Free calls are no longer the purview of chat apps. By serving up advertisements, Freebie lets mobile users call without needing to pay a cent
Mention that your product is free, and many people will gravitate towards it like flies to honey. Why choose to pay for something when you can get it without needing to give up a cent?
Till now though, free in tech products generally applies to desktop and mobile software, being mostly either ad-supported like many mobile apps or based on a freemium model like games. With the arrival of Freebie, a Thailand-based startup that lets mobile users call for free in exchange for listening to advertisements, the list of free tech products is set to expand.
Founder Gavintorn Atthakor first got the idea for Freebie in March 2012. “I first had the idea for ad-sponsored free calls in the middle of the night, at around 3 AM,” he said, “After testing the idea with a handful of close friends from various backgrounds, I knew that I had something great in my hands, something none of us had heard of before.”
Fast forward to July 2012. With a team, Atthakor founded Echo 360, the parent company of Freebie. Its first six months were spent on feasibility analysis, and subsequently another year was spent on development and launch preparation. “While the basic idea is simple — listen to an audio file and call for free — developing and launching the system to support the idea was something else,” he said.
According to Freebie CEO Artima Suraphongchai, Freebie spent a year in testing and validation. “We did extensive market research on consumers and buyers, and the results were very positive with Freebie being rated as the most-preferred new media by consumers,” she notes, “Because our market research results indicated that customers want free reliable cellular calls, rather than a compromised app/data dependent VoIP solution, it took us a full year to develop the platform as well as negotiate business terms.”
The mechanism behind Freebie is simple enough. For end users, they simply need to opt-in to a network, which will serve them relevant ads and voice content based on their profile and lifestyle. In return, they get free voice calls and/or data on a cellular network, which helps especially when they are out of phone credits, or when they have no access to data services. This is particularly useful for Thais and many Southeast Asians, where over 90 per cent of mobile users are on the pre-paid scheme, and where smartphone/data package penetration is less than 30 per cent.
For advertisers, Freebie addresses their marketing needs by better targeting potential customers, as well as guaranteeing impressions by making sure users listen to the entire message. In addition, Freebie helps telcos increase their average revenue per user (ARPU) in voice as well as non-voice subscriptions, helping them make mobile technology more affordable, reliable and available.
Freebie was launched in October 2013 to subscribers of AIS, Thailand’s largest telco. With access to a pool of 40 million subscribers in total, Freebie has grown rapidly, reaching over 300,000 active users right now, translating to over 100,000 impressions heard daily, as per the company. It has also reached out to over 50 agencies and brands, and companies that use Freebie’s advertising network, including multinationals such as Unilever and McDonald’s.
Right now, Suraphongchai is looking to expand Freebie to more countries in Southeast Asia, and hopes that Echelon 2014 will help with this endeavour. “We hope to find strategic partners and investors at Echelon 2014,” she said, “Going forward, Freebie is looking to raise US$8 million over the next five years – US$1 million to fully capture Thailand, and US$7 million to launch Freebie in Indonesia, Philippines and Vietnam over the next few years.”
Finally, Atthakor shared a few words for aspiring entrepreneurs. “Startups should aspire to solve real problems. We should ‘think big’ and strive to develop innovative solutions that really change the lives of our customers,” he exhorted, “I often compare doing your own startup to peeling an onion while riding on a roller coaster. There are lots of ups and downs and seemingly endless layers of problems that you have to solve. But it is not as scary as it sounds because you are not alone on the roller coaster. You have your team.”
Echelon 2014 is a two-day Startup, Technology and Business event where Asia’s most innovative startups, early-stage investors and tech industry leaders as well as tech media, gather to celebrate and build Asia’s growing tech industry, as well as make valuable relationships.