Sunday 28 May 2017

One lightbulb moment... now all is Brite

Alan Coleman turned his frustration over confusing bills into a global software firm. He tells Sean Gallagher how he managed that miracle

Alan Coleman of Brite:Bill. Photo: David Conachy
Alan Coleman of Brite:Bill. Photo: David Conachy
Sean Gallagher

Sean Gallagher

If you have ever received a bill from your mobile-phone provider or utility company which you didn't fully understand, then this week's story will help make you feel like you are not alone.

In fact, according to Alan Coleman, co-founder and CEO of Brite:Bill, some 40pc of people who receive such bills end up calling their provider to seek clarification on some aspect of it.

Set up in 2010, along with co-founder Jim Hannon, Brite:Bill already employs more than 90 staff and has an annual turnover of over €12m. Fifty of their staff are based in Dublin while the remainder are spread across the company's offices in London, Madrid, Toronto, Kansas and San Francisco.

"We develop software that helps our client companies improve their billing communications with their customers," Alan tells me as he welcomes me to Brite:Bill's contemporary new offices on Dublin's Grand Canal Street.

"Bills have traditionally been seen as static, cold notifications or demands for payments. However, using our specifically designed software - and operating across all platforms of communication including printed bills, online and mobile - companies can now transform the way they present and manage their billing so as to make these communications with their customers more positive, engaging and customer-centric."

The company uses the latest in analytics-based technology to create bills that are easy for customers to understand and which they will pay without the need to call the service provider's helpline or customer-contact centre.

"In the US, it costs a company $10 every time a customer calls their helpline, so it makes absolute sense to prevent this type of needless activity," Alan explains.

In only five years, the company has built up an impressive list of national customers. Most are well-known names in the telecoms sector such as Eir, Virgin and Vodafone. However, 90pc of revenues now come from exports to large international clients such as Tele2, in the Netherlands, T-Mobile in Germany, Rogers in Canada and Sprint in the US.

"Currently, there are more than 25 million individual bills, worth in excess of $5bn, processed every month around the world on the Brite: Bill platform," says Alan proudly.

"We are also due to sign our largest ever customer in the US in the near future and this will double the number of bills being processed to over 50 million - or $10bn per month," he adds.

Pulling out some samples of bills, Alan explains how his company's software can design the bill so that it explains to the customers anything that is non-standard.

"The idea is to get this information in front of the customer so that they understand it before they become frustrated with an aspect of the bill that they don't understand - triggering a call to the service provider's contact centre," he explains.

For example, a customer might have signed up for a new mobile-phone package at €39.99 per month - but when they receive their first bill, they discover to their frustration and annoyance that the bill is for €59.99.

Instead of having to ring the contact centre for an explanation, the Brite:Bill platform picks up the variance and explains to the customer that, as they signed up in the middle of a month, the bill relates to a six-week period rather than a month - and reassures customers that their bill will return to the standard fee, as agreed, in their next bill.

Customers often struggle, too, where companies use different names for the products they sell compared to what actually appears on their bills.

"Such inconsistency can lead to confusion among customers," he explains. "If a person orders a family fibre package for their home but later receives a bill that refers to a charge for a 50mb broadband and landline offering, they struggle to connect this to what they actually ordered because the provider has not made mention of either family or fibre in their communication.

"The tendency is again for the customer to ring the company's helpline for clarification, leading to added frustration on the part of the customer and added cost for the service company.

"The large US firm with whom we hope to start working with shortly spends over a half-a-billion dollars every year answering queries about their bills. Our software will help drive that down," insists Alan.

It's certainly been an exciting journey for the young man who grew up in Howth and who never set out to become an entrepreneur.

After school, Alan studied Computer Science in UCD (at which, by his own admission, he was terrible), but he managed to scrape through. Later, when studying for his Masters in Business at Smurfit Business School, he realised that he had finally found his niche. Already technically conversant, the application of technology in a business context would form the foundation for his next career steps as well as the eventual establishment of his own business, Brite:Bill.

His first job was with the investment bank Morgan Stanley in London, where he helped traders get the most out of the technology they were using. In 1999, he returned to Dublin where he joined a start-up, Macalla Software, that specialised in connecting mobile-phone companies to banks for the purposes of allowing customers to automatically top up their phone credit.

"The four years I spent there were exciting and formative for me. I got to travel the world meeting customers and dealing with venture-capital companies," says Alan.

"I grew to love the freedom and the entrepreneurial aspects of working in a small company and began, for the first time ever, to consider setting up my own business."

However, the downturn that followed the 9/11 tragedy led him to join Accenture, where he worked for the next seven years, helping customers achieve better deals from their hardware and software suppliers. "During my time in Accenture, I was always exploring new ideas that might allow me to start my own business," Alan recalls. "It was the classic case of thinking about a problem that, in my opinion, needed to be fixed and coming up with potential solutions."

He had been travelling a lot by then and found paying bills difficult. The more he studied it, the more he realised that many people experienced difficulties in understanding their bills.

"Some people explained how they would get annoyed with the service provider as a result, with some ending up switching service provider altogether," says Alan. "From the service provider's position, this was resulting in customer 'churn' - all due to their poor or ineffective billing communications."

Alan focused his attention on the mobile-phone market, which seemed to be the perfect fit. Having won business initially from Eircom (now Eir), he went on to secure contracts with Vodafone and UPC (Virgin Media). His big breakthrough came when he landed T2 in Holland and Rogers in Canada.

"That was the moment of scale," enthuses Alan. "From there, we were able to land Sprint, the third or fourth-largest operator in the US, and we have grown rapidly ever since."

What are his plans for growth?

"Last year alone we grew by over 300pc and this year we expect to double our turnover," responds a calm but confident Alan. "With between 400 million and 500 million monthly bills being generated in the US by telecom companies alone, we are really only scratching the surface of the possibilities in this market. And that's before we extend into other markets such as healthcare, financial services and utility companies."

While he never set out to become an entrepreneur, Alan has become an exceptionally successful one. Now, as he seeks to expand his company even further, one can only conclude that the future looks bright for Brite:Bill.

For further information, see www.britebill.com

Alan's advice for other businesses

1 Best way to learn is on the job

"Become comfortable with learning on the job - in real time. While I don't know how to do it myself, I do think running a business is like learning to surf: you can study as much as you like about it while sitting on the beach - but it's only by actually surfing and getting hit by waves that you become proficient at it."

2 A.B.C - (Always Be Closing)

"Sales and business development is the life blood of every firm. Alex Baldwin's character in Glengarry Glen Ross, reinforces this point, highlighting the need that in business, you must always be closing a sale. If you're not selling, you will not have the monies to sustain and grow your business."

3 Hire others who put you to shame

"In sport, you have to pick the right team if you want to win - and it's the same if you want to be successful. This involves surrounding yourself with people who put you to shame because of their talent. This is especially true if you are a small company trying to take on much larger ones in your sector."

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