In a room of 1,200 people – entrepreneurs, finalists, winners, their colleagues, friends and family – one man remains standing at his table, still clutching the award he picked up earlier in the night.
His colleagues sitting around the table turn to him open-mouthed, cheering, arms raised towards the ceiling of the Grosvenor House Hotel’s Great Room as the host announces the final award of the night.
The man who remains standing is not Philip Belamant. It is not the founder of Zilch – the Buy Now Pay Later platform that has never allowed customers to borrow more than they can afford – though his name had been announced. Instead, Philip is at home, robbed of the chance to grace the stage as the 2021 Great British Entrepreneur of the Year as he waits for the results of a Covid PCR test.
Philip’s team, buoyant and elated, take to the stage together to collect his award before video calling him. By now it is close to midnight and Philip is changing the nappy of his six-month old son.
“I actually think it’s quite nice that we had our team standing there, accepting the award together, because that’s really what it means to me,” Philip begins.
“This award isn’t about me. I’m here because every single one of our team had the courage to invest their time and energy in this business. They took a risk in believing what Zilch could be. So this award is for all of them.”
Although under unfortunate circumstances, it appears Philip’s experience of winning the award was perfect for him. Not only was his team able to accept the award, but he got to share in that moment with the ones he loves most.
“My wife and I were sitting there with our son, enjoying this moment as a family,” Philip adds.
“That’s really important to me because a lot of people talk about the team around entrepreneurs, but no one seems to talk about the partners that support us through thick and thin. My wife has always been by my side. She’s been my sounding board all along.”
In the blood
Growing up in Johannesburg, South Africa, Philip admits he never made a conscious decision to be an entrepreneur. But it has been a natural progression of his life for a long time.
“My father is a technologist and an entrepreneur in his own right. And so I was always very interested in technology,” he explains.
“I spent most of my time at school playing around on computers, writing Turbo Pascal code (a software development system released in 1983) with my father and really trying to build interesting things, whether they were programmes or PC games.”
Philip studied computer science at the University of Johannesburg, focusing on artificial intelligence and mobile computing. Students were required to build a piece of tech for their thesis alongside a competition run by Microsoft.
“I was going to build a mobile gaming idea that I had, but I soon realised that the University would retain the intellectual property,” he recalls.
Keen to avoid giving up an idea he really believed in, Philip instead created a biometrics system that protected people’s homes. Typical of his technological skill, Philip and his team won the competition.
“[Biometrics] wasn’t really what I was passionate about doing, so as soon as I left university I started a mobile gaming business called PBel.”
Sowing the seeds of Zilch
The mobile gaming business was built at a time when Pay As You Go was far more common than mobile phone contracts. Players were able to use their credit to play, transfer to other players or enter competitions.
While entrepreneurs have been no strangers to pivoting over the course of the Covid-19 pandemic, it’s a skill Philip was exhibiting long before necessity.
“We realised quite quickly that not very many people were playing the game,” He says. “But a lot were entering the competitions or transferring credits to one another.
“Ultimately we removed the games, focused on the competitions and transfers, and effectively built a mobile payments company.”
Philip quickly began rolling out the newly-fashioned mobile payment platform to a number of strategic partners in over 20 countries across Africa, before expanding into virtual card issuance with Mastercard.
At the time, Philip’s father, Serge Belamant, had a business operating in card payments and so they decided to reverse PBel into his fathers business, which soon became a giant of financial inclusion in Africa, distributing social welfare on behalf of governments across the continent and established itself as the largest card issuer for MasterCard in Africa.
“We really discovered a fantastic opportunity to help people gain access to products and services that otherwise would not have had access to,” Philip explains.
New continent, new country, new business, new unicorn
Philip and his father grew the business to the point of being listed on the Nasdaq market and reserve listed on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange. But with Serge nearing retirement, they both decided to exit the business.
Philip’s attention was drawn away from South Africa for his next venture.
“I was looking at opportunities in developed markets to apply the skills I’d learned from developing innovative solutions,” he explains. The UK soon caught the entrepreneur’s eye and he made the move in 2017 to launch what would become Zilch in late 2018.
“I think the early days of Zilch are very similar [to that of other tech start-ups]…it was that really exciting grind, moving as fast as you can, selling the vision to great talent, forging partnerships and building tech.
