Business Irish

Thursday 20 September 2018

Onto a sure Ding: phoning home proves a global success

Mark Roden is on a high after scooping Entrepreneur of the Year, and his start-up, Ding, is growing at a rate of knots. He tells Donal Lynch about where it all went right

Entrepreneur of the Year: Mark Roden. Illustration by Jon Berkeley
Entrepreneur of the Year: Mark Roden. Illustration by Jon Berkeley
Donal Lynch

Donal Lynch

On a giant screen in the middle of Ding's sleekly modern offices in Ballsbridge, comet-like trails flash every few milliseconds across an oversized map of the globe. Each streak represents an amount of phone credit transferred from one country to another. The comets flash fore and aft at bewildering pace but the Arabian Gulf is the site of a particular explosion of activity. The hordes of low-paid Indian labourers who live and work there can not get phone credit out of the country fast enough. The numbers - all relatively small amounts - blur together into millions of dollars. This is a live snapshot of the activity of Ding and Mark Roden, newly minted Entrepreneur Of The Year, surveys it all with the twinkle-eyed satisfaction of a movie star at a telethon.

"Look at the size of the amounts," he exclaims. "Our average value is 10-12 dollars, but we are transferring a million dollars a day. Why are they doing it? Why do they need to do it? Isn't that fascinating? This map shows the figures but it doesn't show the human story."

There is something intensely emotional about the motif of phoning home: the cinema hit of the 80s - the decade when Roden began his career - was probably ET. And the emotions behind the map might be an important place to begin for Roden because it was, after all, a human story that made him understand the enormous potential in mobile credit transfer. During a visit to Dubai several years ago he had a chance conversation with a waiter who told him about the cumbersome process he had to undergo to buy phone credit for his wife back home. The man first had to buy call credit remotely and then text the pin for the network to his wife back home. The waiter explained to Roden that this was the best way to do things since money transfer companies like Western Union were so slow and expensive. When Roden did the currency calculation he also realised that the waiter was also being somewhat ripped off in terms of the conversion rate. "That conversation was one of the first steps in helping me understand that as mobile phones were becoming more widely available and affordable, people would need to be empowered to get value home quickly," he explains.

In 2006 Roden began setting up what would eventually become Ding. A part of building the company's momentum was down to nascent technology: the iPhone was still a twinkle in Steve Jobs's eye and the notion of using a mobile phone as a credit transfer device was still alien (today transfer on iOs and Android mobiles account for nearly half the company's revenue). But there were other teething issues - the activities of credit card fraudsters resulted in losses of over $700,000. Gradually things started to move into place for Roden's newest baby, however. After the earthquake in Haiti in 2010 the company processed a deluge of transactions for worried Americans trying to get in touch with relatives on the Caribbean islands and overnight the volumes being transferred surged. Today Ding has delivered $600,000 million to over 58 million phones and processed over a $1 million a day. The company has offices in Miami, Dubai, San Salvador, Bucharest and Dhaka, employs 200 people and has users in over 130 countries. Roden explains: "The way it works is that we connect first to the mobile operators in different parts of the world, then to all the retail locations in the Gulf because they use cash. As soon as the retailer is given the mobile number of the wife back in India, or whichever country he's from, he puts it into a terminal he already has in the store." Other companies were already doing this on a regional level, Roden explains, but nobody on a worldwide basis. "From day one I was determined that we would have one product for all regions, and that's still the case."

Roden grew up in Dublin, the youngest of 11, with several doctors in the family, including his father. He attended Gonzaga College in Ranelagh, where, he says, he "wasn't particularly academic." After dropping out of a dentistry degree in Trinity College, he would be 30 before he would get his first real foothold in the business big leagues. That was when he became close to the man who would become his mentor: Denis O'Brien. O'Brien had been in school with Roden's brother, an eye surgeon, and Roden and O'Brien knew each other slightly. It was a serendipitous meeting at a wedding of mutual friends in 1991 that brought them closer, however.

"Denis was always fantastically interested in what you were up to and I had spoken to him about going to business school - he was supportive and encouraging of me doing an MBA. At the wedding he asked me, 'what are you up to?' I said 'nothing much, some consulting.' He said 'do you like it?' I said 'not really.' And he said 'do you want to start a phone company, a competitor to Telecom Eireann?' It struck me as incredibly audacious."

Roden finished up his business in London and came to work in O'Brien's office in Dublin. "I came in day one and there was a folder on my desk. It contained a one-page copy from Fortune magazine - on MCI and the founder Jack Goeken - and how he exploded the monopoly on telecommunication in the States. And Denis said, 'that's what we're going to do'."

