I think I have actually met Steve Procter of iTAGG.com only once – at a big internet/mobile conference years ago. However I know him. At least, I feel I do. We’ve communicated enough through the years, generally online, by email or by phone. (That’s half of him on the left there).
We’ve used iTAGG at Neo One to deliver many of our mobile services — indeed, they powered a substantial amount of our functionality for our Impulse SMS Text to Screen service which was live to hundreds of thousands of users every night.
Steve’s extremely well connected, well liked throughout the industry and he’s a nice chap. In all my dealings with iTAGG, I’ve always found both he and his team approachable, friendly and very much willing to help.
iTAGG really set my mind alight when they launched their original service, enabling anyone to buy a keyword on the iTAGG shortcode and use their SMS gateway. Back when shortcodes were thousands of pounds a month, for a 12 month commitment, Steve and his team levelled the playing field — I reckon this was a market-moving-moment.
Other aggregators offered similar services — but couldn’t compete on price, nor on pure simplicity. You sign up, you pick your keyword and within seconds, your account is live and you’re sending and receiving texts.
I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve been sat talking with a client interested in doing something ‘mobile related’. When we get down to the nitty gritty, the clients often balked at the commitment required to get their own shortcode. ("12 months? A 12 month contract? We only need it for 2 weeks"). So almost every time I’d wheel out iTAGG and more often than not, we’d go live with an iTAGG service instead of a dedicated shortcode! Most recently we used iTAGG for some live text auctions we did for a client.
Once or twice I have actually come out a meeting with a client at 4pm with a mandate to launch a service and had the facility actually operational by 6pm. I used to love being able to exceed expectations by a few million miles for clients who thought it would take months to get things setup.
It’s not just standard SMS capabilities though — it’s the whole shebang including premium SMS. That usually gets people rather excited when I introduce iTAGG. I really like the ability to get things setup without having to speak to anyone as we often developed in the middle of the night — the iTAGG control panel was wicked. I’ve placed orders at 2am in the morning safe in the knowledge that my requirements are going to be automatically deployed within moments. I say ‘was wicked’ — because iTAGG have recently changed their modus operandi, launching www.sms.ec – SMS EasyConnect — the next generation of their online control panel service.
Steve and his colleagues aren’t just iTAGG though. They’ve a super dotcom heritage which has stood them in good stead for the continued successful development of the company. So much so that I went to town with this Q&A and before I knew it I was at question 19. Special thanks to Steve for taking the time to sit down and answer them all!
Blackberry addicts, watch out for his blasphemous comments!
Here we go…
1. What was your first mobile handset and what network was it on?
It was a Nokia on Orange back in the mid 90’s. Would love to remember the model but can’t find a picture anywhere. But I remember it was the coolest thing I’d ever seen and was definitely slinkier than all my mates – for some reason I decided to go for the best model available – the one that could hold, wait for it, 100 contacts!!! And Orange seemed really great back then, I really felt a lot of loyalty to them.
2. Tell us about your current mobile handset strategy?
- Nokia 7650 on Vodafone
- Laptop / Vodafone 3g card
- 1GB memory stick
- Broken video iPod
Yes that should read DAP – "Diary and Pen". Some people laugh at this, for someone who is "in mobile" but I have no PDA, preferring to write everything with real ink in my little diary.
The memory stick contains "absolutely everything" – best invention ever! Turn up anywhere in the world, plug it in to a PC, turn on my Vodafone mobile (who I think have the best global roaming reach) and I am in full control of my business.
I absolutely refuse to have a Blackberry as am convinced this "always on" strategy taken by business people is a scary road for society to go down. When clients call or email at 11:30 at night and expect an instant reply, I start to weep at how we are letting our personal lives slip into oblivion.
3. What services do you most use on your handset?
Just calls and texting really. I’ve just had a look at the other icons on my 7650 and…well they are utter nonsense – gimmicks most of ’em. But 3rd party apps I use…spinvox and AQA/82ASK (see below). And occasionally iTAGG’s Mobycards MMS to Postcard service (I’d use it more but a huge Nikon usually does my pics; show me a mobile phone with a 12.4 mega-pixel camera that can shoot at 8fps and I may change my mind!).
