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Spotlight on Michael Walters, founder of transport payment disruptor tikpay
From opera to skiing to dreaming about the future of mobility, we discovered what makes Michael Walters tick
tikpay is an intelligent ticketing and payment solution that allows travellers to pay for transport on their terms (however, whenever and wherever they want). Not only does tikpay allow people to get around without friction, it also reduces ticketing costs for operators by 40%. Founder Michael Walter’s expertise in the space is second to none, he’s a seasoned operator and entrepreneur and has a vision for transport that will help shape cities and our relationship with mobility. Michael sees a world where you can get from A to B, via Uber, tram and scooter and pay with one tap; with revenue apportioned correctly and seamlessly to the various operators. People are used to this sort of magic happening in other parts of their lives; and transportation should be no different. AfterWork Ventures are delighted to be co-leading tikpay’s pre-seed round and supporting Michael and his leadership team, CPO Belinda Ralston and CTO Simon O’Connor, on their journey to fundamentally improve the transport experience.
How did you get the idea for your business?
In 1992 I was fresh out of university and excited by the idea of a ‘contactless’ bank card that could quickly pay for low-value ‘convenience’ purchases. Working with a few early-stage European tech companies, we managed to pull together a small trial in Sydney that included a bank, fast food outlets, petrol stations, newsagents, clubs, pubs, taxis, buses and trains - in retrospect, way ahead of its time. Fast forward to 2014, and London had just launched support for contactless Visa, MasterCard and American Express transit payments - and I thought, finally - everyone is going to want this! So I built a payment gateway (littlepay) to receive these customer trips from transport operators throughout the UK, aggregate them, and then process a single payment to the traveller account at the end of the day. It was a big success - but also very limiting - only some payments for some travellers on a single operator were addressed.
After I sold littlepay in 2018, some of my prior customers and others in the industry asked me to imagine how a singular back office for transport ticketing and payments could reduce costs, grow revenues, enable collaboration between transport modes and delight travellers - making travel seamless. And that led to the idea for tikpay.
Talk us through your journey…How did it go from an idea to a living, breathing thing?
With the idea for tikpay bubbling around in my mind, I focussed on opportunities to do consulting on payments for ride-hail, bus, rail and city-wide transit systems in the UK, SE Asia and Australia. That helped me better appreciate industry problems and operator priorities, providing me with the opportunity to float (sometimes crazy) ideas. I guess in doing so I gained a reputation as a thought leader/problem solver, which got me into increasingly more interesting conversations. For example, with a colleague, I developed a ‘broker’ model to enable multiple transport operators to offer joint tickets without one party or a central authority being the ‘boss’ - something that is now being procured by government and industry jointly in the UK. This work also helped me in developing my conviction that there was broad demand globally for a next-generation transport ticketing and payments ‘back office’ - and so the process began. I searched around and found a couple of other early-stage Australian companies that enabled me to put together something we could pitch as a ‘solution’ to an industry problem.
Early days I looked for opportunities with larger operators and authorities, but out of left field came a major bank who saw transport ticketing and payments as just a variation on merchant acquiring. We worked together for six or so months before realising we weren’t right for each other, but by that stage I had bought on board a great CPO (Belinda) and - so they say - I was now committed! Bel and I worked through 2022 listening to potential customers, considering their views, developing our solutions to address these, and then validating them. The feedback was increasingly positive, so we started to look for capital - this time focussing on local VCs. Afterwork was high on our list of ‘ideal’ investors, so their interest lifted our spirits in a big way! With them we pulled together an awesome ‘dream team’ of investors in early 2023, none of whom have failed to deliver on their promises of support, ideas, introductions and constructive criticism!
Michael Walters, founder of tikpay
What was the biggest barrier to getting your business off the ground? How did you overcome it?
Having been a founder for a few start-ups, and an early hire for a few more, I’ve seen a wide range of challenges that had to be addressed to launch - regulatory approvals, partner commitments, initial customers, technical challenges. This time the challenge was getting in place pre-seed funding - partly because we were at such an early stage, and partly because of market conditions in the later part of 2022.
