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July - 2006 - issue > Entrepreneur
Proselytizer of the Phonetop
Aritra Bhattacharya
Monday, July 2, 2007
Ramneek Bhasin took a rather cognitive view of his children’s behavior. 21 and 14, his daughter and son are part of the ‘upwardly mobile’ generation; characterized by fast lives, fast cars, on the move relationships and sudden socializing sprees.

In their peer-to-peer interactions, in their sudden doling out of mass messages to their geometry class groups, maybe soccer groups, could well be hang-out-at-the-bar groups, Bhasin sourced the foundation of his latest entrepreneurial venture—Mobio, a company that makes dynamic mobile applications and widgets that work together and are based on mash ups of web services.

“The question that excited me was how I could make access to information easy to the young adult,” he says. Perused by that thought, he incorporated Mobio in June 2005. For someone whose earlier ventures had been in the IT services and networking space previously, this was virgin territory.

“Not quite,” says Bhasin, half-defendant, “If you look at my previous entrepreneurial ventures, all had a significant wireless component…but yes, this time, it has been far more customer facing.” And in being customer-facing, what better market to tap into than the youth and young adult segment; together they form the ‘highest growth demographic’, containing within its folds immense business potential.

Customization at palm’s reach
As opposed to the desktop (on the computer), Bhasin’s Mobio aspires to equip users towards mastering customization of the ‘phonetop’. “The user must have the ability to define what he wants on his phone, and how much of it,” says Bhasin with conviction. He cites an imaginative situation to elucidate his idea of unlocking the value of information to the user:

Imagine landing with your peer group in some hot destination along the East Coast. Hunger is weighing you down, and you have no idea of the city, its restaurants or your whereabouts. With Mobio’s widgets on your mobile, all you might need to do is send a simple text message to a specific number, and in a flash you could have a rundown of all restaurants around town, the map to reach the place of your choice and traffic positions en route.

In the two odd years of its existence, the company has built 50 such applications or widgets, which help the consumer delve into varied categories of value-added services. During the recent cricket World Cup, sending LIVE to 8888 (in India) would enable one access to a host services from live scores to match schedules to the points tally. The cricket World Cup and the aforementioned widget incidentally marked Mobio’s debut in the India market.

Interestingly, Bhasin says many front-end controls, the applications which enable you to find a golf course, or a restaurant, or a bar are based on a single base technology, with backend controls taking care of various verticals like cricket, social networking or entertainment.
It took Bhasin and his peers close to two years to build the base technology—we should’ve done it in a year’s time, he says in hindsight—whereas most widgets, like the one for the cricket World Cup take around a month to come through. Mobio now is a 40 strong company, with 28 employees based in Cupertino, and the rest in India.

The Mindshare-Marketshare game
For most entrepreneurs, ingraining their products, in other words creating the brand in the consumers’ mind is the most difficult part of the jigsaw puzzle. Not for Bhasin. He has simply delineated from that approach, at least as far as India in concerned.

“Why should I,” he questions, “when the providers in Airtel and Indiatimes are doing a fabulous job of it. What matters most to me is profitability; the providers are spending all the money on marketing and only helping in minimizing my risks.” Mobio has a revenue sharing arrangement with service providers who market its offerings to consumers for a specified subscription fee. During the World Cup, it had tied up with Airtel to offer exclusive cricket coverage on the mobile to its subscribers. Though the scheme was taken off a few days into the event, owing to India’s dismal performance, it is now available on various operator networks, and has witnessed thousands of downloads.

When he had started the company back in 2005, Bhasin hadn’t quite envisioned India as a market. The mobile revolution hadn’t taken off in the country then, and internet penetration was too low to tap into. The fact that India forms a big part in his business plan today speaks volumes about the change in scenario. “I wish I had developed the cricket widget a little earlier, in time for the World Cup. The providers hardly got any time to promote the offering. Had they got the time, the numbers could’ve been remarkedly different,” he chuckles at the lost opportunity.

Interestingly, the business model his company follows in the U.S. is distinctly different from that in India. There, Mobio markets its products directly, and free of cost to consumers. How then does he make money?

Consider a consumer uses a Mobio application. With the help of inbuilt intelligence tools, Bhasin gathers that in 90 percent of the instances, the former uses the application in Cupertino, 5 percent in New York and 5 percent elsewhere; the usage patterns and consumer habits are also tracked, and this data is ‘valuable certain advertisers’.

Brains to business
As a result of going to market alone, without the leverage of service providers, grabbing mindshare of the U.S. consumers constitutes a big challenge for Bhasin. But even bigger is the challenge of ‘getting the content right’. After all, information consumption on the mobile is distinctly different from information consumption on the mobile phone.

Says Bhasin, “Simply taking the web experience and miniaturizing it for mobile delivery doesn’t work. The consumer is left with a poor experience and abandons the service quickly.” A large part of Mobio’s efforts are directed towards working extensively with carriers to bring ‘sophisticated’ services to the market. The content needs to be scaled down to short, juicy bits to fit the way people actually interact with information on the go, while keeping data entry and clicks at the minimum level possible.

“The immersiveness of user experience is what is our key differentiator,” notes the serial entrepreneur. In his efforts to streamline the offerings, fund management forms a big chunk of the backend controls. For in one of his earlier ventures in networking, having run out of funds, he had begun cutting costs. Then, in a sudden turn and with 15 days’ funds left, he ‘let go of more than half the sales team and had the remaining focus on the top-5 accounts where we could beat the largest incumbent inthe market and get noticed’. The sudden marketing gamble had paid off, and a few top players had signed up with his firm. He had then used this information to create a buzz among Cisco’s channel partners, and a few days later, Cisco had acquired his company.

The same man has now put his brains to the mobile value added services space, and the result could be far more exhilarating.

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