On the occasion of the 2017 Cannes Lions Creativity Festival, I sat down with the Co-Founder and CEO of Smartpipe to discuss the state of mobile marketing technology and his journey to the company’s founding.
Imagine the extent of the data emanating from the world’s major mobile networks, and imagine putting that data to use for marketing purposes. Smart idea, impossible to execute. Until now.
Smartpipe positions itself as the first and only global, real-time, privacy compliant and secure data ecosystem for the monetization of network operators’ customer data. The company points to their patent-protected solution which provides a single, data-stream integration that enables network operators, data providers, advertising agencies and brands to access the power of the data for marketing purposes.
Founded in 2014 by co-founders Tobin Ireland (CEO) and Tanya Field (CPO), the London-based company has raised some $25 million in venture funding from Notion Capital, Comba Telecom Systems, Delta Partners Ventures, Wren Capital and Finance Wales. The company also has a development center in Cwmbran, Wales, which explains the Finance Wales backing.
“Smartpipe is three years old now, but for five years before that we were trying to answer the question of, ‘How does a mobile operator use its data, or make the most money out of the biggest part of a value chain, in the future of mobile advertising — given the constraints of using the data within their control, within their firewall?’ We have ended up building a technology that does that, but I think it has much broader implications,” says Ireland.
Smartpipe is now broadening the application and the technology beyond a marketing use-case for financial transactions and other security focused purposes, because the operators are now pushing the company in that direction. “However, the main financial thrust of the business is still about providing the platform for onboarding data into the mobile advertising ecosystem in a much more secure, controlled and privacy compliant way,” says Ireland.
Ireland spent years working on solving the carrier data platform challenge while at Vodafone, where he served as the former global head of strategy and business development. There he worked on initiatives to compete or complement over-the-top players like Apple, Google and Facebook.
“One of those initiatives was mobile advertising and how operators could monetize the biggest part of the value chain in the future,” says Ireland. That’s when he met his co-founder, Tanya Field, who was running content and data platforms for Telefonica.
Ireland and team led initiatives with the leading European mobile operator groups and potential partnerships with AT&T, Verizon and Singtel, as well as the creation of the Weve joint venture (Vodafone, O2 and EE) in the U.K. But the industry is complicated with partners that compete and shifting alliances. The projects never got off the ground with technical and coordination issues and Ireland decided it was time to leave Vodafone.
Ireland was looking to abandon the telco business completely when Field called him to review with her an early stage company called Fifth Tier, which had approached them for investment. ‘The core of the technology was exactly what you needed to enable this whole platform that we were trying to build, that Verizon had spent $200 million trying to build and Weve spent $60 million trying to build, and couldn’t get the real-time tokenization working,” says Ireland.
The company was failing from a commercial perspective and the board approached Ireland and Field to take it over. This was the birth of Smartpipe.
“We have had a three-year journey where we’ve bought this core technology and we’ve had to turn it into a platform and then an ecosystem player,” says Ireland. Today the business has some 45 employees and has raised $25 million in venture funding.
Though Smartpipe is Ireland’s first start-up as founder, he always considered himself to be an entrepreneur in waiting, taking on some challenges of digital transformation jobs in large corporations. “I guess I’ve been waiting for the big one and for the timing to be right.”
His parents emigrated to Canada from Wales when they were 21 and 17 as there were few jobs in Wales in the early ’60s. Ireland and his brother were born in Canada, but they moved back to the UK when Ireland was 11 after his father’s job took him to the oil platforms of the North Sea.
Ireland graduated from Bristol University then went back to school to work on his PhD program, but took a job at McKinsey before he could finish. He then decided to get his MBA from Stanford during the height of the dotcom boom, but was never taken in by Silicon Valley’s allure and returned to London. He was then recruited to be a Managing Director at boo.com and would later become its COO at the age of 26.
He moved on to BskyB when boo.com came crashing down. There were many big learnings in failure but he is proud of boo.com’s many achievements in pushing the early boundaries of e-commerce. “Suddenly I was the youngest Director at BSkyB at 29, running their digital businesses. I had three very good years there where I learned a lot about how the world really works, how decisions really get made, and politics.”
Ireland then moved on to AOL, where he was the CMO of AOL U.K., then all of Europe. From AOL, he moved on to Vodafone as Chief Commercial Development Officer covering global strategy, new business development and ventures.
What does Ireland hope for the future of Smartpipe?
“Our vision is to get into the 100 mobile operators and the 25 markets that matter most, within the next two or three years. And at that point will be probably be the largest data business in the world, bigger than Google and bigger than Facebook,” says Ireland.
By Bruce H. Rogers is the co-author of the recently published book Profitable Brilliance: How Professional Service Firms Become Thought Leaders (source -www.forbes.com)