Return of the Ding king: top-up firm's founder maps out diversified future
Mark Roden is back in the hot seat at the phone credit company he started - and he has big plans for expansion, writes Fearghal O'Connor
A huge digital map dominates the fancy coffee hub at the nexus of Ding's swanky L-shaped quasi-Google head office in Ballsbridge.
Guests are served their coffee choice for free. Staff pay a euro. "It is good for people to know the value of things," says Ding founder and chief executive Mark Roden.
He points proudly at the animated map, where animated arrows like missiles fly from one country to another, shooting in dramatic loops across the screen every few seconds. But each arrow actually represents a cross-border act of giving between two far distant people - the fulfilment of a decidedly 21st century need: phone credit.
Four riyals worth of phone credit bought through Ding's mobile app - about a euro's worth - flies from someone's phone in Saudi Arabia to someone else's phone in Pakistan. Five dollars worth goes from the US to Mexico. A few dirhams fly across from Dubai to India. It's all small amounts, but enough to keep the recipient's phone connected to the internet and in contact with the world for a time.
As workers and migrants - and many others too - buy phone credit on the Ding app and send it to a family member or friend elsewhere in the world - usually in the Middle East, the Caribbean or Central America - seconds later an arrow lights up the map in the company's Dublin headquarters.
"The screen reminds us that we might have lovely offices with Starbucks and Butlers down the street. But the purpose of what we are doing is something really worthwhile," says Roden.
Last year, Ding transferred half-a-billion dollars worth of phone credit from senders to receivers. It has deals with 500 different mobile phone operators and in over 140 countries. Customers can buy credit to send to a friend through Ding's website or app or at 600,000 different retail outlets around the globe. With every sale - on average every three seconds - an arrow flies across the screen in Ballsbridge and Ding earns a commission of between 3pc and 10pc of the phone credit purchased.
With mobile data traffic expected to grow by 12 times globally by 2022, Roden expects Ding to also see major growth in the coming years.
"We have an ambition to hit 500,000 monthly active users by 2020," he says. He and his now 227-strong team have built a $500m-a-year revenue business. Roden, who started the company based on a conversation he had with an Indian waiter in Dubai 13 years ago, believes he can now lead the business to a whole new level.
"The stage we are at now really is the most interesting of our entire history, hence why I am back here in the company," he says.
Back in June 2017 Roden had stepped away from managing the company, handing the reins to co-founder David Shackleton.
Stepping away is not always easy. Roden did the recommended things. He took family holidays and settled down to enjoy a lot more free time. But really what he did was spend the whole year thinking about Ding. And he was not thinking about what it had already achieved but about what could make it really big.
So in July when Shackleton departed as CEO after a year in the job it was an easy decision for Roden to step back into his old role. Perhaps even a relief. Initially he announced that his role was an interim one and he began an extensive CEO recruitment search. As it turned out, he did not have to look very far.
"I spent a lot of time thinking about what was needed for the business to be really successful and my own approach to making that happen," he says. "I'd be very ambitious about what we could do and now I'm putting it up to myself to prove that."
He had met some "extraordinarily interesting people" on the CEO search in London and New York.
"But I began to think to myself about what would happen if any of them were to come into the business. It would be six months before they could get a handle on the culture, on the people in the business and on what we should do next. Well, the thing is, I know the people, I know the culture and I know what we need to do."
Over the previous year a plan had been formulating around where Ding could go next and during his year-long sabbatical Roden began to see what he saw was "a very, very big scaling-up of the opportunity". It would require someone with a lot of experience to lead the company, he believed, and, ultimately, he decided that person was him.
Back in the 1980s before the internet had turned the world on its head, it would have been impossible to imagine Roden leading a team of young, highly tech-savvy staff from 28 different countries based in a trendy office in Dublin 4.
College was like pulling teeth. Literally. After the Leaving Certificate he fell into dentistry in Trinity without having much interest in being a dentist. "My dad was a doctor. I wanted to be a doctor. I thought. I was the youngest of 11. If one of your parents is a doctor then that is what is talked about around the kitchen table, not business. So I wanted to get into medicine, but didn't get the points."
