News » Feature

Klink Mobile CEO Jessie Bishop bets that the future of moving money is on your cellphone

Klink Mobile CEO Jessie Bishop believes cellphones are the key to moving money.



Klink Mobile's world headquarters is in the clubhouse of a sprawling, gated Overland Park apartment complex. The space is perfect for Jessie Bishop, the startup's 30-year-old CEO and founder, who says she can conduct international business and "not leave for a week."

"I can literally roll out of bed and get my day started," she says. "The last thing I want to do is go somewhere."

The only things that Bishop and her handful of employees scattered around the globe need are an Internet connection and Skype. (Klink's chief technology officer lives in Mexico City, another employee is based in Florida, and another is in Afghanistan.) The clubhouse (a common area for residents) has Wi-Fi, a gym, and a glass wall overlooking an infinity pool and a patio.

When Bishop isn't jetting to Afghanistan or speaking in the United Arab Emirates, she makes the short walk from her building to the clubhouse, where pop songs quietly play over speakers.

Bishop pulls out her battered BlackBerry (she's fiercely loyal to the struggling mobile brand) to demonstrate how Klink works. She types "$10" and texts Klink.

Within seconds, the recipient's phone vibrates with the arrival of a text message. "[Jessie Bishop] just sent you $10 using Klink Mobile!" the message reads.

Bishop says easily moving money between phone users could revolutionize how cash is dispersed in the developing world.

"In Afghanistan, for example, 3 percent of the population has access to a bank," Bishop says. (Half of the world's population doesn't have bank accounts; 8 percent of Americans are "unbanked," according to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.) "Nobody has that, so their phones are becoming the actual bank itself."

When a customer sends money using Klink, the funds don't go into the recipient's bank account. The currency lives on the phone itself, which is different from other money-transferring technology companies, such as PayPal or Des Moines startup Dwolla. Recipients could buy goods and services from other Klink users or use the money to pay their cellphone bills.

"It's becoming a virtual currency in and of itself," Bishop says. "It creates a kind of currency ecosystem worldwide."

The money cannot be converted into tangible cash and withdrawn, but Bishop says that's in Klink's future.

"I could walk up to an ATM and, just like I'm voting for Dancing With the Stars, I could text the ATM from my mobile device, and the ATM shoots out cash," she says. "But that has to happen in phase two, when Klink has the relationships with the banks."

Phase one is signing cellphone carriers around the world to work with Klink. So far, they have been receptive; Klink is operational in Afghanistan with Etisalat, a carrier with 3.5 million users.

Bishop says Afghanistan's antiquated infrastructure makes it the perfect proving ground. She spent a couple of weeks in the country last year.

"People travel into the city, into Kabul, to pick up their paychecks every single month," she says. "There are lines so long at some of these banks, they will stand in line all day after traveling however many kilometers. They'll stand in line all day at the bank to collect their paychecks."

That money could be more easily distributed with Klink, she says, improving the quality of life of millions of Afghans.

Klink's next launch site: Mexico.

"There are three mobile operators in Mexico, and we have two of them contracted," Bishop says. "And they're finishing integration this week or next."

The deal gives Klink access to more than 50 million subscribers.

Before Klink can save Afghans from waiting for days in long bank lines or give people in America an easy way to send money to family members in Mexico, the startup needs money.

In early January, Klink was preparing to launch a text-message campaign, inviting users to try the service in Afghanistan. The risk was high for the young company — when a Klink transfer is made, the company fronts the cash, later recouping it from the sender's bank or credit card. That means Klink's scant resources (angel investors have pumped $80,000 into the company) could be strained and possibly drained.

"That's a really scary thing for me," Bishop says. "I'm like, shit, we better go raise some money."

Bishop is building Klink on a shoestring budget, or "bootstrapping," the startup code for hiring a few employees and working long hours for no pay. The entrepreneurial lifestyle has left Bishop with little time for a social life or friends.

"I haven't had a boyfriend in I don't know how long," she says. "That's a lot to ask from someone."

Despite a lack of funding, Bishop never gives off an air of desperation. She has been here before; this is the second time in three years that she has built an international company.

Bishop sounds like a career counselor when she talks about her pre-entrepreneurial life: "Don't ever be too good for anything. You never know when you're going to be rock-bottom or king of the hill."

She has been both.

Bishop grew up just outside De Soto. Her parents, Riley (a clinical social worker) and Linda Joslyn-Bishop (a psychologist), commuted daily to their Country Club Plaza offices. Her mother is the breadwinner and a breast-cancer survivor. She is an inspiration to her three daughters.

"We have a role model of a woman who had a career and never gave up her career," Bishop says. "She still works seven days a week, and she's 71."

Joslyn-Bishop says her daughter showed flashes of entrepreneurial hustle as a kid.

"She started the violin at 3 years old, and I remember the violin teacher telling me that she was the most fearless violin player he'd ever met," she says. "She just didn't know fear."

