Pat Phelan: butcher, blogger, mobile market-maker

6 Apr 2010

‘Blogger of the Year’ Pat Phelan’s global roaming empire is in rude health and he fully agrees with Google CEO Eric Schmidt’s conviction that everything about the internet going forward should be viewed ‘mobile first’.

For a man who has access to every manner of mobile gadget before anyone else – the iPad, netbooks from Nokia, the latest mobile internet device from Sony-Ericsson, Nokia’s regrouped future devices – Phelan travels light with his trusty Nexus One.

He walks cheerfully into the offices, slugs a cup of coffee and mesmerises with an all-encompassing conversation from start-ups, gossip on who’s doing what in the Valley and of course, the mobile internet.

His love affair with blogging and Twitter is a tempestuous one. It lives, it flourishes, it dies, it’s rekindled and it flourishes again. The ‘Blogger of the Year’ accolade he picked up at the recent Irish Blog Awards clearly delights him, but after three goes at the title he mutters dryly: “About time, too.”

Having built a global business that encompasses more than 230 countries, Phelan has two ambitions beyond Cubic Telecom: he would love to be a venture capitalist and mentor start-ups and, if he has the time, may become a cobbler. Yes, making shoes. He loves his shoes.

Pat Phelan’s background

Phelan has had a varied career path. Despite gaining eight honours in the Inter Cert, he arrived home with his results in hand to be told by his dad he was to start his apprenticeship as a butcher. A few years later he embarked on a career as a chef.

His true vocation is clearly technology; he lives and breathes mobile and social media. Cubic Telecom was founded in 2005 to develop a range of products for both mobile and home phones, as well as its own virtual carrier network. In 2007, the company raised €5m to fuel a global expansion and the company has offices in Portugal and Canada.

Its MAXRoam SIM card enables mobile phone users to make low-cost calls anywhere in the world and the company has struck deals in a number of verticals that enable users to make calls on land, at sea and in the air. Indicative of the direction the company is taking, its MAXRoam division last year forged a €10m partnership with global maritime charity Mission to Seafarers to provide voice and data packages to 1.7m seafarers at the 250 Mission to Seafarer ports around the world.

“It’s a diamond of a business and we’ve a diamond of a team,” Phelan says.

From kitchen to IT

Phelan’s true calling became apparent when he decided to change direction from the life of a chef; the uptake of blogging was near accidental. “I went to Cork IT and there was an event there and a guy called Shel Israel spoke and I thought this stuff is amazing and Tom Raftery also spoke, and this was long before Twitter. I started reading Shel’s blog and a book called ‘Naked Conversations’, the book he wrote with Robert Scoble, and thought this blogging thing is amazing, what a way of getting our message out there, it’s going to revolutionise the world.

“Shel gave me a hand to start blogging. So I said I’m in this mobile market and telephony and I can write all about that. And he said: ‘No, that’s not what you write about at all. Write about where I came from. I want the story, I want Pat Phelan.’ And so I wrote about 30 blogs on who am I and where I came from and what makes me tick.”

As well as blogging, Phelan is a self-confessed Twitter addict. It’s almost predictable that he will tweet that he’s passing the Rock (of Cashel) on a Friday evening, usually around 5pm.

I put it to him that Twitter may have impacted on the art of the blogger. He agrees. “You know what Twitter does – besides being very entertaining – it actually spoils my blogging skill. Because I’ll find a really nice, interesting piece and I’ll right click, hyperlink, shorten the URL and write 140 characters about it and I’ve just lost the blog. OK, so 4,000 people will see it on Twitter, but I’ve just lost a really good blog and I’ve started to think about that a bit more and actually decided this year to try harder with the blog and now I am trying harder and am writing a bit more.”

He is fascinated by the rise of virtual markets as evinced by gaming firms like Zynga and the US$300m a year it is making from people buying virtual goods, like tractors on FarmVille and guns for Mafia Wars. “I don’t subscribe to it but see it as an enormous market. If you can make something that costs zero and sell it for X, that’s a good business model.”

Pat Phelan’s interest in radio

Phelan’s fascination with all things digital goes back to the first consumer computers of the 1970s and 1980s, like the Sinclair ZX81. “After that I was into CB radio and then it was ham radio, it was all leading to this. You know, you could kinda say that Twitter is CB radio and ham radio is more blogging in terms of longer conversations and longer forms. It was always there but nowadays, the stuff you would dream about isn’t there anymore, it’s all this instant gratification. It was like the attack in Moscow the other day, I needed to have all the information lined up, know everything about it rather than say, ‘I’m going to read about that when I go home.’

“Even my newspaper habits – I used to buy a lot more – but it’s not that I don’t read as much, I actually read way more than I used to, I really love the FT Weekend. Saturday, in my house, I head into town and buy a couple of newspapers, maybe download a book on the Kindle, but the FT Weekend I absolutely love, Magazine and My House, it’s a really great old-style in-your-hand paper. Things can move on all you like but I like reading newspapers and reading virtual.”

I had to ask then what Phelan thinks that electronic book readers like the Amazon Kindle, the Sony Reader and the arriving iPad will do to books and newspapers.

