Next time your mobile phone tells you that England have scored against Germany, or that torrential rain is on the way, or which housemate just got the chop in Big Brother, the chances are that it was Wireless Information Network (WIN) that made it happen. Founded in 1996 by Marc Charlton and Peter Norman, WIN enables the likes of Sky Sports and the Met Office to send SMS text messages over any network to your mobile phone.
Although WIN itself was only set up in 1996, its origins can be traced back to 1989, when one of WIN’s co-founders, Marc Charlton, founded paging service provider Sprintel Communications. This serviced a niche market by providing city professionals with the latest financial information via their pagers. In 1995, Charlton realised that the pager company had “gone as far as it could”, and decided to extend Sprintel’s services to cellular networks. Because of Sprintel’s complex shareholder structure, Charlton decided to set up a new vehicle for his wireless venture. He approached Peter Norman, an investment banker, to help find funding.
WIN launched its first service in 1997, in partnership with US stockbroker Charles Schwab. The service was aimed at city professionals wanting to keep in touch with the latest financial information through their mobiles phones. “It bombed,” says Norman. “They got the marketing wrong, and we failed to connect with the private investors who were our target”. “The service itself was great though,” he adds, “it proved what we could do.” Indeed, the original service is still running with a small but loyal customer base. The experience underlined how important marketing partners were to WIN’s sales. Norman stresses that WIN is a technology company focussed on enabling wireless services. It does not sell its services but receives a share of the revenues they generate. As such, WIN is reliant on the marketing and distribution muscle of its partners. Choosing the right ones has become an important factor in their success.
WIN’s biggest and most successful service to date has been the SMS update service for the Big Brother TV series, which peaked at 1.25 million messages a week. News International marketed the service through The Sun newspaper; Channel Four provided the news feeds and SMS content; and WIN organised and sent out the right messages to registered users over the UK’s four mobile networks. Other services include Mystic Meg for The Sun; flight information for BAA; football news for Arsenal; and mobile Infotouch for BT Cellnet. Sales grew 245% a year, from £196,000 in 1998 to £2.3m in 2000.
Initially financed by the two founders, WIN received additional financing of £8m in May 2000 from investment bank Goldman Sachs and further investment from Schroder Ventures later in the same year. Despite this success in raising finance, the founders are cautious in how they spend it. They have avoided, for example, investing in Wireless Application Protocol (WAP) services. ”SMS can make you money,” says Norman, “to date, the user experience of WAP has been poor. There simply isn’t a revenue model yet.” The company’s approach to next generation mobile services such as location-based services and mobile commerce is similarly cautious. It’s engineers are developing services, but WIN will not begin to offer them until a revenue model can be found.
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