Q&A: Mint SIM tackles prepaid wireless with online only approach

Saving money on wireless service is something most of us want, but how? Mint SIM thinks it has the answer. We recently sat down and talked with Aron North.

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When you visit Mint SIM's website, you're greeted by an adorable fox wearing hipster glasses and a faux-neon sign advertising a three-month, $15-per-month trial offer for wireless service. The plan includes unlimited talk, text, and 2GB of data per month. For those paying a lot more than $15 a month, which let's be honest, is almost all of us, the $15 price point is a little too good to be true... right?

Not exactly. The pricing and service are real. Mint is a prepaid carrier piggybacking on T-Mobile's network to provide affordable service. Beyond the $15 plan, Mint also offers a $20 plan for 5GB of data and a $25 plan for 10GB of data. Each monthly price assumes you've paid for a year of service up front, which, if you do the math, isn't a horrible deal.

Just this week, Mint began selling a $5 starter kit on Amazon. Users who are tempted to try the service can order the kit and activate one of the included SIM cards using the Mint app. After the trial allotment is over, you either sign up for service, port in your number, or continue your search for a provider.

For the past few weeks, I've used a Mint SIM card with a few different phones, trying out the service, testing data speeds, and getting an overall feel for the company.

My experience has been far better than I expected considering T-Mobile's service is hit or miss where I live. Mint SIM supports Wi-Fi calling (it's an option you have to enable in your account), which helps make up for some of my coverage issues with T-Mobile. However, outside of my home area, I regularly experienced LTE download speeds over 60Mbps, and I can't remember any issues with connectivity overall.

After using Mint, I had to opportunity to talk with Aron North, Mint SIM's SVP of Marketing and Creative, about the company and prepaid wireless industry as a whole. Below is the conversation, edited and condensed for clarity.

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ZDNet: Let's start with your background and what brought you to Mint.

North: The first part of my career I was an agency guy. I worked at various promotion and advertising agencies and really enjoyed that. It gave me an opportunity to understand the ad and promotion business and also really dive into consumer behavior. Then, after 10 years, the thing I learned about agencies is you're really an advisor, and you make recommendations, but you ultimately don't have the opportunity to make a decision. So, I went to Taco Bell, and that was an amazing experience. I was at Taco Bell for almost six years, and when I left, I was the director of advertising and content for Taco Bell -- a really incredible opportunity. When I got there, we did a brand overhaul, and it's a massive effort with a brand that big to do an overhaul.

I think that's ultimately what attracted Ultra, who is the parent company of Mint, to me. Ultra recruited me out of Taco Bell to run the marketing department here at Ultra and Mint.

ZDNet: Can you dive into the relationship between Ultra Mobile and Mint SIM?

North: Ultra Mobile is a corporate name and a brand. Ultra Mobile is an MVNO on the T-Mobile network.

Ultra operates in independent wireless retail, sold by independent wireless shops across the US. What makes Ultra special is that it really focuses on international calling. If you were to purchase an Ultra Mobile plan at one of the wireless dealers, we have plans that range from $19 all the way up to $49. The big variance between those plans is the data amount. We have everything from 100MB of data per month, all the way to unlimited at $49.

But on all of those, you can call internationally free to over 60 countries. So people who are expats from China, India, Bangladesh, Dominican Republic, Canada, Mexico, Central America can call home. Before Ultra Mobile people were using calling cards, and with Ultra, you just pick up your phone and dial. That's really become Ultra's special sauce.

As Ultra has grown, it identified the opportunity to have a complimentary market and that is Mint. Mint services the domestic market here in the US.

Mint is really different. Wherein Ultra operates in the independent wireless channel, Mint is an online exclusive. No brick and mortar buildings, not sold in retail, only online.

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ZDNet: How does having an online-only approach help or hurt Mint, especially when competing with the likes of Straight Talk, which has a large presence in retail such as Wal-Mart?

North: We think online only is a very exciting proposition for the customer. By being an online-only business, we have removed some of the overhead in the business itself. In removing the overhead, now you have a choice: Either keep that overhead as profit or pass it on to the consumer as savings. We've opted to pass it on to the consumer as savings.

What that's afforded us is the opportunity to offer plans that are about 50-percent less expensive than comparable plans in the market.

If you think about at a 2GB, 5GB, 10GB-level, nobody is offering $15, $20, $25 per month. In some cases, our 5GB plan is more affordable than other carriers 2GB plans. Really what it's done is we've built a business from the ground up to be direct to consumer and eliminated a lot of the erroneous costs passed onto the consumer. We are as lean and efficient as possible.

I think it's a really strong benefit, and we think it's something that customers are really resonating with the market.

ZDNet: There has to be some sort of hurdle to gain awareness though.

North: Absolutely. We are a young brand at just 18 months old. Ultra has been around for five years, so we have all of that built-in wireless know how, but this brand is newer.

