Interview with Serge Lobreau
1 – Serge, what is your background?
Serge Lobreau: I took an economic and social baccalaureate, then studied law. I then put my studies on hold for two years and, when I decided to go back to university, I studied management, management control and finance and went on to a master’s degree.
2 – Studies interspersed with two sabbatical years, then?
Serge Lobreau: You can’t really talk about two “sabbatical” years because I have always been a hard worker. If I stopped studying law, it was for a simple reason: at the time, in parallel with my high school years and my start at university, I was doing several jobs. Three jobs to be exact. Since I left home at 17, I had to finance my studies, my flat, and pay my bills… So I worked at McDonald’s while being a night watchman at Butagaz, and at weekends I was a DJ on a radio station in the Yonne (88.2). This last job, which allowed us to meet a lot of artists (we invited them to come and present their albums), worked so well that one thing led to another, and the main presenter of the show and myself found ourselves with a magnificent portfolio of artists’ managers, and saw the opportunity to monetise it. So we set up a specialised events company and simply started selling the performances to nightclubs, zeniths and so on. So that was all I did for two years. I worked a lot, learned everything about event planning, saw the good and bad sides of this incredible industry where there was a lot of money to be made. But deep down, I had other perspectives in mind. I didn’t want an uncertain future in a rather random environment, but to pursue an education in which I could project myself into the future. So I went back to school, passed my bachelor’s degree and then my master’s degree.
3 – Tell us about your most memorable experience?
Serge Lobreau: Let’s say I have two. The first will seem rather burlesque. I was born in Africa and I arrived in France at the age of 8. My first significant experience was Charles-de-Gaulle airport and my discovery of… escalators! Just imagine, stairs that move by themselves… for a little boy who came from my social background, it was unimaginable, a real ordeal. I was convinced that I was going to be swallowed up by this machine!
More seriously, the experience that remains engraved in my mind dates back to three years ago. I was in the middle of a negotiation in the context of one of my consulting activities. I informed my partner that I would have to leave for a few days to supervise the delivery of goods. These few days would turn into six long months during which I would be stranded in the country in question (for huge financial and economic interests to which I could say goodbye if I left)! But I had invested so much in this project that I could not give up or turn back. This difficult period left a huge mark on me, but it also allowed me to learn a lot about the environment in which I was and still am involved. I met some extraordinary people, and it’s fair to say that in professional terms, my initial unhappy experience was the one that gave me the most in terms of know-how and network.
4 – Was Sapian Group your first company?
Serge Lobreau: In terms of business, Sapian Group was indeed my first company. This organisation was designed to enable me to carry out international trading operations in which I specialised. Since one of my specialisations was the commodities market (the precious metals market, which I know particularly well), this organisation was initially created for this purpose. We then turned it into a group in order to bring together all the companies that were going to be part of my field of expertise, since, in addition to my expertise in international trade, I am also specialised in marketing and finance. So yes, Sapian Group was the first company.
5 – Tight market, I think?
Serge Lobreau: Yes, the commodities market has been a tight market for some years. But since the 2008 subprime crisis in the US, it has been booming again. It took a while for the crisis to reach Europe. But when it did, many savers started to turn to exceptional investing, i.e. putting money into assets and products they understood, like gold. Gold speaks to everyone. It has value. So all the people who had lost a lot of money in bad investments, in triple-A products that were really just “toxic” products, started to want to go back to this commodity. I worked with two different funds, which asked me to create and sell investments based on physical gold. So no more multiple intermediaries. It was just the mine, me and the end client, and that’s exactly what my clients were looking for: to cut out as many middlemen as possible and to be able to save costs and secure transactions, which is very complicated in this business.
So we saw this sector take off again, which was very beneficial to me. It has allowed me to excel in my field, to meet many people, to have serious clients with whom I have established lasting relationships.
Nowadays, no more new opportunities are discovered. For example, in the gold market sector, 50% of the gold in circulation is recycled gold. Unfortunately, the only possibility of new mines being discovered is due to climate change, which allows access to certain geographical areas that were previously unreachable.
