incur some losses when acquiring a new client, however, we rely on our careful calculations that help us forecast before we break even.
And that works better in some markets than in others, so we keep testing and improving daily.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
Sure we learned a lot. We keep learning as you read.
Changing habits is really, really hard and logic can rarely take over emotions (fear of new technology) to make someone move beyond their comfort zone and open an e-money account without visiting a bank branch - from the comfort of their phone and without wasting time on queues.
When people discover iCard, they realize it’s good, appreciate the richness of the app and say they will use it. What happens later is that their lives resume as normal, they reach for their cash, in their pocket, and totally forget about the new app they just installed.
Of course, once we welcome someone in our app or our website, we have ways to reach out and re-send targeted messages as part of the lead generation or onboarding processes.
Timing is important
We use it to our advantage.
We aim to adopt everything new, to be first or at least next to the first.
Apple Pay is a great example.
Not many card issuers around Europe are integrated with it. User demand is high and we are now just weeks away from offering a debit card in over 30 countries that works with Apple Pay. This will help us become one of the very few app accounts that offer this on the old continent.
We are highly certain this move will positively impact our future success.
Brexit is another challenge and yet we have come up with a smart way to take advantage of the situation in either case - deal or no-deal exit from the EU market (but I’m going to keep this secret for now).
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
Our CRM (Client Relationships Management) is custom-built to help us work with clients in the most effective way. There’s just no other solution for our service.
ZenDesk is integrated with our CRM and other communication channels to assist in handling support issues. Check the iCard story that ZenDesk placed on their website.
We are on Facebook with pages in 3 different languages - English, Italian and Bulgarian.
We use these channels for:
- Lead generation - social games and advertising
- Educating users - posting regular updates
- Support - our help desk handles chat queries 24/7
We use LinkedIn mostly for recruiting, announcing product updates and events.
We are optimizing for Google Search to be easily discoverable when people look for bank account alternatives or answer questions. We also run some advertising on the network.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
That’s going to be short - just launch as soon as possible! This is the best way to learn and get real market feedback that you can use to improve your offering.
Don’t be afraid - ideas on their own are worth nothing - execution matters the most!
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
We are constantly looking to onboard high-performers in software development and customer support.
We welcome people from all over the world, so long you have the legal right to work here.
Check the current open positions here: https://careers.icard.com/jobs-modern-list/
Enquire with our team if you can recommend anyone - we may have a referral bonus for you!
Where can we go to learn more?
Learn more and connect with us:
Some of our other companies:
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
Get our 5-minute email newsletter packed with business ideas and money-making opportunities, backed by real-life case studies.