Ezetop boss says things only getting started

Irish top-up company Ezetop is head of Deloitte’s Technology Fast 50 for the second year in a row

"On a cold wet November day in Ireland, running a startup business can be a pretty lonely place," says Ezetop's chairman Mark Roden.

But the payments company has new cause for celebration on these particular November days, topping Deloitte’s Technology Fast 50 for the second year in a row after it recorded a significant growth rate – 3,630 per cent – in the past five years.

The business allows people working abroad to instantly top up the mobile phones of friends and family back home through a simple easy to use platform.

Ezetop is the only company to ever get the Deloitte award two years in a row. Looking at the data it's not hard to see why.

Emerging countries
The company now has agreements in place with around 300 mobile operators in emerging countries. According to its latest figures, Ezetop carries about 70,000 transactions a day, amounting to just under $1 million in a 24-hour period. About $200 million in call credit goes through its platform, and its own annual revenues – Ezetop takes a commission of 10 per cent – now amount to between $20 million and $22 million according to Roden.

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Roden's background in telecoms is well established. He was one of the first people to join Esat Telecom when Denis O'Brien was setting it up in the 1990s, an experience which gave him "fantastic insight" into how to break a monopoly and grow a new business in Ireland.

Following the sale of Esat, Roden moved into the callcard business, and then into cash ATMs, providing machines to retail stores and petrol stations. That business was bought by Ulster Bank in early 2005.

It was a conversation with a waiter while on holiday in Dubai that planted the idea for Ezetop. 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.

“It seemed very clunky,” he says. “I was thinking what if we could do that more efficiently?” A bit of research uncovered similar arrangements for people in the UK who were sending air time to family in Jamaica, so Roden reasoned that it could be more widespread.

And so Ezetop was born. Roden has funded the company from the beginning, investing about €3 million of his own cash. And for the time being that situation is unlikely to change; Ezetop had considered outside funding but has yet to make that move.

In the meantime, the service has gathered pace in popularity.

“[Air time] is hugely valuable if you’re in an emerging market. You can use it for calls, access the internet, use it for Facebook, or source information, which ultimately leads to better decisions. If you have a mobile phone you can be reached,” Roden says.

In some cases mobile phone credit has become almost like a currency, making it even more important to recipients where more conventional infrastructure is lacking. In January 2010, when Haiti was hit by a devastating earthquake, Ezetop saw a spike in its growth, with the number of transactions doubling.

“People were sending mobile phone top ups because the infrastructure was broken,” says Roden. “For the relatives who were abroad it was a really powerful way for them to be able to connect emotionally with their family and also send something, a way of reaching out to them.”

The company’s biggest market is in Cuba, with customers in US regularly sending home credit to friends and family.

But despite Ezetop's fast growth, things are only getting started for the firm. Plans are already under way to expand the business. The most significant change is the introduction of international long distance minutes for users. Instead of simply transferring call credit to a recipient's mobile phone through Ezetop's platform, the customer can now choose to buy low-cost minutes through Ezetop to make calls to the recipient's country.

Rebrand
Initially limited to customers in the US, the new service is expected to go live by December 4th, and could have massive potential for the firm, Roden says. Also on the cards is a rebrand, with the company's consumer business becoming Ding.

“The next 24 to 36 months are going to be the most exciting for this company because we have finished acquiring all the relationships with the mobile operators; that was a huge slog, and it was incredibly important. The next phase is adding the revenue growth to those relationships,” Roden says.

“I have huge ambitions for this business, and when I reflect on where we are relative to the potential of where we could go, I feel we’re only starting.”