Meeting with giffgaff’s management team: Thoughts and a possible way ahead

The overwhelming temperature in the mobile marketplace here in the UK is lukewarm on giffgaff, the new o2-owned MVNO due to hit the streets before Christmas.

The marketplace — particularly the geeks — still remember MVNO horrors like Marks & Spencer Mobile (a complete turd of an attempt that was quietly and rightly smothered quickly after it launched) and more recently, the Blyk debacle (which proved the concept for ad-funded services, but didn’t really execute too well as a stand-alone MVNO).

I’m excited.

I sat in front of some of the management team today and listened. Then I fired question after question at them. And they stood up to the barrage, then the suggestions, then the ideas began to form in my head.

Before we get into that though, let’s take a step back.

What is giffgaff? First of all, it’s a real word. It’s olde Scottishe for:

You give me something, I give you something back


Second, it’s an MVNO. But it’s not your usual one. It’s owned by o2. It’s got o2 board-level attention and, although they’re checking-in once a quarter, the management team has been set loose with (one imagines) a pile of cash and a mandate to change the world.

What’s different? Well, they’re not aiming to flog shit. I’ve descended a few rungs on the social scale there (I’m pretty sure my wife is deeply unimpressed whenever she reads that sort of language here) but I’ve done so for good reason. This isn’t another rubbish our-rate-is-0.24%-cheaper-than-Vodafone offer, destined for the odd bus shelter advert and oblivion.

The management team — Mike Fairman in particular — are super keen on collaboration, on listening, on reacting to customer demand and requirement. It’s a concept rather alien to the mobile industry and one that Mike reckons could be hugely relevant and successful.

Mike’s gone all village-shop. Do you remember back to that fabled time — stick on your rose tinted glasses — when you were able to walk into the village shop and buy almost everything you needed? If they didn’t have it in stock, Mr Williams behind the counter would write a note and telegram his supplier in the big olde city of London. He’d send Jimmy down with a note to the cottage when it arrived. And lo and behold, 2 days later, your [whatever] would arrive. You’d pay Mr Williams — or, more likely, he’d put it on your tab, and you’d maybe even tip him. But that wouldn’t really be required since, he’s already made a nice margin — nothing too cheeky — enough to keep him interested, in business and on 3 meals a day (and not 4). Good, decent symbiotic service.

Well, that’s along the lines of what Mike and the team at giffgaff are thinking. They’d like their customers to get involved in deciding what services they offer. Ideally, they’d also like to defray the traditional customer recruitment and marketing costs by encouraging members to help out and spread the message, either for the fun of it, or to earn a rebate in service fees — or even straight forward cash. They’re also working on the basis that without a call centre (you’ll interact with them for billing and support purposes entirely online) that they’ll be able to use the ‘getsatisfaction’ model of crowd or member-sourced assistance. I think this, managed correctly, could be hugely useful. I’d much rather get some helpful opinion on how to do something than listen to a call-centre-monkey run through a series of 14 dumb questions (“is your phone currently on?” Yes, but the screen is cracked. “Can you make a call?” Yes, but the screen is cracked, so.. “Are you able to hang-up correctly?” … Yes but..”) Interestingly, the reality is there are quite a few individuals out there who’d be delighted to monitor the giffgaff forums for free/rebate/cash and provide a super and effective as a result.

The actual giffgafff model isn’t entirely ready for public consumption. That’s, in part, because they’re still working on refining it.

And I think they’ve got a spectacular opportunity, chiefly because the existing mobile operators have been rubbish, simply rubbish, at managing their consumer interaction.

Indeed the current majors — o2 included — are still struggling to get to grips with the two-way nature of today’s interactivity. Indeed the entire marketing departments at your average operator are completely based around one-to-many marketing. When operators offer a return-path for communication, they cease up. Witness, for example, Ben Smith of the Really Mobile Project trying to interact with T-Mobile UK via Twitter. I bet him a dinner at Claridges that he wouldn’t get a decent, personal answer to his queries via Twitter. He got a ‘thank you’ and then heard nothing at all.

Somewhere, there’s a guy or girl who’s paid to sit and knock out bollocks messages for T-Mobile on Twitter and who’s been told — I’m willing to bet — that you must not interact or get into a conversation. I bet they’ve been instructed never to show any personality. Lest the preening marketing team panic that the Twitter reply from T-Mobile be ‘off message.’

The result is that they look like a bunch of muppets to everyone trying to interact with them.

