By Thomas Shambler
Having pioneered an entirely new business model in the Middle East, and attracted the eye of Branson's Virgin Group, what's next for Mikkel Vinter, CEO of Virgin Mobile Middle East?
What's your background?
I have been in telecoms for twenty plus years, working across Europe, Asia and the Middle East. I originally came to the Middle East 12 years ago to start up a second operator in Oman, which today is Ooredoo Oman. At one point I saw a few opportunities on the commercial side, enough to make me take the jump from the corporate life into a more entrepreneurial role, which then led to me founding a group called Friendi Group.
It really was the first of its kind in the region, with a business model called MVNO - or Mobile Virtual Network Operators. It's actually a model that Virgin pioneered in the UK way back when, and it has proven very successful in Europe, Asia, North America, Australia and pretty much everywhere else besides the Middle East and Africa. So I took the jump, and started a business with some former colleagues. Today, our business model is proving popular in the region. We're serving five markets and have slightly over 3 million customers.
You started your company eight years ago. What's been the most significant change to the business since then?
The biggest thing has to be the deal we made with Virgin Group back in 2012. They came in and invested in the group, becoming our biggest shareholder - they now own a significant minority - and we re-branded to what you see today, Virgin Mobile. Of course, once that happened we became part of a much bigger family with some amazing brands.
That was very clearly an important event for us, going from being a Middle East group under a local brand name, to becoming part of something much bigger. Virgin happens to be the global leader in the MVNO space - they are just short of 20 million customers globally - so we joined forces with a very respected international group, giving us access to a great brand and additional know-how and through the other teams around the world.
Before Virgin became involved, the company was called Friendi. What made you want to go out on your own and build a company?
On a personal level, it's something that I have been interested in doing for a long time. I have had some very good years in the industry, but when I came to the Middle East I immediately saw an opportunity. As with any entrepreneur, I had a combination of wanting to build a company for myself, and identifying a gap in the market.
When you first started out, did you ever worry that your business might not succeed?
I never really had a doubt that it was a good idea, or that we were going in the right direction. Of course, there are days where you get bad news in business. But on average, even if there were days when we received bad news, there was always some good news to balance it out. I think the positive has always outweighed the negatives.
So what makes the Virgin Group so powerful?
The Virgin brand has deep connection with people, probably because of its founder Richard Branson and his approach to business. If we look at our industry, Virgin has stated that it wants to make mobile better. That idea goes across everything we do, and indeed it's the group's philosophy: it's applicable to the airlines, to the travel agents, to the Active gyms, everything. I think a lot of customers see value in a company that is straight-up and fair, but also challenges the normal way of doing business.
We apply that in the mobile industry as well, with straightforward prices that are easy to understand without the hidden clauses. We also put added emphasis on customer service, distribution (we try our best to come to our customers when we can), and on the technical side of things, we're always looking to innovate and make something that little bit better.
No one could have predicted the rise of VOIP, or that video would become a dominant form of communication online. How do you future proof what you are doing now, for technologies that you might not even know about today?
Well, that's the beauty of our MVNO model. At Virgin Mobile we don't need to own or take care of networks, we do deals with existing providers to use their networks on a wholesale basis. That makes us more independent and service-orientated than the existing networks. If you want to look just at these new technologies like WhatsApp, Skype or Snapchat, we provide the heavy lifting around those applications. We provide the traffic and then carry the data from here to there. So on a fundamental level, increased data, video calls and social media usage is a lot more beneficial to us.
How does the business here compare to that in more developed markets like the US and UK?
Generally, the world is getting smaller and the differences that might have existed are disappearing. In the telecoms space, the Middle East is on par with the rest of the world in terms of technology - you can sometimes get the newest handsets quicker here than you can in Europe.
It's predicted that by 2020, 90 percent of the world's population will be covered by mobile broadband. What do you think the impact of that will be in developing countries?
If you look at certain places in Africa, mobiles have revolutionised a lot of traditional jobs. Banking and money transfers can now all be handled via mobile, food wastage has been reduced, and now instead of travelling all the way to a market simply to see if there is food you can pick up a phone. I think particularly in Africa, access to mobile has been a real game changer. There are UN studies that actually show an increase in GDP when mobile networks are introduced to countries. I think the rise of social media is also a big trend, and that's making this big world a lot smaller.
What advice would you give to someone thinking about leaving their current job to build a company of their own?
It's important to do something that you like. Because that gives you the fundamental motivation to go above and beyond for your business. You know, I find the whole telecoms sector and the mobile revolution that we've talked about tremendously exciting. Yes, you need to be capable and take an interest in the financial success of your company. But if you have a smile on your face every day when you turn up at work, you can't help but succeed.
What do you think is the key to innovation?
You need to have vision. You need to know where you are going. I think that is the most important thing in my opinion. Whenever you are working on a new project, you need to make it clear what you are setting out to do. If that's all clear, then the implementation becomes much easier.
What are some attributes that you think all successful people share?
Once again, I think it comes back to vision. Without that, you have nothing. After that, you have to be willing to take some risk. Everyone who wants to do something entrepreneurial, will at some point in their life have to commit to either an investment, or maybe quitting your day job to start a business. So there's tolerance of risk, but then you also need to be reasonably well organised. Having a dream and the willingness to do anything to make it happen is all well and good, but you need to have the skills to actually get the job done. That's critical.