Yesterday I attended the GSMA mobility conference at the W Hotel in Midtown, and was offered the opportunity to sit down for 30 minutes with Reed Peterson, Head of North America at GSMA, and talk about whatever I wanted to talk about. Startups, of course.
In case you’re not familiar with GSMA, you can head to their web site and read till you’re blue in the face, but the short version is that GSMA is the industry association for telecom carriers. It’s GSMA’s job, goal, and mission to help promote the use of mobile devices worldwide on behalf of the mobile telecom carriers.
I started off the interview with “I keep tabs on Atlanta’s tech startups.” He didn’t wait for my first question, but instead hit me with a question: “I’ve heard that there are 150 mobile startups in Roswell and Alpharetta. Can you confirm that?” No, sure can’t, but it did lead me to this little resource, which shows 60+ startups in the “mobile” category, though some of those are not startups and not mobile and some are no longer in existence.
Now on to my first question: “what does GSMA do to actively participate in the startup community?” I really loved his answer, which, when you boil it all down, was a really great way to say “nothing”; however, the answer was still great. He said that GSMA is about, by, and for the carriers. Carriers are huge, old, established businesses who make a lot of money and are very slow to change. What the carriers really, really don’t like is when they are referred to or utilized as “dumb pipes.” So do stuff that the carriers will value!
I responded, “Like WhatsApp?” Another great answer. Yes, WhatsApp was a big story, and does in fact use carriers as dumb pipes in that it was created specifically to avoid paying to send text messages. However, what carriers really like is more and more people using their mobile devices for everything, and WhatsApp helped contribute to that effort.
How can startups play a role in “big telecom”? Reed had a very solid answer for this one. After walking through the big topics of the day in telecom – retail, mobile commerce, security, authentication/identification, mobile payments – he proposed that mobility startups should take a long look at the carriers and their technology and simply ask, “What’s missing?” and start there. Good answer, and right along the lines of the lean startup methodology, in which we first find a big, hairy problem, and then build a business to solve that problem. Good example: security in mobile payments.
Finally, since Reed is an Atlanta resident, I asked him what it would take for Atlanta to really be on the map as a global mobility hub. After a few back-and-forths about Atlanta never being Silicon Valley, he simply said “funding.” Very consistent with any other tech sector in Atlanta and Atlanta becoming a startup hub. The funding has to be there. VCs have to bet on startups from Atlanta.