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The People’s Operator: IPO And Jimmy Wales Give Charity-Focused MVNO Credibility

Steve McCaskill is editor of TechWeekEurope and ChannelBiz. He joined as a reporter in 2011 and covers all areas of IT, with a particular interest in telecommunications, mobile and networking, along with sports technology.

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CEO of The People’s Operator says its business model is working and allowing it to thrive in competitive UK mobile market

As the recent demise of Mobile by Sainsbury’s demonstrated, the UK mobile market is very competitive. In addition to the four major networks, there are as many as 30 mobile virtual network operators (MVNO) using EE, O2, Vodafone and Three’s infrastructure, including Virgin Media and Tesco Mobile.

The People’s Operator (TPO) is one such MVNO, and its unique selling point is that ten percent of everything a customer spends on the network is donated to charity.

It launched three years and is a for-profit organisation, but since then, it has floated on the London Stock Exchange, hired Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales as head of digital and most recently launched its own social network based around donations.

“It’s been a period of explosive growth,” TPO CEO Mark Epstein told TechWeekEurope. “We’ve had more than 400 percent growth so far this year, we’re hitting all our targets in the UK where we have 50,000 customers. We’re really proud we can compete.”

Vindication of the business

Mark Epstein The People's OperatorWales’ appointment has had two main benefits, Epstein (pictured) said. Firstly, he heads up a talented team of engineers and secondly, he has opened doors for the company in the US, where TPO has expansion plans.

“[In the UK] we did what we said we’d do. We built up slowly,” continued Epstein. “We floated on the London Stock Exchange last year, which was a big achievement for the business. It reinforced the credibility of the business model and reinforced the viability of it.

“The fact that the City and major institutions felt the same way was great.

“We had a couple of options and we could have just taken venture capital money from the West Coast. People say that money can open up doors for you, but Jimmy [Wales] can phone anyone up and get a meeting so we didn’t need to do that.

“This was a great opportunity for the UK financial markets. Normally this all happens on the West Coast. You read in the paper that ‘company X’ has floated in America and there’s never really been the opportunity for the UK to invest in something that’s home grown from the start.

Social network

The funds raised in the initial public offering (IPO) are being used for the US expansion and for the launch of TPO’s social network. Here, people can raise donations for their causes – but unlike other platforms, TPO doesn’t charge any fees.

The Peoples Operator TPO 2“The big difference with our one is that we don’t charge any money, whereas others might take up to eight percent of donations,” added Epstein. “We just pass on the bank fees which are about 2.5 percent. It’s much more cost effective for causes and it also offers the opportunity [for people] to really engage and tell people what they are doing, so it’s a richer experience.”

One of the reasons why TPO is able to give money to charity is because it doesn’t market the service and instead relies on word of the mouth recommendations. Its social network is about building the TPO brand, not only in countries where it operates, but also in other territories to which it may expand to in the future.

“We make our money through the phone network,” said Epstein. “We’re an ad-free social network. We don’t need adverts do that and we don’t need to make money from the donation fees.

“We can say ‘why not supercharge your donation and switch to TPO?’ In effect we become the only advertiser on our channel. This is quite an important thing.”

‘Best kept secret’ in Tech City

Wales lives in London, which he once said is much better for tech than “dreadful” Silicon Valley. Epstein may not necessarily share Wales’ views on Northern California, but he does agree about the capital.

“London provides a great market for hiring super-quality people, so Jimmy has been able to build a team of amazingly talented developers from across the world, all wanting to come and work in London on this project. It’s a great place to do business and hire staff.

“We’ve gone into the US market rather than a US company coming over here. We’ve floated on the London market and I keep saying we’re the best-kept secret in Tech City!”

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