Casares is co-CEO of mobile payment service Bling Nation. He is a founding partner of MECK Ltd., a private investment firm based in Santiago, Chile and co-owner of Banco Lemon, a Brazilian retail bank for the poor.
You’re originally from Argentina, own businesses in Chile and Brazil, and live in the States. Have you noticed whether people use mobile technology differently in North and South America?
It would be hard for you or me to own something as important as the phone is to a lot of the market in Latin America.
In the US, even for people with very low income, a cellphone is quite affordable. It’s not a huge part of what we own, like a house or a car. In Latin America, you find people who are making 150 bucks a month, yet they manage to have a phone that costs that or more. That’s because they may not have access to a car or public transportation, or their own TV.
So the phone is very, very, very important for them. It’s how they relate to the world around them. It’s also the most important status symbol they have. I once told someone, with good intentions, that I thought it was financially unwise for them to spend their money on a cellphone bill every month.
And very quickly I realized that I was wrong. Because the phone may be the only thing that saves them a trip into town, which could take half a day just to find out how much something costs. Or a small merchant might contact distributors through a text message, or schools may use mobile phones to communicate with parents.
People in Latin America are getting a lot more out of a mobile phone than we do.
What have you learned from the Latin American market that can be carried over to North American consumers?
I think we can learn a lot from other countries. Our tendency in the U.S. is to try to figure out everything on our own, as if this is all in the future.
In fact, millions of people are using mobile phones to pay for goods every day. In emerging markets, the most cited example is M-PESA in Kenya, which is very similar to GCASH in the Philippines and mChek in India.
Basically, people take cash to the store, where they top up their cellphone, which becomes their virtual wallet. From there, all transactions take place through text messages, so no cash or cards or PIN numbers are ever exchanged.
This makes sense in emerging markets where most people do not have a bank account or credit card. And most merchants do not have a point of sale [card reader], so your option is to carry cash or do no transaction at all.
That same functionality is provided by PayPal in the U.S. and it’s a total failure. Because when you already have a bank account and credit card, and the merchant already has a point of sale, what’s the point?
What has gained traction in the developed world is what happens in Japan and South Korea, where people tap their phones to pay for stuff they would normally buy with cash or credit at the merchant location. Instead of swiping a card, they simply tap their phone and they’re immediately notified how much they paid, and how much they have left in their bank accounts. That’s convenient and that’s what we’re trying to bring to the U.S. with Bling.
Will consumers be able to use Bling to not only purchase goods and services, but content? For instance, can I tap my iPhone on a magazine bar code and then get that issue on my phone?
Right now, we’re focused on retail and restaurants as the point of sale. But it’s only a matter of time before you are tapping a bar code or chip on a magazine or poster to buy content.
I think it’s going to take no less than three years, and that’s optimistic, but no more than 10 years. In that period of time, we are going to see people on Main Street – you know, people like my mom – tapping for content.
Any interesting brand partnerships involved in Bling? I understand the convenience of a mobile payment from the customer’s perspective, but what do I get out of it as a business?
The key advantage to the merchant is that it is 50 percent cheaper than accepting Visa or Mastercard.
We also let them run their loyalty programs on top of our system. So every time you tap, the system tells you that in three more visits, you get a bit of a discount. The merchant can set this up very easily and they don’t have to keep track of it – the system does.
Also, many banks have linked Bling to “shop local” programs where they give you a certain number of “local dollars” that you can only spend with certain merchants, using Bling. On the bank’s side, they simply make more money with this than any other payment mechanism, and at the same time, they are being perceived as bringing a valuable service to local businesses and customers.
So people can use Bling to support their local community, but do you have any plans to build a social community around Bling itself?
We’re just beginning to do that. People expect to be able to link different parts of their online identities, whether through Facebook, or Foursquare or Twitter. Now compare the functionality of those sites to the experience of buying something in a store. It feels like the point-of-sale experience is stuck in the ‘70s!
We’re opening that up to enable customers to link Bling to a third-party application that can tell you, “Hey, now that you’re here, did you know that you still have a lunch voucher a block and a half from here?” Or “Did you know that your friend just bought something at a store around the corner?”
As someone who has offices in California and Chile, you must spend a lot of time in transit. What do you look for in a travel brand, and how do you spend your time in flight?
I see travel as my information-overload oasis. I travel almost every week and I use that time to catch up on things that I need to read and get done. I’ve always fantasized about buying an airplane cabin to put in the office, so I can retreat there when I really need to focus on something. For some reason, I seem to do my best work in flight.