Past life

Co-founder and CEO Sumesh Menon, 37, has worked with both mobile and Internet companies. He was a senior marketing director with Bubble Motion, a Singapore-headquartered firm that offers services such as social messaging on mobile phones. Before that, Menon worked with Airtel in Gurgaon and has also done a stint in Internet advertising for the UB Group and its liquor brands.

Genesis

In his job at Bubble Motion, Menon was talking to dotcoms in Silicon Valley in the US and mobile operators in emerging markets such as India, Indonesia and the Philippines. Co-founder Ankit Nautiyal, 35, now vice-president (engineering) at U2opia, had joined Bubble Motion as an engineer. The two met when Menon was seeking volunteers for a pet project. During a cigarette break one day, they came to a pass that many entrepreneurs have come to before them: how wonderful it would be to start something of their own.

Within the year, Menon had drummed together some funding, tested the prototype, got first clients Facebook and Airtel on board, and they were on their way to financial self-sustenance. But not before Menon had shuttled halfway across the world to Palo Alto in the US to “ride a pink bicycle" to the Facebook office, met several venture capitalists (VCs) who rejected his proposal outright, and run into an operational hurdle when a mobile operator asked him for the previous year’s balance sheet though the company was three months old.

Eureka moment

Even during his stint at Bubble, Menon understood that the mobile and Internet worlds were converging, and quickly.

The Internet companies wanted to be in emerging markets, and people in emerging markets wanted to stay connected as much as possible. He had seen the phenomenal growth of Facebook in Indonesia. Experience told him the growth would be replicated in India. In 2010, Facebook had some 400 million users worldwide. It was aiming for the one-billion mark.

Back in India, telecom operators had recognized a growing demand for social networking services (SNS) on phone. But Facebook was focused on the developed markets, choosing not to be waylaid for the time being by poor infrastructure and connectivity problems in the developing world.

The phone companies had SNS experts in their offices, but they were focusing on pushing 3G services to a growing base of customers moving to data phones. But smartphones and data connectivity were still expensive, and left the majority of phone users out of the net. Nautiyal had earlier worked with USSD, a protocol used by GSM phone operators to offer services like phone balance enquiries. Both Menon and Nautiyal thought Twitter, with its short format, was made for the USSD over phone.

Reality check

They even came up with a name for the service—Fonetwish (pronounced phone-twish). It was Twitter in a flash, because the USSD works through flash messages, and because it was on a handset. But they soon realized that of the two, Facebook was the bigger need in India. What else was there to do but change course?

The first challenge was to get funding. With no prototype in hand, the idea was a tough sell.

The second challenge was to convince telecommunications companies to let U2opia get into their network to test the idea. “It was a chicken and egg problem," says Menon. “They wouldn’t let us into their system till we showed them the product, and we couldn’t show them the product till they let us in." In the end, Menon’s old connection with Airtel, where he had worked before, helped him get a foot in the door.

Step 3 was to convince Facebook it was going to work. On a “nervous" video call from Delhi, Menon and Nautiyal addressed a team of six-seven at the US headquarters of Facebook. A demo was given and queries were answered. When Facebook gave the company a thumbs up, they knew they were on their way.

Plan B

Menon says that for a company their size, dealing with Internet giant Facebook on the one hand and telecom giant Airtel on the other, there was no margin for error. They had left their cushy jobs and comfortable lives in Singapore —there was no going back. But they knew they would only take the leap if they got funding.

Menon hit upon a need gap. U2opia Mobile realized that even though people were moving to mobile Internet in emerging markets, there was a much larger customer base that did not have access to data on their phones. It reached out to this set, which had limited or no access to the Internet.

Now, with more people shifting to smartphones, U2opia is beginning to launch apps for higher-end phones, but Menon is confident the base for USSD is unlikely to shrink for at least 10 years. Even as people upgrade to better devices, more and more people are coming into the mobile connectivity fold with entry-level phones.

Menon and Nautiyal also showed perseverance, following up with operators to get the job done. Menon says in the early days they would send out colour-coded dashboards every morning to the operatives in partnering mobile service companies, and mark the emails to the bosses as well. They always broke down the processes—even the complex ones—into five steps and marked them green, yellow and red to indicate their status. This built accountability into the system.

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