This year has brought unprecedented levels of hype around fintech firms – particularly those shaking up the remittance market, such as WorldRemit, TransferWise and Azimo.
One area has received less attention from startup land: the mobile top-up market.
There are plenty of options available if you want to top up your phone. You can do it online, set up automatic payments, go to a cash machine, do it via your handset or use a voucher. However the methods available for topping up someone else’s handset are far more limited and cumbersome.
There is a company working to change that: Ding. It was set up by Irish businessman Mark Roden as ‘Ezetop’ in 2006 and has been quietly expanding ever since.
Its mission is simple: to let anyone top up any phone from their own handset, wherever they are on the planet. Ding is available in 130 of the world’s 196 countries, giving it a reach of 3.5 billion phones: roughly half of all those in existence today.
Someone tops up someone else’s phone using Ding literally every second of every day – a remarkable fact considering it is still a relatively little-known company.
The idea first came to Roden when he was on holiday with his wife and three children in Dubai. He had gone to buy his wife a coffee, got chatting with the waiter and the conversation turned to how he communicated with his family back in India, who he was working to support.
The waiter showed Roden a top-up card he had used to send phone credit home.
“I headed out with the waiter and where he was living was really rough and grim – the bit of Dubai you don’t see. He took me to a dimly lit pop-up shop, and there were thousands of cards,” he tells Techworld.
“It struck me that there must be thousands of people, too, all trying to send value around the world. It was obvious it could be done far better.”
And with that revelation, Ding was born.
Roden had plenty of business experience already. He started his career at PwC, then left after three years to set up his own company called Torc Telecom.
After a successful start, it acquired London firm World Telecom, a firm Roden described as ‘rotten to the core’ in a Silicon Republic interview. Torc went under a year later. He went back inhouse, leading sales for ESAT Telecom (now BT Ireland) from 1991 to 1997.
However Roden’s entrepreneurial instincts soon returned – he set up an ATM company called Easycash in 2001, which he sold four years later to Ulster Bank for €7 million (£5.6 million), before going on to set up Ding shortly after.
Returning to his current venture, Roden says he wants to start to ramp up promotion around Ding, having largely avoided press coverage thus far. This is partly to help increase the number of mobile operators that support the service (they currently cover about half of the world’s operators).
However it is also to try to improve its chances in the tough fight for talent, Roden admits. The company inevitably has to compete with tech companies and banks for skills like web development, UX and customer analytics.
Roden has learned a number of lessons from his experiences – not least the importance of resilience.
“Setting up a startup is very difficult, but have a determined attitude to keep going. There will be numerous knocks along the way and these are times to change something – not the reason to stop,” he says.