When the world looks West, trust an entrepreneur to look East. And that is exactly what Sumesh Menon has done with U2opia Mobile. As everyone talks about smartphones and the awesomeness they bring to the table, U2opia Mobile caters to that large bulk of population which still does not use smart devices. According to a Gartner report, 1.72 billion mobile phones were sold to customers in 2012, of which only 207.7 million was smart phones, which leaves a staggering 1.51 billion feature phones opportunity.
And this is the market opportunity that U2opia Mobile caters to.
U2opia has been co-founded by Sumesh Menon and Ankit Nautiyal in 2010. Sumesh has worked with Bharti Airtel, United Spirits, and Valley startup Bubble Motion in the past. Ankit had stints with Bharti Telesoft, and Bubble Motion. He is the resident geek and manages the product development for U2opia Mobile. He is the also the brains behind their product Fonetwish – a USSD-based interactive service that helps make Internet accessible on every mobile phone.
Singapore-based U2opia Mobile has four products in their kitty – Fonetwish, Headlines, Allo, and Fone Verify. Of these, Fonetwish has been the most popular product. Fonetwish uses the USSD platform, a first-generation communication technology that is similar to SMS, it provides navigation through a textual, session-based interface, and works across all types of handsets. “At some point in time, we have all had prepaid connections, and the best way to check balance was to punch in a code -- that is USSD. We repurposed that and re-innovated the whole technology to see if anybody could browse using that. Because Facebook is more of a browsing experience, USSD was a snug fit for that,” explains Sumesh.
Fonetwish was rolled out in May 2011 and Sumesh says the entire process of partnership with the operators on one hand and Facebook on the other hand was an interesting experience in itself. Sumesh met the Facebook mobile leadership team in Palo Alto, and told them that they had a solution that could help spread the usage of the social network to markets which didn’t have 3G, 4G connections. “Some members from Facebook team had fortunately travelled to markets like Indonesia and knew challenges about data in that market. Because sitting in Palo Alto where you were amidst the world of apps and cool technology, things on the other side was not very evident,” says Sumesh.
Traction has been fantastic for U2opia Mobile since starting and they work with operators country by country, which Sumesh says is a time-consuming and tedious task. But Sumesh and his team have managed to crack 40 operators in 27 countries including countries like Rwanda, Haiti, Madagascar and Albania, to name a few. To make the process quicker for operators, in terms of cost, goto market and technology perspective, U2opia Mobile recently rolled out a USSD gateway that they have mounted on cloud. This gateway enables operators to plug and play into the U2opia Mobile server, and roll out the services for their customers in a very short time. The facility is so easy that it was rolled out with their partner networks in El Salvador, Paraguay and Bolivia, within three days.
Sumesh says their speed and agility in providing services has helped them grow at scorching pace since starting up in 2010. Users can access Facebook on any phone without an internet connection by dialing *325#. And users can then post status updates and be connected realtime. “Sometimes it is just thinking out of the box, this was back when Android had just made an appearance and iOS was very expensive. Nobody looked back and said how can I solve a problem in emerging markets,” says Sumesh, about the reason why nobody before them thought of something like this.
While Sumesh doesn’t have an exact number to put for the market potential, he quotes Mark Zukerberg who said that 9 out of 10 users do not use data on the phone, because of the non-availability internet – which is also an opportunity that Facebook is looking at. Today the startup is working with Facebook and Twitter, and Sumesh says the opportunity also exists to engage with most online brands like a Flipkart or Indigo to use their service. The solution provided by U2opia is a bridge between the platform and the user.
USSD only supports text messages and cannot be used for pictures or any other sort of graphical content. The customer base therefore who use U2opia are young users who are just starting out on the internet, teens and youngsters from the age group 13-24. “In India, if you look at young users, PC and internet connection is not prevalent when you look across the board, and not just urban young. This is also the segment which depends on cyber café and use phones which has been handed down by family. These are a bulk of users of Facebook,” says Sumesh. He says the customers beyond this age group typically graduate to smart phones and therefore are not the TG for U2opia.
Users can use U2opia services by paying 50 cents to $1 to the service provider, who in turn pays U2opia Mobile. To bring in the next level of growth, wishlist of partnership for U2opia mobile include brands who can partner with them. And Sumesh says they are in discussions with some brands to explore possible partnerships.
Sumesh says though there are a growing number of smartphone users in India, they are not necessarily on the internet. Nevertheless to cater to the smartphone user base, U2opia already offers its Headlines and Allo product for iOS and Android customers and is in the process of developing more products for that space. U2opia has 10 million user base currently and Sumesh claims they are adding a whooping 1 million users to their customer base per month.
U2opia works closely with the mobile service providers and is mostly reliant on their tools and techniques to spread the word. Working with feature phones has been a learning for Sumesh and one of the things he has learnt is the need to keep it simple. “If you can come up with a product that addresses a simple core need and then deeply understand the different ways in which a user uses the product, it can sometime be very revealing,” says Sumesh.
Talking about the challenges, finding good people to join the team has been the biggest one. Currently, they are a 100-member team, and Sumesh says they have doubled their team since last year. U2opia is today present in Dubai, Gurgaon, and San Francisco, besides Singapore, and have received investments from Matrix Partners and other angel investors in the past.
Check out the demo of Fonetwish and how to use Facebook without an internet connection here: