Good news continue at Fon. Today we’re announcing a new collaboration with Skype, one of our first investors. At Fon, like at many other companies, we use Skype to talk to each other. I use it with my family all the time and I really think it’s a must-have application, so I’m really happy to announce we’re working with Skype to provide Fon WiFi via Skype Access.
During the initial phase of this project, we are offering Skype Access at 300.000 hotspots around the world (except Japan and UK). Anyone with a Skype account will be able to connect to a Fon Spot using Skype credit. This is a great way to forget about inserting credit card details every time you want to connect. For ‘Aliens’, connecting to the hotpots with Skype Access is super convenient. Skype will search for Fon Spots, and when a Fon Spot is in range it will show a pop up window with the price per minute to connect with Skype credit. One click, you are connected, that easy.
With this collaboration we take another step to make it easier for everyone to access the Fon WiFi network, which continues to be the biggest in the world with more than 3 million hotspots worldwide. The Skype Access collaboration is beneficial for our entire Fonero community. ‘Bills’ get to keep 50% of the revenues from their Fon Spots and ‘aliens’ get a quick and efficient way to pay for and connect to Fon WiFi. Ultimately, what we want is for Skype users to join the Fon community. All they need to do is buy a Fonera SIMPL (39€/$49) and start roaming the world for free!
My investors at Fon include most of the people and companies that were involved in the recent sale of Skype. At Fon we have eBay, Janus Friis and Niklas Zennstrom personally as investors and board members, Mike Volpi personally as an investor and board member, Danny Rimer as a board member and Index Ventures as an investor, and Marc Andreessen as an investor. So for me to talk about Skype after the recent dispute for the control of this company could be dangerous. But there´s no need to be concerned. This post is not about my opinions on what just happened at Skype as those are irrelevant here. Personally I think that Janus, Niklas, Mike, Danny and Marc are all awesome guys, amazing investors and board members. So what I will speak about is how I see the future of Skype and the dangers it may face and the opportunities it may have.
Before getting started I would like to say that I have been a user of Skype from the very beginning, from way before I actually met and became partners with Janus and Niklas, that I think that Skype is a remarkable product that is way ahead of the competition and that while not yet a highly profitable company, Skype has certainly been a gift to humanity. Now having sent my thank you note, let’s talk business.
Most communication on Skype as we all know, is totally free, only occasional calls to non Skype parties are the ones that generate the $740 million revenue run rate that allows Skype to make a living. The rest is love. And those revenues are under threat from three rivals.
The first one is called Facebook. While my friends inside Facebook have not disclosed anything to me, I think it is obvious that Facebook will soon have its own Skype. And what´s amazing about Facebook is that even though its pictures apps is mediocre in comparison to Flickr, its email pales in comparison to Gmail and its chat is way worse than that of Skype (no file attachments, no this, no this no that), the growth of those apps in Facebook is explosive. While I have been in Skype since 2004, on a recent check I had around 30 people I knew on Skype and 144 on Facebook chat. When Facebook incorporates a Skype like product, how many people will go on using Skype? Facebook is getting so big that soon there will be no Facebook Out. The threat that was Skype’s threat, namely how do you make money if everyone is on Skype and there is no Skype Out, is now being transferred to Facebook. But the thing is that Facebook, another gift to humanity, has a different business model, advertising, and they could really hurt Skype.
The second threat to Skype is flat rate pricing from telcos around the world. Why would anyone use Skype Out if they have an all you can eat tariff on their phone? And all you can eat tariffs are more and more frequent. In Europe all ADSL plans come with flat rates to all fixed lines, and in USA flat plans to fixed and mobile plans are more and more common. There are also community plans like calling anyone on AT&T for free that turns AT&T mobile into a Skype. It is remarkable that these plans are available to visitors such as myself and my family. We are six and when we go to USA everyone gets a phone with an AT&T card and we all call each other for free on prepaid! And telcos have one big advantage and that is that you don’t need a computer to make a phone call 🙂
The third threat is Google Voice. Google voice is interesting because it came out of the Google Talk fiasco and it shows how relentless Google is when it gets its mind set on something (disclosure Google is also an investor in Fon). What Google Voice is doing with the free phone calls attacks the very livelihood of Skype and that is Skype out. And the integration with Gmail and Gmail contacts is amazing. Skype is weak at that, it has no email. Google first copied Skype with Gtalk and it took off but not really. Google Voice is the second derivative of the Skype attack, and is going well. The $50 million acquisition of Grand Central that resulted in Google Voice stands up there with the acquisition of Keyhole that resulted in Google Earth as two of the best M&A moves of Google so far.
So considering that Skype is under attack from Facebook, the largest telcos in the world and Google how can it be a good business to buy Skype?
Well the key here for the new investors in Skype is not whether Skype will rule the world but whether it will be worth more than what the investors paid for it. And after giving you the cons here are some arguments and strategies in favor of the acquisition.
Skype is simple. Michael Arrington and all of Silicon Valley may find Google Voice amazing but is the average global citizen ready to use it? Massively use it? You download Skype, you find your friends on Skype, you talk. And if you don’t find them you Skype out. And when you talk you can also do video. I LOVE video calls on Skype. I used to use them for people I really cared about, relatives, close friends. Now I even do business calls on video with Skype. It just gives you more of a sense of what is going through the other person´s mind. And Skype is the leader on video quality. So simplicity plus video may be a good way to beat flat plans from telcos and avoid being Tivoed. If the video services can migrate to mobile phones Skype is on to something.
