Tech start-up of the week: FoneSense

13 Oct 2013

Lorraine Byrne, business analyst, and Christian Ryder, founder and CEO, FoneSense

Our tech start-up of the week is FoneSense, a new mobile-advertising platform that allows brands to reward mobile-phone users for selecting and using a branded advertising jingle as their ringtone. Christian Ryder, who hails from Arklow, Co Wicklow, is the brain behind the app.

FoneSense is currently available on the Android Play Store, with the app also in beta testing at the minute.

“We do not have an iOS version at the moment,” explains Ryder. The reason for this, he says, is because the target audience for FoneSense is generally those aged in the 13-25 year-old bracket.

And, the emerging markets for mobile phones – think the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China) countries are another target market for Ryder and the team at FoneSense.

As well as Ryder, Lorraine Byrne works as a business analyst with the start-up, while there are a couple of developers who work remotely. And Aislinn Mahon has recently joined FoneSense to do sales and marketing.

That’s because FoneSense is on a mission to scale up fast, and the aim is to officially launch in early 2014, according to Ryder.

The start-up was just recently accepted onto the Wayra accelerator for early stage ventures in Dublin, also with nine other start-ups.

“We will be in Wayra for the next nine months,” Ryder explains. As part of this, FoneSense will avail of €40,000 in funding as well as strategic business advice and sales and marketing advice from the mentoring team at Wayra.

“We also recently got €50,000 from Enterprise Ireland via the Competitive Start Fund,” Ryder explains.

“FoneSense is also in the process of signing up a number of angel investors.”

And, a few days ago the start-up was revealed as one of the 30 start-ups finalists for the ESB Spark of Genius competition, which will take place at the Dublin Web Summit later this month.

How does FoneSense work?

Well, it’s all about putting the user of the app in control, Ryder explains.

The main target audience for FoneSense is students, ranging from those in secondary school to third and fourth level.

He says they install the app, chose a ringtone and then they will get paid every time their phone rings. There will be banner ads, and users can opt to set up an account with such a brand in order to avail of offers.

That’s where the monetisation aspect comes in, both for the FoneSense start-up, and for the users of the app.

FoneSense will retain commission from each advertising campaign budget.

FoneSense has carried out a trial with students in the 13-15 year-old bracket, and generally they are gleaning around €5 in free call credit each month, Ryder says.

As part of the market-testing trial, he says that 68pc of the users who dabbled with the FoneSense platform ended up using it for more than a month.

“And 86pc of those who clicked on a banner ad actually set up an account with that brand.”

Genesis of the start-up

So a bit more about the founder, and how it all began for FoneSense.

Ryder, who hails from Arklow in Co Wicklow, is a graduate from Waterford Institute of Technology (WIT), says the idea came to him for his business back in 2006 while he was sitting in the library of WIT studying for his final-year exams in commercial software.

He overheard someone’s phone ringing and ringing, while they were away from their desk in the library. And it occurred to him that you could make money from your mobile phone ringtone.

Ryder then parked his idea for a while, and then took up a number of roles in industry.

He worked for the Telecommunications Software & Systems Group (TSSG) in Waterford as well as at Ericsson, GBR Direct and Elavon before starting to work on FoneSense.

And, despite being a recent graduate, he soon climbed the ranks.

“In GBR Direct (Global Business Register) I was a tech lead on a site seal project called GlobalSign Passport.”

All the while, though, FoneSense was on his mind.

“I was thinking it over two years, doing different versions and trying to tease it all out.”

Fast-forward to 2008. When the first Android platform came out, Ryder promptly got on a plane to Washington, D.C. in the US to pick up the G Mobile (G1). That’s because the phone was not available in Ireland.

“I brought it home and then we had to try figure out how to unlock it. As the SIM card was network-blocked, you just had three attempts.”
And he succeeded in unlocking the phone, with some online help, of course.

“We then started looking at the code work to see if it was practical to do what we wanted to do. So we built a basic version of the platform,” he explains.

“Back then all it did was when you would answer a call the ringtone would play.”

He says his mother would not speak to him for six weeks when he decided to give up his steady job to start a new ventures, but it’s all good now!

Where it’s at

And now FoneSense has evolved to suit the different iterations of Android.

As for Wayra, he says that so far the experience has been “amazing”. “There is a really cool start-up vibe in the office and both Karl Aherne and Gavan Drohan, as well as the mentors they bring in for workshops, are fantastic to work with.”

And Ryder says the plan is now to bring on new hires, especially as FoneSense is upping the ante in terms of sales and marketing.

And the ultimate goal?

“Create a global business that puts a new spin on mobile advertising,” Ryder says.

Oh, and finally, there’s also a social-enterprise aspect to FoneSense. Users can also opt to donate their free call credit to a charity of their choice, via the app.

Carmel Doyle was a long-time reporter with Silicon Republic