Startups are the new sexy. These are usually new companies that start from scratch and offer bold new disruptive ways of doing things—whether in the way of doing business, making new friends or simply communicating. This is the new and exciting world that Kristian Melquiades finds himself in and he’s loving every minute of it.
Kristian is the country manager of the hugely popular, free instant messaging and Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) application called Viber. Unlike most apps, Viber made an instant splash into the Philippine market, as soon as it came in two years ago, with a market cutting across millennials to corporates and organizations as well as OFWs. Their secret, Kristian says, is not only because Viber is free but also its simplicity and ease of use in smartphones and desktops.
“It’s clean, fun, easy to use and allows you to connect freely. If you compare it with other apps, theirs are too cluttered, you get advertisements.” But one of their biggest advantages, he says, is their “optimizing technology” where the app self-adjusts to low or high bandwidths so the experience users will have becomes seamless.
Viber Media was founded by four Israeli and Belarusian partners, Talmon Marco, Igor Magazinnik, Sani Maroli and Ofer Smocha. Its corporate records show it was initially launched for iPhones on December 2, 2010. It is a direct competitor of Skype, which also allows calls anywhere in the world for free. Soon after, the group also developed a version for Android as well as for BlackBerry and Windows Phone devices. As it hit 90 million users on July 24, 2012, a group messaging service and an HD voice engine were added to both Android and iPhone applications, with versions created for other smartphone and devices as well. In February 13, 2014, the company was acquired for $900 million by Rakuten, a Japanese e-commerce and internet company based in Tokyo.
In the Philippines, Viber entered the market in 2013 under public beta testing. The company, Viber Philippines, Inc., was formally registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission in June 2015, with its impressive new offices now running complete operations under a lean set-up of 6 people, including Kristian himself. “Viber, true to its nature as a startup company, is very lean and its employees multitask. Apart from being the head of the company, I am also the finance head and sometimes I’m also the HR [person], making sure that they get the training, etc.,” Kristian says with a smile on his face. But he adds that he doesn’t really mind the good-natured ribbing he gets as the “jack of all trades.” On the contrary, the young country head says it’s a good thing because he gets to oversee all aspects of operations. He also points out that they have good partners, making the task seem relatively easy.
Kristian says he joined the company in December 2014. He happily emphasizes that since then, they’ve continued to develop and add more features to the Viber app. Among these are the introduction of stickers — both free and paid, into the messaging feature. The company also launched ViberOut, which gives users the option to call other contacts outside of Viber for a fee. They’ve also recently launched Public Chats, where they partner with different media and online groups as well as organizations, where users can interact and be provided with news, features, updates and more based on specific topics and subjects they want. As Kristian explains, the stickers and ViberOut features are their ways to get income while still providing everything their users want for free.
Asked how he feels about his current job, Kristian sums it up as “a culmination of all the things I’ve been working on all these years, where I started as a strategic planner in my previous jobs with other companies, moving on to finance and eventually being in charge of the whole Philippine operations.”
Viber users in the Philippines have ballooned to about 26 million, making the country a very important market for the mother company in Asia. Kristian explains that last year, the focus was on key influencers. This year, the focus is to expand their reach from the upper class, to the much bigger tier of the middle class and to include everyone who has a smartphone and has access to the internet. They are currently going to the malls, providing free entertainment and snacks while teaching people how to use Viber.
He is even more excited for next year, especially with new research that shows more affordable smartphones will be entering the market, which means another potential round of aggressive growth for his company. While he knows there will also be stiffer competition with the continuous introduction of new apps, Kristian says he is making sure he and his team are ready with new innovations as well. In the end, it’s all about making sure they know what a consumer wants, in the simplest and easiest way possible.
(CEO Corner normally comes out on Monday)