A reporter in the telecommunications industry hears fairly frequently about companies and products that came into being because the founder or creator couldn’t find what s/he was looking for out in the real world.
MINO Wireless is such a one. It launched its first product in January of 2006, after founder and CEO, Jing Liu failed to find an affordable and convenient way to make the international business calls that were a necessary part of his existence as a serial technology-startup entrepreneur. (MINO is his fourth startup.)
To be explicit, the product in question, MINO, is international calling—around the clock, not off-hours-ony—from standard, data-capable cell phones for about 30 percent of the cost of equivalent calls through a tier-one cellular carrier.
According to Liu, the $1.5 million in first-round venture funding he raised in 2005 wasn’t enough to cover a marketing budget. “We just put up a website describing the product,” he told Enterprise VoIPplanet. “People filled out a form, got instructions on how to download MINO to their cell phone. We gave every new sign-up $0.50 of free calling time. If they liked it, they prepaid for more—$10, $20, whatever.”
The viral marketing campaign was quite successful. “By September, we had over 100,000 users worldwide,” Liu said. It fairly quickly became apparent that the real market for MINO was business people, like Liu himself. “Consumers don’t really need it,” he explained; “they have many options: calling cards, Skype, call when rates are low. But business people need to call when they need to call.”
When they first approached potential enterprise customers, however, they discovered there was a problem. “We got a lot of positive feedback from business folks, but they expressed a need to be able to expense back to company,” Liu said. “They told us ‘Come back when you have something for corporate.’ ”
So, MINO raised another $7 million of capital and went to work. The result of that work—an integration of MINOs’ client software with the BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES)—was rolled out early in June of this year.
The BES, already a fixture in many enterprise wiring closets, lets IT personnel control the deployment of BlackBerries, and keeps the management of corporate e-mail in corporate hands. In combination with MINO, it puts international phone calls under similar control and provides centralized and standardized call logging and billing. Oh, and there’s that 70 percent savings as well. Cost savings and control: a pretty powerful marketing message.
“The IT guys just click a box on the BES interface to deploy MINO to your BlackBerry, and it will be pushed out over the air and installed,” Liu explained. “The end user doesn’t have to do anything. They just get an e-mail that tells them MINO has been installed and has instructions on how to use MINO to make international calls and save lots of money.”
When initiating a call from the BlackBerry address book, in addition to the standard green ‘Call’ button, users can bring up a menu of options that includes ‘Call with MINO—business’ and ‘Call with MINO—personal.’ “Calls to ‘business’ will be billed to the company monthly,” Liu explained. “Calls to ‘personal’ will be charged to your credit card or your personal prepaid account.”
MINO’s director of marketing, John Cunningham, explained the nuts and bolts—what’s going on behind the interface. The company maintains a Class 5 carrier-grade switch in Los Angeles, and another one in New York for redundancy and capacity. “When you place a MINO call from your BlackBerry (or any of the many other phones we support), you activate the VoIP-enabled call setup process,” Cunningham said.
“The application sends a small data packet to our server, which then sets up the call, authenticates it, etc. It calls the calling party and the international party, connecting both. You’re being carried over a combination of local landline and public cell phone network. The international component is typically carried as a VoIP session through our providers, who are Qwest, PACwest, and others,” he explained.
“I think we’re the first of the mobile VoIP companies to go enterprise—to create a full enterprise package,” Cunningham told VoIPplanet. It’s easy billing, easy tracking; and we have a back-end management and account tool, called MINO Manager, that allows the IT managers to track call usage in real-time. So there’s really a complete package for a company environment, which makes us different from the other folks out there,” he asserted.
“We’ll prove it out on BlackBerry, then roll it out as an integrated package to Windows Mobile, Treo, and Symbian—really hit the whole smartphone market. And we’re talking to Apple as well,” Cunningham concluded.