“Multi-tasking can be a virtue.”, with Prajit Nanu – Thrive Global

Avoid Multi-tasking: Multi-tasking can be a virtue, but it can quickly wear you out. We love to do multiple things at a time instead of focusing on one thing at a time. Multitasking studies say that we aren’t actually multitasking when we say we are. It is essentially quick switching among different tasks. Sometimes, it is being unkind to self. For better-quality outcomes, I think we have to focus on doing one thing at a time.

I had the pleasure to interview Prajit Nanu, co-founder and CEO, InstaReM. Born in India, 37-year old Prajit Nanu is one of the few entrepreneurs from Asia who have built a successful multinational fintech from scratch. From Australia to Europe and the Americas, Prajit’s five-year old digital money transfer firm InstaReM has a growing presence in 35 countries and is helping people transfer money to over 55 countries conveniently, quickly and cost-effectively. Prajit is now looking to launch a Forex Card that will save $$ for overseas travellers, and to take his money transfer company to newer geographies where people still spend a fortune to send money overseas. Coming from a family of entrepreneurs, Prajit always dreamt of starting something of his own, but not without some real-world experience. A young man bubbling with entrepreneurial aspirations, Prajit has always been a technology enthusiast. He had registered over 100 domain names in the years leading up to InstaReM’s founding- just in case he ever decided to fully pursue any of the ideas that occurred to him. But it took a distressing personal experience while transferring money overseas to take the call. Without formal degrees either in financial management or technology, Prajit took a plunge into the world of fintech, and made it big with sheer determination. He got his first digital money transfer platform outsourced, but today, a team of ivy league technologists are working on InstaReM’s next-generation platforms. Having worked in the fast-lane for the better part of his career, Prajit thinks that he now needs to “slow” down a bit, take a step back, to be able to look at things in a new perspective and take InstaReM to the next level.

Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to this specific career path?

Ithink entrepreneurship is in my genes. My father was an Entrepreneur — he built his business from scratch. Looking up to him, I grew up with the desire to do something on my own. I started working in 2002, straight out of college. Had a brief stint in consulting before spending over a decade in IT outsourcing industry, working in New York, London and Mumbai with Capita, WNS and TMF. I had nothing to do with the world of fintech or even international money transfers for most of my 10+ years career. An accidental personal experience got me thinking about a problem that was so huge and so universal.

Here’s what happened.

I was trying to organise a party at a resort in Phuket for a friend. With some online search, I picked a terrific spot, and needed to send US$640 to book the resort. The resort wanted me to send money to their account as a bank-to-bank transfer. I didn’t think too much about it till my bank in Mumbai asked for extensive documentation for a not-so-huge overseas money transfer. Arranging all documents would have taken a lot of time and effort. Instead, I found a friend based in Thailand, transferred money to his bank account in India, and he paid the resort in Thai Baht. The friend revealed that every month he had been sending money to India and his bank was charging a small fortune for the service and was taking an FX spread — the difference between the inter-bank currency conversion rate and the rate quoted by the bank — as well.

This was my first glimpse into the problem. The resort incidence got me thinking about how I could convert this problem to a viable and successful business.

Michael Bermingham, the other co-founder, was the first person I called in London when I strongly felt the need for a convenient, transparent and affordable digital funds transfer platform. We spent a lot of time thinking how we can scale the concept of peer-to-peer money transfer. After tons of in-depth research and identifying a better way to move money across borders, we got started on a technology-based solution. We incorporated InstaReM in August 2014 in Singapore. We started operations in Australia (Sydney) as soon as our money transfer platform was ready in August 2015.

InstaReM, which started with four people, now has offices in eight countries across four continents with a headcount 200+ people. This has been my journey so far.

According to a 2006 Pew Research Report report, 26% of women and 21% of men feel that they are “always rushed”. Has it always been this way? Can you give a few reasons regarding what you think causes this prevalent feeling of being rushed?

