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Wayra is Telefonica’s astonishingly smart startup accelerator: I love it!

I’ve been sitting thinking about Wayra for a month now. I’ve had plenty of opportunity to consider the concept after attending an introductory day in Madrid back in February.

What I saw that day absolutely astonished me.

For someone who’s seen mobile operators struggle with anything approaching the word ‘innovation’ across the last decade, I’m delighted to say that Wayra is brilliant, audacious, inspired and hugely exciting.

First, let’s get a bit of context: Telefonica is a behemoth. A giant. They’ve 300 million customers across a whopping 25 countries. They’ve 285,000 employees and last year the company did €46 billion in revenue. Telefonica is Spain’s biggest multinational and their brands will be instantly recognisable to almost every reader (Telefonica, Movistar, o2, Vivo, Terra).

So they’re huge.

But, they’re different.

While most of the operator community couldn’t fight it’s way out of an innovative paper bag, Telefonica has been boldly experimenting with a new ideas over the past few years, most notably (in my view) with the likes of their uber-brilliant BlueVia developer API service, Campus Party and some really smart offerings from the team at Telefonica Digital.

On the basis of this, I’d be content to name Telefonica as one of the most forward thinking operators on the planet. However their new launch, Wayra, puts them head and shoulders above the rest of the industry.

But before we get to Wayra, let me first touch on Nokia. Back in 2009, I was deeply concerned about Nokia’s worsening market reputation, particularly with the Ovi Store being compared to the iTunes App Store. You can read my thoughts here. I speculated that it might be rather useful if, instead of waiting for the market to ‘do something’, that Nokia jump start developer attention by basically funding it directly. I reckoned the company should open warehouses in major cities around the world which they should fill with hundreds of developers, each paid a reasonably monthly fee (or investment, or whatever). I speculated that the output would be pretty exciting.

Now put yourself in the position of a mobile operator. They’re all universally panicking about unpredictable revenue streams. Apple is causing them untold amounts of grief along with Google, Youtube, Facebook and so on. Privately, most executives will concede that, yes, cellular access is a commodity. They all know it. We know it too. Even the European regulators are calling time on the crazy roaming tariffs, with many country regulators also examining the over inflated costs of in-country price plans. In France, the incumbent operators appear utterly incensed at the billionaire behind Free Mobile who, it seems, is about to force huge structural change by giving most telecoms services away for free, or at low monthly fees. In short, if you don’t innovate, you won’t get anywhere.

Most operators are stuck in paralysis mode. If it wasn’t so disappointing, it would be laughable. Laughable that, for all their bluster, the majority of the industry’s senior executives are completely clueless. Now that we’re seeing real fiscal ramifications from the Over The Top Bit Pipe generation (with Apple and Google at the forefront), their dilemmas are even more acute.

Telefonica has grabbed the bull by the horns.

They’re doing the warehouse thing — with bells on.

Here’s the concept: If you’ve got a mobile-related idea, stick it down on a page and present it to the Wayra team. Every 6 months, they’ll select 10-20 winning ideas that will be accelerate into startups. Each idea gets €50k investment, full access to the Wayra Academy (funky, full-service office space) along with unprecedented support from Telefonica including advisory services and guaranteed mentoring.

In return, Telefonica takes a straight 10% share of the company, plus they also ask for the right to be the first customer (where appropriate).

It gets better though. There’s not just one Wayra Academy. In fact there’s one in each of the following countries:

– Colombia
– Spain
– Mexico
– Argentina
– Venezuela
– Chile
– Peru
– Brazil
– United Kingdom (opening shortly)

Basically, wherever Telefonica operate, expect there to be a Wayra Academy opening there soon.

So now, if you start doing the maths, that’s 9 countries so far. A minimum of 10 new companies are funded every 6-months. That means 90 new startups will be funded every 6 months or 180 a year. Minimum. Indeed, once the UK Academy opens, Wayra will effectively funding a new mobile startup every 2 days.

That’s some commitment.

Can a mobile operator move at this pace? Yes. Well, to be blunt, they’ve already done it. About 70 startups have been funded *already*. The Wayra team are working at internet speed. By way of example, they opened and populated Academies in 8 cities within just 6 months.

Just to be clear: About 7 months ago, Wayra was simply a concept. That’s fast by any reckoning. It’s positively warp speed in the mobile operator world.

What’s the big deal, you might ask, about an operator doing this?

Well first, I’m delighted to see a different approach. I’m so pleased that Telefonica’s actually stood up and done something, whilst the rest of the industry has remained relatively inert. But what’s really inspiring me are the possibilities for entrepreneurs. If you’ve got an idea for the mobile industry, here is a way to easily access funding. That’s great in itself, but here’s a way to easily access 300 million customers. An investment from Wayra means you’ll get direct access to Telefonica’s top people. You’ll be assigned a mentor — a top exec from one of the company’s divisions most relevant to your startup. He/she will be responsible for opening the doors straight into the company. This is gold dust.

Critics might argue that nowadays, all you need is an app and that the operator doesn’t matter. Yes. That’s one viewpoint. But actually, that’s where all the innovation tends to stop. It has to stop at the app level because your average startup has NO way whatsoever of convincing a massive multinational operator to open it’s doors, even in today’s connected environment.

Wayra isn’t restricting ideas at all. As long as it’s mobile related in some way, they’re interested.

Of course Wayra has some key areas of interest that align closely with Telefonica’s larger objectives. These are:

– Cloud services
– Financial services
– Future communications
– User modeling
– M2M
– Digital Security
– E-Health
– Mobile applications and games
– Network / Systems
– Consumer Internet services
– E-commerce
– Localization services
– Social innovation

As I sat watching the introductory presentations from the Wayra team, I began wondering if I shouldn’t be quitting everything and taking some of my more outrageous ideas to the Wayra Academy.

If you’ve been sitting on a concept or an idea that you’d like to get funded and get your first customer in the form of Telefonica, then I reckon you should take a very close look at Wayra. I know about five people who should be doing this right now.

I’m planning on writing more on Wayra shortly, especially given their UK/European announcement is due to take place at an event tomorrow.

In the meantime if you’d like an introduction to the team, just let me know and I’ll connect you. Otherwise, contact them directly at www.wayra.org. They’re on Twitter too.

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