Contributing writer Caroline Yeung talks to Mr Ong Kok Choong, CEO and founder of Singapore-based internet telephony company Hoiio. Founded in 2007 and first launched to the wider consumer market at CommunicAsia in 2009, Hoiio offers internet telephony and messaging solutions for both consumers and businesses, across all smartphone platforms. Here is their interview.
How did you decide to go into internet telephony business?
I wrote my first business plan on communication technologies when I was in the Singapore Army. At that time, I was involved with the army’s signal formation. From that, I developed a great interest in communication technologies.
I recalled reading an article on NTT DoCoMo and the success of its i-mode technologies during (my) army days. To me, that was the defining moment. I started dreaming about how advancements in mobile communication technologies can help to change people’s lifestyles. Since then, I have been pursuing my interests in smart phones and telecommunications technologies.
Immediately following, I did not start in internet telephony business. Instead, I started to build and provide mobile messaging and surveillance solutions for the traditional telecoms. I started a company called ByteSquare during my second year at the National University of Singapore (NUS) with the help of its student venture fund. Unfortunately, that venture wasn’t successful, and my business partners decided that it was not viable after 18 months.
In 2007, I decided to try again and founded another company with Mr. Low Chee Seng who was already in the internet telephony business. This was the start of our current venture.
How do you describe Hoiio’s product?
Hoiio’s call and SMS smartphone application provides a mobile suite for both enterprise and individual users to enable a smarter business communication.
Hoiio mobile application, our company’s ground-breaking communication solution, provides significant cost-savings for both enterprises and individual mobile phone users in terms of both local and overseas calls. Users enjoy hassle-free savings without changing the way they call – directly from their phone books, call-registers and keypads. Hoiio’s call-routing uses the best calling methods to extend competitive, overseas call rates with business-class voice quality for smartphone users.
What was Hoiio like in the earliest days?
Hoiio Pte Ltd was initially named Teliwave Pte Ltd – its vision was to provide innovative technologies to connect people. The early days were spent on researching and developing interesting projects to connect people differently – using our ingenuity, innovations and technologies.
The turning point came in October 2007 when one of our tertiary projects – MyHomeTone.com – caught our interest. The project’s original plan was to provide affordable, international calls for foreign students to connect with their loved ones back home. We further worked on the concept and subsequently, developed the Hoiio smartphone application which was officially launched at the CommunicAsia 2009.
How has Hoiio’s business model evolved since its inception?
We started off as a solution provider with a plan to sell directly to online consumers but soon we discovered that we were selling more of our Hoiio services to consumers and businesses (rather than selling our other solutions). Hence, in April 2010, we shifted our focus to sell Hoiio services and changed our company name from Teliwave to Hoiio.
From the start, Hoiio’s business model has remained the same. It is a pay-per-use model. With Hoiio, you can expect significant savings on your local and overseas mobile bills – without changing your calling experience. Our value proposition is simple yet powerful: to make mobile communication cheaper, simpler and smarter.
What percentage would you attribute your company’s business to the local market; as well as the regional market?
Hoiio is still focusing on the local market but we have been preparing our overseas launch since April 2010.
We have started selling our services to businesses in Europe through our partners in Finland. In August, we will start our North Asia’s launch through our Hong Kong subsidiary (Hoiio HK). Hopefully, we will be visible in Asia and Europe by 2011.
You had shared that your team had no business experience (in a previous conversation with The Straits Times in February 2010). What led you to that realization, and what steps did you take to overcome this challenge?
Our first ten employees were engineers and our focus was mostly on the product development. After a while, we realized that we needed to look at other business aspects. Hence, my co-founder brought in a senior business executive, Mr. Yeo Lee Meng, to help us – he has more than 20 years of sales and marketing experience.
Since then, I am glad to have more colleagues joining us in sales, marketing, finance and operations. Through them, our company started to grow. Personally, I have learned a lot from them.
Can you describe other challenges?
One main challenge is that Singapore’s online market is too small. We need very large economics of scale to allow an internet telephony company to take off.
You had mentioned that Hoiio hires foreign talent. What led you to focus on this area?
We simply love and welcome talents. Currently, we have many bright people from nearby countries in our office. Without these critical talents, I believe Singapore’s human resource base will be too thin to procreate innovations and industries effectively.