I think the feeling of being “always rushed” is an outcome of multiple factors such as an individual’s approach to address situations, and one’s attitude towards responsibilities, and sometimes it could be the factors beyond anyone’s control. The situation in business gets complicated due to involvement of multiple stakeholders — internal as well as external — each with a unique set of expectations. Managing expectations of stakeholders without jeopardising anyone’s interest is a universal challenge, and more often than not, it is the necessity to manage stakeholders’ expectations that gives way to the feeling of “being rushed”. Sometimes, being rushed may be an outcome of bad planning, no co-ordination or lack of proper understanding of deliverables.

With presence in Asia-Pacific, Europe and the Americas, InstaReM’s stakeholders are spread across multiple time-zones. It takes extraordinary effort to manage expectations of people with different backgrounds and different relationships with us. Being subject to different sets of regulations in different markets is also a challenge. As someone who need to ensure that the entire set-up functions like a well-oiled machine, there are occasions when I feel rushed. But experience has helped me to manage such situations with better planning and smart communication. It is critical to maintain efficient communication and co-ordination among stakeholders.

Based on your experience or research can you explain why being rushed can harm our productivity, health, and happiness?

Being rushed is not a desired situation for anyone. People often get stretched in the early phase of entrepreneurship while struggling to validate their business idea. It creates stress, which typically leads to decisions that may not be good for business — or even for one’s personal life. I have had instances of hastily-taken decisions that yielded disastrous results, but we survived those in the early days. With stakes having gone up now, we cannot afford loose or impulsive decisions now. One bad decision can push you off-track or set you back to the drawing board. They can affect productivity, health, happiness of not only the individual in question, but also the morale of the other stakeholders who depend on these decisions.

On the flip side, can you give examples of how we can do more, and how our lives would improve if we could slow down?

There will always be things to do. There will always be goals to achieve. Great planning and smart work would certainly yield great results if the idea is good. But one needs to be in good shape — physically as well as emotionally — to drive businesses successfully in the longer term. What good are accomplishments if they come at the cost of stress, health and happiness of people involved? While I am absolutely results-oriented, I don’t mind stepping back if required. I think slowing down gives an opportunity to take a stock of the progress, take corrective measures if necessary, and move towards success. I must add here that slowing down should not be considered as a failure — it should be seen as a necessary break to achieve greater results.

We all live in a world with many deadlines and incessant demands for our time and attention. That inevitably makes us feel rushed. Can you share with our readers 6 strategies that you use to “slow down to do more”? Can you please give a story or example for each?

Managing a multi-locational firm has its own challenges. Running against time invariably becomes the way of life while managing a firm with presence in different time-zones. And it is very likely that you would not be available for everyone, every time. Here are some of the things that I do to be able to do more by slowing down.

Avoid micro-managing: An important lesson I learned early in my career was that micro-managing is not good for business. It takes up a lot of your productive time — mostly without desired results. Excessive supervision is counter-productive — people are more creative when given their space. It also helps build trust.

Delegate: I don’t believe in one-man army. I have a specific role in the company and I have been fortunate to build a great team that is best in class. I can afford to a take a break by delegating critical tasks to my capable colleagues who share my vision and who would finish a task the way I would do myself — or even better. Of course, having a great team is a pre-requisite for being confident about delegating.

Plan and Stay Organized: I realise that failures in businesses — and life — happen often due to lack of proper planning. Good planning and staying organized helps keeping things in control and it also affords you a chance to bounce back if things do not work out as expected. Set your goals and the path how you will achieve it. Have a to-do-list and stick to it without any excuses. Keep yourself up-to-date with the progress and keep asking yourself how you can get better. It is also important to ensure that you are not stuck with too many or unachievable goals.

Avoid Multi-tasking: Multi-tasking can be a virtue, but it can quickly wear you out. We love to do multiple things at a time instead of focusing on one thing at a time. Multitasking studies say that we aren’t actually multitasking when we say we are. It is essentially quick switching among different tasks. Sometimes, it is being unkind to self. For better-quality outcomes, I think we have to focus on doing one thing at a time.

Read a book: Reading a book is a great way to unwind as well as understand the external world better. Great books are the of months and years of hard work of great people, whose experience and understanding of life, business and the world, saves you from the trouble of re-inventing the wheel. Books can be our best friend, philosopher and guide. And an interesting thing about a good book is that it’s always available to you — no question asked.

