Virtual Numbers Game
JG: Sure, the company was formed as ForgetMeNot software by a couple of guys, and their initial offering was an SMS alert system for doctors and dentists in Hong Kong. There was a web app that enabled users of the system to go in and set up a reminder SMS to be sent out the day before the appointment. This is where the ForgetMeNot part of the name comes from.
Once we started to have more than one active appointment, however, or wished to make the response do different things on a case-by-case basis, we had to start making a programmable framework, so as to make those “different things” extensible. This was centred around pools of “leased” virtual reply numbers. Of course, triggering different behaviour in response to a received SMS is only one part of the story. We later flipped it around to allow custom behaviour in response to email, IM, and social network interactions, all mediated by a programmable framework whose origins were based in the need to flip a colour-coded indicator in an online calendar.
DM: What are these virtual reply numbers? How do they work?
JG: The best way to explain is by way of an example. Initially the user registers through a shortcode and is given an email address via an SMS, based on the name of the carrier, so for example, firstname.lastname@example.org. When anyone sends an email to that address, it arrives on the phone as an SMS from a virtual number. So if I sent you an email to that address, you could save it as Jeremy George’s email. And then you do the same for each person that you are in email contact with on your phone. You have a unique virtual number for each person, and we have patented number-sharing technology that means that with just 1,000 numbers from the carrier in question, we can give each user up to 1,000 virtual number, so 1,000 email contacts on their phone. We call these numbers eTXT numbers and the messages sent between SMS or USSD and an IP address, eTXTs.
Once we had established these eTXT numbers, we started to add chat and social networking. We realised very quickly that this would be an ideal solution for emerging markets, so we started talking to potential investors, and four years ago, we took investment from LonZim, part of the Lonrho Group, and specialist investors in Africa. (They recently changed their name to Cambria Africa.)
They gave us six months to commercialise the offer in Africa, so we went on road trips across the continent, visiting a number of mobile network operators. Fortunately, we were successful and at this point, LonZim and ForgetMeNot Software created a company to operate in Africa under the name of ForgetMeNot Africa. Because of my previous experience running businesses in Africa, I was employed to run the company.
DM: So do you operate solely in Africa?
JG: Well, yes and no. ForgetMeNot Africa was created to provide our services to African mobile network operators. But our parent company and technical partner, ForgetMeNot Software, which is based in Hong Kong, is also working in the Far East and Latin America.
DM: OK, so tell us about the Facebook stuff, which I think is what we have written about when we have covered your news in the past.
JG: We saw that the chat application was very popular, and we saw that a lot of it was Facebook chat, so we integrated all Facebook functionality within the service. So you can post to your wall and comment on other people’s posts, and it’s all done via SMS to cater for people on low-end phones. So if someone posts to your wall, you get it as an SMS and you can comment back to your wall by replying to the SMS.
DM: Now if I post to my wall on Facebook in the UK, I’m going to need a data plan, or at least run up a data bill, to do that. But that’s not how you work, right? And if that is right, how do the mobile operators feel about that?
JG: That’s right. You don’t need a data plan. The operators see our service as a bridging technology. Less than 5 per cent of people in Africa have a data plan, and obviously, the operators would love to get everyone on data, but they realise that this is going to take some time, so in the interim, our service introduces people who would not normally be able to afford a data tariff or feature phone to the concept of Facebook on their phone, and the hope is that in time, a good number of those people will upgrade to a better phone and a data plan.
DM: And in the meantime, the operators earn additional revenue from the SMS traffic.
JG: Yes, they do, but it’s important to understand that we are not a premium service; we are a sub-premium service. So in Kenya, for example, an SMS typically costs 1 Kenyan shilling; our texts cost one quarter of that. We will not deploy unless the network understands this is not a premium service. There is a market for Premium SMS for things like ringtones, but that is a long way from our model; we are all about small margins on large volumes.
DM: OK, so I understand you have seven contracts with mobile carriers in six African countries – Lesotho, Kenya, Nigeria, Republic of the Congo, Zimbabwe and Cape Verde. That’s seven operators that buy into your vision, but I’m interested to know how many don’t. How many can’t stomach the idea of a sub-premium SMS-based service?
JG: No one has said no for that reason. Some operators have said no for other reasons, like they want to push data only, for example, but in general, they are surprisingly open to the sub-premium model.
DM: OK, and what next for you?
JG: Up until this point, we have treated Africa as a pilot, but we have proven the model now, and so we want to start moving it out to the bigger networks. If you look at MTN in Nigeria for example, you’re talking about 35m subscribers, and in Asia, a lot of networks start at that level.
We also want to extend our technology to other areas. We have been running a number of App Challenges. We opened up our API to any developer, and we’ve been running workshops in Nairobi and Harare. We got a bunch of developers and showed them how to use our platform, and they are now building their own hyper-local apps, all using SMS or USSD. There are a lot of areas we can push into with this.
Jeremy George is COO of ForgetMeNot Africa