Business Technology

Saturday 23 August 2014

Ezetop: Mobile cash dials up a ding

A former Esat executive's €180m mobile transfer venture is months away from launch of Ding – and is in the crosshairs of none other than Facebook's CEO

Roisin Burke

Published 20/04/2014 | 02:30

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Facebook is getting into the money transfer game and online remittances in a major way, which is both a hot opportunity and devastating source of competition for financial technology and other ecommerce companies (that is, everybody, basically).

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Irish company Ezetop is a big international player in the mobile transfer market, which Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg says the social media giant is setting its sights on, especially in the developing world – also among Ezetop's key target territories.

On a giant screen at its sleek Dublin 4 headquarters, each zapping of mobile credit around the world flashes up live – how much, from where to where, what currency and for what global telecom client – Digicel, Lime, Orange and many more – more than 80,000 transactions that day.

The office is really Silicon Docks chic, with decor like the inside of a spaceship for a sci-fi film set, all gleaming white walls and sofas and floating lamps. And fantastic coffee and cakes from the in-house barista stand.

Active in Latin America, the Middle East and India, the Caribbean and west Africa, Ezetop's main business comes from expat workers sending millions of dollars worth in mobile and internet credit home to their loved ones – a kind of mobile pay version of Western Union (except Ezetop's is an almost live transfer system) through a private network connected to about 300 emerging market mobile operators, the result of five years of painstaking relationship building.

The company is keenly watching Facebook's move while launching its own new consumer service, Ding. It is just months away from launch and means it will have its own commercial profile as well as being a conduit for mobile giants. By the way, the name is intended to be resonant of the activity – a push of a button and call credit 'dings' on to a friend or relative's smartphone overseas.

Ezetop founder Mark Roden demos the prototype on his iPhone, on a Ding app that whizzes through credit in three easy moves, but he says "that's too many – we have to get it down to just like sending a text". An inhouse development geek squad is working on it.

Story boards detail emotional real life customer anecdotes, like the one about the young American soldier who fell in love and married an Afghan translator while on a tour of duty, and how back in the US Ding helps her stay in touch with her Kabul-based husband. Or the Irish guy who stayed close from afar with the gorgeous Havana girl he met on holiday in Cuba and even planned their wedding over the phone. Or the American who raised money for 38 impoverished Columbian children to go to school and keeps up with their progress through Ding. You get the idea.

The non-emotional highlights are that the company will have processed €180m worth of mobile phone top-ups by the end of 2014. Its commission on transfers is 10 per cent, so revenues are in the €18m ballpark. Profits were close to €1m last year and this year they will more than treble to between €3m and €4m.

It has agreements with many of the world's biggest telcos and hordes of clients among big diasporas: from Cubans in Florida to Haitians in New York to west Africans in London – huge country-population sized diasporas 'dinging' call and data credit back home.

There are regional competitors in various markets but Roden says Ezetop is dominant across all major territories.

Roden got his start with telecoms tycoon (and INM stakeholder) Denis O'Brien at Esat, where he was one of the first employees, setting up and running its sales division and later netting close to €9m when it was sold to BT. He set up Torc Telecom after that, which folded following the dotcom bubble burst. He then started an ATM business Easycash and made about €7m when it was sold to Ulster Bank. Then he started Ezetop.

The company was funded by an initial €3m investment from Roden and there are no other outside backers aside from multimillionaire internet entrepreneur Ray Nolan, who holds a small stake and is a director.

Facebook isn't the only tech giant to be seeking big play in emerging markets, others, including Google are rushing to develop mobile payment platforms. Tencent, China's biggest internet company and Alibaba, a massive Chinese Ebay/Amazon type hybrid, are working on mobile pay platforms and, of course, Vodafone and other telecoms are all over the mobile epay space.

The onslaught of (Facebook owned) WhatsApp, Viber, Skype and Apple's Facetime must surely also impact on business but Roden points out that mobile internet data still has to be paid for in the same way.

There has been, says Roden, "heavy" outside investor interest and approaches but no plans to sell. "We have an opportunity to do something really special here, we want to see it through."

Two years ago a private equity funding round that Roden decided ultimately not to proceed with valued the business at about $100m (about €72m).

In operation since 2006, Roden would say that with the advances in mobile and mobile pay, really things are just getting started for the company. Ezetop employs 150 staff in Dublin and is hiring again, competing over a small but high-calibre talent pool in Dublin's techland.

The heart of Ireland's fintech nerve centre

Conventional banking being completely useless at most stuff – especially at providing easy and quick money transfers – has meant that wizard financial technology companies have been able to jump into the breach with better solutions.

Ireland is at the heart of that fintech revolution and here are just some of the key players doing us proud.

Fenergo

Chaired by former Norkom boss Paul Kerley, Fenergo specialises in helping corporates negotiate through the reams of financial regulatory red tape and is backed by €4m from Investec and others.

Fexco

A veteran Irish financial company, it was founded in 1981 in Kerry and provides foreign exchange and other money transfer services worldwide.

Fintrax

A global Vat-back company founded and then sold by Galwegian Gerry Barry for €170m following a bidding frenzy. Its special money-transfer technology was a key attraction.

First Derivatives

Providing services to capital market companies, rapidly growing First Derivatives employs over 900 staff across 10 offices located in the cities of each of the major world financial markets.

Fineos

Fineos provides financial software services for insurance companies and government agencies for claims processing all over the globe and its technology is used by thousands.

Monex

Foreign currency transaction business Monex was set up by former Fexco executive Frank Murphy. Valued at around €100m, big contract customers include Hertz and it handles a staggering €23bn worth of transactions a year.

Realex

Finally an Irish fintech that doesn't start with 'F'. As well as providing payments services to big corporates like Paddy Power and GlaxoSmithKline, Realex is taking the consumer money transfer world by storm, having launched a new product that allows money to be zapped from person to person through a mobile in seconds.

Sunday Indo Business

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