Oh and using iTAGG’s street map service when I’m lost – give it a whiz, just text MAP to 60300 (stnd rate + 50p) and it’ll lookup where you are and return a wap link to a colour street map! Just like O2 and Streetmap’s new map service but ours has been running for over 2 years 😉
4. You’ve worked in the interactive industry for quite some time — tell us the background to your previous company?
My previous company was Easily.co.uk where we registered domain names and setup email/web hosting accounts. I started it from my dining room (hey in California they do it in garages but in St Albans one prefers the living room startup!). It was back in ’99 when the internet buzz was going nuts and it was some of the funnest time I’ve had in business. I’d been working in the City and just discovered the internet one day and have never looked back.
I sometimes long for those crazy days of running around First Tuesday events listening to all the mad ideas and people almost throwing money at you. Although saying that we always ran Easily from our own pockets and had a very simple business model, buy a name for a fiver and sell for a tenner – sometimes people forget today that commerce really should be that simple! Previously to Easily I had done my stints in the City and at Logica but also had a crazy 4 years running my own scuba business and teaching people to dive in a pool behind Oxford Circus…oh and the odd trip to the Red Sea – but it was business you understand, we never had any fun!
5. What prompted you to look to the mobile industry for your next venture?
A few years in to running Easily I discovered that my colleagues were great at the day to day running of a business whilst I was the entrepreneur that spotted new things and got them going; and well, mobile was just screaming out as the big new thing and it just seemed to have huge potential and be very exciting (and indeed it is a great game to be in). That was back in early 2002 and our first system was to deliver goal alerts by text for the Japan worldcup – blimey is it 4 years we’ve been going!! Does that make us Senior Players in this industry!?
6. Give us an overview of iTAGG.
iTAGG is split into two halves: the consultancy/mobile marketing/solutions side – which basically means we are "Imaginateurs" and come and imagine, design, build, execute, report, hand-hold on anything to do with mobile on a consultancy basis. We feel our vast experience and general loveliness sets us aside from many of the newer players who don’t know their wap from their j2me and wouldn’t know an icstis guideline if it fell on their heads from a great height 😉
The second half of the business is for the smaller players and also developers across all industries; it’s a platform called EasyConnect and can be found at http://www.sms.ec. Basically turn up, signup and be running your own mobile, text and mms applications, text voting, content delivery, premium sms and tonnes more in 10 minutes. We compare it I guess to systems like Opera’s Dragon system, but unlike many ready-to-go platforms ours is all free to signup for (no setup or management fees) – just pay for the messages.
7. What recent services have you offered?
EasyConnect is pretty new and we are launching a much more in-depth content delivery and billing part of this any day now. Again this service is free to plug in to.
We’re also really pushing our sms aggregation as we have some amazing rates for bulk and premium sms payouts and feel the levels of professionalism you get elsewhere for this are scary – we hear a lot of horror stories when people ask to move to us.
We’ve also just become the first player in the UK to offer unified MMS and SMS keywords on a shared shortcode.
And finally we’re just going mad working with agencies and brands to add mobile in to the bigger marketing mix and create some sexy combined mobile and web applications.
8. Have you ever considered offering the iTAGG service in North America or other areas?
Do you know what, we never have. We took the same decision at Easily and just feel that the UK has sooooo much potential that it seems silly to run off on a gold rush when there is so much still to do here.
9. Give us 3 recent examples of your work with customers?
We’ve done a variety of different things using j2me, wap, pure text and user-generated MMS for lastminute.com, Live8, Libdems, Labour party, Orange, Conde Nast, Friends of the Earth, Bosch and many many more. In fact at the last count we had several thousand clients using us at all levels from designing, building and executing complete mobile apps and marketing services through to using our self service EasyConnect platform for all sorts of things; we see some weird and wonderful uses of sms that we would have never dreamt up in a million years. It’s quite incredible the things people find to do with texting.
