Despite the proliferation of smart devices, cellular networks and the increasing penetration of 5G services, seamless global connectivity remains a pipedream for most international travellers. In fact, this problem has existed ever since mobile phones and smartphones first came on to the scene, but only in recent years has seamless connectivity across borders become a possibility with eSIMs. Even there, customers have to sign up with different carriers each time and this does add friction to the process.
But eSIMs are the future and Singapore and India-based eSIM marketplace Airalo is looking to make borderless cellular connectivity a possibility with its eSIM marketplace. International travellers, business users and corporates can avail connectivity in foreign lands at affordable prices, without swapping SIM cards or changing numbers. The company has partnered with hundreds of the world’s leading telcos to offer customers the access to local and global eSIMs.
Simply put, an eSIM is an embedded SIM or a virtual SIM card which is built into smartphones, tablets and even PCs. A single eSIM chip can hold multiple profiles at once so carrier networks can recognise the right profile when they detect it. Such eSIMs are currently available on all the high-end smartphones that are manufactured from 2018 onwards, including newer Apple iPhone models, Google Pixel series, Samsung’s premium devices as well as some tablets.
For instance, when a customer opts for ‘international roaming plans’ from a local telecom service operator, they are either charged exorbitantly or there is no reliability of service as the network is being provided by the third-party service provider. Eliminating the roaming hassles in India and globally, Airalo cofounder Ahmet Bahadir Ozdemir told Inc42 that the startup is offering travellers a seamless experience where they no longer have to go to a physical store at an airport to buy SIM cards or carry Wi-Fi dongles. Naturally, the biggest advantage besides the connectivity is the tariff here as customers will only be charged a fixed amount.
On Airalo, customers select the country, choose the local network with the desired data plan that they want to purchase, scan the QR code, download the telecom profile, and are good to go, connected to a local network, without any hassles.
With eSIMs becoming more common, marketplaces such as Airalo have emerged with GigSky, RedteaGO, DENT, MySIM, Truphone, Telna, ARM, roam2free and Ooredoo being the primary competition for the startup. However, India is yet to tap into this market. According to industry experts, eSIM adoption is poised in India across several connected devices over the next ten years, as market penetration of such devices improves.
The Marketplace For Cellular Connectivity
A serial entrepreneur, Ozdemir founded Airalo in March 2019, along with Duran Akcaylier. Ozdemir’s past startups include Wossco, a food supply startup for shipping and Sim4Crew, a global mobile virtual network operator (MVNO) for sailors and ship crew. “Originally, I am from Turkey. I came to Singapore in 2018 with an idea, where I built Sim4Crew, a global SIM card for sailors from scratch, and within one and a half years, we generated about $3 Mn. It was like a one man show,” shared Ozdemir, talking about his entrepreneurial journey.
At the time, tech giant Apple introduced the world’s first eSIM compatible smartphones. “It was a warning sign for all of us in the industry, and my first reaction was — it is going to kill the global SIM card and roaming business. At that moment, I decided to disrupt myself, and set my mind to develop a platform that acts as a Netflix of global connectivity.” said Ozdemir, who decided to expand on the Sim4Crew idea two years ago.
Airalo, which was incubated at Antler in Singapore, started to develop the platform from scratch, where they began integrating global the carrier eSIM profiles onto its platform. Within three months, the product was market-ready, and was launched in no time.
“In a short span of time, we had 70K customers from across 162 countries, and we had a product-market fit from day one. Travellers who were tired of expensive roaming plans, and checking into the hotel’s WiFi or carrying one, found an easy way to stay connected with the local network at affordable prices without having to buy a physical SIM card or visiting a local store” he added.
Clearing the air, Ozdemir said that often people think that Airalo is disrupting the revenue of telcos, but in reality telecom companies are the suppliers for the company, and it helps them in distributing their networks to users. “What we are actually disrupting is — we are disrupting the roaming industry, which has been enjoying the legacy system for the past 25 years now.”
Citing Reliance Jio, Ozdemir said that Airali aims to eliminate the middle-men so that the company can service users when they travel to other countries. “We don’t want Jio to sell its users an expensive roaming plan. Instead, Jio can give eSIMs for its customers in other countries directly,” said Ozdemir.
Airalo said that it recorded close to 15K to 20K sign ups every month. “For us, every signup is very important as it adds to our revenue, unlike mobile apps, where they have millions of users,” clarified Ozdemir.
For instance, one of the growth hacks that Airalo found, led them directly to Twitter, where thousands of people across the world talk to OTAs such as Booking.com, Expedia, Singapore Airlines. Airalo looked at queries such as ‘does my hotel have WiFi?’ or ‘Can I apply for local SIM?’ among other questions related to roaming. “Thousands of people, who are our potential customers, are currently out there talking to travel companies, airlines and telecom operators on social media platforms, every day. We are just social listening like crazy, and everytime people talk about their problems with roaming or connected related issues, we start tapping into those conversations, and help them understand the nuances of eSIMs and its benefits,” said Ozdemir.
For this, the company is leveraging Freshworks’ FreshDesk software, which automatically raises sales tickets each time the potential customers are asking queries related to connectivity on Twitter. Besides this, the company is also working with tech and travel influencers to educate the masses on nuances of eSIMs through YouTube videos.
On the B2C side, Airalo plans to add postpaid and prepaid eSIMs for local users to tap into multi-SIM users who want the flexibility of various networks. While on the B2B end, the company plans to partner with online travel agencies (OTAs) to integrate Airalo’s API for customers who are booking tickets and stays. Ozdemir said that by September 2020, OTAs will offer eSIM connectivity using Airalo’s API.
Covid-19 Impact On Airalo
“Covid-19 had an overnight impact on our business. Prior-to-this, we were doubling our revenue month-on-month (MoM). In fact, we were about to make half a million dollars this month, but Covid-19 came out of nowhere.”
Travel and tourism industry was the worst hit as many countries began to close borders and impose travel restrictions in early March. With an end to travel in most countries, Airalo’s business struggled for momentum. Instead Airalo turned to stranded travellers for new business. With consumers also unable to purchase new SIMs in many cases, Airalo’s solution came in as a handy saviour. “If people can do contactless payments, why not contactless connectivity?” asked Ozdemir.
Ozdemir said that telcos are seeing this as an opportunity, and Airalo is perfectly positioned in the giant ecosystem to deliver eSIMs to customers across the globe, where users don’t have to touch a physical SIM card ever again. With the founder’s past experience in the shipping industry, the company continued to provide a network connectivity to sailors in India and the Philippines ports, who continued to work due to the nature of the job.
Ozdemir claimed that Airalo’s revenue has been growing 200% month-on-month (MoM), however, in the last two-three months, the company has witnessed a spurt in its revenue generation and expects to continue the growth once the situation gets to normalcy.
“One thing I have learnt in my entrepreneurial journey is that a great customer support team brings in a lot of credibility and trust to the brand. So, if you look at our present team, 54% of them are in customer support, who are continuously educating and helping customers understand the nuances of eSIMs.”