After graduating from Pembroke Hill School in 2001, Bishop attended Purchase College, State University of New York. But she left New York after the September 11 attacks, and she studied abroad in Spain. After her freshman year, she briefly moved to Morocco, where she lived in William S. Burroughs' former home. She later enrolled at the University of Puget Sound, earning a degree in fine art in 2005.

Finding a job in the art world proved difficult, so Bishop moved back to Kansas City and took a job as a barista at Beanology, a now shuttered boozy coffeehouse. She was looking for a more sustainable career when a regular customer hired her to troubleshoot VeriFone credit-card-payment machines.

"I know how to dissect those and put them back together," she says. "I know more than you could want to know."

But Bishop tired of corporate jobs. "I can't stay inside the lines," she says. "I need excitement. I need new things."

So she traded her office job for a waitress gig at Sullivan's Steakhouse in Leawood.

"I had to wear fishnets and black miniskirts, and I served cocktails for a while," she says, rolling her eyes. "You know, whatever. If you need money, you need money. If you need money, go out and make it."

Then Bishop decided to make money in a way that didn't involve fishnets or miniskirts. In 2009, she created her first startup, Prepay Nation, an international prepaid mobile-minutes company.

"Unlike here in the U.S., the rest of the world is prepay," Bishop explains. "So they all have to add money to their account before they can use it."

Bishop co-founded the company with Deepika Jain and Shipra Agrawal, and Prepay Nation got off to a fast start, winning the mobile-industry prize in 2010 at the Women 2.0 business conference in San Francisco. Money quickly rolled in.

"We were about to take on venture-capital funding," she says, "and we were doing about a run rate [projected revenue rate] of $60 million."

Bishop's voice grows quiet, hovering above a whisper. Her gaze fixes on her hands on the tabletop. Her partnership with Prepay Nation fell apart. Bishop explains that the company was established as a limited liability company in the founders' names — but the ownership pie wasn't clearly divided.

"My background is in art. I'm an artist. And [I had no] actual business training," she says with a slight chuckle. "And we didn't have an operating agreement."

Without a clear division of Prepay Nation's ownership, there was a fissure. Bishop won't say on the record how her Prepay Nation partnership dissolved, other than acknowledging that she wasn't happy.

So Bishop moved in with her parents and began planning her next move.

Prepay Nation CEO Anurag Jain also won't discuss Bishop's relationship with Prepay Nation, which is based in Philadelphia with eight employees.

"She was a pleasure to work with," says Jain, whose wife is a co-founder.

Jain speaks guardedly about Bishop's departure from a company that she helped build and guide. "A year into the business, she wanted to change the terms of the business," he says. "She was compensated fairly on what was originally decided."

Prepay Nation bought out Bishop's ownership share, Jain says. He won't discuss the details of the agreement. (Bishop and Prepay Nation have agreed not to disparage each other publicly.)

The company has grown without Bishop, acquiring a French company. (Terms of that deal haven't been disclosed.)

Bishop is hoping that she has learned from her Prepay Nation experience.

"I said to myself, if I have the skill set to do this, if I have the relationships to do this, if I have the brains, if I have the willpower, if I really want this, go do it again," she says. "Don't be a lazy ass and don't give up."

Aside from her hardworking mother, Bishop draws inspiration from another successful, albeit less wholesome, professional: Gus Fring, the sadistic, unflappable meth kingpin of AMC's Breaking Bad.

In the show, Fring brings veggie trays to cartel meetings, volunteers his time and money to the Albuquerque Police Department, and calmly kills his enemies. He's also the successful owner of more than a dozen fast-food franchises, which are fronts for his multistate drug ring.

"Gus, no matter what, he's so stoic," Bishop says. "You never see him express a ton of anxiety and emotion. That's something that I wish, as a CEO, I can learn — to be constantly calm."

Bishop knows that staying calm will become more difficult as Klink grows. Funding won't be the only concern for the young company. Bishop and her Mexico City–based CTO, Alan Alvarado, say safeguarding transactions is paramount.

Alvarado recently tested the system's security in what he calls a Klinkathon; he brought together several hackers, bought them beer and told them to try to bring down Klink. The idea was based on hackathons in which companies test their Web security against determined hackers. Alvarado, who at the time hadn't met Bishop in person, says no one could breach Klink.

"Yeah, we're pretty happy with that," he tells The Pitch in a phone interview.

Alvarado admits that hackers are always going to attack the site. "People will want to get this money," he says, adding that the Klinkathons are going to be regular occurrences to keep him on his toes. He has already seen attempts in China and Russia to crack the site. The attempted attacks may not be all bad, Alvarado says.

"In Russia, we don't have carriers," he says, "so that makes me think Klink Mobile is starting to be somewhat popular in the European continent."

Before anyone can try to steal Klink's money, Bishop needs to raise it. (She named her company Klink because "that's the sound money makes.") Bishop says there are several reasons that venture-capital firms might pass on her company. For starters, the concept — creating a virtual currency that is transmitted over the phone — is difficult to explain.

"What we're doing is so high-risk and so far out there," she says.

Plus, focusing on Afghanistan, a country battered by war and viewed as a Taliban stronghold, could throw off some investors.