So there’s real pain out there in the marketplace when it comes to interacting with mobile operators. There’s a heck of a lot of demand for a company that listens and swiftly evolves service in response to customer suggestion. If giffgaff began innovating — I mean really innovating — in terms of offering APIs and the like, things could get very interesting, very quickly.

During one of his answers, Mike mentioned the phrase ‘APIs’.

“Let me stop you there,” I said.

“Will you be doing itemised billing?” I asked, arranging the follow-up questions in my mind.

[I’m paraphrasing, I didn’t make specific notes — this is roughly what was said]

Mike thought for a moment and said, “Yes, sure, we can offer that.”

“Will you be tracking the incoming and outgoing numbers?” I ask. I’m thinking about Skydeck, you see.

Mike sits back a moment and has a think, “I don’t see why not.”

I *completely* forgot the name of Skydeck and did my flustered best at trying to describe the social-network-from-your-telephone-activity concept.

“Is that the kind of thing you might consider doing?” I asked Mike.

I’m not sure if he knew it, but his answer to this question was going to colour my judgement on giffgaff. A mobile operator, virtual or no, that would consider offering this kind of service, is one I’ve been hunting for.

“By all means, if the users wanted it, we’d look at it.”


Any company that would consider doing *cool* things, things that SHOULD be done, well, that’s exciting, it’s refreshing and it could really change the marketplace.

I went on to describe the mobile operator replacement service I’ve been testing for some time that, for example, allows you to press *5 during a call and immediately bring a set of friends or family into the same call as a conference. Those are cool facilities that you just don’t ever see offered by the mainstream operators. They can’t innovate fast enough and they’ve got to offer a semi-homogenous service to their vast user-base. Innovation takes years.

But at giffgaff it could be fast paced and responsive.

“How about 50 quid a month unlimited everything price plan?” I asked. I thought I’d try and push Mike a bit.

He smiled and explained that they’re aiming for one simple (PAYG with auto-top-up) tariff.

“Right but what about data?” I continued, “Every MVNO I’ve seen seems to treat data as a very dirty word. You can have it, but it’ll cost you an arm and a leg.”

I looked expectantly at Mike.

“We’re aiming for one simple tariff for voice, text and data,” he explained, “Although we haven’t finalised everything as yet.”

Good. This is good.

At times during the conversation with Mike, I was reminded of my UK MVNO theory that I formulated when I saw Extreme Mobile try and get off the ground. My theory is thus: Don’t bother unless you’re going to electrify the marketplace by offering a simple unlimited plan together with responsive, personable service.

Until there’s an actual public tariff to see, I think we’ll need to wait and see.

I’m thoroughly encouraged at the attitude of the giffgaff team. It’s not marketing-speak. They really mean it.

They’re really aiming to launch a MVNO that encourages their customers to get stuck in and involved. It’s certainly not a requirement (you can sit back and just use their service) but they’re hoping it’s going to be a real differentiator.

It will be, if they can innovate — and if they can seriously engage both the tech and the mainstream market.

Indeed, I can think of a lot of people in the mobile industry who’d really like to get their hands on a mobile operator and who’d really like to get stuck in, working for the company directly or indirectly as a member. The possibility of an operator that actually listens and is highly responsive is nigh on orgasmic, I’m sure, for most of the Mobile Industry Review audience.

As the interview with giffgaff came to an end, my mind was overflowing with possibilities.

“Forget the normobs,” I felt like crying out, “FORGET THEM!”


I didn’t say this, obviously. I was professional. In the back of my mind I’m sat thinking, though, wondering if you could hijack the general giffgaff ‘launch’ and turn it into a futuristic service offering for the normob-geeks. Something like this:

