Serge Belamant is a French-born expert and patent holder in the industry of blockchain technology. Though he was born in the French city of Tulle, he moved to South Africa at the age of 14 when his father decided to move the family to pursue work as a tiling worker. Belamant later attended Johannesburg’s Witwatersrand University, where he studied in the field of computer sciences and technology.
Over the course of his career, Serge Belamant has had the opportunity to work with a wide range of companies in a diverse spectrum of industries. His skill and passion for coding digital financial transaction software has built him a reputation throughout the industry. Along the way, he’s been instrumental in the creation of multiple technological achievements that have had a massive impact on financial banking systems and the global banking industry as a whole.
He founded his first company, Net1 UEPS Technologies, in 1989. This company specialized in the creation of universal electronic payment systems, or UEPS. Belamant designed these systems himself, and in 1995 he was approached by VISA to design a chip offline pre-authorized card. Today, we know these cards as the chip-enabled credit and debit cards we’re all so accustomed to using.
At the turn of the millennium, Belamant was working with Net1 to develop a digital payment system that would allow for the transfer of welfare funds and grants throughout South Africa, in areas where the need was most dire. Today, that same system pioneered by Belamant and Net1 is in use in countries as far-flung as Iraq and Russia.
Mr. Belamant’s most recent venture is Zilch Technologies, a UK-based firm. He also serves at Prism Group Holdings as well as Medikredit Integrated Healthcare Solutions on each firm’s Board of Advisors.
How did you get started in this business? What inspired you to start this business?
Interestingly enough, it all started with my son. Philip works as an IT engineer, and after earning a degree in computer science he’s gone on to launch a company that produces mobile games. We were discussing influential social media has become in the modern world, and how it can be used to offer financial products to younger people in a language and interface they can understand. These products have the power to sync with their spending and saving habits, as well as their bank accounts, to provide customized data and guidance for improving their financial situation. And it’s all built into the product they use most—their mobile phone.
This thought was the beginning of the idea for Zilch. What would it be like to make those tools more accessible than ever, giving people all over the world the knowledge and information they need to make more informed decisions about their finances? We’ve refined that idea over time, of course, and the tools and guidance we offer has evolved along the way. However, it all started from a discussion I was having with my son. It was truly an inspiration that helped me find the inspiration necessary to build something meaningful.
How do you make money?
That is an interesting question with a lot of potentially different answers. In the broadest sense, I make money by designing products that are of use to people. I’ve always done my best to start with where there is a need to be met, not necessarily where there is money to be made. Because I believe if you can truly meet a need, even a need that people haven’t yet realized is a need, then the financial success will ultimately come. But I believe it has to begin with the desire to create something not only new, but essential. Something that may not have been thought of yesterday, but by tomorrow feels absolutely indispensable to anyone who uses it. To me, that is the key to a successful career in business.
It’s also vital to always continue learning. I think it’s relatively easy to make some money for a period of time, but a sustained level of success over years is more difficult. It requires you to become comfortable accepting what you don’t know, and then taking steps to go and found out exactly what that is. That’s the only path to sustained earnings that grow as you grow.
How long did it take for you to become profitable?
It definitely took some time, but I certainly don’t look back on any of my time building a foundation with regrets. It has all been part of the vital learning process. Everything happens in its due time, because often that’s what’s required to learn the hard lessons necessary for success. I truly believe that if I’d achieved success earlier on, that success would have been limited because I would have lacked perspective. Failures or time spent struggling can help provide a look into what works, what doesn’t, and what is truly worth pursuing.
It’s also interesting to note that many companies are considered ‘successful’ for years before they become successful. They offer customers a product they truly need, and meanwhile earn enough to maintain their operations and pay their employees. Becoming profitable is of course the goal, but many companies I consider to be successes haven’t hit that mark yet.
When you were starting out, was there ever a time you doubted it would work? If so, how did you handle that?
I believe that anyone who says they don’t experience at least some self-doubt is lying. We all have moments where we wonder, is what I’m doing actually worthwhile? And even beyond that, if we know it’s worthwhile, we wonder whether it will be successful. Because there are plenty of worthwhile ideas that have failed due to poor execution, or simply because they arrived at the wrong time in the market.
Whenever I do experience self-doubt, I remember all of the times when I trusted my own instincts and experience to guide me, and how often that trust has led to great success. I also remember that fear of failure is the ultimate block on potential. If we’re too afraid to try, we’ll never achieve anything truly great.
I’ve also always subscribed to the idea that it’s okay to feel doubt, because it causes you to truly show yourself that you believe in what you’re doing. It’s sort of like scar tissue—once you heal yourself of that doubt, your belief in what you’re pursuing is stronger than ever.
How did you get your first customer?
I wish I could remember. I’ve worked in so many fields and positions across so many industries that it’s hard to say. I guess you could say that I was my own first customer, as I had to buy into my own ideas before I could ever convince someone else to do the same. That may not be the answer you were looking for, but I’m afraid it’s the best I can give. I was my own first customer, and I think we’d all find that to be the case when we’re first starting out. If we don’t buy into what we’re doing and what we’re working on, we can’t expect anyone else to buy into it themselves.
Gaining customers is like any business task—it takes work. You might know how amazing or essential your product is, but you need to build trust with the market before it will take off. You have to prove that you have not only a great product, but a great support structure surrounding it to make sure your customers will be taken care of no matter what.
