This series looks at technologies that will be game-changers for small business, particularly firms whose staffs are highly mobile and where travel is part of the game.
Though they didn't grow up in Canada, South African cousins Gregory Gundelfinger and Mathew Stein quickly came to understand the frustrations associated with roaming charges that are seemingly a Canadian birthright, along with the inevitable billing shock that occurs when you return to these shores.
The pair, now living in Toronto, decided there must be an alternative to hefty roaming fees, so in 2012 they launched KnowRoaming Ltd. For $35, the company sells a flexible printed circuit board that simply sticks to your phone's SIM card and allows users to avoid costly roaming while out of the country, an obvious boon for companies that do business overseas.
"When we started this company 2 1/2 years ago we took a very in-depth look at this problem, particularly from a business perspective, because those are the users that really incur a huge amount of telecommunications costs related to roaming," says Mr. Gundelfinger. "So when we analyzed the market and some of the alternative solutions that existed and we didn't find anything that was as convenient as just roaming, and we came to the conclusion that the reason that high roaming prices have persisted is because there weren't any viable alternatives."
That hits home when you discover that Canadians spent almost $800-million on worldwide roaming charges last year, $450-million in the United States alone. Those figures, combined with their own experiences of flying back to South Africa to visit family, spurred Mr. Gundelfinger and Mr. Stein to develop their SIM sticker solution. Mr. Gundelfinger, who earned a law degree from the University of South Africa in Pretoria, previously owned an international long-distance communications company in his native country, while Mr. Stein has a background in computer engineering.
Given the current options available to travellers when they go abroad – paying the charges, just using free WiFi in a coffee shop or other venue, or purchasing a local SIM card in the country they are travelling to – the pair knew that their idea had to be as simple and hassle-free as possible to catch on, especially within the business community.
"The whole process needed to be as seamless as possible and ask the user not to do anything that he wouldn't ordinarily do to remain connected," Mr. Gundelfinger says. "So at the time when we said we were going to create a sticker that you put on your SIM card, that idea … seemed like a crazy kind of project."
Essentially, when the circuitry contained within the sticker detects that the owner of the phone is travelling beyond his borders, it automatically sets up a call-forward process to a local number in whatever country the owner is in, so instead of your calls diverting through a Canadian number and racking up your phone bill with roaming charges, the technology switches you over to the KnowRoaming SIM card, and the phone becomes a dual-SIM phone.
"When you're trying to do something with technology today, you've got to really try and differentiate yourself by creating as much value as possible so that the barriers to entry are much higher to compete with you," says Mr. Gundelfinger. "So that's what we did; we did everything ourselves. We didn't buy this technology; everything was built from the ground up here in Toronto."
The KnowRoaming system has been developed to work on Apple iPhones and iPads as well as the Android system, but it does not operate on BlackBerry phones. Users download an app, which then allows them to monitor all of their cellular activity in real time, from itemized calls to data charges.
In a tip of the hat to the business community – as well as expats like themselves – KnowRoaming also gives its users the ability to purchase additional numbers in the countries that they travel to, allowing colleagues and friends the ability to stay in touch and save on their own phone bills.
"The cool thing about that is that number actually follows you, so when you're back on your home network in Canada – Telus, Bell, Rogers, etc. – we will then forward all those calls back to your home mobile number," Mr. Gundelfinger says. "So no matter whether you're on the KnowRoaming sticker SIM card or you're on your home SIM card, everything's linked together. We call this our Connected Numbers technology."
Somewhat surprisingly, KnowRoaming, which employs a team of 22 people in Toronto, enjoys a largely healthy relationship with the big players in the Canadian cellular industry. Mr. Gundelfinger, now 31, attributes this to a change in the landscape as a whole.
"Roaming charges from a wholesale perspective aren't what they used to be, and they don't contribute to the kind of revenues that they did 10 years ago," he says. "So instead of the networks fighting us, we're finding quite the opposite. They see us as a way of capturing additional traffic on to their networks. Maybe if this was 10 years ago and roaming revenues were a significant portion of a network's income, I think that maybe we would have been viewed differently, but I think the timing was right for us."
In a bid to further deepen its presence in business-to-business communications, KnowRoaming recently spent time developing software aimed directly at professional roamers.
"The business community has really embraced us, and for that reason we're now building our corporate portal which enables a customer, IT manager or account manager to be able to administer multiple accounts, multiple sticker SIM cards attached to one account and that's going to be ready in the next two weeks," Mr. Gundelfinger says. "This is a very corporately focused portal that enables you to distribute funds and set limits and have the same control that you have with the app but in one centralized dashboard."