There is an awareness hurdle, which is one of the reasons I love talking to organizations and people like yourself, because you're helping us spread that word. It is something we are focussed on, generating awareness, letting people know we exist. It's one of those things if you're in the digital ecosystem, it's an ecosystem built on sharing. We are finding a lot of our customers and subscribers sign up for themselves, love the service then tell a friend, or get someone in their family on it.

Wireless is one of those interesting businesses where everybody we talk to can tell you what they pay per month. A lot of people sort of say it with angst.

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ZDNet: When a user goes over their data allotment on Mint, speeds are reduced as is the case across the industry. Are there any other caps or restrictions put in place?

North: We don't restrict. People are going to get varying download and upload speeds. It all depends on network congestion, device, proximity to a tower -- it depends on a lot of factors.

ZDNet: Sure, that applies to all carriers. But, for example, Cricket Wireless limits customers to a max of 8Mbps download speeds. Does Mint have something like that?

North: No, we do not do that.

ZDNet: T-Mobile coverage where I live is horrible. Is this a hurdle for Mint?

North: I couldn't imagine a better network partner, because T-Mobile just bought $8 billion of additional spectrum last year, and it's all rolling out this year. It's the low-frequency spectrum, which is the really good spectrum. It penetrates concrete and steel buildings.

We look at T-Mobile and get incredibly excited that they're investing so much in their infrastructure because we benefit from that investment as well.

ZDNet: Setup and activation for Mint customers can be intimidating. Users have to manually program APN settings, and that can be a pain point. Is there a plan to eliminate this extra, sometimes confusing step?

North: The experience is different for Android and iPhone users. For Android users, you can text "setup" to the number 6700 and it will respond with the actual APN settings and will auto-configure the settings. It won't work on all devices, such as international variants, so I can't say it works for all Android phones, but for the large vast majority, the phone will automatically configure APN settings. That experience has been very positive.

With iOS, it is a bit more difficult, because you have to manually enter them. What we've done to help is create a YouTube videos that walk users through the step-by-step instructions.

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ZDNet: I did put the SIM in an unlocked OnePlus 5T and saw I could text 6700 to complete APN setup, but it subsequently failed. I'll try a few other unlocked phones to see what the process is like.

North: You're alluding to a couple of things we get asked all the time: What's the coverage like, and is my phone compatible?

We recently launched an app for Mint SIM. If you download our free app, it will immediately tell you if your phone is compatible, and generally speaking, if you have good coverage in your area.

We know people are curious about whether it will work at their house, office, school. With the app, we now have $5 starter kits. We send two SIM cards to the customer for $5, and the first SIM is loaded with 100MB of data, 100 text messages, and 60 minutes of talk.

What we want people to do is to try the service at home, office, school. Make sure it's right before you commit, and if it's right, now you have an option: You can buy a plan straight from the app, with a $5 credit for the kit. Or if you want to bring your phone number, activate the second SIM by porting your number.

Customers can trial our service and it only, potentially, costs $5.

ZDNet: Who is your main customer, not only who you target, but who are your main users?

North: Because we are a digital-only business, we target people who are looking for wireless service online. We don't target a demographic. What we've found is that, as you'd expect with any new product, particularly one that is in the technology space, or wireless space, which is sort of tech, we find ourselves getting people who are more tech-savvy right now. People who aren't afraid to insert a SIM card and enter APN settings.

We are seeing that market is opening up. What's really exciting for us is that there hasn't been one demographic that has overwhelmed us.

People are frustrated with wireless and paying a huge amount every month and understand buying in bulk means you save. That's really the cornerstone of our plans. The more months you buy, the more you will save.

We offer an intro deal on all three-month plans, so you can try the service at the best price possible by purchasing a three-month plan. If it works, you can commit for a year and maintain that price per month based on your data allocations.

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ZDNet: As an online-only business, where do customers go for support?

North: Our customer service team is constantly expanding. It's been really exciting to see the brand grow so fast, and we continue to need and want to add additional customer service. Right now, if you go to our site, we have FAQs, an AI-powered chatbot, email customer support, phone customer support, or use Facebook Messenger to direct message us as well.

We get customer care is critically important, and we are actively working on improving our customer experience.

ZDNet: Looking toward the future, six months or a year from now, what does Mint and by extension all prepaid services, where does the industry go?

North: For Mint, I see a lot of enhancements to the service. We are continuously looking at ways to make the service better for the customers. We want to simplify the APN configuration process.

We want to innovate in ways like the $5 starter kit. I want Mint SIM to be recognized as the preeminent online wireless brand.

In the wireless space, it's tough. For the prepaid brands, I look at what they're doing and see a lot of the same thing between the various brands, and we're trying to do something different. We want to separate away from that.

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