What is one marketing strategy that you’re using that works really well to generate new business?
I may be slightly old school, or maybe I’m buying into the new school, but I genuinely believe that word of mouth is one of the most powerful marketing tools there is. Now that no longer strictly means literal word-of-mouth, because there are now so many platforms online and otherwise for people to share opinions about the things they love.
With Zilch, we’ve seen a powerful impact from people simply sharing the app with friends and loved ones because they genuinely love it and want others to enjoy it, too. If you can make something great and get it into a few people’s hands, they’ll reward you by acting as free marketing on your behalf. People instinctively want to share the things they love with the people they love.
It’s also important to realize that none of this happens overnight. Even the seemingly ‘overnight’ sensation businesses that seem to pack on users in a matter of days—they’ve set themselves up carefully to be in that position to take off. We only see what happens once the media starts covering them, but there’s so much more that goes on before that point.
What is the toughest decision you’ve had to make in the last few months?
The hardest choice is always the choice between two good options. I recently had to choose between dedicating my time to one idea I thought was truly great and another that I thought was equally great but couldn’t be executed exactly how I wanted it to be. That’s always a difficult decision, when the path ahead isn’t clear and the answer to what’s better can’t be pinpointed easily.
It’s also always a tough decision when you have to decide to move on from a venture that you believed in that but isn’t panning out. Many executives throw good money after bad and fail to recognize that they’d be better off just cutting their losses and moving on to something new.
What do you think it is that makes you successful?
I can’t say exactly the combination of factors that make a person successful or unsuccessful. I believe that for every person that gets there by following a specific approach, someone else gets there by doing the exact opposite. It depends largely on the industry, goals, and business itself.
For me personally, I have always had a drive to understand. It can drive my friends and family crazy, but whenever there is a problem or event, I immediately begin thinking of how it could be solved, addressed, or improved. I can’t help myself. I have to know the root causes of problems, no matter where they may be. That attitude is what has led me through the fields of science, philosophy, medicine, engineering, and computer science. There’s no one industry that necessarily commands my interest, but rather the pursuit of truth about how the world works. I’m a student of new ideas, and I think that study has served me well throughout my career across multiple industries, projects, and companies.
What has been your most satisfying moment in business?
Starting my first company is the first thing that comes to mind. I’ve obviously been very busy and done a lot since then, but there’s never anything that compares to the first thrill of creating something from the ground-up and building it into something profitable and successful. It’s satisfying in the sense that beforehand, you had no evidence whatsoever that you were capable of building something like that. It can be frightening, and you don’t have a proven belief yet that it will work out. But once it’s done, you have something you can point to—even for yourself—and say, I am capable of creating something great and I know because I’ve done it already. There’s a profound confidence that comes from that first initial success, but achieving it is the greatest satisfaction I can think of in business. Everything that comes after is great, but you never quite get back to that original high—at least I haven’t yet, though I still profoundly enjoy everything I do and the ventures I pursue on a regular basis, years later.
What does the future hold for your business? What are you most excited about?
I’m fascinated by the trend of DNA analysis, the way that it has so many current and future applications that can completely change the world. I don’t have much of a chemistry or biology background, but I believe that applying an algorithmic approach to DNA can result in a deeper understanding of how it works and its potential.
Somewhere in the search for answers to DNA’s question is the secret to our existence. I don’t know how directly I’ll be involved in this search, but it’s one of the most exciting trends in the world to me. To me, it’s the key to all of our scientific exploration. All of us in business should begin asking ourselves how we’re helping humankind move forward as it struggles to answer the questions that matter most to us. These are the questions that are going to shape our future, and we will want to be able to say that we were somehow a part of that shaping.
What business books have inspired you?
It’s not technically a business book, but I always recommend ‘Brothers Karamazov’ by Fyodor Dostoevsky. I’ve read it in both English and French, and I love the philosophical questions that are discussed throughout the book. It addresses many questions relating to faith, religion, morality, ethics, and free will. It’s a fascinating and artful book that can make anyone question what they know to be true. And I think that is key to success in business or in life—a willingness to question and change what we believe. It may not have specific advice for starting or operating a business, but it offers a lot of incredible counsel that I’ve used in every aspect of my life so far.
What is a recent purchase you have made that’s helped with your business?
I’m not sure about business, but I recently bought my daughter some American Girls’ books that have helped her learn about issues like peer pressure, saving, and relationships. These books are extremely educational and help children learn without overloading them with information, which is unfortunately the way much of the world works nowadays. I love that certain brands and organizations are dedicated to helping young people combat some of the unique struggles they face in this era. I personally think that in many ways this rising generation has it tougher than many others that came before—maybe not in terms of physical well-being, but when it comes to their mental health and future.
What is your favorite quote?
“It’s easy to see far when one stands on the shoulders of giants.”
I love this quote, because it speaks to how important having mentors and icons to look to can be. I have certainly spent my career and life looking up to those who came before me, and those influences have been invaluable. I can only hope that I’m fortunate enough to serve as one of those giants for someone else someday. This quote truly speaks to the cyclical nature of business—some men and women make giant leaps or small steps forward, and those movements allow others to take steps of their own. We owe it to the next generation to provide a strong set of shoulders from which to build.