The very characteristic of this rare metal is that it cannot be “manufactured” in generic form like diamonds. There is no fake gold, which makes it all the more precious. And precious means valuable. In the next five to ten years, an ounce of gold will be worth around $2000 or even $3000! Unless a gold-laden asteroid lands on Earth or gold is found and brought back from other planets, gold is still a very safe product and investment. This is why it is so taxed, especially in France. But in other parts of the world (such as India or Asia, the Middle East, and even in Africa), gold, regardless of the local currency, provides real peace of mind to those who own it. This market, beyond the fact that there are not many players, is therefore a tense sector, as it is increasingly in demand because people want to return to this safe value, after the crazy finance and investments made in products that no one understood. And in the end, it seems logical. The investor and the person who is looking to plan for the future will be more inclined to put their money in a product they understand, with an intrinsic value they can control, than in a product that is totally unknown to them.
6 – Flashmoni was born before Sapian, but developed after Sapian?
Serge Lobreau: Flashmoni was indeed born before Sapian, but was developed later. As I said, I have experience in relationship marketing. The tools we were given were not very convincing on the one hand, and very expensive on the other. As a former banker, I found it absurd to have to pay 15% or 20% of the amount you want to withdraw, sometimes more depending on the currency! It’s also absurd to be cheated on the spread. In the end, when you look at the total amount you paid in fees, you quickly reach 30% of the amount you wanted to withdraw. It’s just mind-blowing!
When I created Flashmoni, it was initially an exchanger, a data and advertising based model, with a full page interface. Why a full page interface? Simply to be able to earn enough money from advertising and to be able to use that money to pay our running costs. This way, we can provide the end customer with the lowest spread and costs in the market and beat our competitors. That’s what Flashmoni was all about in the beginning.
Then, as the consultancy business grew, I put that on hold and developed the international trading business. It was then that I realised that a huge part of humanity simply did not have access to basic financial services. And that’s when it hit me: while I had the initial Flashmoni project in mind, I realised that I needed to do something much more accomplished and of ‘public’ use. And when I say public utility, I mean financial inclusion, i.e. the right of everyone to access basic financial services, such as access to a bank. But in many countries, people don’t have access to banks for the simple reason that many people don’t have a physical address. And without a physical address… it’s hard to get a bank. And I’m not just talking about the third world! In France, thousands of people don’t have a bank account, and the same goes for the United States.
So it became obvious that this global problem needed to be addressed. But how to go about it? I decided to propel this solution through blockchain technology. Why blockchain? Because it was a technology that was going to cost us very little, as opposed to a “classic” system. With this system, not only do I bring security, independence to the users and to ourselves, but also, by mixing the know-how of commodities and blockchain, I thought I could create a stable crypto-currency. No more guesswork! I decided to fight against the volatility of the crypto-currency to be able to bring it to a much more massive use than it is now, so that it could be accepted everywhere, and especially for daily activities. For this, a utility coin (a crypto-digital coin that allows the use of some services) was needed, and this is what was done at Flashmoni.
To determine the intrinsic value of each of our coins, we turned to an asset that everyone can understand: gold. So we partnered with a company to acquire this commodity. This is not a back-loaded coin, but pegged, meaning that its intrinsic value is simply derived from 1/20 of the value of the gold grain (approximately $2.7 today). We use this valuation to be able to determine the unit price of the core value of our coins. Of course, a relative value will be given by the market, but this core value allows us to understand where the primary value of our coin comes from. Flashmoni’s goal is to use blockchain technology to enable financial inclusion. In the future, we want to offer our services for free (remittance services [sending money], which is what Western Union and Moneygram are doing now, exchange services [exchanging euros for crypto currencies], etc.) and this will be done through a company that we have created called Flashxchanger. We really try to span the spectrum that touches financial inclusion and try to be independent by creating a cross-cutting solution. It’s called omnichannel banking services and the crazy part of our vision is to pay people to use our system. It’s a completely innovative business model, and we’ll have the opportunity to share a lot of information as the first MVPs of our solution start to be delivered Q3 2019. There is also our blog: blog.flashmoni.io.
7 – What is Flashmoni?
Serge Lobreau: I’ve already answered that, but to sum up, Flashmoni is a solution that should enable financial inclusion using blockchain. And this solution is realised through blockchain, with a coin deriving its intrinsic value from an asset that everyone knows: gold. Flashmoni enables the use and mass adoption of crypto-currency, which is today the only way to quickly achieve financial inclusion for almost 3 billion people on this planet. Flashmoni is an innovative financial service based on data. By making the most of data, we generate revenue. By generating revenue, we use it to reduce service fees and thus enable greater financial inclusion.
