BUSI­NESS LESSONS

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When run­ning a tech­nol­ogy busi­ness — speed al­ways wins. 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 France or Spain (or Straf­fan!) 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.”

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