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Ding rings all the right bells as it targets staff who'll open new doors

Phone top-up company has set its sights on new opportunities as it hires high-end operators who will help take it to the next level and see it expand in secondary markets, writes Adrian Weckler


Ambition: Ding CEO Mark Roden feels the company can move into new markets as it looks to expand. Photo: David Conachy.

Ambition: Ding CEO Mark Roden feels the company can move into new markets as it looks to expand. Photo: David Conachy.

Ambition: Ding CEO Mark Roden feels the company can move into new markets as it looks to expand. Photo: David Conachy.

IT'S axiomatic that some firms prosper, some go bust and a great many simply run as a going concern.

But there is a small number of Irish companies that still get talked about as ones with 'potential', even when they're 10 years old and bringing in millions.

Ding, the Dublin-based firm that lets people top up their mobile phone credit, may fall into this category.

The company, founded by Mark Roden, has done pretty well to date. It has annual revenue of €38m based on more than €500m of phone top ups through its system. These come via deals with more than 500 mobile operators and availability through 600,000 retail outlets.

But talk to anyone in the Irish tech industry and it's still discussed as something yet to see its finest day. Roden himself sets this tone, saying it hasn't quite fulfilled its ambition.

"We're connected to four billion people, but I think we should be doing a bit better to be honest," he says.


"I mean look at the number of operators we're connected to."

A top-up phone service gets you into millions of service relationships. In theory, it could open up a half-dozen major lateral opportunities. But Ding hasn't really seized any of these options, Roden says. Some of the potential next steps, such as peer-to-peer payments, are best avoided, he adds. But he still feels there's more to the company's future than what it's doing now.

For a while last year, Roden thought that what was needed was a big funding round, possibly to drive scale. Ding has only once taken external money, choosing an AIB investment of €14m in 2017 over venture capital or private equity. Perhaps it wasn't enough, he thought, telling 'Sunday Independent' journalist Fearghal O'Connor that he was thinking of looking for around €50m from a new source.

Today, he's a lot less interested in growing the company through a mega funding round.

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"The problem with finance and private equity guys is that they often have a vision for your business that might not always be the best thing for the business," he says.

One of the common requests from venture capitalists, he says, was to enter the big money arena of remittances and direct transfers.

"Lots of the capital and private equity people were saying, you know, maybe you could plug into that, like Transferwise or a Revolut," says Roden.

"But I've always felt that we're too late for that game. It's an area that's well populated by unicorn companies. And I never felt that we should start trying to complete mega rounds. Instead, I preferred the approach that we have. To target secondary markets, identify a strong position and get really big. I think we still have some way to go in that."

This difference in opinion over what the company should do wasn't the only reason for Roden to walk away from cash-fuelled expansion.

After doing some forensic analysis of what the company's real prospects were and what they needed to do, he faced up to the hard fact that they don't yet have a full team to expand the company.

"I brought in a consultant to look critically at our organisation, at why we haven't achieved the kind of success we should have. In terms of where we need to go to, we identified areas that we felt we needed to populate. We have a great team for what we're doing now, but not for what we might want to do in the future."

The result, he says, has been to shelve plans for a big new funding round and to go after high-end staff instead, especially outside Ireland.

"I've spent the last 12 months on a bit of a hiring spree," he says. "We've opened an office in London to be able to attract the people who like the sound of what we're doing but are not going to move to Dublin. It's been very important to get that office open."

An early result for Ding is the recruitment of Docomo Digital's vice-president for strategic partnerships, Rupert Shaw. Ding also recently took on a new chief technology officer, a former director of engineering at Hubspot's Irish office, Barbara McCarthy.

"We're starting to put together the pieces that are going to take us to the next stage," says Roden.

But just what is this next stage?

Roden says that the company is going to expand some of the new things that have landed in its lap.

"One of the most interesting partnerships we've done is with Careem, which is a ride-hailing app based in the Gulf, started by a few guys who want to create the Uber of the Gulf."


Careem is a ride-hailing app based in the Gulf. (Matt Alexander/PA)

Careem is a ride-hailing app based in the Gulf. (Matt Alexander/PA)

Careem is a ride-hailing app based in the Gulf. (Matt Alexander/PA)

Careem lets drivers take cash and, if there's change, to let the drivers put the balance on the customer's Careem account.

"When people are taking a cab ride, why not top up their phone? So now we're the exclusive provider of mobile phone top up to everybody in 19 countries on Careem."

Over the next 12 months, Roden says, Ding is going to focus on partnership deals like this.

"Anything in emerging markets has to acknowledge that you can't just say we're all going to have a digital currency and not going to accept cash," he says.

One thing that Roden is clear on is that Ding's primary market will remain emerging markets and 'second world' countries.

It's these markets, from South America to Africa to parts of Asia, where topping up a phone is a significant part of a phone customer's weekly or monthly financial activity. It's also common for people working away from their families to remotely top up their phones.

But in looking at the company's long-term prospects, isn't the advance in the availability of wifi around the world a threat to this business model?

"I was really concerned about that a couple of years ago," says Roden. "It's also something that has come up when talking to prospective investors who have a 10-year horizon. But the reality is that somebody is going to have to pay for that [wifi]. And despite all the [Google] Loon and Facebook projects with gliders circling the globe, we haven't really seen any tangible evidence that there is going to be ubiquitous wifi across the globe.

"There'll be parts of Africa and India that will never have wifi. Indonesia too. You can see that there's still going to be a substantial amount of the world that won't have wifi."

Roden also says that there is some evidence of Ding expanding beyond its targeted secondary markets scope.

"One out of every three top ups on ding.com now is somebody in the UK or Italy or the UAE, topping up their own phone. We weren't even looking for that business."

Roden isn't focusing on much else outside Ding. He is involved with some investment advice groups, such as Endeavour, which "provides support system for high-impact entrepreneurs". In this, he is joined by U2's guitarist, The Edge, and a number of industrialists, including Denis O'Brien.

But the founder of Torc Telecom (which crashed and burned) and Easycash (sold to Ulster Bank for €7m) says he has little by way of other new investments going on. For the foreseeable future, it's all about Ding.

"Ding is a top-up company," he says. "But we're entering new directions. And it's down to the people who are joining the company."

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