8 – Do you think blockchain has a future in France and in Europe?
Serge Lobreau: In France, we are always the last to adopt new technologies. Many countries have detected and integrated the incredible potential of blockchain much more quickly than we have. You know, in France, when we say “blockchain”, people hear “bitcoin”. But in reality, blockchain is much more than just the word “bitcoin”, this technology is much more than a simple financial function. It is transcendent. Let me illustrate this with a concrete example: in the state of Yap Island, a small island in the South Pacific, there is one of the oldest and most successful human examples of a form of blockchain, distributed ledger technology, also known as DLT. In this chain of islands in Micronesia, therefore, 1000 years before Christ, the inhabitants used a unique form of money. These were huge carved stones weighing up to several tons, which they could trade. These were placed in various places (market place, beach, mountain, etc.) and allowed the whole population to mentally record every transaction, which was easy to do in a small group. This method allowed the Yappies not to physically exchange these untransportable stones but to pay intelligently by memorising the ownership and the history of the transactions. As the database was public and known to all, it was unfalsifiable. The ownership of these stones was completely decentralised. This is currently the oldest example of distributed ledger technology, otherwise known as blockchain.
To understand what blockchain is, you need to understand the history of accounting in the broadest sense. Financial transactions are one of the first applications of blockchain. You may know this, but 5000 years ago, the so-called one-entry system (information about the ownership of goods was recorded on some medium) appeared. In India, 300 years before Christ, the first accounting document was invented by a man called Chanakya. This document is a kind of standardised form of accounting system allowing comparison and offering real transparency in the method, because of its uniqueness. Then, 1340 years ago and until 2009, the double entry system was used, the one we still know today. This is the credit/debit system, a system that can be manipulated. Imagine: Sarah and Patrick want to make a transaction. Sarah has a boat that Patrick wants and Patrick has the stone on the beach. He decides to exchange the stone for Sarah’s boat. So they make the exchange. The ownership of the stone is transferred to Sarah and Sarah transfers the boat to Patrick. Let’s assume that Sarah no longer wants to give up ownership of her boat or conversely that Patrick refuses to give up ownership of his stone in order to pay for the boat. He now wants the boat, and the stone. Patrick can always try to corrupt the record and say that he never gave up ownership of the stone. When you have a centralized system, it is easily manipulated. You can change things after the fact. In 2009, the distributed ledger technology aka “blockchain” arrived (decentralised system) via a certain “Satoshi Nakamoto” (ghost character), and changed a lot of things. Now, if someone wants to manipulate the system, they have to get more than 51% of the votes or reach the “group consensus” that their version of the ledger is the right one and that it shows, in our example, that the boat and the stone belong to them. The ledger is then distributed, not in a single place, but in a multitude of virtual locations. This means that in order to change the information on this ledger, which is replicated in several places, you will have to go to more than 51% of these places or convince more than 51% of the group consensus to be able to change its version, and be able to say: this stone still belongs to me. Transforming a centralised ledger into a decentralised ledger brings much more security to transactions and transparency than ever before. In 2009, in an economic climate where people feel distrustful of elites, government agencies, but also of their neighbours, this concept appears revolutionary: people no longer need to trust each other. Blockchain is thus a product of our time. You don’t need to know each other, you don’t need to be good friends, you have a
9 – You have created a “Flashcare” foundation. Can you tell us more about it?
Serge Lobreau: Flashcare is a foundation that we are in the process of finalising. Again, it’s inherent in the personal experience I’ve had in some of the countries I’ve visited in Latin America, Asia and Africa, where I’ve spent a lot of time in the last six years. Flashcare is the answer to the desperate lack of the most basic things in the world. Since we have a business model that will work, it was a natural progression for me to give back to the community.