Dentistry lasted a year before he quit and joined the College of Marketing. From that he got a job in McConnells advertising agency.
"I loved it in McConnells, but after doing market research for a couple of years I had this nagging feeling that there must be more to it than this. I had a sense of what the next 10 to 15 years were going to be like if I kept going: consumer goods marketing, junior brand manager, brand manager, senior brand manager... if things went well."
The prospect was not filling him with excitement. He quit marketing and went back to business school followed by some consultancy work.
It was then, standing at a bar at a wedding in 1991, that his life changed. He bumped into Denis O'Brien, who at the time was just beginning to achieve success with 98FM.
"Do you want to start a telecoms company?" O'Brien said to him, according to Roden. "Denis, I know nothing about telecoms," he answered. "Nor do I," said O'Brien.
Roden decided immediately that he had to work with O'Brien. "It was the most extraordinary thing that he could take on what was such an established monopoly at the time. So I said 'absolutely' and we got started," said Roden.
Almost three decades on, the winning of the phone licence by Esat remains controversial. But Roden is very quick to defend how the bid unfolded and the work that he and others put in.
"Huge preparation and work went into building up Esat's credibility for five years before the licence bid came along. The bid itself was a phenomenal document. It was the right decision. 100pc."
Esat was floated on the Nasdaq in 1997 and then sold in 2000. Roden did well out of the deal, making close to €9m. He put €8m of that into another company called Torc Telecom. Things were going well until it in turn did a deal to buy World Telecom, which had gone into receivership in London.
"World Telecom was out of control. It went down in a fireball and dragged Torc down with it. We had had a very nice business in Ireland, but 12 months later we put both companies into receivership."
It was a difficult period for Roden. He had enough money left to start again in business, but his confidence had been shaken and he decided he had enough of the telecoms sector. His accountant put a number of options in front of him to invest his remaining cash and one sector caught his eye - ATMs.
"At the time, when you looked around the streets, people would stand in the rain queuing for ATMs. The banks weren't investing money into new ATMs because they said we were moving towards a cashless society. I saw an opportunity."
He invested in Easycash and 20 months later, in 2004, sold it to Ulster Bank for €7m.
"It was great to put things back on a solid footing," says Roden.
To celebrate he took his wife and three daughters for a family holiday in Dubai. While by the pool he started chatting to a waiter called Anil whose family was back in India. Anil talked about how he would send home money and pulled a phone card out of his pocket. "He would text the 14-digit pin code back to his wife and she would type it in to her own phone. It was an instant transfer of value, point-to-point, that allowed her to make calls and allowed them to stay in contact."
Roden was fascinated enough by the process to ask Anil once he had finished his waiting shift to bring him to where he had bought the phone card, stopping only long enough to tell his wife Nicola that he would be skipping dinner at one of the five-star hotel's five luxury restaurants..
"When you leave Jumeirah Beach in Dubai you can quickly go from lovely hotels to what are basically labour camps. He brought me to a dimly-lit store where the owner pulled open a big drawer with literally thousands of these phone cards from every single mobile operator in Asia. When I got back to Ireland I began to think about how we could make that global and take it out of the back-street stores and onto the web."
He spoke with tech-savvy contacts who could help him start the process of building an app and the architecture he needed. So in 2006 - when most others were thinking only of property - he started his new business. The timing was good. The economy may have been crashing but there was a big world out there that was changing fast. The first smartphone launched in 2007, followed soon by services such as WhatsApp that allowed people to make free calls - as long as they have phone credit.
"What hasn't changed at all is that waiter's desire to be in his family life at a certain moment in time by sharing some value with them. That is what we honed in on. Instead of his wife having to type in a 14-digit pin we connected directly to the mobile operators and the value goes straight on to the phone."
From the beginning Roden decided that he wanted to fund the business himself and so did not chase venture capital. "I put in a bit more and then a bit more and then maybe a bit more than I should have. Four-and-a-half years in and had it all gone wrong I would have been in trouble."
Some friends advised that Roden should cut his losses. But then, in 2010, out of something terrible, came a sign that Ding could actually make a real impact. Roden was sitting watching the huge digital map that he had already had installed in the Ding office in Dublin when all of a sudden it went black.