Connect with Nature: This is part philosophical, part business. We humans are natural beings, but cut off from nature due to our perceived sense of responsibilities. Once in a while, I disconnect from man-made devices like mobile phones — which ironically make sure we are “connected” all the time — and connect with nature to appreciate its creations. I feel amazed by the perfection of nature, which inspires me to do better.

How do you define “mindfulness”? Can you give an example or story?

For me mindfulness is not forgetting the larger goals or impact we set out to achieve, while chasing and realising the short and mid-term goals we have for ourselves.

Being mindful is a pre-requisite in business, especially a cross-border one, where you need to work with stakeholders across cultures. A multinational, multi-locational business will not succeed without the mindfulness of its stakeholders.

In the recent past, I remember the time when people in the Indian state of Kerala faced one of the worst floods ever and it was energising to see spirit in which people of India — within and outside the country — came together to rebuild the state. The sheer spirit of people inspired us! We realised that our larger goal is to help people #DoMore with their own money. Leaving profitability to the backburner, we waived our fees on transfers to Kerala, be it for education, maintenance, hospitalisation — just anything. As a corporate citizen, if we don’t stand by our people in times of adversity, then we are failing in our responsibility.

Can you give examples of how people can integrate mindfulness into their everyday lives?

Mindfulness in an individual is a factor of multiple factors — the most important being one’s upbringing. Often the sense of mindfulness comes from the immediate environment during one’s formative years. In India, where I grew up, being mindful to the other people, respecting elderly people, even other life forms, and to nature is an essential part of a good upbringing. These traits get ingrained in young minds and they grow to be responsible citizens. Reading books — especially history and good literature — and travelling to different places also help one become mindful to other people and cultures.

Do you have any mindfulness tools that you find most helpful at work?

At InstaReM, we are cognizant of being mindful of other people and their cultures. We encourage our people to travel and work in our offices in the other countries to get familiar with them and their cultures. While this helps bonding among people from different departments within the company, it also helps in improved customer service by our teams becoming familiar with the expectations and priorities of people of different backgrounds. For everyday mindfulness at work, one can follow some simple steps like turning off pop-up notifications and push notifications, answer emails during dedicated periods of time, rather than throughout the day as soon as it pops into your inbox. And it is a good practice to finish one task before you begin the next.

What are your favourite books, podcasts, or resources that inspire you to use mindfulness tools or practices?

I thoroughly enjoyed reading ‘The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon’

Again talking about mindfulness, I feel all of us are thrown into this conundrum of competition. We are always encouraged to ‘beat’ others. That’s where I disagree and relate to something the book says about how as businesses we should focus on our customers and not competitors.

Can you please give us your favourite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

More than a life lesson quote, I would say that I resonate with this dialogue from the Hollywood film, The Wolf of Wall Street.

“The only thing standing between you and your goal is the bullshit story you keep telling yourself as to why you can’t achieve it.”

This is who I am because my life so far has a simple story thread. I got up one morning and decided to become an Entrepreneur. I quit my job and built InstaReM from scratch, which now is Asia-Pacific’s leading digital cross-border payments company. I don’t get a bigger joy waking up to do something I am passionate about. So, the quote from The Wolf of Wall Street echoes this and hopefully the story will have a new meaning when we enter the ‘Wall Street’.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

My influence is for the other people to decide, but if I had my way, I would inspire a movement that would work for the happiness of people, especially those who migrate to distant places for well-being of their families back home. Remittance flows to developing countries are expected to have reached an all-time high of US$528 billion in 2018. Assuming an average cost of 7% for remittances, as much as US$40 billion could be lost in hidden charges and transaction fees in remittances annually. This leakage is massive and unfair. The irony of the situation is that the migrants who depend the most on remittances, end up paying high transfer fees. For recipients in many countries, every additional currency unit received in remittances could mean better healthcare or better education. The least that we could aspire to do for the migrants is to empower them to be able to send more to their families, so their families could #domore. Thanks to our innovative peer-to-peer model, we are enabling migrants to send money quickly and much more cost-effectively to their families back home, thus affording them savings, at the same time their families back home, better lives.

Thank you for all of these great insights!

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