Dimitris Maniatis of Upstream tells us about protecting the transactions of mobile users in emerging markets from malware and other threats.
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Dimitris Maniatis: In testing times like this, even if you were oblivious before, you come to realize what the most important things are in life, health, and family. I am in a fortunate position to say that my family and myself are all well, and we are staying safe as we are hopefully approaching the end of this situation. Our people at Upstream are all well as we have been all working from home for the most part of the year. We have all learned new things during the lockdowns and came to discover new collaborative realities, i.e. how to home school your 6-year-old after a board meeting.
Tell us about you, your career, how you joined Upstream.
Dimitris Maniatis: I joined Upstream in 2017 as Head of Secure-D, which is Upstream’s antifraud solution, protecting the transactions of mobile users in emerging markets from malware and other threats. Back in the day, Secure-D was making its first steps, and I got there to devise the platform’s Go-To-Market strategy and roll it out. In two years, over thirty operators across twenty markets deployed Secure-D making the mobile internet safe for over 700 million users.
In 2020 I was appointed as Upstream’s CEO. The previous three years were more about developing new innovative products. So, I was assigned the task of leading our new products to market in order to drive the company’s commercial growth. Right now, we are putting our market offering together, positioning our mobile customer acquisition and engagement platform, and aiming to boost our growth. It is a unique offering combining mobile operator channels, Upstream’s own channels, and digital channels with advanced targeting capabilities along with a security layer to drive revenues. We are now addressing not only mobile operators – our traditional partners – but also other verticals, like insurance companies, retail businesses, and financial institutions.
Before Upstream, I was in advertising through ‘all things web,’ a performance marketing agency I founded in 2009. In 2014, IPG Mediabrands acquired one of the largest advertising agencies in the world and was relaunched as Reprise Media. Reprise Media became one of Greece’s top performance agencies and was recognized as an Agency Titan by Google for Central and Eastern Europe.
How does Upstream innovate?
Dimitris Maniatis: At Upstream, we focus on emerging markets, so we use technology to build innovative mobile solutions for our business partners that answer to the unique challenges they face. These solutions address approximately 1.2 billion users through our partnership with over 60 mobile operators in 45 countries, telecommunications being our legacy market. For example, we offer value-added content services that reach mobile users regardless of their handset and internet connectivity.
What makes us stand out is exactly this deep knowledge of mobile-first. Combined with our digital capabilities, we are in a unique position to help businesses reach their current or potential customers more effectively. In the era of big over-the-top digital players, we seem to forget that mobile, especially in the developing markets we target, has deeper penetration and wider reach.
In essence, combining technology, data, and our performance marketeers, we support businesses to achieve digital growth and sales via mobile.
One of the channels we employ for our customers’ campaigns is our very own ad-funded connectivity portal, Zero-D, which provides uninterrupted access to basic internet services. In emerging markets, unlike what we take for granted, mobile phones are usually the sole means of accessing the internet, and WiFi connections are scarce. In countries like Nigeria, the price of 1GB of data on average equals almost a whole day’s wage. Topping up seems like a luxury that too many users cannot afford. At the same time, the mobile operators get to keep their customers satisfied and engaged while they increase their revenues through advertising and data sales.
Also unique in the market is this added, inherent layer of transactional security we offer, having developed Secure-D. Security is even more essential for developing markets, as people are largely unbanked and transactions take place through Direct Carrier Billing. When fraud happens, the users automatically get charged for services they never really used and see their prepaid airtime get depleted. With the mobile phone being the sole means of accessing the internet for millions of people in developing countries, this means that they end up disconnected. For the operators, it means an increase in customer complaints and churns.
We are in a position to offer sales and revenues that are both targeted, guarantee customer experience, and are free from fraud.
How does the coronavirus pandemic affect your business finances?
Dimitris Maniatis: During a very challenging year for businesses worldwide, Upstream fully achieved its yearly net revenue target, posting a 13% year-on-year growth. Of course, it is important that we are not selling physical products and, because of the pandemic, digital saw an unprecedented growth. From small retailers to big corporates, everybody pushed their digital transformation plans forward, seeking ways to reach their customers to start with, do it more efficiently, and limit reliance on physical sales that were not an option for large periods of time.
Did you have to make difficult choices regarding human resources, and what are the lessons learned?
Dimitris Maniatis: For us, 2020 was a year of growth when we actually increased our workforce. We onboarded new people that have never set foot in our offices nor met their colleagues. Making the decision to enforce a fully work-from-home status was a no-brainer, considering the health risk. We have people around the world, so distant teams, and cooperation were not new to us, and we have adapted to this new reality immediately. There was a slight impact on the customer-relationship side of things, as our business relies on working really closely with our partners to build solutions for them, but overall, we have made it work.
There is currently a big discussion about what the post-pandemic workplace will be like. I see a number of companies, more so in tech, fixed on maintaining the current work from home status, even when the lockdowns are lifted. I believe no one size fits all cases. For Upstream, for instance, where our only constant is change, and failing and learning are key components of our growth and success, a total remote work situation is not optimal. Social interaction is a trigger for innovation and creativity. With a complete remote work scenario, you run the risk of creating echo chambers, closed communities between people you tend to work more closely with, where you rehash what you already know and believe.
We are social creatures, and physical exchanges are also critical for our wellbeing. Ultimately our performance on every level.
How did your customer relationship management evolve?
Dimitris Maniatis: Well, as mentioned earlier, this was indeed one of the biggest challenges of the period. Having business activities in Latin America, Sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia was -and still is- a problem that we can’t travel abroad or, in some cases, have physical meetings with our customers. It’s good that we have people on the ground, understanding the local situation per case, and are able to communicate more closely with our counterparts. This is something we continuously want to do to strengthen our regional presence. Some projects were delayed, and this is something we want to solve in 2021.
Your final thoughts?
Dimitris Maniatis: This has been a learning curve. Tragically, one paved with many losses. I believe, though, we will emerge from this stronger and wiser, on all fronts. We are fortunate to live in an era where science and technology have allowed us to come close to a solution for the pandemic faster than ever before. We remained connected. We entertained ourselves. On a personal level, many of us reprioritized personal growth and wellbeing, spent more time with our loved ones, learned how fast we could adapt. Businesses learned agility, made decisions faster, and embraced digital.
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