Bel and I spent a fair amount of time thinking through the best approach to raising. We decided to concentrate initially on those we felt were unlikely to invest in us because we were too early, outside their mandate, in the wrong industry, raising too much, etc. in the hope they would give us feedback on our pitch - which many did. It helped us fine-tune our pitch (we started at about 30 slides and couldn’t imagine how we could convey our ideas with any less - we have about 10 now!) and in particular helped us understand both what was important to VCs and how to best communicate this - particularly related to competition, market size, growth strategy, etc. In the end, we engaged with over 80, pitched to about half of these, and found five great VCs that not only believed in our vision but have followed through in actively supporting us to deliver it.
What inspired you to make Tikpay work?
I’ve had the great fortune to become involved in many payment-related projects that delivered something that changed the world in some small (or occasionally not so small) way. Many seemed like they were addressing fairly narrow problems at the time, but now we couldn’t imagine payments without them. Every time I worked on one of these projects I kept going back to ‘why can’t we do transport ticketing and payments better?’.
I wanted to use public transport where I lived and travelled, but it was so hard - different transit cards, limited ticketing products, clunky payment methods, painful concession processes, etc. Just about everyone I spoke to who used (or wanted to use) public transport had similar frustrations - and when I spoke to policy people, city agencies, transport operators, environmentalists, politicians and anyone else with an interest in getting transport right, these frustrations only grew. So I guess it was a gradual realisation that there is a big problem here to solve and that there are a lot of stakeholders who would be very happy if we did. The systemic component was more of a validation process after the fact!
Outside of your company, what are you into right now?
I am enjoying so much getting involved in whatever strange pursuits my kids decide to take on - combat robotics (terrifyingly exciting), speedcubing (couldn’t solve it without a book), mountain biking (never an injury-free weekend), singing opera (I can’t sing - trust me) - it goes on. And I really love skiing and hiking with my wife and kids - my happy place is doing either in the Victorian Alps whenever I get the chance. At home I am a foodie - so lots of sourcing (including from my garden), cooking (in a great kitchen) and eating (with friends and family). And then there is our very large labradoodle (Truffles) who demands an inordinate amount of my attention - as well as that of anyone who visits in person or virtually...
Who or what inspires you and keeps you focused on your north star?
For me it is stakeholders - travellers, operators, authorities and the rest of the transport ticketing and payments ecosystem. Sure - nothing beats the look on someone’s face when they ‘get’ what we are doing and ask ‘why hasn’t anyone done this before’, or when a customer sees our system for the first time and their mind suddenly runs free with what is possible. But just hearing about problems, shooting the breeze on solutions, imagining what could be - that is what really inspires me and forms a big part of our north star.
Talk us through a standard day in your life as a founder…
I am not an early riser, but I try to get up by 7:30am to chat with the family, read the news, and do a quick check of my inbox and calendar. I then hit the nearby beaches, bushlands and parks with my dog, catching up on calls and listening to podcasts. At 9:30am we have our daily stand-up (gets me focussed) and my first coffee of the day! When I am in Melbourne, I work from home all but one day a week when our entire team gets together at co-working space (we rotate - Chadstone is my favourite).
From 10:00am until late afternoon I try to keep to 30 minute slots of meetings, tasks and breaks - working my way through my ‘must do’, ‘can do’ and ‘wanna do’ lists for that day - trying to mix in the more creative tasks with some of the more mundane ones. I look forward to our long family dinners each evening - yabbering on about everything and nothing - before unwinding with whatever TV we’re all into at that point. And then once everyone is off to bed, I may have an evening call or two and try to kill off a few other tasks on my list. I’m happy if I finish up before midnight (reward myself with some time to read a book), but usually it is a little later…
What unusual or childhood experiences prepared you for what you do today?
I grew up in my family’s small businesses - a caravan park/motel and later a ten-pin bowling centre. It was great being around my parents all the time, and as I got older I became more involved in each business, including managing, planning and growing. Looking back, that exposure to small business gave me the confidence early in my career to leave great jobs in order to pursue great ideas.
What advice would you have for anyone looking to take the plunge?
I am a payments geek, so for me, I see problems related to payments that I feel I just have to fix. Before I get too excited (or worse still start fleshing out ideas), I focus on connecting with people who understand the problem space far better than me - users, vendors, distributors, researchers, etc. In some cases, they will quickly find the flaws in my understanding of the problem or my product ideas, which will save me a lot of wasted time. But when I have found a real problem and are bubbling with ideas to address it, they can become my mentor, co-founder, vendor partner, first customer, seed investor or the like. In short, my advice is to find your ‘brains trust’ early in any project.