The Flashcare Foundation will work on several fronts:
Firstly, the H2O initiative. Firstly, the H2O initiative. We want to set up equipment in isolated locations (in Africa, Asia, Latin America) to make impure water fit for consumption using solar energy. How do we do this? By means of scalable heliportable containers made to last for twenty years, on the scale of a town, a house, a company, a village. As we are going to work with local partners inherent to our activity, we want these people to work in the best possible conditions and not lack anything (and especially not the essentials such as drinking water!). In fact, when I was still a banker, a client asked me to help him finance a project of this kind. I was enthusiastic about the idea, but you know… capitalists are not inclined to finance projects that do not make money. So we had to refuse the loan to this gentleman. As soon as I set up Flashmoni, he was the first person I contacted. Today we are looking at the delivery of the first machines by Q1 2020.
Then, the second initiative concerns spirulina, a kind of superfood that helps to combat child malnutrition in Asia and Africa in particular. This is an initiative that we will launch at the same time as the H2O initiative.
The third initiative concerns para-seniors: we want to set up parapharmacies specialising in natural health at very low prices for isolated seniors living in medical deserts.
Finally, the fourth initiative, which we have called Hippocrates, consists of books, e-books and free online training courses to teach health techniques to those who do not have the financial means.
To do this, I decided to be accompanied by doctors. The president of Flashcare is a doctor whose name will be announced very soon.
10 – What are your future plans?
Serge Lobreau: Within three or four years we have a real solution to come out with Flashmoni. A lot of services are offered by Flashmoni, whether it be wallet formulas, or the use of your data by paying you for the data used on your behalf (currently, no one is paid in this sector). People sometimes find it hard to understand that when a service is offered to them for free, it is because they themselves are “the product”. Look at Facebook! Facebook makes billions in profits from data. So this sector is so lucrative that we decided to go there using blockchain. It is a particularly heavy activity to develop, but at least we will allow everyone to take control of their data. Significant efforts have already been made, particularly with regard to the adoption of the RGPD (General Data Protection Regulation), which is a European regulation for controlling the use of individuals’ data by companies. In concrete terms, there are many projects awaiting us in the next five years and we have a lot of services to continue to develop. And then, who knows, in eight years’ time… ten years’ time… new needs may arise? It is up to us to create a solution to meet them.
11 – What is the one thing you would not do again in your life?
Serge Lobreau: There are many things I would not do again in my life. But if I had to choose one, it would be to trust too long, even when my trust has been altered. I think that when you meet a new person, a new partner, you assume from the start that you are going to create a lasting relationship with them, and that you will try to keep what I call the trust capital as intact as possible. Throughout this relationship, the aim will be to keep it as high as possible. With hindsight and my experience, I would perhaps let less things go. I sometimes regret having allowed this trust to become tarnished and diminished over time, because this often involves situations that end up being detestable (we will talk about this later). I would therefore be more rigorous about this trust.
12 – The web has evolved, not in a good way in my opinion… Among other things, web 2.0 now allows anyone to say bad things about any person or company, without any control. How do you manage your e-reputation?
Serge Lobreau: Yes, the web has evolved and not necessarily in a good way. I have never really worried about my e-reputation over the last few years because I have never encountered any “problems” in this area. People who know me know what I’m like, what I’m capable of doing. So I started to worry about it when we raised a spectacular multi-million euro fundraising round last year to finance our Flashmoni solution. That’s when my confidence was shaken: I was working with two, three partners at the time that I had to let go of, and that had an impact on my e-reputation that I didn’t really care about until then. They took advantage of that to buy my name and be able to defame me online. Of course, my legal team is in the process of sorting this out and taking them to court because, thankfully, the law exists. There is no doubt that web 2.0 is an extraordinary tool as it allows everyone to be “free” and to express themselves as they wish in most countries. But sadly, it also often allows any fool with a grudge against you to defame you in public. Until now, I have not dealt with this, but when it happened to me, I had to react in order to preserve my integrity. And of course, the further we go, the more successful we are going to be, the more detractors we are going to have to deal with, people we may not have wanted to do business with and who are going to want to hurt us. Let’s just say that this is part of the game, a game that I completely accept. I won’t complain if there are sites that talk badly about our solution or defame the CEO, but they just need to know that they will face a legal response. We know what we are doing and we know where we are going. We now have an organisation that looks after our reputation (and I think that’s an essential service for any attention-grabbing company like ours). Thank you for this interview and if you have any further questions, please feel free to contact us online on our blog or on Linkedin!
Thank you Serge.