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Marios Italos on the power of multi-channel customer engagement

A pivot into the Communication Platform as a Service (CPaaS) space has led Paphos-based Intergo Telecom Ltd to become one of the fastest-growing Cpaas companies in Europe in 2024.

Here, its Founder and CEO, Marios Italos, discusses the reasons behind its change of direction and why he opted for slower but sustainable growth in a sector that typically prioritises rapid investment-driven expansion.

There wasn’t any magic recipe,” reflected Marios Italos, with an air of stating an immutable truth by way of explanation that success was not obtained overnight.

I met with the Founder and CEO of CPaaS company Intergo Telecom Ltd on the digital plane of a Zoom call, as he lives and works a few hours westward in Paphos and conflicting schedules made a physical visit difficult.

Sitting in his office with shutters cutting off May’s bright sunlight, Italos gave a self-conscious smile as he revealed that this was his first interview on this scale. This struck me as peculiar, considering the company's surging growth, with revenues doubling year on year – from €2 million in 2022 to €4.2 million in 2023 and poised to surpass €8 million this fiscal term – culminating in its inclusion in the Financial Times FT1000 2024 (in 678th place), a coveted roster spotlighting Europe's fastest-growing companies.

“This was a result of accumulating several capabilities over the years, and when we were building these individual pieces, I couldn’t predict that they would lead us here,” he said. “We took a lot of chances and somehow everything converted into the growth we are witnessing now.”

The CPaaS space emerged as a response to the failure of incumbent telcos to provide a technological infrastructure that would meet the communication needs of commerce – an increasingly globalised and digitised sector. This echoes an all too familiar refrain: incumbent banks had similarly failed to ride the fintech wave supporting the financial needs of e-commerce.

Nonetheless, in the most basic sense, CPaaS enables businesses to seamlessly integrate communication capabilities – messaging, voice and video – into their existing CRM systems through application programming interfaces (APIs), essentially software conduits that enable different applications to communicate with each other.

By doing so, companies can engage with their customers through multiple channels such as WhatsApp, Viber and Telegram, a capability that is paramount as these messaging platforms have markedly eroded the primacy of traditional SMS.

And as companies gravitated to the cost-efficient as-a-service cloud model, while recognising the importance of boosting their communication strategies with real-time features, demand for CPaaS ballooned. Indicatively, in 2015, the global market size languished at a mere US$0.4 billion, a far cry from today’s US$16.34 billion, with projections suggesting that it will grow to US$37.4 billion by the decade’s end.

According to Italos, another major driver for the space has been regulatory compliance – dispatching a marketing SMS across the globe is not as simple as hitting the ‘send’ button. Several countries, for instance, impose prohibitions on online gambling communications, with violations carrying severe penalties. “So, somebody had to accumulate this knowledge and help companies navigate this complicated landscape,” he explained.

Intergo Telecom was never intended to be a CPaaS company. Italos started it in 2016 to compete for public tenders, winning a competition for a pay-as-you-go fax service. However, the company’s small team was curious and hungry to experiment, and its founder was acutely aware that it needed to enter a much bigger space to be truly defined as a company. Having launched the smart messaging application SMS.to in 2018, the pivot into the CPaaS space was completed in 2020 with the release of APIs.

By then, however, the market – especially in the West – had already been conquered by big companies like US-based Vonage and Twilio and their armies of engineers and local sales teams. Chuckling softly, Italos recalled how, “We took advantage of our disadvantage and focused on emerging markets. And because we are based in Cyprus, we had the advantage of lower operating costs – we are nimble and fast.”

Today, the company's biggest markets are Africa and Southeast Asia and it is looking to enter the Middle East and the CIS region. Meanwhile, it has created working relationships with several telcos, including China Mobile, Optus, Etihad Etisalat Company, Bharti Airtel, Deutsche Telekom, Orange and O2.

Dealing with operators was no easy feat; continuing with the parallels between fintech and CPaaS, incumbents exhibited a protracted reluctance to view their tech-oriented counterparts as collaborators, opting to treat them as competitors instead. “It took us a few years to start building our network and relations, but I wouldn’t say they were doing it maliciously. It’s a structural issue: it’s how they are designed,” Italos mentioned. Remarkably, another accumulated capability has been the company’s ability to attract talent. Intergo currently employs 50 people, 20 of whom are based in the Paphos headquarters, with the remainder comprising remote workers. Attracting talent as a growth driver is not something you usually hear from a Cyprus tech company.

