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B.C. CEO who sold fintech to PayPal for $304m aspires to be ‘impactreneur’

TIO Networks CEO Hamed Shahbazi says he and his co-founder set out to 'democratize' online services two decades ago
TIO Networks CEO and co-founder Hamed Shahbazi | Carlos Taylhardat/

Hamed Shahbazi doesn’t think of himself as an entrepreneur – at least, not exactly. It still seems a term fitting for the founding CEO of TIO Networks, who announced in February the sale of his financial technology (fintech) company to PayPal Holdings Inc. (Nasdaq:PYPL) for $304 million.

Instead, Shahbazi prefers a term he coined himself: “impactreneur.”

“I believe in the concept of an impact entrepreneur,” the 42-year-old said. “I really am inspired by people who are using entrepreneurship to solve problems. And that’s what we try to do.”

The impactreneur idea might be traced back to his days studying civil engineering at the University of British Columbia (UBC) in the mid-1990s, when he would often thumb through the self-help books at the library.

Shahbazi, who grew up in West Vancouver after moving to Canada from Iran when he was four years old, said those days at UBC helped him discover what was inspiring to him.

“What’s great about impactreneurs is that they’re not just focused on value creation. They really get a high out of solving some problems, too,” he said.

So a marriage between PayPal and TIO Networks appears to be a natural fit.

PayPal is the king of online payments, while TIO has spent close to two decades cornering the market on providing online bill-payment services to clients who are not served by a bank or similar financial institution.

During the last fiscal year, the Vancouver fintech processed more than US$7 billion in transactions.

PayPal’s long history of shaking up the status quo fits with TIO’s own corporate culture, Shahbazi said.

After graduating from UBC in 1997, Shahbazi recalls, he and the co-founders of a predecessor company set out to “democratize” online services.

“What we mean by ‘democratize’ is to make it accessible,” he said. “People have access, people are empowered.”

TIO’s first big breakthrough came in the early 2000s when it began setting up its self-service Internet kiosks in various locations.

Users would feed money into bill-readers that would validate the cash in real time and allow people to pay their bills even if they didn’t have a bank account.

“The reality is that under-banked people with low to moderate income have not been the benefactors of financial technology,” Shahbazi said. “That was really the killer application. That’s what helped get us started. That’s what helped form relationships.”

Brady Fletcher, managing director of the TSX Venture Exchange, has known Shahbazi since the former’s days in investment banking.

When the PayPal acquisition was announced, Fletcher received emails from disappointed colleagues who had been looking forward to one day taking TIO from the venture exchange to the Toronto Stock Exchange.

But Fletcher said it’s impossible to hold anything against the “kind of guy you want to see win and people want to work with.”

“And Hamed carved out this niche; PayPal took notice and PayPal came shopping,” Fletcher said, adding the good news is that the Silicon Valley now appears willing to shop for a Canadian tech company off the venture exchange.

Mike Gardner, CEO of Vancouver-based fintech Agreement Express, said there’s “some beautiful synergy” behind PayPal’s acquisition.

“I’ve known [Shahbazi] for years and he’s always run a fantastic organization,” Gardner said.

The question now, he said, is, “Do they double down on Hamed’s organization and expand its reach globally and expand its product offerings? Or do they take the core of that and distribute that or repatriate to other PayPal offices?”

Shahbazi said the plan right now is for him to stick around and lead TIO’s operations in Vancouver.

Meanwhile, Payfirma CEO Michael Gokturk said Shahbazi’s influence on the Vancouver fintech community won’t soon disappear.

“The whole community is very happy for Hamed,” Gokturk said. “He’s a gentleman, he’s modest, he’s such a good person. Hamed is a great friend and also an investor in Payfirma, so he supports the local economy – not just by creating jobs but also by investing in startups, and advising them and mentoring them.”

Shahbazi said his own strategy for investments goes back to wanting to make a difference.

“I aspire to be an impactreneur and I love to surround myself with them, be helpful to them,” he said.

“Problems will be solved by impactreneurs out there. And not because there’s just a commercial opportunity in them.”

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