“The first thing I did was reach out to people I knew, to talk to them about what I was building.
“The very first people to join the company are still here today in the roles of COO, CIO and CFO. We have fantastic people in the company, but those first three or four were there every day in a little office and just willing to make it happen.”
The early Zilch team built a minimum viable product to take to market, issuing its first virtual card and completing its first online transaction just 45 days after starting – something “unheard of”, Philip says as he attributes a huge deal of credit to brilliant partners in the issuing space who he still counts as a major associate today.
Fast forward to present day and Zilch is now valued at $2 billion following its latest funding round, making it the fastest UK-based unicorn tech firm ever. And while that may seem like the dizziest of daydreams for many entrepreneurs, there was a humble sense of expectation for Philip.
“Being an entrepreneur, you naturally have a ‘glass is always half full’ view of the world,” he laughs.
“Net1 had a market cap of $2.2 billion and we employed 3,000 people. So when we launched Zilch, naturally the bar was set there – doing better was always the aspiration but most
importantly, serving significantly more customers remains the ultimate goal.”
Such a statement could be construed as arrogance. But the South African entrepreneur speaks with a sense of realism and experience. He knows it’s possible because he’s done it before. And yet Philip also realises ?that every business needs a bit of luck
He continues: “[Although we had those goals] there’s always an element of luck. We felt we had something far more scalable than what BNPL (Buy Now Pay Later) was at the time.
“Typically you have a great idea at the wrong time, or a reasonably bad idea at the right time. It’s actually quite rare for those two things to happen at the same time. Here, we feel we may just have both.”
While certainly not a new concept, the Buy Now Pay Later market has been fiercely criticised in recent years as it emerged in the tech and mobile space. News headlines are often coupled with words like “dangerous”, “exploitation” and “harmful”.
Zilch has always vowed to put customers first, and has worked with credit checking agencies to ensure no customer is able to borrow more than they can afford. Zilch doesn’t charge customers any interest or hidden fees, and therefore holds a 0% interest rate on its services.
“We’ve always focused on how we are conducting business with our customers,” Philip explains. “We like to ask ourselves ‘how do we behave when no one is watching?’.
Before the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) even considered regulation of the Buy Now Pay Later, Zilch applied for the body’s Regulatory Sandbox, which enables businesses with innovative propositions to test their products and services on real consumers. It is designed to help businesses build customer safeguarding measures into the core of their offering.
Philip recalls: “We applied to the Sandbox and got our full consumer credit lending licence. At the time we didn’t have to do that [because the market was unregulated] but we did. It wasn’t easy, and we did it because it was the right thing to do. That’s really resonating with our customers.”
“Buy Now Pay Later is the best way for customers to defer payment. It’s the most affordable method in the world. There’s no argument about that,” Philip says with huge conviction.
“A lot of the feedback we receive is overwhelmingly positive, because we’re making sure that we continue to educate customers on how Zilch works.”
Asked if he believes he can change the negative perception around the Buy Now Pay Later market, Philip smiles confidently, saying: “With how we conduct business and regulation coming into the space, yes! We can change that negative perception.”
‘This is a journey’
Being named Great British Entrepreneur of the Year and a $2 billion valuation, one could be forgiven for wondering ‘what’s next?’ in Philip’s story. But he remains adamant that he and Zilch are both at the start of their journey.
“I haven’t thought about my long-term future too much,” Philip ponders. “For me, the focus is all about ‘how do we build the most amount of value in Zilch, and therefore bring the most amount of value to our customer base?’.
“We have something hugely valuable on our hands. We have a massive opportunity and we certainly don’t take this for granted. We’re laser-focused on building a profitable business that can be here for our customers today, tomorrow, and beyond.
“A lot of people celebrate funding rounds as though they’ve arrived at the end. But for us, it really represents the beginning as a team – and that way of thinking is baked into our culture.”
No time for resting on laurels and basking in success, then. Operating in a fast-moving tech world, Zilch is naturally exploring opportunities for innovation in the future. For now, though, it seems US expansion is the main target for Zilch. And there’s no suggestion that Philip will be anything other than at the forefront of that charge, always staying true to its mission of putting the customer first.