Tiny Tunisian startup cracks open global telco market

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RoamSmart helps mobile operators manage their roaming operations
Roamsmart helps mobile operators manage their roaming operations. (Image via RCR Wireless)

Roaming is a pain for business travelers and a bother for mobile operators, but an opportunity for Tunisian startup Roamsmart.

Roaming is the ability for a person to make and receive voice calls and conduct other operations when outside the geographical coverage area of their home network. All made possible thanks to partnerships between operators across the world.

Founders Mehdi Triki, Walid Ben Chamekh and a partner, who preferred to stay anonymous, knew too well how tedious and time-consuming the partnerships can be, having met while Triki was working at a giant American roaming supplier and the others at a Tunisian operator.

They knew how many documents, technological data and commercial information had to be sent constantly to make international roaming work.

So late in 2012 the trio decided to do a partnership of their own and started Roamsmart, which handles and streamlines the elements involved in offering roaming services for major telcos. Today they have 28 corporate clients, including Orange and Vodafone, over four continents and are planning to double that number by the end of the year.

Hyper-specialized solutions for concrete needs

“Operators all around the world have the same processes and challenges,” Triki told Wamda.

Over three years they created nine modules to manage specific challenges, including fraud detection, managing discounts to partners, understanding one’s market share in order to negotiate contracts, handling the frequent document modifications due to network evolution and agreement updates.

These modules are sold as service-as-a-software (SaaS) subscriptions, and are cloud-based.

But Roamsmart is not the only one offering services to telcos’ roaming departments. American giant Syniverse primarily handles billing between operators but they sell three of the nine services that Roamsmart also offers. Another company Starhome Mach also sells value-added global mobility services and products similar to some of Roamsmarts’.

Triki was not concerned, saying that their rivals weren’t focused on Roamsmarts’ market nor were they putting the effort and budget in that Roamsmart was to build the service.

A $90 billion market

The potential for growth is huge as there are around 800 operators worldwide, based on the number of registered members of the GSMA, the association representing the interests of mobile operators worldwide.

Thanks to declining roaming charges this market could rise from nearly $57 billion in 2015 to $90 billion by 2018, according to a report from Juniper Research.

But entering an international market of this size when you’re a small company comes with its own difficulties, the biggest ones being time zones and different working weekdays.

“Sometimes, I would have to wake up at 2am to do client presentations,” Triki said.

His team of 15 is multilingual works in shifts to make it possible to support countries that start the working week on Sunday instead of Monday, or are on completely different time zones.

Cofounders Triki and Ben Chamekh at Mobile World Congres
Cofounders Triki and Ben Chamekh at Mobile World Congress. (Image via Roamsmart)

A small startup working with giant telcos

Yet maintaining an HQ in Tunisia is one of their strengths.

Triki said it was close to Europe and still part of the giant MENA market but it had one drawback: sometimes, telcos were less trusting than if the company was based in a more recognized market.

The solution was to show that other trusted mobile operators were trusting Roamsmart and satisfied with their services.

“You always think you’re going to sell in the first two weeks, reality is different,” he said. “Even if you know the market, know people, even if you’re sure your product answers all the challenges [it can still get stuck].”

It took them nine months of sales before they signed their first client, despite receiving a lot of interest.

Triki’s strategy was three-fold: offer free trial periods; partner with respected tech and roaming partners; and “hassle hard”.

They partnered for instance with another roaming service provider, Comfone, which offers Roamsmart services to their clients to complement their portfolio of services, and joined Microsoft’s startup support program BizSpark, which is helping the startup mostly on technical matters, but also with commercial and marketing development.

“Having Microsoft as partner is a guarantee of quality, this really helped us,” he said.

Triki said they’re now looking for ways to leverage Microsoft’s account managers around the world.

It’s time to get aggressive

Now that they have clients to vouch for them, they can pitch for bigger corporate customers. One contract with a group can bring a bunch of clients. Roamsmart’s goal for 2016 is to sign groups in the hope of reaching 50 clients and 900,000 Tunisian dinars (US$450,000) by the end of year.

The company is profitable but recently raised an undisclosed amount from Tunisian/Qatari fund Intilaq to grow faster.  

As the company is starting to make a name for itself on the market, “it’s time to be more aggressive”, Triki said.

“We have competitors and suppliers that are [quite similar] and are checking closely what we’re doing. If we’re not aggressive, they could develop competing solutions.”

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