AHugedigitalmapdominates 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,