Digerati50: Disrupting the roaming world

Digital News Asia (DNA) continues its weekly series that profiles the top 50 influencers, movers and shakers who are helping shape Malaysia’s Digital Economy, from Digerati50 Vol 2, a special print publication released in February 2016. To download a special e-reader version, see the top of this page. For information on customised reprints of Digerati50, email [email protected].

  • Had to overcome the comfort of getting a steady paycheck
  • Need new money to get exponential growth in shortest time possible

Digerati50: Disrupting the roaming world 

EVERYONE who has travelled abroad will know how convenient international roaming can be – as well as how hefty a price you can end up paying for such convenience.
 
This was an issue that engineer Jef Ong Kenn Tat was hell-bent on solving.
 
“I founded Flexiroam to end mobile roaming,” declares the cofounder and managing director of Flexiroam Ltd.  “I’m amazed that flight tickets can be less than a thousand dollars, but phone bills can cost thousands whilst travelling. And there are hidden charges.
 
“So I took it upon myself to play the role of a tech disruptor,” he says.
 
Founded in 2011, Kuala Lumpur-based Flexiroam today offers budget international roaming services for travellers designed to address what Ong calls “the bill shock issue” – exorbitant billing due to high roaming charges.
 
Flexiroam was listed on the Australian Securities Exchange (ASX) on June 16, 2015, raising A$9.3 million (US$6.57 million) through its IPO (initial public offering), and was valued at about A$36 million (US$25.44 million) at the time.
 
Prior to Flexiroam, Ong worked as a manager in a small local telco company, and he admits that it wasn’t easy to give up a stable, salaried job to strike out on his own.  “I had to overcome the comfort of getting a steady paycheck,” he recounts. “Next was convincing my cofounders to do the same, with no assurance that I could pay them.
 
“It’s crazy, but if you manage to get like-minded people who buy into your vision, you can do extraordinary things.
 
“Also, I have my wife to thank for believing in me – there were many times when I wanted to give up, but she kept me going. She is truly the greatest partner I have in this venture,” Ong proudly declares.
 
One of his biggest challenges was funding. Taking on established telcos is never an easy task, and naysayers were sceptical as to whether his business proposition was viable.
In the early days, Ong was turned down by more than 150 government agencies, banks, venture capitalists and institutional investors. But through these experiences, he refined the ‘salesmanship’ skills that eventually got him funding.
 
“One of the things I’ve learnt is that in a tech business, organic growth equals a slow death. Prior to Flexiroam, I spent seven years running a software business without any funding, but eventually, international competitors entered the market and wiped me out.
 
“To get exponential growth in the shortest time possible, you need new money to grow so your wealth is shared with others,” he advises.
 
On working with telcos rather than competing with them, Jef says it’s all a matter of providing a win-win situation so that they will not see Flexiroam as a threat.  
 
The company does this by partnering telcos through roaming wholesale arrangements, and utilising their unused capacity with inbound travellers. With Flexiroam, consumers get a value-for-money option while telcos get to optimise their unsold airtime, Ong says.
 
“Interestingly, I believe Flexiroam has actually caused the entire roaming market to become larger and that telcos are also benefiting from us.”
 
Ong is also very optimistic about the future, believing that business travel can only increase as corporations become increasingly diverse and global.
 
“Budget travel is here to stay and treaties such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement will open up greater trade opportunities. Best of all, we’re ready to capture these opportunities,” he says.
 

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