Ding.com enables people who are working abroad to support loved ones back home by facilitating the instant transfer of credit top-up to any mobile phone, anywhere, any time.
Mark spent his early career in a variety of marketing roles followed by an MBA at IMD, Switzerland after which he worked in management consulting for a number of years. In 1991, Mark’s commercial life changed radically when Denis O’Brien asked him to join him in establishing a competitor to Telecom Eireann, Esat Telecom. Mark worked in several roles in Esat and ultimately led commercial operations until 1997. In 1995, Esat won the second cellular licence in Ireland, listed on NASDAQ in 1997 and was sold to BT in 2000. In 1998, Mark established a calling card company, Torc Telecom. Following rapid expansion, they acquired the much larger World Telecom which ultimately led to the receivership of both companies in April 2001. A few months later, Mark established easycash which introduced in-store cash ATMs in Ireland. Despite having the highest rate of ATM usage in Europe, Ireland had the lowest average number of ATMs with banks refusing to deploy these machines as they wanted customers to use plastic instead of cash. Mark established agreements with ESSO and SPAR installing 500 cash ATMs nationwide in 18 months. In 2004, Ulster Bank/RBS acquired easycash.
In 2006, following a chance encounter with an Indian worker in Dubai, Mark founded Ding.com (formerly ezetop) to enable people from emerging markets working abroad to instantly transfer value directly to the mobile phones of loved ones back home. Ding.com is now connected to 300 mobile operators in over 100 emerging markets and has transferred $ 0.6 billion to 60 million people since its foundation. Mark has driven the success of Ding.com which has grown 3,600% in the past five years and remains committed to expanding its services to connect the next billion people and achieving real improvement in their daily lives through access to better information and data on mobile phones.
It is widely accepted that mobile phones improve the lives of people in emerging economies. However, this is only true if the mobile has credit and, in many instances, people in these countries cannot afford to keep their phones topped up. It is these same countries that are the recipients of billions of dollars every year, transferred by workers abroad through traditional money remittance channels, to support friends and families back home. However, remittances are often expensive, slow and have to be physically collected by the receiver. Mark Roden recognised that, while mobile penetration was increasing dramatically, these new owners were unable to benefit from the advanced technology because their mobile phones were often out of credit. In addition, all initiatives by both mobile operators and remittance companies to deliver a global money transfer service for mobiles were failing because of a lack of agreement on universal standards for cash transfer on mobiles, difficulties with customer adoption and regulatory concerns with adding and extracting cash on mobiles.
Drawing on his experience in telecoms, and inspired by a chance encounter with an Indian worker while in Dubai, Mark realised that the global diaspora represented a population that was already motivated and engaged in helping family back home on a regular basis. He set about delivering them the means to make it easy to send small values directly and instantly to any phone, anywhere at any time.
In 2006, Mark established ezetop to build an international top-up platform to connect workers abroad directly to mobile phones back home. Mark chose mobile phone credit as the value to be transferred because it was universally understood, it could be delivered instantly to any mobile phone and would immediately empower the individual back home by enabling them to have access to data and information. In 2014, ezetop changed its name to Ding.com.
The company is headquartered in Dublin and employs 200 people in technology, product and commercial operations. Regional offices have been also established in Miami, Dubai, Bucharest and Dhaka. The company has grown 3,600% in the past five years and has been recognised as the Deloitte Fast 50 winner in both 2012 and 2013. Since its inception, Ding.com has delivered USD$0.6bn to over 58 million phones and is currently transferring almost $1m on a daily basis directly to mobile phones across all emerging markets. Services are available at Ding.com, ezetop.com and supporting mobile apps as well as from over 450,000 retail locations across 20 countries. Key markets for people using the service include the US, Canada, UK and Dubai while key receiver markets include Cuba, Jamaica, India and Pakistan.
A critical step in building the international airtime platform was to establish direct connections with the 300 mobile phone operators in 110 emerging market countries that support over 3 billion phones. Despite the significant legal, commercial and technical challenges it presented, Mark was determined to connect directly with operators as he was acutely aware of the impact it would have on delivering a high quality service for the end user. From the beginning, the team were focused on the process of establishing strong partnerships with leading mobile operators across emerging markets where international communications was poor quality, difficult and expensive.
Ding.com was, in many instances, the first Irish company to open direct trade links with countries like Afghanistan, Nepal and Vietnam. Key operator partners include Cubacel and Digicel (Caribbean), Movistar (Latin America), Airtel (India), Roshan (Afghanistan). Still in the early stages of development, Ding.com is determined to continue the expansion of its services to connect the next billion people and to achieve a real global impact on the lives of those who need help most but whose circumstances mean that they are often marginalised. However, if they have a mobile phone they can be reached with value.
– ENTREPRENEURIAL INSIGHTS –
What vision/lightbulb moment prompted you to start-up in business?
While on holidays in Dubai in 2005, I got chatting to a waiter about how he stays in contact with his family back home in India. He described a very clunky process of purchasing a mobile top-up card for BSNL in a local shop in Dubai, and then texting the PIN code to his wife who then enters it into her mobile phone. When I asked him why he did this he said it was the ‘only way to get small value home to her instantly – using Western Union is so expensive and slow for small transactions.’ I then realised that as mobile phones were becoming available and affordable to almost everybody, here was a way to empower people abroad to get value home really fast and, because the value goes straight to the mobile, the receiver can use the phone more to access data and voice more regularly. I thought about the plight of this waiter and I said ‘there must be an easier way to do this!’
How did you secure your first investment?
I invested my own cash reserves for the entire duration of our loss making years.
