Ding's Mark Roden talks Dubai, Elon Musk and the importance of sticking to what you know with Harriet Green

Harriet Green
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Now in 130 countries, Ding can deliver top-up services to nearly 4bn phones (Source: Getty)

While on what was supposed to be a relaxing family holiday to Dubai in 2005, Mark Roden was cooking up a business. “I’d taken my wife Nicola and our then three under three away to celebrate the sale of my previous business to RBS.” Roden owned a successful network of in-store cash ATMs, which he had built up because of the dearth of such machines in his home country of Ireland. “Anyway, we were staying in this amazing hotel on the beach front; it was absolutely smashing. I asked Nicole if she’d like a coffee, then went off to find a waiter to order one. I found someone, and we got talking. I asked him what had brought him to Dubai, and he told me he was Indian and there to help support his family back home. He told me he used remittance systems to send phone credit home. Then he whipped out the top-up card he used.”

Roden saw the inefficiency immediately, and the idea for his mobile top-up company Ding took seed. The waiter was buying a credit top-up card in Dubai, scratching it and sending the pin to his wife in India. She’d put that into her phone, putting minutes back on it. “There was no financial institution involved. He was sending value direct, but it was obvious it could be done far better.”

The smell of demand

Roden’s wife came to find him to ask which restaurant he’d like to go to for dinner, but got told that her husband was heading down town with his new acquaintance. “Where he was living was really rough and grim – the bit of Dubai you don’t see. He took me to a dimly lit pop-up shop, and there were thousands of cards. It struck me that there must be thousands of people, too, all trying to send value around the world.”

So Roden ploughed the proceeds of his former venture into Ezetop, later re-branded Ding, and started building the technology to connect mobile operators and users via his service. Dublin-based Ding enables people – predominantly from emerging markets – to send value to each other in the form of phone credit. Roden turns his laptop and shows me a real-time map of Ding activity. The whole world is flashing – the UK to Bangladesh, Florida to Cuba, Dubai to India. The firm now works with 350 operators and sees thousands of transactions a day. Now in 130 countries, it can deliver top-up services to nearly 4bn phones. Customers can visit one of the half a million retailers Ding is in, or use the service online or via its app, which makes topping up a matter of clicks. “I wanted to build something that was so easy and inclusive to use that it’d be readily accepted – people would want to use it. If we’re in rural Kerala and we’re asking people to go online and input details to sign up, we’ve already made it too difficult. And it’s insulting customers inadvertently – look at what happened with Facebook and Free Basics.”

Making some noise

Roden explains that he “hasn’t really done any PR yet, but this is a sector that needs to be spoken about.” Once Ding was up and running, VCs started telling the entrepreneur that he should move into mobile money. “I’ve resisted doing that, because I don’t think it’s the most important thing to do.” I pick him up on this – mobile payments, the Internet of Things – isn’t he well-positioned to be a part of that? “I believe that it’s really important to get big and get known for something – and to do that thing really well. What we’re doing is real. We have a customer base and need. The Internet of Things, blockchain – that stuff is very interesting, but there is no customer base. We could go bust trying to achieve critical mass and, meanwhile, there are thousands of people who need our service every day. I’m absolutely certain that this is just the first stage of our business, but I won’t take the business in a certain direction just because it’s sexy.”

And being told his business should be something other than what it is has also put Roden off taking VC money. “Three quarters of a billion of VC money has flowed into fintech startups that promise a solution and have never really delivered a return. I was able to use the money from my previous business to grow a firm that’s hit $4m Ebitda and $250m of gross transactions in 2014.” M&A has been an important part of Ding’s growth story. Last year, it bought its US counterpart iSend. “They were working just into Mexico, and the acquisition gave us a fantastic way into that market. This is part of not trying to be good at several things, but just being excellent at one.”

One step ahead

But it’d be a mistake to think that Ding isn’t a highly innovative company. Because it doesn’t just transfer value for minutes, but for data too. “It’s a long time before Elon Musk blankets large areas of the world with internet access. That means a lot of data plans available today can’t be accessed because they’re too expensive.” But Roden gives people the ability to pay for some 2G or 3G access. He relates a story of a trip to Rwanda made by one of his employees. “She came across a couple of young girls who were holding up a phone to their ears and giggling. They were listening to the radio, powered by airtime and paid for via Ding.”

Now, Roden is focusing on scaling his business. When I met him, he was in London on a recruitment drive. “We have fantastic back-office expertise in Dublin, but the talent you find here is simply not replicated.” I ask him where he hopes to be in a years’ time. “Twice as big. When you’re actually making money and it’s not venture-backed, it’s extraordinarily satisfying. I haven’t spent 10 years working on this to say, ‘okay, that’s enough’. And I know I sound like Bono, but I just love knowing that, in the middle of the night, when there’s no electricity, someone hears a Ding and knows they can call or text a loved one."

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