Skype can include advertising. If Gmail reads your emails and places ads why can´t Skype do the same thing on their chat or even their voice channels? How far are we from systems that listen to what you say and just as you finish saying “let´s go to Ibiza for the weekend” they start showing you cheap flights to Ibiza. Gmail proved that if you give people a great service they don’t care if you spy on them. That could be an enormous revenue source. So far Google has been kind to Skype even including it in the Google pack. Maybe a Google deal for advertising is in the making.
Facebook is not the only community in the world, there is Linked In, Xing and other business networks. Those “business types” work best with Skype. I believe that as Facebook squeezes everybody in its quest to Microsoft the world (Mark Zuckerberg told me that Microsoft is his model) a few Apples will emerge. Skype could be one of them. Apple has a tiny fraction of the PC market, Dell dwarfs it in revenues. But Apple dominates the over $1000 PC segment. Skype could position itself as the communicator of choice for businesses. And that has tremendous value.
As you know, FON is a global community of people who share WiFi connections. We call these people “Foneros”, as a tribute to our heritage as a Spanish company. In order to become a Fonero, you go to FON, to download software that you install in your router, you place your antenna by a window and you share bandwidth with other Foneros from anywhere in the world. You can also buy the FON Ready router from our web site, plug and play. FON creates a free WiFi roaming environment for those who contribute WiFi signals, namely those who have already signed up with a local ISP and downloaded our software into their WiFi routers.
The success of FON, like the success of all online communities — such as eBay, Skype, ICQ, IM — depends on many people joining. At the very beginning, when there are no obvious advantages to joining FON, it is not so easy to get Foneros, even though the service is free. But as Foneros continue to join, and there are more and more Fonero hotspots, the dream of a unified global broadband wireless signal becomes a reality. The FON movement, as we call it, can achieve what 3G or EVDO has not — a truly broadband wireless Internet everywhere. 3G/EVDO are great for coverage, but their throughput is pitiful compared to WiFi and they are way too expensive.
FON was launched just 90 days ago and we already have over 3,000 registered Foneros. While that number may seem small, 3,000 registered Foneros puts us at 10% of our 2006 objective in only 3 months: to become the largest hotspot network in the world by the end of the year. Currently, the largest global hotspot networks have around 30,000 hotspots. But after having built the second largest Spanish Internet company, Ya.com and the second largest publicly traded telecom company in Spain, Jazztel both with significant backers, I realized that at FON was going to need very special alliances to succeed on its objective of having 1 million hotspots around the world in 4 years. I knew that our method of downloading firmware was a much faster way of building a unified global WiFi signal than the traditional method used by local hotspots companies. Their way — buying WiFi boxes and deploying them hotspot by hotspot — is costly and inefficient. Ours is simple: download and install. Ours is a people’s network. But for FON to succeed we need tremendous magnifying power for our message.
So I sought the ultimate alliances in the industry, and aimed high, very high. And today I have a great announcement to make: FON can now count Google , Skype, Sequoia Capital, and Index Ventures as investors and backers. They’ve joined us to help advance the FON movement, leading a group that has put 18 million Euros into FON and also committed to give us a strategic boost that should help us make this great idea into a great platform for everyone who wants a faster, cheaper and more secure wireless Internet. We’ll invest this money in R&D so we can make it quicker and easier to become a FONERO and so that we can expand the number of things you can do with your FON service. Our goal, after all, isn’t just to share bandwidth. It’s to use the power of people to people networks to create a global wireless network. What makes each of these firms great backers for us is that deep in their DNA is the idea of brand-new business models, tons of innovation and a commitment to making the digital world easier and cheaper. We feel the same way. So while we’re excited about (and responsible for!) their investment, we’re even more pleased to have their support. Also I am pleased to announced today that we have obtained the support of two significant ISPs for FON. In America Speakeasy has said that they welcome FON and in Europe, Glocalnet and FON have signed an agreement so Glocalnet sells its services FON ready and the Swedish foneros will soon be able move around Stockholm and other cities with their WiFi enabled gadgets. FON shares revenues with ISPs making it attractive for them to join the FON movement.
Some internet companies laid their cards right out there. For example, eBay started out as a marketplace. You sell your stuff on Ebay, you pay them a commission, they render a service, they get paid. Other companies, however, operated under what for years looked as an NGO model, and only when they were immensely popular did they come after your money, and they got amazing valuations for doing so.
Of this kind two former Internet NGO´s come to mind. One is Google and the other one is Skype. How it is that Stamford University does not own at least half of Google´s $80bn in stock escapes me. How it is that Larry and Sergey were able to use the immense Stamford University infrastructure for free for so long while building what is now an empire for themselves, is a mystery as well. If you Google the history of Google on Google you will see that during the first years of its existence, until VC money was raised and ads appeared, Google was mostly seen as a gift to humanity. What was great about the early Google is that it gave you useful results on your searches and it seemed to want none of your purchasing power. But when searches reached the billions, the famous internet bubble idea of monetizing eye balls held more truth than ever. And now at $288 per share, Google is worth $80bn. However, Stamford is not a major shareholder and Google is far from being and NGO.
The other company that emerged as an NGO and only recently has shown it´s money model, is Skype. I remember downloading Skype for the first time and wondering about the profit motive. It too looked like an NGO allowing us to talk to each other for free. It appeared that somewhere in Northern Europe there was somebody with a lot of money to lose. But again that was not the case. As Skype grew (now up to 165 million dowloads according to their site), VCs entered the game and Skype started Skype In and Skype Out. Skype is nowhere near as valuable as Google but still a remarkable business.