"Transferring money from the U.S. to a person in Afghanistan, that's a hard thing convince people that that's something they should participate in," Bishop admits.

Also hurting her cause: That country's uncertain future once American forces are withdrawn from the country.

If investors are worried about terrorists using Klink, Bishop says, that's a bogus concern.

"Terrorism, drug cartels are never going to go away," she says. But, she adds, because Klink transactions live on the phone, the company can track where money goes after it's sent. "Should it occur, we're going to be in a better position to address it than the current banking institutions are today."

Maybe there's another reason for the lack of investors.

"People have a hard time with these baby cheeks, I think," she says, pointing to her face.

Or maybe Bishop is more cautious now. She says she's looking for the "right money." But to someone who hasn't drawn a salary for more than a year, logic might dictate that any money is the right money. Bishop says that isn't true.

"There are so many people that I've started to do due diligence with," she says. "Halfway through, when they're about to put a deal on the table, they're like, 'Oh, by the way, how would you feel about us putting our boy in as the CEO?' You have to be really careful about what money you take."

She adds that she isn't looking for potential investors who want to hear only good news.

"A lot of investors want to be told lies, I think," she says. "They want to hear that everything is really good all the time. ... I'm going to tell you when it's really bad, and I'm going to tell you when it's really good. If you can't handle that, you're not the right person for this company."

As Bishop and her team prepare for their text campaign in Afghanistan, they're in an odd position. With limited resources to cover all transactions, the company can't afford for its initial push to be too successful.

"I'm worried we won't have enough money to fund the transactions," she says.

But this is the moment that Bishop needs. She's closing in on a professional rebound. If the text campaign succeeds, Klink will be far more attractive to venture capitalists, she says. Only then can she finally stop bootstrapping.

"If everything goes as planned, we'll be extremely successful," she says. "And I don't think we can bootstrap anymore at that point."

But what if Klink fails? Bishop barely considers the notion.

"That won't happen," she says. "But let's say it does. I'm not afraid of that. I've already done that before. It's not that bad. I mean, it sucks, but it could be a lot worse. I could be homeless and without family."

This past Monday, Klink world headquarters has shifted briefly from Bishop's apartment complex to a conference room at the offices of the Ogletree Deakins law firm. In a room overlooking the Plaza, Alvarado, Bishop and Jean Olivier Buteau, Klink's vice president of business development, share one side of a beige marble table. As they talk about the future of the company, a huge Panasonic TV on one wall shows President Barack Obama's inauguration.

A friend of Bishop's works for the firm and has set up this borrowed time in a space that's much swankier than Klink can afford to replicate. On this Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the office is almost deserted.

This is the Klink team's first time working together in the same room. The three look almost relieved to be physically close to one another. Alvarado uses a tablet with a stylus to draw diagrams of how their servers work and what he has planned for the company. He says collaborating over Skype is fine, but he prefers to be in the same room.

"Now I can explain everything how I want," he says. He arrived with his wife the previous night. "I like to draw to explain my ideas. Because if I just speak, I think, 'Oh, maybe they don't understand.' "

"I'm pleasantly surprised with Alan because the guy knows exactly what he's talking about," says Buteau, who is staying in Bishop's apartment while he's in town. (Bishop is staying with her parents.) The VP sounds like he's on a blind date: "He's young and intelligent, so I'm pretty happy."

Alvarado explains to the other two that the next crucial step for getting users to trust Klink is earning recognition from online privacy companies Verisign and TRUSTe.

"Hopefully we can get a certificate with Verisign first, then TRUSTe," Alvarado says. "We need to have these certifications."

"How much does that cost?" Bishop asks. It's one more bill to pay.

"They didn't tell me yet," Alvarado replies.

Their first same-city business day over, the three Klink colleagues walk a block south from Ogletree Deakins to Café Trio. They're stopping by a happy hour put on by the Centurions Leadership Program, a group of local entrepreneurs organized by the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce.

At two long, high-top tables in the cozy bar, Bishop answers questions from seven local businesspeople. It's a good-natured inquisition, but Bishop is in full hustle mode. As the Centurions order their second and third drinks, Bishop hasn't yet drained her first glass of red wine as she runs through various versions of an elevator pitch.

"This has huge potential. If we do this right — massive," she says. To Sir With Love plays on a muted TV hanging over the tables. She collects more business cards.

An hour into the cocktail session, a woman asks Bishop what will happen if Klink runs out of capital. The CEO doesn't pause. "We will find some way to make money," she says. "We are that creative."

She jokes about part of her own limited holdings: her antique German violin. "When my money runs out, I'll sell my violin," she says with a wry smile.

It hasn't come to that yet, and it might not. For now, Klink is updating its system again — a move that slightly delays its planned text campaign in Afghanistan.

"We didn't want to actually blast out to 3.5 million subscribers yet," Bishop says. "We want to do that exactly when we are ready."

The launch is tentatively set for later this week.

Comments (3)

Showing 1-3 of 3

Add a comment

Add a comment