Francisco Noguera

It’s the End of the Phone as We Know It

That’s right, dear reader. If you’ve seen it all or expect this post to be about smart phones and non-phone applications, think again. Food for thought today is Nigel Waller’s Movirtu, which may well convince you that the end of the phone as we know it is getting close.

Before I jump into the details of who Nigel Waller is and what Movirtu is set to achieve, let us reflect for a minute on the way you are accessing this blog post in this precise moment; let’s make a quick stop in our routine and take a look at a couple of things we now take for granted, for they will be an important piece of your own understanding of Movirtu’s value proposition.

I’ll assume that a majority of you is reading this article by means of an RSS reader like Bloglines or Google Reader. A smaller fraction will have reached the article after a search on Google or the like and it’s safe to assume that the rest will have accessed by entering the url directly on your navigation bar, either because you remember it or because you’ve stored the site as one of your bookmarks, either in your computer’s memory or in a site like Delicious that lets you store them online and access them from any computer connected to the web.

After reading this article it’s likely that you’ll move on to check your e-mail or see what your friends are up to in Facebook. Again, you will be able to do this virtually anywhere, needing nothing more than a piece of hardware and two pieces of information stored in your own memory: your username and your password. That’s it. It now seems common place, I agree, but when you think about it for just a second… well, it’s pretty darn amazing.

This is not the case with our phones, however, which represents a potential problem for some of us. I’ll speak for myself and confess that I’m pretty absent-minded and have a terrible tendency to leave stuff behind me all the time. If you, dear reader, ever end up having a cup of coffee with me, please do me a favor and walk behind me on our way out… seriously. My phone is often misplaced and it actually happened recently during Pop!Tech, where I met Nigel, ont of this year’s Social Innovation Fellows. (By the way, Pop!tech Staff and volunteers, if you’re reading this, THANKS for leaving a gracious note in the outlet where I had left my phone overnight and taking it safely to lost and found!). When I lose my phone I’m terrified; I no longer have recollection of the numbers of many acquaintances so there’s no way I can make a call if I need to, let alone receive a call I’m waiting for. This leads us to an interesting, fundamental question: Wouldn’t it be cool to access my phone (my contacts, my SMS messages, my birthday reminders, you name it…) from any phone, just like I can access my email and bookmarks from any computer? It would be cool, no doubt. Well, it turns out that Nigel Waller thought of the same question about 2 years ago while driving down the streets of Moscow on a grey winter day accompanied by Elena, his Russian wife. That afternoon, which he narrates as if it were yesterday’s, was his own “ah hah! moment”.

The “phone in the cloud” epiphany was a special realization for a man like Nigel. He had spent the last 20 years of his life working for the communications industry (including Sema Group and Nortel) and the last 14 focusing on emerging markets, in the days when it was not “the cool thing to do”, as he told me. A background in ICTs was just half of the recipe for Nigel’s “ah hah! Moment”; the other hal began with a conversation he had a few years before the grey winter day in Moscow with his friend and then colleague Andy. In it, he had been introduced to the idea of the Base of the Pyramid. “I was blind and oblivious until then… discovering the concept of BoP opened my eyes and got me started in looking for opportunities where I had thought there were none”, said Nigel about the BoP idea.

The years that separated Nigel’s two epiphanies (the conversation with his friend and the winter drive in Moscow) were years of exploration, of childish curiosity looking for ways to bring together the pieces that were flying around his mind. He focused on understanding emerging markets and their potential around ICTs, often traveling out of his London office. You can see and feel that curious and playful spirit when he tells the story. Nigel has big blue eyes that are always very open and very alert; when he smiles (and he does it often while telling this story) they lighten up and look as if they will eventually pop out of their place. He speaks very fast in a very British accent that is at times hard to understand for us non-native speakers. He does so with confidence, moving his hands frantically and often his fingers in resemblance of the way cell phones are operated.

