Dialling up innovative solutions

Adith Charlie | Updated on March 23, 2013 Published on March 23, 2013

Vivek Steve Francis, Co-founder and COO, MobMe Wireless Solutions

Like most teenagers, Vivek Steve Francis felt his daily pocket money allowance of Rs 100 inadequate. He did not like asking his parents for money every time he wanted to visit the new coffee shop or take in a blockbuster with friends.

The desire to be self-sufficient prompted Francis and his friends to embark on an entrepreneurial journey that had its origins in an engineering campus, seven years ago.

“My friends and I have done pretty much everything to make that extra buck. We used to go to Tirupur (Tamil Nadu), buy T-Shirts for Rs 50 and sell them for Rs 200 in Thiruvananthapuram,” says the 28-year-old co-Founder of MobMe Wireless, a mobile Internet company.

The year was 2005 and every youngster wanted to have a cell phone. Along with friends Sony Joy and Sanjay Vijaykumar, Francis started marketing SIM cards and selling mobile phones to their peers.

Next, they approached the erstwhile BPL Mobile (now Vodafone) in Kerala and offered to market its SIM to campus students, if the company agreed to custom design its offerings.

“Most of the innovation that you see in the telecom space today, such as per second billing, closed user groups (for prepaid), free SMS and discount schemes, were first brought into the public domain by BPL, for the subscribers they got through us,” says Francis.

Some 14,000 SIMs were sold and the trio earned Rs 8 lakh. Having tasted success with their first big-time commercial venture, they decided to plunge wholeheartedly into the telecom domain.

Half the earning proceeds from BPL Mobile was pooled in for the first venture Torque, a partnership firm providing value-added services (VAS) for cell phones. In 2005, it became the first company to be incorporated in Thiruvananthapuram’s Technopark.

Their first few recruits were made to aggregate regional content, retail short-text messages in bulk and set up out-dialler services for mobile operators in the State. BPL Mobile came on board as the anchor customer.

In December 2006, Torque raised about half-a-million dollars from the US-, Dubai- and India-based angel investors. The firm was rechristened MobMe, with Vijaykumar (28) and Joy (27) as Joint Chief Executive Officers and Francis as Chief Operating Officer.

Since then, MobMe has branched out into network solutions and mobile governance space, in addition to VAS. Today, it caters to Vodafone, Bharti Airtel and Aircel in the VAS space. It has also executed projects in enterprise solutions and mobile governance for state governments and government-owned entities in Kerala, Nagaland and Goa.

The initial going was not easy. Given the demand for engineers in India, retaining talent was hard for a start-up. “We managed to get good talent through referrals from fellow employees. Since we were known in the campus circles in Thiruvananthapuram, we could get other college students to work for us,” says Francis.

Client acquisition was another major challenge. The quest to get new deals prompted the company to shift headquarters to Kochi, the financial capital of Kerala. MobMe was seen as a strong regional player, but not as a nationwide contender in its chosen domains.

Throughout, revenue growth was consistent: From Rs 34 lakh in the first year to Rs 23 crore in 2012. Healthy EBITDA margins of 30 per cent were maintained. Barely seven years after inception, the company is now preparing for an initial public offering (IPO) to list its shares on NSE’s small and medium enterprises (SME) Exchange.

Going forward, there are several challenges facing the young entrepreneurs. Telecom operators are under profitability pressure, even as increased smartphone use makes VAS obsolete. Too many players in the VAS market also emphasises immense competition and the need to churn out new offerings at regular intervals.

However, MobMe has enough intellectual resources to bank on, both within the company and outside. Infosys Co-Chairman Kris Gopalakrishnan has been closely associated with the company since its inception in an informal, advisory role.

“Kris has been kind enough to allow us to reach out to him every time we faced a road block. His mantra has been simple: Take my advice but make your decisions,” says Francis.

MobMe has identified mobile digital signature (MDS) service as the driver for the next round of growth. The company has partnered with Dutch firm, Gemalto, and Valimo Wireless of Finland, to roll out MDS for secure financial transactions on the mobile phone.

“If everything goes as planned, MDS could be the next ID card. In fact, this has been done in a couple of countries like Denmark and Finland,” said Francis.

MDS is a new concept in India and involves acceptance by various parties such as banks, telecom operators, digital signature technology providers, SIM card manufacturers and end-users.

Francis knows that this is no easy task but is still gung-ho about the opportunity. “That’s the beauty about being an entrepreneur...To successfully do things that are considered impossible by others,” he adds.

Published on March 23, 2013
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