At Fon we have an amazing board: Anil Hansjee of Google, Danny Rimer and Mike Volpi of Index Ventures, Janus Friis and Niklas Zennstrom of Atomico (formerly of Skype) and Chris Smith of Coral Ventures. We also have investors from Sequoia Capital, Ebay, BT, Digital Garage, Excite Japan, Marc Andreessen, Joanna Rees, and of course myself, CEO and Founder. All of us together have invested 36 million euros in Fon. All of us a little crazy of course, because the basic idea of Fon, “share a little WiFi at home and roam the world for free” is a far fetched, improbable concept. And it has not been a smooth ride. We have made significant mistakes, among them losing two thirds of our funds subsidizing foneras many of which ended in some lost closet around the globe. It was a year ago in the midst of the crisis and, recognizing these mistakes, that I started to personally finance the losses of the company. I felt it was my turn to show that I was willing to risk it for Fon. But losing around a million dollars a month it really seemed that Fon was going to sink. But this post is the story of how it did not. Most likely because I had been through this before.
I saw Viatel sinking for 9 years until my original 200K, and those of my then key investors like George Soros, ended up being worth over a billion. I saw Jazztel lose large amounts of money as well, but because of the strategic value of its network it was then worth 900 million when I left and my investors Advent, Apax, Spectrum Equity cashed out nicely. I also saw Ya.com, a company that we built with 55 million euros and sold for 750 million dollars, lose tons of money. And we sold it way before it was profitable again because of its strategic value. Both Deutsche Telekom and France Telecom wanted to own the second largest portal/ISP after Terra. And I saw defeat as well. I personally lost 52 million dollars in Einsteinet, a German cloud computing company managed by a remarkable group of people in Munich, but 5 years ahead of the boom of cloud computing. It was a terrible blow for me and my investors, but, if anything, it taught me a simple lesson, not to give up too soon. Cloud computing did make it in the end and Google, my investor in Fon, would have probably bought Einsteinet. This background may explain why last year I decided to insist with Fon.
19 years in technology have trained me to expect the unexpected, to “hang in there”. What the 3 companies that I started and got to be worth over $700 million dollars by the time I sold have in common, is that they were strategic assets that huge telcos wanted to buy. But I still could not make them profitable. I guess it did not matter. In the right markets you can get away with this. But what was true in 2000 was not true in 2003, when I threw in the towel on Einsteinet. Presently the world is like 2003, except that what happened to technology then is happening to everything else now. So last year when I became the only investor covering the losses of Fon I knew that for us it was profits or death. I went for profits.
And a year later I am happy to announce, a la Facebook, that the last quarter of 09 will be our first profitable quarter. And I mean not just EBITDA positive but profitable. I can also share with you that we will probably do around 2.5 million dollars in revenues up from 400k in the first quarter (all figures are in dollars). Currently growth is phenomenal, costs are low and margins are high in our two lines of business; selling foneras, selling wifi access passes alone or with our partners which include some of the largest telcos in the world (BT, SFR, Comstar, Zon and others).
Of course I don’t know precisely where do we go from here at Fon. But since we are not a public company I can share with you at least where I would like to see Fon in 2010. By next summer I would love to be doing around 1 million in profits per month. And for all of 2011 I would be very happy if we did around 20 million in profit. This is not unreasonable but we have to get from here to there. Growth is tremendous but we could stall. To reach these objectives we have to continue making telco deals and make the launch of our Fonera 2.0n a success. I am personally very excited by how well the Fon team has worked to come up with the Fonera 2.0n, a router that not only shares a little wifi at home and roams the world for free, but it is also your “internet assistant”. The Fonera 2.0n is really a PC hidden inside a WiFi router. When you connect it to a hard drive of your choice it downloads torrents, Megaupload, Rapidshare, uploads to Youtube, Picasa, Facebook, Flickr. It also converts 3G to WiFi like the MiFi. It tweets itself so you can follow it away from home and it has a few other tricks such as making money for its owner. We think that for 79 euros or 99 dollars it will be a hit. Or at least we hope so because whatever people in business say, they never really know how successful or not something will be.
Granted, we could lose momentum and be not at 1 million but at something like 300K a month in profits by next summer, in which case recovering the 36 million euros invested will mostly depend on what got me and my partners off the hook in the past, a strategic sale to large players. Telcos who want to own the biggest and fastest growing wifi network in the world. Another source of value may be the partnership with Ubiquisys, the FemtoFonera, which expands the Fonera model to the 3G world. This is unproven value but it could very well materialize. In urban areas it is ugly and absurd to continue to build huge antennas in roof tops when small elegant cells like the ones Ubiquisys makes can give both 3G and WiFi to people in the block. This is especially useful in underground areas, garages, malls, where 3G coverage is very costly and inefficient.
As a start up with 3 years of life, breaking even makes you, first of all, a sustainable company and that we will be… very profitable? That remains to be seen. But turning the corner is huge for us. I would like to end this post thanking all the foneros we have around the world, our partners the telcos who realized how happy customers who pay at home and roam the world for free can be with their service, to our investors who trusted us with a nutty idea and to all of those who have worked and now work for Fon. I would like to thank my now wife Nina, who I met working at Fon, who still works with me at Fon, and who put up with me during the worst moments of this venture.
Muchas gracias a todos!
Follow Martin Varsavsky on Twitter: twitter.com/martinvars