So, I asked, how did the company manage that?

Italos took a moment to gather his thoughts and said, “Well, I’m not going to pretend we have an abundance of talent on the island. When we started the company, there was some kind of desperation since we couldn’t find people. But we have always been very fast and decisive when making offers and then retaining employees – it is not easy to find telecom engineers in Cyprus but when you do find them you need to hire them on the spot.”

The company now generates revenues from four units. The first two coalesce within the SMS.to product: one unit offers bulk SMS, dealing with mobile operators and resellers, generating 15% of the revenues, while the second unit (generating approximately 60-65% of the revenues) deals with both SMBs and enterprises, the latter of which chiefly deploy it for authentication purposes – think notifications relating to sign-up activities or withdrawal requests from trading platforms.

“It’s a very powerful product,” Italos said “because we’ve done a lot of work fixing regulated markets. We created relations with local operators and they allow us to use specific sender IDs for authentication purposes.” It's worth mentioning that the company offers a wide range of integrations, including Salesforce, Shopify, WooCommerce and WordPress and currently supports Viber and WhatsApp while also experimenting with Google’s RCS. The third unit, which rakes in some 15% of the company’s revenues, is a wholesale voice product that enables large customer care call centres to make calls across the world via the Internet.

Finally, the latest product in the company’s suite is an enterprise voice product called Telxi, which offers voice services and SIP Trunking solutions, essentially a virtual bridge that connects phones to the internet. “One of the biggest advantages of this product,” he explained, “is that it allows multinational companies to deploy local numbers in more than 60 countries through one single platform. Normally, they will need to go to each country and sign as many agreements with local operators. So, in just one day, you can deploy local numbers in say, 20 countries, connect them to your phone system and start doing business.”

That familiar self-conscious smile graced Marios Italos’ face once more when broaching the company’s bootstrapped status, a conscious decision rooted in pragmatism. Italos had been keenly aware that fundraising demanded a level of dedication that would have distracted from developing a sound product and a sustainable company.

Indeed, he revealed, the company has been profitable since day one. Benchmarking its success against fundraising concerned him in part, he said, because of the effect it could have on his teams’ job security – the tech sector’s irresponsible hiring practices in recent years have been heavily scrutinised. “If you don’t have a sound structure and a good market fit, money is going to create more problems for you because you will go on a binge hiring, eventually burning the money and then have to start from the beginning,” he explained.

Moving forward, Intergo Telecom now plans to introduce two products powered by Generative AI and Italos is convinced that they will be ground-breaking for the company. The first feature relates to fraud prevention: by tapping into information sources from mobile operators, a risk-scoring algorithm will enable telcos to know which mobile numbers are connected to fraudulent or inactive users. “This is a very interesting market,” Italos explained “because, for a few cents, we can tell them which users to block. We have this tool in-house but it is not productised yet. And the more data we have, the more the model is trained and the more accurate it will be.”

The second product relates to eSIMs, essentially a productised version of a SIM card with included data that can be used by business and leisure travellers. “When I recently went to Hong Kong, I landed in Thailand, and I received an SMS message that said the roaming cost per megabyte was €16.5! So instead of paying that, you get a bundle of data and you can travel around the world,” he clarified.

So, when will these products enter the market?

Italos rearranged himself on his chair, shaking his head pensively. “We have the infrastructure and the capabilities; we are just not a huge team,” he said eventually. “And we need to take one step at a time. But I think we will see these products in the next year; we are already piloting the fraud prevention product with enterprises.”

As he leaned back, evidently relieved to have made it through his first major interview unscathed, I returned to the topic of sustainable growth. Were there any plans to increase the headcount to accelerate the launch of the new products? He replied that there was no such intention: “You don't need to have hundreds or thousands of people to achieve big things; you need fewer than 100 capable people,” he said. I felt inclined to agree with that rather refreshing outlook.

(Photo by Giorgos Charal.)

This interview first appeared in the May edition of GOLD magazine. Click here to view it.

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