by Bubba Murarka, DFJ Partner
It’s a proud moment to see Mast Mobile launch today. Mast is a mobile communication platform that makes employees more productive and saves businesses time and money by replacing the need for desktop phones. It does this all by being built into the core mobile carrier network, yeah, the cell phone towers themselves, so it can work with any mobile device including iPhones, Android, and anything else you can throw at it.
I co-founded Mast prior to joining DFJ, and today my role is as the non-executive Chairman of the Board. Mast Mobile got off the ground because of an amazing group of co-founders: David Messenger and Peter Lurie, both with prior experience from Virgin Mobile, Sprint, American Express, as well as one of the best technology leaders I’ve ever had a chance to work with, David Dawson, formerly from Microsoft. They are the dream leaders for this business and it has been a joy to watch them build Mast over the last few years.
How did this all come together?
In 2013, I had my first conversation with David Messenger, and it was clear to me that he was built in a lab to take the nascent ideas behind Mast, build upon it with his unique insights, and lead it into a huge company one day. A bit about David: He was the #2 guy at Virgin Mobile, and helped take them public. He also went on to run Sprint’s pre-paid mobile group after they acquired Virgin Mobile. Next, David went to American Express to lead the newly formed enterprise mobile and online business. We turned that first lunch conversation into a three-month collaboration that made it clear to both of us that David was the only person in the world that could be the heart, soul, and CEO of Mast Mobile.
So what the hell did we talk about?
I shared the painful experience I had working with the big four mobile carriers (Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile) while evangelizing Android internally at Facebook. Since everyone had iPhones, I started by just trying to get everyone to carry a second Android phone hoping they’d use it and thus start to understand what was possible on the platform. I found that the fast way to get someone a second working Android phone was to buy the phones at the local Verizon or AT&T retail stores. Of course the finance team had fits at my expense reports, but the alternative would often take a few weeks. I needed to move fast and was fine breaking things.
However, it was quickly obvious no one was using his or her Android phones. I needed to sort out a better plan with our IT team to get both a variety of Android phones on demand, as well as a simple way for people to port their primary phone number onto Android phones. From this exercise I learned more about how terrible it was to get phones and phone lines provisioned with the big four carriers. It turned out the best way to get things to happen was to actually call someone at each wireless carrier’s corporate sales team for any new phone, phone line, or phone number port. Imagine if the only way to get a new email address for an employee was to call Google or Microsoft to provision one? Cray cray!
Eventually things got sorted out well enough that it wasn’t my biggest concern anymore. But the experience left a strong impression. I made a mental note to angel invest in any startup that would fix the quagmire of wireless carriers servicing corporations. I never found one.
Fast-forward eighteen months to when I was thinking what to do after Facebook. My experience building on Android left me frustrated with the iOS platform constraints since I knew it was critical that whatever I built worked on both platforms. I was especially fascinated with what could be done with call and text message data, since the majority of communication was shifting to mobile devices (damn, should have started WhatsApp). Researching what was possible was how the concept of a Mobile Virtual Network Operator (MVNO) came onto my radar.
MVNOs lease access to the radio access networks (the cell towers) of wireless carriers like Verizon. If you could get an MVNO deal in place, you could access every call and text made by one of your subscribers, regardless of whether they used iOS, Android, or even a shoe phone. Amazingly, this meant there was a whole platform layer underneath smartphone OSes waiting to be used! That is, if you were willing to run an MVNO.
There was the rub. Almost every MVNO ever started had been a commercial disaster. Billions of dollars had been lost which left deep, ugly scar tissue on almost everyone associated with them. By digging in to why they failed, I discovered a simple truth: you can’t out outsell the AT&Ts of the world as an MVNO reselling the same commodity product to the same customers.
But you can compete with carriers by putting software in the middle of their core network to enable new differentiated products. Thus Mast would never be in the business of selling minutes but instead selling software applications that are uniquely integrated into mobile networks. With enough customers it would be a new technology platform with an entirely new business model that can give away access!
My experience at Facebook made it clear that the big four mobile carriers didn’t care about business customers. Even as businesses were increasingly dependent on mobile service for employee productivity. Leaders at fast growing startups validated this over a series of direct interviews. They were universally frustrated with the experience, quality, and costs of the big four mobile carriers.
David wholeheartedly agreed after I shared this over our lunch. We became convinced that the perfect storm had come together to build a company by closely collaborating to interview more customers, recruit our awesome co-founders Peter and David, and raise our first outside capital in 2013. Today, the entire Mast Mobile team is launching something truly differentiated after years of hard work. I’m incredibly lucky to be a small part of the Mast story!
Bubba Murarka is a partner at DFJ
This post originally appeared on bubba.vc