One of the pieces in Nigel’s mind and one that particularly intrigued him was the phenomenon of phone sharing. Through his research, he had found out that although mobile penetration was growing rapidly, there was a significant chunk of the population still relying on shared phones to fill their connectivity needs. One billion people worldwide share phones, to be precise. They do so in different ways, either sharing a handset among the members of a household, buying airtime from informal resellers in the streets (very common in Colombia, for instance) or from slightly more formal channels like Village Phones (think Grameen Phone). Sharing phones is limiting in many ways, however, and Movirtu is gearing up to address those limitations through a business model that effectively puts the cell phones of the next billion up in the cloud, where it can be accessed from anywhere at anytime using a simple username and password.

Instead of writing the whole business concept, I asked Nigel to speak through the basics of Movirtu. I was lucky to have my camera with me and was able to catch him on this short clip.

So, the end of the phone as we know it… is it? Movirtu certainly disrupts the way many parties use and relate to mobile telephones but it will have to overcome a number of challenges in order to reach scale. One of them will be working with the traditional telecommunications industry and getting the big players to buy into Movirtu’s model. The business case for mobile carriers (who are the ultimate economic buyers in Movirtu’s model) will be one on which the company will focus heavily over the next months of pilot testing. Besides getting operators to buy in, Movirtu will face interesting ethnography and design challenges, studying the effects of their service Sharepaid in the way Village Phone operators and final users relate to phones, not to mention whether it effectively helps these parties increase their income by offering/using a service that is fundamentally different to traditional telephony.

* * *

Now, we suddenly went from Nigel’s drive in Moscow to an in-depth conversation about Movirtu. But you may wonder what happened between the grey Moscow day and the equally grey and rainy Camden day when this interview took place? Well, for one thing, Nigel obviously made the plunge; he pushed his own GO button. “I knew that I wanted to build something, especially after becoming curious about and increasingly immersed in the BoP idea. But for years it was only talk and nothing happened, nothing felt robust enough… until I came up with this idea and it suddenly did. I knew it was what I was waiting for.” Well under way in a successful career in the corporate world and with the responsibility of bringing up his kids he decided to re-mortgage his London home and start building what today is Movirtu: Mobile for the Next Billion. Eighteen months after making that move, the company has secured early stage investment from Grey Ghost Ventures and the Grassroots Business Fund. Series A plans will come soon in the spring of 2010.

Besides securing funding, Nigel has been able to spend significant time in the countries where he Movirtu will soon launch, doing ethnography himself and understanding the challenges and opportunities of his product in BoP markets. He was kind enough to let NextBillion take a sneek peak at a video he and his team produced after a research trip to Kibera, the slum in the outskirts of Nairobi. We’ll keep a close eye on it and share it with the NextBillion audience as soon as it’s released.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Nigel has focused on building an organization (not a team of great people… an organization) that balances business pragmatism with a true intention of innovating and addressing an acute need and improving the lives of many at the Base of the Pyramid. He clearly understands the nature of BoP markets and lives on the conviction that only disruptive models will serve the needs of the Next Billion. Quite rapidly, Movirtu seems to be on the way to becoming a hot house for creativity and innovation around many areas related to mobile access in BoP markets. Four additional filings for patents are already in process, which will certainly keep an eye out for.

My feeling is that we’ll be hearing lots about Movirtu in the months to come. Whether it will explode, reach scale become a new success story in the BoP sector, only time will tell. My personal takeaway after conversing with Nigel for almost two hours was not only related to BoP markets and telephony per se… Though I learned lots about that in our conversation, I had particular appreciation for Nigel’s “entrepreneurial maturity”, if there is such a thing. In a world where entrepreneurship has become a buzz word, ideas are shared in 140 characters or less and the Twitterati shouts ever louder and faster, Nigel’s personal story reminded me of Brenda Ueland and her advice on allowing time for what she calls “big, slow ideas”. Movirtu is the result of a careful and rigorous process that never lost sight of its ultimate goal and only became a project in itself once its creator had gathered enough substance to make it really robust.

* * *

Over the next month I’ll be publishing some additional profiles of the entrepreneurs I had a chance to meet while at Pop!Tech, who were part of their excellent Social innovation Fellows Program. Stay tuned for that. Thanks to the Pop!Tech team for the support in making this and other interviews possible.