Backdoor into the Internet

Backdoor into the Internet

Omidyar Network & Matrix Partners India-backed U2opia Mobiles has found a solution for 28 million users in emerging markets to access social media and Internet with no data connection, and just USSD gateways

Madhumita Prabhakar

The founding idea

Sumesh Menon and his co-founder formed U2opia Mobiles with the initial idea of identifying users in emerging markets, who do not have a data connection, and offering them access to social media through a USSD gateway. USSD or Unstructured supplementary service data, is the short code a user usually enters when they want to check their prepaid balance on the phone.

The solution

Their first app, Fonetwish, was launched in 2011, in partnership with telecom operator Airtel and social media giant, Facebook. Fonetwish enables users (with no data connection) to access Internet and social media by just entering the short code through the USSD gateway.

Product Evolution

Today, the company has developed three primary products; Fonetwish, Foneverify and Fonepass, which cater to end customers, publishers and telecom operators. And, it has 28 million users across 45 countries and partnerships with 65 mobile carriers.

On the product evolution front, today Fonetwish connects app publishers (across industries) with end users. Foneverify is a mobile number authentication tool which allows app-makers to verify user mobile numbers when they register/sign-up for the app. Fonepass helps telecom operators secure contextual mobile data to engage with users on their app-based data plans. A fourth pet project, Woo, connects users with like-minded, urban singles in the city.

Future Outlook

In three years, it plans to add over 120 carriers, add 600 additional employees on board and become a holistic platform with multiple business interests in the mobile and Internet platforms. Specifically, it plans to further develop its data centric arm.

3 key funding takeaways

U2opia raised two rounds of funding (in 2011 and 2014), for an undisclosed amount from Matrix Partners India and Omidyar Network. According to Menon, several experiences during the early stage and scaling up phase gave them some key lessons on creating the right pitch, and identifying the right investors.

Securing funding with no prototype in hand: While the founders had a compelling idea in place, they had no prototype to present to investors, because Airtel (their first telecom operator) wanted to see the product, and Facebook had to be convinced that the idea will work. So, while an internal connection in Airtel helped them crack one side of the problem, with Facebook, their prior experience in operating in emerging markets such as Indonesia led them to buy into the idea easily. In Menon’s words, they showed pure passion, had a compelling case, made people believe in their idea and then built the prototype.

Finding the right investors: The relationship between Matrix Partners India and U2opia worked well because one, the investors invested in the people behind the idea more than the idea itself. Secondly, they mastered the art of striking a balance between giving strategic support to the founding team, and still giving them the freedom to scale the business as they thought right.

Building credibility: Associating with the investors helped the company tackle the challenge of identifying and hiring talented employees. In other words, the investor brand association helped the company attract quality talent.

Data Internet Matrix Partners India Omidyar Network U2opia Mobiles

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