Start-up of the Month: Reply Wireless - the WAIP of Savile Row

That's WAIP, not waif...

That's WAIP, not waif...

This month, Tony Hallett pays a visit to a part of London best known for its top tailoring to find a new company making a niche for itself in a wireless world of increased complexity and opportunity. Savile Row, late summer sun and police sirens blaring - perhaps not the obvious environment for a start-up. It's the kind of place you expect to see a famous fashion designer crossing your path and as I turn towards the offices of Reply Wireless, sure enough, Oswald Boateng walks by. (What does this mean? I have no idea.) Reply Wireless has been set up by David Ravech and Robert Silver, both are Australian with the kind of 'round the world' CVs tech executives and Australians seem to specialise in. I can't decide if either is over 40. Over lunch they clearly can't even tell I'm trying to tell and quickly set about outlining their big idea, a company they assure me analysts will soon be calling a wireless application infrastructure provider, or WAIP. I wonder if the world really needs more acronyms. But stick with me because what they are promising is compelling - access to your corporate data from anywhere around the world and from a variety of devices. How are they so sure they're on to a good thing? Their experience, for one thing, tells them so. Robert Silver is the company's CEO. Up until 10 years ago he was working for Optus, Australia's second largest telco, in a role that gave him access to enterprises. "I had to understand the IT department, and that meant their fixed line and GSM requirements," he says. He then moved to Europe, to work for another incumbent challenger, France's Bouygues Telecom, where he was responsible for provisioning, before going to computer maker SGI, as principal telecoms consultant in Switzerland. Relevant to Reply as those roles were, his most recent job, at Sonera's mobile portal Zed, gave him the impetus for the start-up. "Sonera Zed headhunted me for their consumer business, and we were reaching 120 million people by the end but it was Zed for Business, a managed service to put enterprise email on your phone, that could have been bigger," he laments. Unfortunately for Robert and others at the company, Zed ran out of funds at the start of this year following the Finnish parent's 3G licence forays and the general downturn. He adds intensely: "It's still a hell of a market opportunity." Ravech's background appears more charmed. A McKinsey consultant during the nineties, he ended up in 1998 setting up e-marketplace GF-X - short for Global Freight Exchange - connecting logistics companies with airlines. Ravech will become Reply's executive chairman and is a funder, given his successful exit from GF-X. He looks every inch the consultant but almost geeky when he gets animated about Reply, which is endearing. He tells me: "Our dream was of not having to get a laptop out every time we check in with the office." And you just know it's a good idea. But aside from selling the service - which will be done through resellers - there are two obvious issues here. First, a similar offering is being pioneered by Blackberry, which works with mobile network operators in different countries, and second, global distribution is a pain. Mention Blackberry and the two founders look at each other and smile. Rather diplomatically, Ravech says: "We like Blackberrys, they're really nice products but there are issues, such as getting attachments." And on the network side, Silver explains: "The trouble with the mobile operators is that they don't know how to work with enterprise clients and they have national networks. Even with the big [international] ones their networks aren't integrated." The answer to all this for Reply also explains a lot about the company - Infonet. Infonet is a decades old, stable company, 80 per cent owned by big telcos and a network provider with points of presence in more than 180 countries and 3,000 cities. Look at its website and it goes on about being a private internet. Whatever. Look at Reply, and you see a start-up with a major league partner. Infonet is leasing Reply office space - thus the Savile Row location, at least for now - providing advice and putting 30 to 40 staff on a Reply development and operations team. It is not an investor - the small amount of undisclosed start-up funding is coming from individuals, including Ravech - but will take a cut of revenues. Silver says: "What's exciting about them is that they're boring." And Ravech emphasises the whole of the Reply offering is a bet on using existing devices - based on PocketPC, Palm or other OSes, with the two founders sporting Handspring Treos right now - and more generally, technology that is proven to work. And that includes Infonet's network. Two things are striking about Reply Wireless and they are almost certainly linked. First, the company is setting out to exploit a market opportunity using technology that already exists, technology which is 'good enough'. No waiting for 3G networks to be up and (hopefully) running, for example. Second, Reply almost immediately seems to sum up a kind of new realism for start-ups. We've all heard about the days of dot-com excess and the 'take $20m or take nothing' VC offers but this company is common sense personified. There will be no unsustainable monthly 'burn rates'. Besides Silver and Ravech, mainly because of the company's early stage and the Infonet connection, there aren't many other staff on the books. The company's CTO will be Ed Cole, also ex-SGI and more recently IT director at satellite communications firm ICO and UK MD of VA Linux. But don't go expecting a long list of executives. Reply hopes to formerly launch - "possibly with a different name for the service" - next month. Users will have to expect to pay for their own choice of device and telco charges, such as GPRS or dial-up access. But then Reply will connect them at various prices per seat to corporate email. There will be a £3,000 enterprise installation fee and training is free. "We'll be profitable almost from day one," Ravech says, not looking at all geeky now. He agrees there is a new realism in the start-up world and it's hard to disagree, though this isn't to say ambitions have been curbed. The Reply men are even looking beyond the WAIP, beyond this year, to providing applications over their service. http://www.replywireless.com Do you run or know about a start-up whose story we should be telling? If so, drop us an email at editorial@silicon.com .