Start-ups to Watch: AirG, the Largest Inter-Operator Mobile Community in the World at 20M+ Members

The title is a bit of an oxymoron, how can a ‘start-up’ also be the largest inter-operator mobile community in the World?  I’m being a little loose in the definition of ‘start-up’ as airG is really a profitable, established business.  However, they still have the entrepreneurial zeal of a fresh-face start-up, and being secreted in Vancouver has enabled them to achieve something quite remarkable with little fanfare.

While Bay Area mobile community start-ups struggle with triple digit churn, struggle to break passed the 1M customer mark, and raise tens of millions in VC cash due to the perceived value of the passing ‘eyeballs’.  airG‘s mobile community has more than 20 million unique users worldwide and is interconnected to more than 100 mobile operators and media companies globally including Sprint Nextel, AT&T, Rogers, TELUS, Virgin Mobile, Orange, Boost Mobile, Vodafone and MTV Asia.  And most importantly is making a profit.  Yes! a Mobile 2.0 community that’s making a profit rather than burning investor cash in the hope that advertisers do not wake up to the fact that they’re being used by the rest of the value chain, i.e. some social networks are seeing click-through rates of 2-4 per 10,000 impressions; that’s not an advertising campaign, that’s an accident!

airG was founded in 2000 by Frederick Ghahramani, Vincent Yen and Bryce Pasechnik, originally called AirGames, they focused upon WAP games.  They quickly discovered that game-play on WAP isn’t much fun.  However, they had a lobby and chat function, then soon discovered that people didn’t logon to AirGames to play WAP games, rather to chat.  Hence the name change and focus on community services.

airG highlights an important point that I touched upon when I reviewed Miniweb, just as Miniweb is not putting the web on a TV, its creating interactive TV.  airG is not putting a web-based community on the phone, its enabling a mobile community.  The user experience is different.  In North America and Western Europe, broadband internet access has a high penetration, most people access their web services (e.g. communities) through a PC, and some treat the mobile as an ‘always-on’ connection to their communities when they’re not in front on the PC.  This clouds the perception of most in the industry as the vast majority of people in the world do not access the internet through a PC, they access it through a mobile phone.  For example, there is over 20 times the number of mobile customers to broadband customers in India, here community is accessed through the mobile.  airG has demonstrated the use case is significantly different, even in countries with high broadband internet penetration.

A critical issue with mobile communities is interoperability across network ‘islands’.  We’ll be discussing in the panel session “Telco 2.0 and Web 2.0: Making Money Together?” at the The Voice Peering Forum (June 23-24th, San Francisco).  airG has shown the power of enabling inter-operator mobile communities, and built a profitable business.  Its good to see a Mobile 2.0 business being built on sound commercial principles, rather than the usual Bay Area process of “burn the VC cash giving stuff away for free to get as many eye-balls to your site/application as possible, create a monetization story, find a buyer, and exit on an inflated multiple before the business model needs to be really proven out.”