What was your “back-to-the-wall” moment and how did you overcome it
Our early consumer online service was targeted by credit card fraudsters which resulted in losses of $700,000 over four months. I appointed our Head of Payments to also take charge of fraud reduction and, over a period of months, he systematically implemented measures that resulted in significant fraud reduction.
What moment/deal would you cite as the “game changer” or turning point for the company
One afternoon I was in the office looking at our top-up transaction screen which shows live transactions being sent from senders to receivers. A few minutes later, the screen just ‘lit up’ with thousands of top-ups flying endlessly from New York and Florida to Haiti. At first, I thought it was a software malfunction but in fact it was the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti as relatives in the US could not get through to their families back home. Ding.com was the only way they were able to send top-up through to mobile phones to be able to speak to them and see if they were alive. Overnight our volumes exploded and I realised the power of transferring top-up.
Were there any interesting or unusual circumstances surrounding the inception of the company or its evolution?
Back in 2006 when we were trying to get the business off the ground, the iPhone hadn’t even been launched. The idea of using mobiles as a credit transfer device was completely alien to people. But once people grasped the idea, it really took hold and now sending from iOS and Android mobiles is almost 50% of total revenues.
What are the biggest challenges you face now?
Sending mobile credit is still relatively unknown, so spreading awareness of international top-up globally is a challenge we face. We also need to build understanding of the power of international top-up and how, while it may sound like a small thing, it can have such an amazingly positive impact on the lives of those who receive it. We are also being challenged by the likes of Skype, Viber and WhatsApp who all offer services that are essentially and, for the most part, free.
What is your biggest business achievement to date?
Building our global network of 300 emerging market mobile operators – this has never been done before. It was a mammoth challenge because the mobile operators didn’t want to know at first because we were such a small company. Then we had enormous technical, legal, taxation and treasury obstacles, as well as the challenge of working with operators in some of the most difficult countries to do business in. The shoe leather and air miles to build relationships with these people have thankfully paid off.
What were the best & the worst pieces of advice you received when starting out?
Best: Keep going and be able to adapt to circumstances that are always changing.
Worst: Start an online only business when we didn’t have the right people to build and run it.
What top tips would you give entrepreneurs starting out today?
Stick with it! Solve a real problem better than anyone else. Make sure it can be defended and that the market is big enough for it to be a big business. Most importantly, make sure customers can understand it.
Were there any early signs that you would eventually follow an entrepreneurial path?
Apart from the usual selling hens eggs at our home gate when I was 9 and collecting tonnes of newspapers and then selling the paper in bulk, the pivotal entrepreneurial feeling was when I was in my first couple of jobs after college and I couldn’t help but think ‘there must be a better feeling from work’.
Has anyone acted as a mentor to you?
Straight after college it was Joe McGough of the Irish Dairy Board who had been a friend in the army, then as a lawyer and ultimately in business. Denis O’Brien is both a great friend and a fantastic mentor as well as a believer in the importance of building Ding.com into a global entity. Leslie Buckley has also been a mentor through encouraging determination and commitment to making the tough decisions and, more recently, David Hargaden has been an invaluable sounding board for me as a Chief Executive of a company scaling to become global.
Has your “Irish-ness” contributed to your success?
The Irish have a very good manner in how they do business internationally and, perhaps because we’re a nation of emigrants ourselves, I believe we have an innate respect for other cultures. Cultural understanding and awareness was incredibly important in the early negotiations with operators around the world and I would be certain that our Irishness helped open some doors.
How do you generate new ideas to stay ahead of the curve?
Consistently observing and monitoring trends in our markets and customer behaviour. We are not short of ideas; the complexity comes in prioritising which ones to implement and when as we don’t have unlimited resources.
When making a new hire, what key characteristics do you look for?
Now it is cultural fit – are the ‘lights on’ in the prospective employee? As we grew very fast, we made a fair few mistakes in hiring by not emphasising cultural fit enough. I also look for passion and commitment in new hires. I want to work with people who are as excited about the product and as motivated by the opportunity as I am. Everything else can be learnt or taught.
Have you started to feel the effects of the economic upturn within your sector/industry?
In many ways, we are a recession-proof service as people always want to stay in touch. That said, we are beginning to see higher average value transactions per customer which is a good indication of improved spending power. Our service is not just about calling home, it’s a way of people abroad empowering family back home by instantly giving them access to data and other services on their mobiles that they otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford.
What do you believe it takes to be a successful entrepreneur?
Entrepreneurs tend to be very determined people with a great ability to see the big picture, the big opportunity. I believe the real key to being a successful entrepreneur lies in the ability to lead and to keep going when there are blows – and there always are big blows as well as great highs! You need to be able to bring people with you, help them see what you see and keep them motivated.
If you were to invest in a sector, what would you consider the next “big thing”?
It will definitely be a service provided through a mobile phone. They are now truly global and the opportunity can become very big – if it’s a good idea with great execution!
What do you believe is your company’s competitive advantage?
Our most compelling competitive advantage is the combination of our direct connection to 300 operators together with our consumer online service which features unique fraud prevention methods as well as payment methods.
What sacrifices have you had to make to get your business where it is today?
I suppose there is always some level of sacrifice involved when you’re doing something big. Long hours and a lot of travel are just part of the job. Although I don’t really see it as a sacrifice, I really believe in what we are doing at Ding.com and I know it can make a difference to ordinary people’s lives all around the world – that makes it all worthwhile and so incredibly exciting!
How do you recharge your batteries?
Time with my family. Our kids are young and great fun. I also enjoy running and a bit of tennis.