When Keith Curran sold Yes Telecom in 2006, the industry lost a big name. But now Curran (right) is back, and tells Michael Garwood how WorkMobile is revolutionising office mobilisation
It’s been three years since Keith Curran, founder of Vodafone service provider Yes Telecom, quit the industry. And, but for some advisory work with mobile advertising platform MavCast and personal mobile number-generator Name Your Number – alongside curious adventures in coffee and chocolate – he has been conspicuous by his absence.
After all, Curran has been in the industry since year dot – since the launch of BT Cellnet in 1985. It is in his blood, particularly the dealer element, which he went some way to redefining with Yes Telecom and a focus on ‘quality’ the likes of O2 and Vodafone have only latterly demanded from the channel.
Vodafone purchased Yes Telecom from Curran in summer 2006 for £22 million. He worked under its stewardship for 12 months until he felt his position and vision for the business had been compromised. He was duly put ‘in the garden’. Hence his dalliances with confectionary and hot beverages. But he is back, he says.
His new venture, in which he takes another advisory role, is pitched squarely at the same dealer market he helped shape through the first half of this decade, as it was spluttering for new life. Except it has only a supplementary interest in airtime and date sales, which Curran describes as historical sectors so far as money-making goes. WorkMobile, he says, should appeal to all businesses, anywhere and of any size; and importantly it should ‘add value’ for third-party resellers and their
Curran was introduced to Dr Moneeb Awan, managing director of Manchester-based software developer eSay, in early 2010. Dr Awan set up eSay 10 years ago, created WorkMobile in 2008, and had made a business charging companies £30-£40,000 for designing and mobilising their office forms. Since then, eSay has developed its proposition to remove up-front costs from the process, thus stretching its appeal way beyond the firms able to pay the big bucks normally associated with such services.
Curran says: “I have been an evangelist for years, desperate for the market to get to a point where we can move on to the exciting stuff – beyond just trading hardware and airtime. And market saturation means we’re at that point.
“I mean, it looks like game-over for most markets. The industry’s spent years trying to stop customers churning by dropping prices and offering more – of voice minutes, of texts, of data. That has been the primary retention tool. And it looks like there is nothing left. But we have a solution that is unique, which allows the market to effectively trade forms, instead of the same old minutes and data.”
Curran and Dr Awan accept the concept of office mobilisation is hardly new, and that companies such as Destiny Wireless and Pronto have been offering to make portable office documents for some time. But the pair say their product is more democratic. Anyone who can work a mouse can create and customise forms based on its drag-and-drop tools, they claim, and issue them on a mobile handset to staff in the field for data collection.
“There is a massive difference with this because the [customers do] the mobilisation themselves and they don’t need to know anything about IT to do it,” says Curran.
“There are other products like the digital pen, but that requires paper, which you need to pay to have printed and again to have digitised. And you need to carry a pen and a pad with you. Why not just carry a phone? And these forms can be produced in seconds, and changed every day if necessary. They are available to everyone – from one-man bands right through to major corporations.”
Fast and inexpensive
WorkMobile forms capture signatures (on touchscreen devices), images, GPS locations, plus standard date-and-time stamps. Unlimited handsets can be issued with new work forms, by adding mobile numbers in the WorkMobile web application. Data is stored in the ‘cloud’, or downloaded to a back-office server. When out of signal, forms can be sent via Wi-Fi, or held until coverage comes back.
Where security is an issue, such as in government or health-care sectors, the product can be installed directly onto their server for a fee.
Curran says: “It integrates with all major back-office systems – so someone in the field could quite literally fill out a form on their handset to hit their back-office and generate an invoice to their email system before they even leave their driveway. You could be the slickest business in the world but there is no faster or cheaper way to do that.”
Customers are charged between 9p and 18p for the mailing of each completed form back to the online account. Customers commit to one-, two- or three-year contracts, and receive monthly credits, as they would minutes on a mobile tariff, or else take the service on prepay with top-ups as required.
Dr Awan says: “People ask if there is anything with the same capability as this, and the answer is no. There is no other solution in the world that does what we have. There are lots of ways of collecting information electronically out in the field, but you will pay £40,000 upfront for the software because IT developers have to make it for you.
“This is free. IT companies will hate it because they’ve been gladly ripping the market off for years. Suddenly this kind of a solution is open not just to big corporations, but also to, say, a small cafe in a quiet area that only has three staff and a single form to fill in at the end of each day. That coffee shop owner is not going to spend thousands and then post all his phones away to be optimised for this kind of solution. It’s just not viable or realistic.”
Curran claims early sales are good despite the product only officially launching this week at Mobile World Congress. The website went live last year with a free trial of 100 credits available; so far, about 500 businesses of different sizes around the world are using it.
WorkMobile has established relationships in South Africa with operator Vodacom to provide its workforce with the service and has agents promoting the service elsewhere in Africa, in Dubai and imminently in India (see box, below). It is in discussions with BT for its staff to use the product, too.
The UK channel for WorkMobile is being coordinated by Curran, who says he will draw on his experience and contacts from his days with Yes Telecom, which had a dealer base of more than 1,000 during Curran’s stewardship of the business.
Curran says he wants to recreate the old Yes Telecom ethos of “true partnerships” with dealers, and to offer them a 40 per cent revenue share on every sale, paid on a weekly basis.
He claims the opportunity is “huge”, that more than 1,500 dealers remain in the mobile space and about 13,000 accounts in the IT and fixed-line sector. Curran has set targets to partner with around 5,000 of those by the end of the year.
Plans are already being drawn up to hold dealer forum events, which he claims were a success while with Yes Telecom, allowing dealers to talk openly and, even to take charge of proceedings to discuss what they like and dislike.
“We want to do it the old Yes Telecom way. I want an open and transparent relationship with dealer partners, with no hidden agendas. Yes Telecom used to be about things, when it was still blue. The forums we used to hold were run by the partners often, not Yes Telecom, as it were; they’d come on stage and tell us how things should be run. It was an open forum, and there was a high degree of trust.”
Curran goes on: “I’d like to think my association will lend it credibility in the dealer market. My decision with Yes Telecom was to make the dealer channel our only route to market. The business model and ethos was transparent; I worked hard at it and shared the rewards with partners on our journey. It was unusual in its total closeness with its partners. And we have something
now we can bring to the dealer market the channel can take charge of, which essentially has nothing to do with network operators.”
The point is, he argues, data services have become commoditised and increasingly bundled together to retain customers. Dealers are struggling to make money as a consequence. WorkMobile exists outside the operator provision and billing model, and can boost dealers’ income separately.
Dealers will have access to an online portal that enables them to access the WorkMobile back-office systems to monitor customer numbers, purchases and usage and monies owed.
“The great thing is this is not cannibalistic,” says Curran. “It does not require dealers to move their bases to another provider. The networks are packaging everything up into one data tariff; all roads lead back to the network. Dealers’ income is primarily coming from the networks, as it always has.
“Wouldn’t it be great if the things moving through the network pipe have nothing to do with the network, such as a form which comes from this office to a member of staff out in the field, and vice versa? Wouldn’t it be great to make money off that form directly from the customer?”
He goes on: “Most dealers work bloody hard to build a business; there is nothing wrong with their business model but they need help with cashflow. This helps those guys take direct charge of at least a part of their revenue stream.”