A chance meeting at a wedding in 1991 led Mark Roden into business with Denis O'Brien. The two would go on to set up Esat Digifone, selling it a decade later to BT for almost £850 million (€1.07 billion).
“My brother was in the same class as Denis O’Brien in the pre-university centre. I met him at a wedding and he had just set up 98FM,” Roden recalls. “He asked me if I would like to set up a telecoms company. I said I know absolutely nothing about telecoms. He said ‘nor do I’. I was completely struck by the audaciousness of it. I joined him on the spot.”
The wedding was that of Edmund and Susan Doyle-Kelly, and it was Susan, now an associate director at Ernst & Young, who nominated Roden for the EY Entrepreneur of the Year award earlier this year. He won the overall gong.
From a family of doctors, Roden believed he was destined to study medicine. However, after failing to secure a place on the course, he ended up doing dentistry instead. “I hated it,” he says. “I failed, left after a year and went on to study marketing.”
He got his first exposure to branding and marketing at McConnells Advertising before joining AC Neilson, where he worked as a market researcher for several years. Seeking to put his career on a different track, he applied to do an MBA in Switzerland.
“Dad lent me £12,000 and I borrowed another £13,000 to do the MBA. I then joined Price Waterhouse strategy consulting in London for a few years.”
It was while working as a management consultant that he met O’Brien. Roden says establishing Esat was probably the most difficult start-up to do, as there was no platform for competition.
“At the time there was no European Commission. There was no independent regulator. The Department of Communications and Telecom Éireann were in the same office on Findlater Street. It was a monopoly. The Minister for Communications was a shareholder in Telecom Éireann.”
Roden began researching how companies took on other companies. He read how MCI took on AT&T in the United States, transforming the telecommunications industry by helping unravel the AT&T monopoly.
"I said to Denis that we needed to see how MCI had competed with AT&T," Roden says. "Denis said he knew MCI's founder, Jack Goeken. We got on a plane the next day to go see him."
After meeting with Goeken, the two went to Greenwich, Connecticut to observe satellite company Panamsat.
"We met with Doug Goldschmidt and he said we needed to appeal to the EU over directives, as Ireland was not compliant. Denis sat up and said 'what do you mean?' After the meeting, Denis said we needed to hire Doug."
What began as a commercial start-up turned into a regulatory battle, Roden says. It was four years before the business was up and running.
“The company didn’t have any revenues for four years. It was an anti-competitive environment. When we did set up, we were taking losses as we didn’t want to charge more than Eircom.”
He worked in several roles in Esat and ultimately led commercial operations until 1997. “During that time we won the mobile phone licence and floated on the Nasdaq stock exchange. I had shares and did really well out of the flotation.”
“One of the best ever days was signing Intel, which was a gold or platinum Telecom Éireann client. That was an incredible win. Intel doesn’t entrust their international communication to anyone, so I knew we were a big deal then.”
Having always wanted to do something on his own, Roden left the company in 1997.
“Denis let me keep my shareholding, so it was like an each-way bet I was taking. It was difficult, though, to explain to friends and family why I was leaving, as Esat was such a rising star at the time.”
“Ultimately, the desire to do something on my own was right, but the opportunity I chose was wrong. ”
Within months of leaving Esat, Roden established a calling-card company called Torc Telecom. "I knew I had to be in other countries to scale, so I set up offices in Frankfurt, Paris and London. The revenues were good in Ireland but not in the overseas offices."
Following rapid expansion, in 2000 it acquired the much larger World Telecom, a British provider of calling card and value-added data services for the corporate and consumer markets, for more than £15 million (€19 million). World Telecom was in receivership, and Roden decided that acquiring it would a good opportunity to scale his business in the UK.
“I acquired that business a bit too hastily,” he says. “Twelve months later I realised it was rotten to the core. I had to put both businesses into receivership.
“The receiver was from PricewaterhouseCoopers. He came in and met me. Fifteen minutes into the meeting he said: ‘I’ll take it from here’. It’s like someone taking your credit card and cheque book off you and saying you can’t use your bank account anymore. It’s pretty humiliating.
