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Unimobile Net-cellphone gateways will change your life!

Madanmohan Rao interviews Vasudev Bhandarkar, President & CEO, Unimobile.com

Vasudev Bhandarkar brings over eighteen years of marketing, business development, product development and general management experience to Unimobile.com (formerly Gray Cell). Vas was most recently Sr. Vice President of Business Development at CellMania.com, a leading wireless destination ecommerce site. Prior to joining Cellmania, Vas was co-founder and Vice

Presdient of Marketing and Business Development at Selectica, the leading provider of intelligent selling systems and configuration tolls for the Internet, which recently had an IPO on the NASDAQ.


Vas was previously at ATT/Bell Labs, Digital Equipment Corporation and Apple Computer. He holds degrees in physics (an MS from IIT-Mumbai) and in CS (Certificate from NCST-TIFR and Colorado State University) and received his business education with specialisation in Marketing at Santa Clara University.

Q: What was the original vision behind the founding of Gray Cell?

The original vision behind Gray Cell was to create products and services for the Mobile Internet.  Back in 1996, Gray Cell began implementing this vision by offering services to telecom carriers such as Motorola, Hutchinson Telecom and Airtel.  This work led to the first Internet-to-Paging gateways deployed in production mode in the world.

Among other interesting projects that were deployed along the way was the very first Internet broadcast of the Miss World show in 1997 and PhoneMail service offered over the Internet.

However, one of the first lessons we learned was that consumers were more interested in using these gateways for personal or casual messaging. 

We also recognized that it was on wireless devices where there was a future.   Gray Cell's keen understanding of this type of consumer behavior led to the concept of Unimobile - a singular unifying virtual mobile device that could address the needs of the consumer on or off the desktop. 

Q: Why the name "Gray Cell?" Any branding decisions involved here?


GrayCell is a true 'thinking company', which is why we named it so. Our focus is to 'think' and to create a technology that is easy to use and simple to relate to.

But keeping in mind that we are a company that has created a lifestyle consumer product, lately we went through a name change exercise and now we are called Unimobile.com.

Our presence in 110 countries through our product UnimobileT has proved that the company is now strongly being associated with the product and so we have decided to concentrate on one name which is the product name, since it is now synonymous with the company name in the market place. Gray Cell started in 1996 as a one-man effort, but today is a 'big business'' having a strong presence in every part of the geography.

The company realizes that it costs approximately $300M to create a truly global consumer brand.  Rather than spending our precious resources on establishing two brands we picked one brand - one that was closely associated within the consumer's mind.  As the product grows in popularity virally we will be not only establishing our brand but also propagating it.  This will also be a source of revenue as our partners create co-branded products within our consumer community.

Q: How has Gray Cell grown since founding (people, projects, investments, subscribers, infrastructure, services), and what are your growth plans for the future?


In 1996: we started this company in a small garage with six computers. At that time, we were working on software  for handling 'personal asistant' functions like fax, voice mail. In six months, we moved to our present set up in Koramangla.

Today we have flipped the company into a US company and we are now based in the Valley.  Six months into Y2K have seen a ten fold increase in the valuation of the company.  The company is now focused on acquiring consumers and has seen a fifteen fold increase in the number of consumers using our product.    We have tripled the number of employees, added a 7x24 consumer support operation and recently added a new service which we will shortly be announcing to the public.

Our growth plans call for deployment of a global delivery platform with value-added services delivered to consumers and enterprises alike.

Q: How many companies/countries are covered by your service today?


Unimobile has consumers in 110 countries from Peru to Lebanon, US, UK, and so on.

Q: Can your service handle multiple languages as well? Is it available in Indian languages today?


No, not yet. Unimobile is presently available only in English language.

Q: What kinds of tie-ups/alliances have you struck, for services, content, e-commerce, etc.?


The early years were spent purely on product development. Our second round of Venture Capital funding will be used for marketing and customer acquisition. Worldwide we have tie-ups in every part of the geography from US to UK to Australia, covering content providers to ISP's to Gateways to Mobile operators. In India, we recently tied up with zeenext.com and Mantra Online and over the coming months you would get to see a range of tie-up announcements. Even globally our partnership programme is closely linked to our customer acquisition strategy.

Q: What kinds of consumer privacy issues arise in this area, and how do you tackle them?

GrayCell is endorsed by Verisign and Trustee, which are independent security assessors. 

Unlike other offerings in the text messaging space, Unimobile is the only product that allows consumers with an unprecedented amount of control in the receipt of messages.  We allow consumers to control the receipt and delivery of messages, alarms and Internet content directly on their devices.  We have also made it very easy for consumers to customize the look-and-feel of the desktop product to match their offline wireless devices.

Q: How do your strategies differ for the Asian, European and US markets?

We keep elaborate consumer information with granularity tailored to not just every geography but also to every country.  Consumer behavior varies from country to country and we will eventually be partnering with local content providers to suit the needs of every region. 

Q: How much venture capital funding have you received, and where do you see this headed?

Our first round of funds came from Draper International, Walden International Investment Group, K B Chandrashekhar, Founder-Exodus Communications, B V Jagdeesh, Co-Founder- Exodus Communications. We have confirmed Venture Capital interest from Finnish giant Sonnera Corporation and Net Angels. The investments from the first round were mainly for product development and for setting up the office in Silicon Valley. Through the second round of funding, we plan to go aggressive on our marketing strategies to make Unimobile a truly global product.

In general, revenue sources come from premium services delivered through our branded Unimobiles, from a percentage of transaction revenue generated from our 2-way mobile commerce platform and from  our affiliate relationships.  As our consumer counts grow we also expect to be making money via traditional Internet means such as advertising.

Q: How much traffic is the Unimobile site receiving? What kinds of feedback are you receiving?

We expect to be upto a million consumer by late summer of this year.  The best feedback on our site is that it is very simple to use with a great deal of satisfaction obtained from the ability to send messages easily and to any part of the world.  What people like best about our service is it's speed of delivery and reliability, the personalization and the ability to have Internet content delivered directly to the device in a no-nonsense manner.  Consumer like the fact that the Unimobile service is a central repository of all consumer information pertaining to subscriptions at other Web-sites.

Q: Who do you view as your competition, and how do you stack up against them?

Currently, there is no product out there which competes with the features that UnimobileT has to offer. However, we are aware that if one is an Internet-based consumer product company, one must be sure that your competition is sure to be global from day one. But we feel we have taken the right step, by targeting the right markets. Having a base in the US plays to our advantage.

Q: What are the top three-technical and management challenges you face today, and how do you plan to overcome them?

The three top technical challenges are: scalability, reliability and customer service quality.  The management challenges are to get the world's best marketing team to deliver services.

Q: What is your vision of what the Net can offer a country like India?


I feel the market in India is also growing at a tremendous speed and very soon we should be in the same league as the Silicon Valley. I don't think a set-up like ours today would need to wait for as long as we did to get the right kind of backing. Every eye today is on the 'net market' and it is the 'IDEA' that gets one going.

Q: Any other parting thoughts/advice for Internet/mobile user professionals?


Use Unimobile!  It will change your life!


The writer can be reached at madan@techsparks.com


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