– Unlimited data without restriction (but with an understanding that if you took the mickey, there’d be consequences)
– Unlimited calls. True unlimited. Landlines obviously. But don’t bother charging me for 0870 calls. Swallow that cost. Don’t charge me for 0800 or anything else. Make it unlimited, apart from, of course, the super premium rate lines.
– Unlimited text. Easy.
– Any handset I want. Yes! Handsets are a total minefield for PAYG carriers. But the principle reason for many to stay with their existing operator. Do a deal with the likes of Expansys and, say, Dixons or somebody else who’d be quite happy to hand out subsidised phones in return for £10 a month subscription, independent of mobile operator. What’s to stop Dixons or Currys from simply saying ‘right, want this N86? Cool. We’ll buy it for £250 from Nokia and sell it to you for £320 over 18 months. That’s £17.70. They already do this for TVs, HiFis and so on. BING! You’ve solved the PAYG operator’s issue with handsets. You’ve made it easy for the consumer to get their gorgeous devices. You’ve also made it easy for them to leave their existing operator. And you’ve helped out Dixons/Currys who, lets face it, have been struggling for *years*.
– Allow the geeks to get iPhones via some sort of related o2 agreement. Minefield I know, but don’t underestimate the lure of the iPhone.
– Innovate the offering. Open up the API and let the market and the developers go nuts with it.
– Get thoroughly involved with your customers and start offering them services that *they suggest* that they’ll happily pay for. There are a ton. Off the top of my head, do a deal with AQA and get a slightly cheaper, slightly exclusive offering. I’m sure they’d be delighted to do a deal.
– Launch a marketplace. A proper app-store type shop of mobile services, rated and reviewed by the readers. Allow the mobile application and services companies to participate in 2-minute video-pitches that you email to all the members once a week. You know, stuff like GoSpoken, ShopQwik and so on.

I started to get really carried away and I noticed time had marched on so I thanked the giffgaff team for their time and exited.

There’s a super opportunity out there for them. It’s far too early to determine just how they’re going to tackle it.

I for one would leap at the chance to get involved in something as I’ve described above. I think the market and the normobs are ready too.

And for those of you who’re thinking it’s just-another-MVNO, wait. Give them a chance and let’s see where it takes them.

Oh: And follow their top man, Mike Fairman on Twitter here. Their blog is here and their site is here.

By Ewan

Ewan is Founder and Editor of Mobile Industry Review. He writes about a wide variety of industry issues and is usually active on Twitter most days. You can read more about him or reach him with these details.

17 replies on “Meeting with giffgaff’s management team: Thoughts and a possible way ahead”

Ewan, I love your optimism.. I think I've pretty much successfully called the failure of every one of the MVNO's you've ever written about! Extreme/Disney/M&S/Blyk/Dot etc… Tesco have economy of scale and more buying power than pretty much any company in the UK. Virgin have/had a first to market/ish advantage.. I personally liked Amp'd, but it was clearly doomed given the way they went about trying to build a brand from the ground up.. I'll grant you this one looks quite interesting, but do you genuinely think they can compete?

all of us who truly believe in empowering the customer will surely be wishing giffgaff all the best. hopefully, they won't put the 02 brand anywhere near the company. And, perhaps some of the ideas and successes might even filter back into 02. But, there have been so many empty promises made by MVNO's and operators that we will need to truly wait and see.

Can they compete? Well… the concept is good. The 'getting-involved' open way of doing business sounds good. I think we should watch them and give them an opportunity to get stuck in. I'd like to see them grow beyond the standard small-bit-player model that most MVNOs end up adopting.

They've certainly got you enthusiastic, which is always a good sign. I think there's definitely a demand out there for a more transparent, more open carrier; I just wonder whether giffgaff can reach the tipping point where they find enough suitably-enthused users to make them viable. They also need to do a better job of communicating their own enthusiasm through their site; when I read through it earlier this week, all I took away was that they'd be giving out rewards for referrals, basically. Perhaps they need an evangelist?

Well now there's an idea! I'm game. In fact I know a ton of people who'd be game. What about you, Chris?

I think we'll need to wait and see what they begin to commit too — that's when we'll really get an idea as to whether it's moving in the right direction.

Well, yes, I'm game up to the point of cautious anticipation. I actually use O2 anyway, so it'll be interesting comparing their current offerings and giffgaff. Just how much can they cut costs by farming out customer support to bonus-renumerated volunteers and marketing to mouthy bloggers?

I shall reserve a SIM-shaped space in my heart and cross my fingers, metaphorically speaking.

As soon as you offered Unlimited Calls to 08 numbers it would be heavily abused by a minority of customers for routed International Calls. Huge loss for the operator and the service would be withdrawn. Never going to happen while fixed line operators charge a premium to them.

But then its not “Unlimited calls. True unlimited.” I have to say I'm struggling to see how any operator could make any money in this utopian world.

But then its not “Unlimited calls. True unlimited.” I have to say I'm struggling to see how any operator could make any money in this utopian world.

Your forgetting that individuals and companies have to pay for an 0800 number. its free to call, but its not free to have.

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