From then on in it became an attritional regulatory and legal battle, fighting for the right to connect to the US provider, Sprint. "There were many Irish-based international offices which had enormous amounts of call traffic between their Irish and US operations," Roden explains. "We targeted all of these companies. They all knew they were being ripped off and they all wanted change. What was extraordinary was they they would just give you their phone bills, that would never happen today."

Ireland had been late in implementing an EU directive which dictated that competitors to Telecom Eireann should be allowed. "It was a fanatically tough time because there was no revenue for those first years," he remembers. Eventually a letter came, from the regulator to us, written in that civil service way, with no emotion, saying you are hereby granted your licence and the number handwritten in."

It was a mortarboards in the air moment. From there ESAT had a period of rapid growth. He worked with the company in a number of different roles right up until 1997 when the company floated on the NASDAQ. "That was huge. 1994 had been the biggest day in our lives, then 95 winning the licence superseded that. Then this was the latest in a succession of great milestones. But none of them were the end."

To an outsider Roden's next move might have seemed counterintuitive - he decided to jump ship.

He left ESAT but remained on the board, keeping his shares (a move he describes as "an each-way bet") and founded a company called Torc Telecom, which in 2000 acquired the much larger World Telecom, a British provider of calling card and data services, for nearly €20 million. "The company in Dublin (Torc) was growing steadily rather spectacularly. I bought this company with the proceeds from ESAT and it turned out to be a huge mistake," he explains. "The property leases were financially demanding. The loans to the new business were heavy. It was not a good negotiation. And the employees were entitled; not good for a start-up."

He collapsed the combined entity - Torc and World Telecom - and put them into receivership. "I personally found things very demanding," he recalls. "A number of people, Denis, Leslie Buckley, my brother, had all lost money in it. Losing friends' money is not a great place to be in."

With his wife Nicola expecting their first child, Sophie, he moved back from London to Ireland and was invited by O'Brien to the Carribbean, where Digicel was launched. "I was in the crowd but it was incredible - like the start of ESAT again. Cable & Wireless was the big provider and people were dying for competition. The same competitive playbook would be used in the Caribbean."

He discussed his next move with an accountant friend, Brian Phelan. "He spoke to me about a number of different opportunities and one was cash machines in petrol stations and corner shops. It happened in America and Australia and was being rolled out in England. And I thought, 'I like the sound of that.' It was called convenience ATMs - the emphasis being on convenience, not necessarily cheaper." But then the Office of The Director of Consumer Affairs raised an objection. Roden changed the business model mid-stream and charged the stores rather than the person withdrawing the money. Ulster Bank eventually offered to buy the business and Roden took the money. "I wrote cheques to the people who had lost money. I had felt bad about it all. They tore the cheques up. They said it had been an equity investment and they expected an equity return but if that didn't work out they didn't want the money. I thought it was incredibly decent."

Roden then took some time off with Nicola and their children and travelled to Australia and Dubai. "It was a pretty grim place," he recalls, of the middle eastern country. "The hotels are fabulous but then you see where the workers live and it's awful, they call them labour camps".

Roden pulls out his phone and shows me pictures of the bleak compounds the Dubai workers live in. "A lot of them wouldn't have bank accounts," he explains. "They don't have any choice, there is no work at home for them. They send home money using remittance companies and they probably do that once a month. But what happens in the meantime? With us they can transfer two dollars and it's back home in seconds."

Ding has now delivered $600,000 million to over 58 million phones and processed over a $1 million a day. Not that he seems especially eager to gloat ("do you think it's a bit... much?" he asks of his recent media exposure) "I still don't think I've 'made it'," he adds.

To some - fools in Roden's view - 'making it' would be selling now. He gestures back to where we started - toward the 'control room' with the big screen. Like Obama he is funded on a zillion tiny dollar increments. "Look at those relative numbers - they show we're doing $1 million a day. The next objective is one million transactions a day - $10 million a day. That's what I'm very firmly focussed on right now."

 

'THE BEST GIFT I'VE GIVEN WAS TWO SHEEP'

The best career advice I've received is… to retain the commitment to keep going when it doesn't look like it's working. You might feel like giving up but you can't give in.

The worst advice has been… probably that we should sell.

The game changer for our business was… the point when we started making money. Both the board and I needed that boost of confidence.

The next big thing in my industry is… we're going to see a period where the very large social networks will consolidate and acquire their smaller competitors. That's going to bring on greater concern from regulators about market dominance. The importance of the mobile device will continue.

The best gift I've given... Two sheep for my wife's birthday as a surprise... who destroyed the garden!

The best gift I've received... An airdale Terrier called Barney for my 21st birthday.

I get my suits... sometimes in airport shops. I have a nice Hugo Boss one.

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