In 2006, at a time when most Irish people were running around throwing everything they had into property, Mark Roden decided to put US$3m into a mobile technology start-up called Ezetop. Now rebranded as Ding*, the company employs 200 people and will ring in a US$3m profit later this year.
Ding*’s HQ, which employs 150 people in Dublin 4, is the epicenter of a global mobile payments business that processes US$250m (€180m) a year worth of payments.
The company is ideally placed to become one of Ireland’s leading technology multinationals.
Ding* enables people – mostly in emerging markets – to send each other value in the form of phone credit across the world within three seconds. A giant LCD screen on the company’s walls shows payments going from Mexico to Cuba, from Dubai to Nepal, from the UK to Russia and vice versa.
Every day some 80,000 transactions are made averaging at amounts of US$1m worth of payments. Ding* gets a 10pc commission on these transactions and is likely to make revenue of between €18m and €20m this year.
Roden’s road to creating Ding* was full of ups and downs and you can tell his experiences have given him a shrewd and at times wary view on the whole start-up scene.
Roden learnt the telecoms trade under the wing of Esat Telecom founder Denis O’Brien. After Esat was sold to BT Roden set up his own company Torc Telecom which was an initial success. However, after acquiring a London-based company called World Telecom which Roden describes as “rotten to the core” Torc went into receivership a year later.
Undeterred Roden set up an ATM business called Easycash which he sold to Ulster Bank for €7m.
This gave him the liquidity to look for something new. It was while holidaying in Dubai with his family that he struck up a conversation with an Indian waiter in a coffee shop. “I asked him how he sent money home and he said generally by Western Union. Then he whipped out a mobile phone top up card from India where the Rupee price was scratched out and a 50pc more expensive Dirham price instead.
“I asked him where he got that and he showed me a small shop in the labour camp where he lived and there were calling cards from all over the world. I spoke to my pals who worked with Denis O’Brien in Digicel and he said people from Jamaica were buying Digicel cards from a shop in Brixton to top up credit in Jamaica.
“I was thinking that there were similarities between what was happening in these two different parts of the world. People were looking for a mechanism to send value home by mobile phone and so Ezetop was born.
Ezetop came into its own in the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake where people could send family members credit to ensure they could keep in touch in the ensuing chaos.
Roden balks at calling it mobile money, preferring to describe what Ding* does as enabling people to send each other value in the form of airtime.
“It’s not money because we don’t take in cash, it is airtime for the consumption on the mobile phone.
“So far over US$1bn has been invested by venture capital companies in mobile money initiatives by tech start-ups who claim to have cracked mobile money. And every year for the past six years I’ve been going to the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona and yet another company announces they’ve cracked the problem.
“The reality is mobile money immediately creates hurdles and obstacles in terms of things like proof of identity, for example. By creating these hurdles you are cutting off a significant amount of people who just want to be able to send some value home – it doesn’t have to be cash and it lets their loved ones know they are thinking of them.
“Most start-ups run out of cash before they get their product out the door. From what I can tell most of them tend to be solutions looking for a product.”
Unlike most start-ups Roden was able to put his own cash into his business and to date Ding* has not taken on venture capital investment.
“All these venture capital companies are dying to crack the mobile money problem but what I observed in Dubai was that there were workers who were earning as little as US$300 a month but who carried a mobile phone. Everne in the Caribbean, Asia, Central America and Africa carries or has access to a mobile device. So the problem of connectivity has been solved.
Make an impact
“My whole approach is that for things to make an impact they have to be immediately understood and have childlike simplicity in terms of practical usage. Airtime fulfills all of those criteria.”
Roden sees what Ding* is doing as laying down the tracks for enterprising individuals or mobile operators to layers services on top of the value that is being transmitted around the world.
Hence the term ‘Ding*’. “It sounds like what we do or the sound a phone makes when the value arrives. ‘Ding* me five dollars.’ It respnates with the service we are trying to provide.”
As well as the 150 people in Dublin, Ding* employs a further 50 people in Dubai, South America, Bangladesh, Spain and Romania.
The company’s Dublin offices have the contemporary look and feel of most born-on-the-internet companies that have located in Dublin, including a fully-fledged coffee bar with its own barista.
“We charge our employees €1 a cup of coffee. We’re not Google you know,” he deadpans.
The freedom to succeed and fail
Having invested in the business from its inception, Roden and his colleagues have a strong sense of their own destiny.
“I put US$3m into the business and funded it. Thankfully that is one of the reasons I didn’t get involved in the property market – I simply couldn’t afford to. We have taken on no outside investment whatsoever. This gives us the freedom to succeed and fail.
“I wouldn’t discount the value of external finance in terms of discipline, but we really do have the opportunity to plot a growth path and make an impact. We are profitable and we will make a US$3m profit this year.
“We have a fantastic opportunity because we are connected directly to over 300 mobile operators and they are connected to 3bn mobile phones and we can impact the daily lives of people in a meaningful way by giving them the tools to start helping themselves more.”
Looking to the future Roden sees Ding* evolving to also embrace the developed world as a consumer brand whereby people can easily send each other airtime.
“This is no back office. We are creating the potential to create a global company that is headquartered in Dublin and where people who work for this multinational can be involved in the leadership of the business right here in Dublin, rather than Silicon Valley or some place in Asia.
“I love Dublin. Working abroad gives you perspective, but it’s great to be able to come home and grow something here.”
His advice to budding young entrepreneurs is to identify other entrepreneurs who would take them under their wing and show them the ropes, much like he had with Denis O’Brien. “I joined Denis O’Brien at a very early stage and that was the best training ground that anybody could get. My advice would be find a fantastic entrepeneur and learn the ropes there.
“The road is never easy but you learn from your failures as well as your successes.
“My advice would also be to do some really hard research and get something out to the market and see if it will fly sooner rather than later.”