“My wife Nicola was six months pregnant with our first child. We had to return home to Ireland and move in with her parents. I reflected on why I had ever left Esat.”
Roden spoke to Brian Phelan, an accountant in Clonskeagh, who had a business idea around cash ATMs. “I went off to London and researched ATMs. I also contacted IPSO. While researching, I came across an incredible graph that showed Ireland had the second highest usage in Europe but the lowest number of ATMs.”
A few months later, Roden founded Easycash, and began introducing ATMs into shops and petrol stations. “I still had some capital remaining from Esat. The ATMs were €10,000 each. I bought 100.”
He signed agreements with Esso and Spar, installing 500 ATMs around the country, thanks to a €3 million leasing facility. Everything was going according to plan until the director of consumer affairs put a spanner in the works, saying Roden couldn’t charge a fee to customers for each transaction, which is how it worked in other countries. So, rather than charging consumers for the transaction, he charged retailers to put the ATMs in their store.
In 2004, he sold Easycash to Ulster Bank/RBS. But business was still on his mind.
“The lesson from Torc was diligence – do proper research. So, I hired three people to do research. One researched pre-paid debit cards. At the time people were all coming to Ireland to work from countries such as Latvia, Lithuania and Poland. I noticed it was difficult for them to set up a bank account. I also wondered if there was an opportunity in remittances like Western Union, so had someone research that. The third person researched mobile top-up. I could see so many more pre-paid mobile phones becoming available.”
"They spent six months researching. It was like X Factor. Each of the three people were pitching and I was evaluating the ideas."
Roden kept reflecting on a conversation he had had with a waiter in Dubai regarding top-up. The man was buying call credit for Indian mobile networks locally and sending the Pin to his wife by text so she could use it on her own phone.
“When I asked him why he did this, he said it was the only way to get small value home to her instantly – using Western Union is so expensive and slow for small transactions. I realised that as mobile phones were becoming available and affordable to almost everybody, here was a way to empower people abroad to get value home really fast.”
Roden chose the top-up idea, and began setting up what would become Ding. It was 2006 and the iPhone hadn’t even been launched. He said the idea of using mobiles as a credit transfer device was completely alien to people. Now, sending from iOS and Android mobiles accounts for nearly 50 per cent of Ding’s total revenues. It wasn’t an easy start either, as the company’s early consumer online service was targeted by credit card fraudsters resulting in losses of $700,000 over four months.
Ding now employs 200 people and has regional offices in Miami, Dubai, Barcelona, El Salvador, Bucharest and Dhaka. This year it will bring in $250 million (€201 million) in revenues and $3.5 million (€2.8 million) in profit.
“The first three transactions were on 23rd August 2006 from Sheffield to Jamaica. I was ecstatic. In hindsight, three wasn’t that many. We are now doing 100,000 transactions a day.”
Roden realised he was on to something big following the Haiti earthquake. One afternoon he was looking at the transaction screen, which shows live transactions being sent from senders to receivers. Suddenly it lit up with thousands of top-ups flying from New York and Florida to Haiti.
At first, he thought it was a software malfunction, but it was people in the US who could not get through to their families back home. Ding was the only way they were able to send top-ups through to mobile phones to be able to speak to them and see if they were alive. Overnight the company’s volumes exploded and Roden realised the power of transferring top-ups.
More recently, Ding has acquired RecargasaCuba.com, a website specialising in mobile top-up exclusively to Cuba. The acquisition will allow Ding to expand its already significant presence in the Cuban market, one of the largest receivers of international top-up.
As for the future, he wants to continue adding more customers and building up the number of daily transactions.
“We want to reach more people in more remote regions,”Roden says. “Operators in emerging markets support 3.5 billion phones. We want to move from 100,000 transactions to billions.”
CV Name: Mark Roden Age: 54 Position: CEO of Ding Family: Married to Nicola, with four children
Something about Roden that would surprise readers: He worked in Captain Americas full time for a year after college and loved it.
Something about Roden that readers might expect: In the course of building Ding, he has visited more than 80 countries in emerging markets.