Jimmy Wales is a man that hardly needs an introduction.
As co-founder – and self-titled 'constitutional monarch' – of Wikipedia, the fifth-largest website on the internet and by far the most visited not-for-profit, Wales is assured his place in history alongside the likes of Gates and Zuckerberg.
But, unlike many of his peers, Wales' less commercial focus means he’s not a billionaire, although he does count former prime minister Tony Blair among his friends.
In January, Wales became the director of The People’s Operator, an MVNO that donates 10 per cent of each person’s bill directly to a charity of their choice, with a further 25 per cent of the company's overall profit going to its charitable foundation. The business runs on EE’s network in the UK and although many are concerned about the future of the telco industry, Wales is very excited about his new role.
"People often pitch me things that are somehow worthy or noble in their objectives but don’t have a practical way to achieve them," he told Mobile Marketing. "Others just pitch on things with safe business goals. I got excited because The People’s Operator seemed to be both – and it has the potential to raise a huge amount of money for good causes."
Asked about the threat to telcos from the growth of OTT providers, for example, Wales simply said the MVNO model 'looks good to me'. "It's a long-standing, stable business model. Obviously it will always have internal quirks, like the fact that you’ve got to work with mobile operators, but it’s a great business. The telcos seem very interested and very excited to work with us – so far, so good."
The for-profit operation based in Tech City is online-only and keeps costs down by spending little on offices and marketing, enabling it to commit to making charitable donations. So where is it planning to find its customers? "We're going to be a global business so we have to be in as many places as possible," Wales said.
"Our concentration is online, viral marketing and word of mouth, which won't really work if we happen not to be in country and someone wants to sign up. We want to give people as many opportunities to participate as possible. First off, the US is obviously a big target and then Europe generally."
Wales explains that around 2m users donate to Wikipedia every year. But with around 540m visitors every month, that means just 0.03 per cent of those people put their hand in their pocket. So is he really convinced that customers will vote with their cash for a more ethical operator?
Tech for good
"The People's Operator is part of a much broader trend. Customers are really interested in being involved with companies that care where their money is going. The basic pitch is: go with another operator who will spend a big chunk of money on TV ads and billboards – or go with us. In return, we want you to get the word out and get your friends signed up. Wikipedia had its most successful fundraiser ever this year," he adds.
Wales' wife used to work for Tony Blair, with the former PM a guest at his wedding, and the Labour Party is mentioned as a 'good cause' currently being supported by TPO's Foundation. Does this mean TPO is a partisan operation? "There are already hundreds of charitable partners and causes that people can support. We're not specifically tied to any particular view of the world," he explained.
So is Wales determind to change the entire mobile industry, one that is fraught with everything from privacy breach allegations to objectionable hardware production practices. "We're definitely going to do our best but as an MVNO we don’t have direct control over lots of things, like supply chains for phones. I'm very interested in some of the things going on right now – like people trying to put together ethical hardware – but realistically there's not much we can do about that. It’s definitely something we will try and support."
Like his work with Wikipedia, which champions free access to online information, The People's Operator project looks to be another business where technology and politics can meet. Does Wales see it that way? "This is certainly something we’re seeing - an increasing intersection of tech and politics - in lots of different ways that are both good and bad, and this will continue to be the case.
"One of main things that interests me is the ability of people to get together online and self-organise in ways that weren’t possible 50 to 60 years ago. In society, we’re just at the beginning of understanding what that really means."
Although Wikipedia isn't for-profit, the smartphone revolution is having a massive impact here. "We've seen a dramatic increase in the mobile portion of traffic. Wikipedia and mobile is a perfect match: you wonder about something – perhaps you’ve got a bet with a friend – and you look right there on the spot. Mobile is really good for Wikipedia in the long run."