Gour Lentell insists he's not trying to change the world. As co-founder and CEO of the Sydney-based start-up biNu, he says he simply wants to build a great company. The fact that that company is enabling millions (and, perhaps someday, billions) of people in the developing world to connect to the Internet is, he says, just a nice byproduct.
"I don't want to be patronizing and say, 'We're going to change people's lives.' It's the Internet that does that," Lentell told me on his recent visit to Inc.'s office. "We're just getting them connected fast and cheap and that, in itself, is a life-enhancing thing."
The Big Idea
Founded in 2008, the biNu app gives smartphone-like capabilities to users of so-called feature phones, which vastly outnumber smartphones in developing countries. While these phones do have data connections, surfing the Internet on them is both prohibitively slow and expensive. biNu, however, is both fast and uses minimal data because it offloads all its processing to the cloud. Users download the app, bringing them to biNu's internal app store, which includes things like Facebook, Google, Twitter, and even music and book stores. Since the app launched in 2011, biNu has amassed nearly 4 million monthly users, attracted $7.5 million in venture investment from the likes of Eric Schmidt, and last week, it received the United Nations My World Innovation Award for furthering the UN's Millennium Development Goals.
"We're not just here for social good, but it's rewarding at this stage in my career to know that what you do has commercial value and a social impact," Lentell said of the UN's recognition of biNu. "It's motivating."
Both Lentell and his co-founder Dave Turner are serial entrepreneurs. In 2000, they sold their ad tech start-up, Sabela Media, to 24/7 Real Media for $75 million, primarily in stock, only to lose it all when 24/7's stock price plummeted in the dotcom bust. "We rose up really fast and then came crashing down within a year or so," Lentell recalled, "but I still wouldn’t have missed it for anything."
Lentell and Turner then joined an Australian search engine optimization firm they later turned into a powerful search engine marketing firm called Decide Interactive. In 2004, once the dust from the dotcom bust had settled, the two partners sold Decide (also to 24/7) for $40 million--this time primarily in cash.
With biNu, Lentell and Turner are hoping for another homerun. They originally came to the idea as investors, having met a developer who wanted to use this technology to launch a new service for pagers. "We thought, 'Why are they doing paging?' It wasn’t for us, but the paging world works with low bandwith and limited devices. We thought, 'That’s interesting. We could adapt that to mobile,'" said Lentell, who was also inspired to bring this technology to the developing world because of his Zimbabwean upbringing. Together, they purchased the intellectual property that would become an early biNu prototype for about $150,000 and spent the next two years developing it.
The Business Model
BiNu has since grown to 12 employees, and while Lentell says its revenue so far is negligible, he says he expects this to be a big year for growth. While biNu will eventually generate some money from in-app purchases, Lentell says the bigger revenue play for the company will be to partner with market researchers, who are itching to reach and analyze the rising middle class in some developing countries.
"There's more value for us from the people who are paying to reach these audiences, rather than thinking there's a big revenue stream that's going to come out of price-sensitive customers," he said. "Marketers want to talk to customers in these markets, and they're looking for the platforms to help with that."
Before the end of our interview, I asked Lentell whether he believes biNu is what some would call a "nice to have" or a "need to have" for people in the developing world and whether or not it's solving a fundamental problem in countries like his native Zimbabwe.
"If you've never had the Internet before, it's an amazing thing to get access to, for whatever it is: commerce, entertainment, information, jobs, whatever. Instead of reading a local, often government-controlled newspaper, people can get can get The New York Times," he told me. "That's rewarding. It's entertaining, and it can definitely improve people's lives."