SMART COMPANY : Mobile Mentor

Ask Denis O’Shea where he got the idea for Mobile Mentor and the company founder and CEO heads off to pull framed picture from the wall. On it quote: “All it would take is for someone to sit down with me for one hour. I’ve tried myself, got instructions – but it’s too hard.”
That’s comment almost anyone who’s just indulged in new cell phone might relate to. Mobile technology could truly be called fast-moving feast.
It’s not that long ago that the first users were proudly demonstrating the abilities of something the size and weight of brick. You could call people on it – and look, Ma, no wires!
Today there’s so much computing power packed into mobiles that they can now operate as handheld business centre with email, internet, camera, diary, database, audio system… And you can still call people on it. The problem is keeping up with the mobile handset’s rapidly growing potential.
How do you set up email, link to Facebook or even migrate your vital contacts list?
Enter Mobile Mentor. That magic hour of personalised assistance from someone who really knows what the device can do and how to get the best out of it becomes invaluable. But mentoring is just the start point, says O’Shea. He’s aiming to build his five-year-old company into world-class service business.
“There’s room in the mobile industry for professional services company – the IT industry has companies like IBM or EDS. Nobody’s doing that in mobile so why not become dedicated service company in mobile?”
There’s strong sense of deliberation in O’Shea’s progression from smart idea to business that now employs around 170 people, serves nearly 10,000 people month and operates centres in Australia and Brazil as well as Auckland. That’s possibly because he knew how much he didn’t know about starting business.
“I was corporate guy – I came from big company background. So I had to learn how to set up company and do all those things you need to run small business.”
Originally from Ireland, O’Shea spent 15 years working for Nokia – starting when the Finnish company (then making toilet paper) was on the verge of collapse.
“I had the privilege of being part of the team that took Nokia from toilet paper to number one in mobile – and that was an amazing journey. I worked in lot of countries, learned heaps and along the way could see the technology was growing at helluva rate and becoming more complex.
“Human behaviour changes much more slowly and I could see this gap was opening up between what the technology can do and what we as users are doing.”
So he took year out, invested in an MBA programme with Swiss-based IMD and started researching the size of the mobile knowledge gap and the opportunities that lay within it. That’s when the ‘hour of help’ need emerged.
“I interviewed about 75 people to find out how they were operating their mobile, what features they were using, what they didn’t know about – and this lady basically spelt it out for me. So I built the business to do exactly what emerged from the voice of the customer – and to do it thousand or million times over, around the world.”
Once he’d refined the idea, he sought help.
“Getting handset manufacturer on board early was good – we got some financial help from Nokia in the early days. Then getting carrier to support us was great – Vodafone was the first to see the value in what we do.”
One of the smartest things he did, says O’Shea, was to go through the Icehouse business incubator experience. He went in on his own with just an idea and emerged two years later with 30 employees.
“I started with just me at desk so I made list, bought laptop and phone. At that stage, I’d tested and validated the idea, Nokia had promised some money and Vodafone said they would buy from me. So I had some things lined up and just had to make it happen.”
The Icehouse, he says, is an environment in which you try lot of things and either kill them quickly or scale them quickly. Access to advice, networking with investors, using other incubating companies as sounding boards for ideas… it was all enormously helpful.
“By the time we left two years later, there were 30 of us and we were bursting out of the place.”
Since then the company has been averaging 150 percent growth year on year and although the recession has slowed things bit, negotiations for business in China are well advanced and Mobile Mentor also has prospects in the UK and Canada.
Hiring tech-savvy “gen Y” staff for whom mobile technology is “second nature” proved smart move, as did the early set-up of an advisory board.
“This was bunch of people who’d built businesses before and were able to advise me how to proceed because when you’re donkey deep in it, it’s hard to have the objectivity,” says O’Shea.
The process wasn’t without its challenges. Acquiring the investment needed for growth was biggie.
“It seems to be extraordinarily difficult to raise capital for service business. There’s belief that it’s too hard to scale or to export. In 2006, I did over 100 investment pitches and raised no money at all. Then in 2007, I had slightly better business model and indication of good deal in Brazil so I went to the market again, raised small amount then went into Brazil, won big deal and since then it’s been easier.”
Around 75 percent of customers receive the mentoring service remotely and the advisors make use of web technology – shared screens and other online collaboration tools to help with the training sessions. The close connection with customers is also valuable conduit for feedback about mobile technology and how people want to use it.
“We get tremendous amount of customer feedback. We serve nearly 10,000 people month and 68 percent of them reply to our customer satisfaction survey.”
Mobile Mentor now offers three service models, says O’Shea. First is the partnerships with mobile phone operators (like Telstra in Australia) which offer premium customers free access to the service.
“The second is where we sell direct to individuals so if you buy new iPhone for instance, you can go online and buy our service. The third is where we’re helping big companies like the BNZ manage their mobile fleet – handling help, support, repairs or replacements. That is going to be very important part of our business going forward.”
This includes helping companies establish their mobile usage policy to ensure safe driving, data security, effective use of their mobile fleet and cost control.
And New Zealand is proving good base for what is very exportable business service model – because, O’Shea says, Kiwis are good at service.
“For us, New Zealand has one huge advantage – its service culture. We can get very good service skills in New Zealand. So we hire young people with good attitude and good respect for the customer and we deliver great service. We’ve turned that into product and we’re successfully exporting it.”

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