“I have the Kindle, and I’m a good judge. I’m a book lover. I’ve the Kindle, but I still buy newspapers and I still buy books, I just think that feel in your hand, nothing replaces that page turner. I also like reading thrillers at the weekend and there’s an author called Lee Childs and his new book was released this week and I can get it there and then. It’s instantaneous. I don’t have to go to Easons and ask when it’s coming; I can click one button and it’s delivered to this piece of plastic and I can read it in bed at night.”

Pat Phelan on e-readers

Electronic readers, he opines, could replace the 21-kilo schoolbag and equalise, if not revolutionise, education around the world, making it cheaper and easier for cash-strapped parents to provide for their kids’ education.

The mobile revolution, Phelan believes, will truly bring personal computing to every person on the planet, unleash a panoply of new business models and make the world a better place.

“I think I’m finally starting to see after thinking about it for the last four or five years that your mobile phone will become your wallet. With near field communications you’ll be able to wave your phone to pay for things. Money transfer is going to be incredible. I can send you money from anywhere from my mobile. It’s going to explode when you can tie your phone to your bank account.”

At the Mobile World Congress recently, Schmidt proclaimed that everything Google will do going forward will be through a ‘mobile first’ lens. Phelan agrees with this approach and believes Android-based device sales are already starting to overtake iPhone sales.

“There will be 50 Google Androids on the market this year and rumour has it that a high-end sub-US$99 Android device will hit the market this year.

“The one thing that’s very interesting – I’m using the Nexus One – as the screens get bigger, the battery life is getting worse and we’re not seeing anyone come out with new battery technologies. I just think there’s all this speed and effort going into apps and development, we’re forgetting about the battery.”

Nokia, he believes – and he loves his E72 – is the only company currently making mobile batteries that can go the distance.

The next 1bn people to come on the internet will be through mobile devices and he thinks the developing world holds not only the promise of more markets but certainly a vibrant base for future innovation. “There’s some very interesting stuff at the moment in Africa around mobile phone charging stations, very interesting stuff. Africa is way ahead of us on mobile, look at in Kenya, money transfer has been there for two years now.

“I hope the next big thing will come from an African company, you’re seeing some mean stuff and Indian farmers using SMS now for fish prices and market prices and they don’t have to travel 100 miles to nearest city, knowing they’re going to get a bad price for their crops when they get there. Nokia are very behind this.”

While Phelan admires the iPhone – “the iPhone has the best UI, no way around it” – he believes we’re going to get to the point where Android smart-phone sales will overtake the iPhone. “I think we’re at the moment – AdMob, the world’s biggest mobile advertising platform showed charts where the searches from these devices are matching now.

“Apple made one mistake and Google capitalised on that perfectly. Apple brought out a phone and carriers had to fight for it. Google just brought out an operating system and said to phone manufacturers – take it.”

The powerful technology that sits on the latest smart-phone devices clearly impresses Phelan. “Google’s Goggles is amazing. I was in town last week and I took a picture of a shop with my Nexus One, and I could not believe it. Immediately, a search came back and gave me opening hours, closing hours, website, domain, everything. Just from a picture.”

Returning to the subject of blogging, Phelan is clearly delighted to have been honoured by his peers and he believes the blogging community in Ireland has a pretty special dynamic. “Three years trying, I’d say I wore them down. It was so nice to get it because blogging was the start for me and blogging is still there. It’s a community, I mean you know just to see it in Galway the other night, 400 people, all in one room and everybody getting on a bit, having pints. Everyone came from Dublin, Cork, wherever, just checking in.”

The state of blogging

I asked Phelan for a prognosis on the state of blogging today. “I think it’s very strong and it’s coming back a lot because a lot of people are out of work as you know. One of the … I can’t say there’s anything good about a recession … but the one thing is a recession has moved to create entrepreneurs and blogs and entrepreneurs go hand in hand in my opinion. And I think we’re going to see a lot more entrepreneurs and bloggers.

“I don’t believe that Pat Phelan, or Cubic Telecom or MAXRoam would be where they are without blogging.”

He is perturbed however that people are attending courses on how to use Twitter, which he thinks misses the entire point.

“I think Twitter now has become a kind of marketing farm. Seriously, there are people in Dublin today charging for Twitter advice. I’m no rock star but I don’t need Twitter advice for 140 characters.”

Before Cubic Telecom, Phelan ran his own internet cafe chain and cemented this by building his own callshop and internet cafe software which is still in use by 100 cafes worldwide.

He is an astute observer of the impact of the internet on society and believes, with reason, it could give people opportunities that wouldn’t have come their way.

“My first internet business was internet cafes and I was paying €2,500 for a PC; no one had laptops. Today, you can pay 20 quid a month for broadband from 3 or Meteor and buy a small netbook for €250.

“So for very little money people can be connected to the world. My address book came from that blog and that internet and that bit of neck and those people I shouldn’t otherwise have access to.

“I remember being on ham radio and my first call was to Long Island and that was in 1981 or 1982 and Long Island came back and spoke to this tiny little radio I had and I said: ‘Wow, there’s a world out there.’

“And that’s kinds the same now, I still get that excited about new stuff, I really do, and people show me the new stuff.

“The only thing is I kinda know faster now if it’s incredible or sad or whatever,” he laughs.

By John Kennedy

Photo: Businessman and ‘Blogger of the Year’ Pat Phelan

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years