10. What mobile related sites do you read regularly?
Well apart from Ewan’s great blog which is indeed the best mobile-themed blog for it’s real honesty and plain speaking – we need more like it! I tend to hang out more on the general new-media sites such as Digital Bulletin and The Register. I am also a big fan of New Media Age which I’ve read consistently for 7 years!
11. Pick 3 people that you admire and rate in the mobile industry and give us 2-3 lines about each.
Ooh dear I may have to get a tad negative for a split second…we could do with a few new faces that can really kick some butt and make things happen, and happen quicker. In certain areas such as the operators I’d go as far to say that there is a massive lack of anything even remotely close to inspiration. The mobile industry is very cut-throat and there are an awful lot of people just out for themselves.
12. What’s your ringtone?
It’s the tone that is used on the phones in 24!! When I was hunting for something simple and discreet and not a high pitch shrill (whoever designs the speakers in handsets should be shot) this came up – I love it!
13. List out the most interesting mobile applications you’ve seen/heard of recently?
Spinvox. My final project at university was text-to-speech (ok so what they do is the other way round) and when I first made that BBC Micro say "great but now lets go for a beer" it was quite a feeling of achievement. So I know the pains they must have gone through to make Spinvox simply brilliant – although they do need to work on the accents of us Northerners which it occasionally fails to convert. But…one of my colleagues simply hates the concept. So it just proves how hard it is to create an application that everybody wants; perhaps no such thing exists and we should think more about how you tailor experiences to cater for the many different tastes out there.
The other is AQA (similar to 82ASK). The idea of texting "anything" and getting an answer is simply brilliant. But again both AQA and 82ASK could go soooooo much further with these services. I like simplicity, but after a few years of operation I think it’s time to stretch the parameters a bit.
14. What new mobile companies have caught your attention this year?
It’s how text and mobile is used by small businesses that makes me feel it’s all worthwhile. The client of ours who has a small local sandwich shop and delivers to local businesses. Text him your order each morning from your desk and he delivers it. Simple. Nice.
15. What’s good and what’s bad with the mobile industry?
Good: New ideas every day. Some real invention and creativity out there – although unfortunately not enough budget left over for marketing so a lot of the ideas go unseen; that is really sad. You never know what sector you’ll be talking to next and what great ideas will be running through your head as you help a client figure how to use mobile in their business.
Bad: There are a few players wanting to get in to mobile that are back bedroom, hotmail toting, 12 year old burger flippers; you know the sort…firstname.lastname@example.org looking for "a revenue share" model 😉 Luckily there are enough people we speak to that have great concepts with a real budget that these fools are just a bit of a joke in our office.
16. How do you react to Google’s ‘the web is now mobile’ viewpoint. Do you share it?
Ooh not sure I’ve followed that one, but let me think…"the web is now mobile"…hhmmm, so they reckon the whole web can just magically appear on mobile handsets and we’ll all carry on usual!? Well something there doesn’t sound right. Having come from the web world and sold 250,000 domains and about 100,000 websites I can honestly tell you that most people in web don’t know nuffin about mobile, and most of those in mobile know nowt about the web. So all in all, I think we are in for a rough ride whilst people try and combine the two. Ultimately and theoretically yes, of course we should just be able to look at a handset or PC or TV screen or even the screen on our microwaves, and see exactly the same information, but it just ain’t gonna happen without real inspiration, experience and dare I say it, making a lot of mistakes along the way. So maybe the phrase is "the web will be mobile one day".
17. Send me a picture message or a video of something (with a description) — your desk, the office, anything — to me and I’ll publish it here with your interview.
Photo of our offices attached [left] and if you fancy a desk-share with us in a laid back converted warehouse near London Bridge then just ask…
18. What’s next for iTAGG?
Aside from all the great B2B stuff, we’ve decided to have a bit of fun with something directly for consumers…lets just say it’s all about user generated MMS images and if it takes off should make an absolute tonne of money for charities!! I guess we just want to use our expertise in building combined mobile and web apps to give something back. Watch this space…
Steve, thank you very much for answering the questions!
If you’d like to get in touch with Steve, you can do so at www.itagg.com or on +44 (0)20 7981 9775.