Access Mobile's Charlie Lee is the 'Global ICT CEO' Winner

Specialist mobile value added service company Access Mobile is a truly global company. The three founding members of the company, including Mr Lee, launched their business whilst based in South Korea, the Philippines, and India respectively. The following year Mr Lee also based himself for a year in India, leaving not a single founding member in Korea, making this a truly unique domestic SME.

Access Mobile's main products include Ring Back Tones, which replace the regular dialing tone with music, Caller Tag, which lets users send a personal message as text with a call, and Color SMS, which uses patented keyword recognition technology to transform text messages (SMS) into multimedia messages (MMS). Mr Lee was previously the Asia Pacific Team Leader for Wider Than, which is now a branch of Real Networks. He explains that he "saw an opportunity whilst working on the front lines of overseas business to form a new company and we seized it."

Their first export was to launch the Color SMS service with Indonesian mobile network operators. In 2009 they reached 5bn Won in revenue and began to really develop the business. In 2011, the year before they launched a new domestic business, their revenue was 10.4bn Won, of which 97% was from exports.

At present their main revenue generating markets include India, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Malaysia. The strategic focus on the ASEAN region stems from Mr Lee's past experience. He explains:

“When I was a Team Leader at my previous company, we analyzed the export strategies for each region, and they were all vastly different. We were successful in the US by acquiring a local company, we got settled in Europe by forming partnerships with leading companies like HP and Nokia. In China ultimately we failed, and it proved difficult to operate an export business with no hardware, only software. Also there were many competitors, and little protection for patents. In the Asia Pacific region, on the other hand, it was possible to use our technological strength to penetrate the market. Access Mobile's export strategy was formed with this in mind.”

Access Mobile also has more overseas employees (60) than Korean (45), which has led to many interesting anecdotes. When Mr Lee invited staff from branch offices in four different countries to South Korea, "There were Muslims, Buddhists, Catholics and Protestants all together, and we had to entertain everyone, which as you can imagine was not easy.”

But it has not always been fun experiences. As the majority of the countries have less developed market economies than South Korea, the market can shake from certain government policies. The worst example of this was an event in Indonesia in October 2011 which is now known as Black October.

This incident stemmed from the corrupt corporate culture. Before smartphones entered the mainstream, mobile contents providers would often offer bribes to network operator staff to get subscribers to use their services. There were also rampant cases of users responding to spam messages and unknowingly subscribing to value added services. As the discontent of the consumers grew, the Indonesian telecommunications authority issued an unusual counter measure. At midnight on the 18th of October they ordered al mobile users to be forcefully unsubscribed from all mobile value added services.

The Indonesian market, which was worth 1bn Won a month, had been completely shut down. Not even Access Mobile, who had not been implicated in a single corruption scandal, was unaffected. As a result of this, their revenue for last year was down over 30% compared to the previous year. Mr Lee comments, "Although our revenue has temporarily declined, thanks to the actions of the authorities the less capable companies are dropping out of the market, which presents us with a new opportunity. This year we're in the process of recovering the Indonesian market."

If a mobile value added service reaches 1% of all network subscribers it is considered a minimal success. Attaining over 10% penetration makes it a remarkable service. In South Korea, Ring Back Tones (known as "Color Ring") is considered the outstanding service, being used by 30-40% of all subscribers, and this service is doing well overseas also.

“In South Korea, if 30% of mobile subscribers use a service it's not even 20 million users, but in India 10% of subscribers is 100 million users, in Indonesia it's 25 million. These countries are perfect for the mobile VAS market where subscriber numbers are everything.”

Mr Lee's aim is to hit revenue of 100bn Won. The first step to achieving this in the short term is "to capture India." Compared to other countries the level of export to India is still quite low. According to Mr Lee, "in contrast with South East Asian countries there is no "Korean premium" in India. What's more, there are many competitors in the software field who also have outstanding technical capabilities, and in terms of work efficiency India is one of the slowest in the world. To promote a steady business you need mental discipline." In his office in Access Mobile's headquarters in Seoul's Gangnam district, Mr Lee has a map of the world centered on Asia and the Pacific, as well as a detailed map of India hanging on the wall.

Access Mobile's Ring Back Tones and Caller Tag are voice call based services, which means they are guaranteed to generate revenue even in the smartphone revolution as ever before, while they have also developed services like their "Facebook Profile Portal" platform which are specifically designed for the generational shift.

The Facebook Profile Portal platform takes the Facebook information provided by mobile subscribers and uses it to support and improve the mobile operator's customer relationship management. On top of this Access Mobile are also developing services such as their K-Pop Portal which is based on "Korean wave" contents.

At the end of the interview Mr Lee asked, "Do you know what kind of entertainment client companies from the ASEAN region most enjoy?" I immediately thought of the concept of the "relationship" in China or the periodic bribing scandals which arise in the Philippines, but Lee's answer was something completely different.

“It's inviting them to South Korea. It's clean and developed, and we show them our cities and ICT industries, and we find that bringing them here and showing them the towns and countryside and things to do makes it much easier to form business relationships.” 60% of their employees are from overseas, but they still remain a native company. Mr Lee left again for India immediately after the awards ceremony ended.

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