"I thought it was a software glitch. In fact, it was the aftermath of the Haitian earthquake. Thousands of people were sending credit via Ding to mobile phones in Haiti, but in many cases the people were buried in the quake and rescuers later spoke about the tragic sound of many phones ringing beneath the rubble.
"People often wonder in times of disaster what they can do to help. This - sending credit - was one way in which people found a very direct way of doing something for people they were close to," he says.
But it also showed Roden in a very real way the power of what Ding had created.
"I was very fortunate that we had got through that initial period without venture capital. Yes, it was risky but having got through that it did mean that we had the chance to define the direction and ultimately the length of time that we were going to explore this opportunity. Most venture capital comes from a fund which has a life of typically five years. If that had been the case Ding would be done and dusted."
In June 2017 the company had completed a review of whether or not to invite private equity into the business, deciding instead to go with a $14m investment from AIB
"I thought that was a good opportunity at the time for me to step back. People had mentioned to me about the importance of separation of roles and I decided to give that a go. I did move out of the building and I did what they encourage you to do if you are going to do separation to give people the opportunity to create their own culture and approach.
"But there is a mismatch if your entire interest and value is in one place and you are in another.
"What I found for the year was that I wasn't off investing in lots of other ventures. My entire interest and attention is with this business. So, if that is the case, it is appropriate to be here every day."
Ding's core business is credit but Roden and his team - including two or three new global business experts that are joining the top management team - are now examining the possibility of expanding into the areas of payments and data analysis.
For example, one of the things Ding is examining is whether the credit sent using its service could be used to pay a utility bill. But Roden emphasises that this is just one of a number of avenues that is to be explored and that nothing is yet decided.
"We will have a clear idea within six months," he says. "We have been a one-product company for 12 years and that has to change. We have to be more than that. What is really exciting about the next phase is how we do that. So we are not going to throw big bets and see what sticks to the wall. We are going to use the data that we have collected over years - we have hundreds of millions of phone numbers of people who have received credit. We need to be really careful and structured about what the next products are going to be. But there must be next products."
In order to do that the company will need major injection of capital, he says.
"Our desire for services is going to fuel the need for capital, which, in turn, will identify a strategic investor."
All of that, he says, will unfold over the next two years. It was previously reported that Ding would look to raise €40m but Roden said he now expects that figure could increase over the next six months.
"I would say you could comfortably say it will be north of €50m," he says.
"I don't think at the moment we will be looking at a strategic partner. In a few years time we might look at an ultimate sale of the business but we are nowhere near that stage yet. We want to build those new products and prove them because we won't get any value for it if it is just a powerpoint presentation.
"We are going to increase our scale and invest much more in Ding becoming much bigger in certain parts of the world. We can't be everywhere. We can reach tens of millions of people but only if we pick our countries and are very strategic about it."
Roden gestures around the office: "Look at where we are here in Ballsbridge. We are far away from the daily needs of our customers. One of our challenges is how to be relevant in the lives of people that we serve."
Ding, he says, already does "a pretty good job" at that.
"But," he says, leaning back in the seat he thought he had left behind for good just 18 months ago, "I'm sure we can do better."
Name: Mark Roden
Position: Founder and chief executive of Ding
Lives: Ballsbridge, Dublin
Family: Married to Nicola, three teenage daughters and one son
Education: Attended the College of Marketing and has an MBA from IMD in Switzerland.
Business inspiration: Tony Ryan, GPA Aviation
Pastimes: Running, tennis with family and following Leinster rugby
Favourite book: The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon
Favourite movie: Casino Royale or any old James Bond film
Favourite holiday destination: France or Spain (or Straffan!)
What is your favourite piece of business advice to give to others?
When running a technology business — speed always wins.
What is a big lesson you have learned during your career?
A business failure need not be the end, it’s more about what you do next.
What is the best business advice that you have been given by someone else?
“People don’t rise to the occasion, they perform according to the level of their best training” — Former England rugby coach Stuart Lancaster.
Sunday Indo Business