Reaching the millions of unbanked consumers worldwide has long been a goal of the wider bitcoin industry, but to date, it has struggled to gain users outside of more developed countries.
Crossing this awareness gap is the driving force behind Piiko, a prepaid mobile phone top-up service that currently serves consumers with select phone plans in more than 100 countries worldwide, including major markets such as the US, China, Brazil and India.
Launched in April as the first product from Dubai-based bitcoin startup Umbrellab, Piiko is part of the company’s larger plans to court consumers by allowing them to harness the power of bitcoin for everyday utility purchases.
Umbrellab co-founders Tarik Kaddoumi and Sergey Yusupov told CoinDesk:
“We started with mobile recharge as there was already a necessity, and the market was ripe in terms of the bitcoin community spending on various services and products worldwide.
“The plan is to extend into other services such as TV, Internet providers and other types of utility and bill payments that can be paid online, but are currently not accepting bitcoin,” they explained.
Despite its founders’ ambitions, Piiko has faced its share of difficulties, which saw the mobile top-up service relaunch just a few weeks ago after a lengthy blackout period.
Kaddoumi and Yusupov indicated that a third party had previously acted on its behalf, serving as the formal legal partner to the cellphone service providers it works with. In June, however, Umbrellab decided it was time to forge these relationships directly in a bid to cut costs.
With this objective complete, Kaddoumi is optimistic that the service will be able to continue to cater to its already dedicated user base, adding:
“We’re hoping the service never goes offline again.”
Reddit drives organic growth
Umbrellab’s Piiko product has notably been driven by bitcoin’s Reddit community.
The co-founders explained that Umbrellab had been silently testing the service without promotion, but that the word quickly got out via the social media site.
“One person discovered Piiko and mentioned the service on Reddit, which somehow exploded, and suddenly we jumped from less than 50 transactions in beta to hundreds in a matter of two days.”
Kaddoumi added that, because of this experience, Umbrellab has continued to engage the bitcoin community on how its service can be improved, taking part in open discussions about improvements and new features.
How Piiko works
Bitcoin users who come to Piiko’s website start by entering their mobile number. If the mobile number is valid and the carrier is supported, users are then greeted with recharge options denominated in local currency.
While simple, Bitfinex’s Josh Rossi provided insight into how the service has made his life easier, telling CoinDesk:
“Refilling my phone has been a constant struggle here in Panama, my provider’s online refill option has been ‘under maintenance’ for over two months. Thanks to Piiko, I can now recharge my phone in under 30 seconds, using bitcoin.”
Still, Rossi suggested improvements could be made to the service.
For example, he noted Piiko users currently need a laptop or a smartphone, and that an SMS bitcoin wallet service could allow more users in less-developed nations to access the service.
100 countries and counting
To date, Umbrellab’s founders say Piiko has completed thousands of transactions, a running counter of which can be seen on the service’s homepage.
The latest orders board keeps an active list of purchases on the service, as well as the mobile phone provider with which bitcoin was used to fund prepaid accounts. At press time, Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited, an Indian state-owned telecommunications company serving 117 million customers, and Vietnam’s largest mobile network operator Viettel Group were the more common mentions.
Kaddoumi and Yusupov declined to name their partner services, but said that they are always on the lookout for new partnerships. This process, however, has not been without its challenges.
“Sometimes we are unable to find a reliable partner in a particular segment or for a specific provider, which is why not all areas are covered, yet. But this is quickly changing.”
Traction over profitability
Like other notable projects targeting emerging markets, Umbrellab is not yet attempting to monetize Piiko. As such, while its services vary in cost country-to-country, Umbrellab indicated that this is due to inconsistencies with the fees charged by the mobile services with which it partners.
“We do what we can to eliminate fees. In some cases we will have a great partner who enables us to reduce the charges to zero, while still keeping a small margin without charging it to the user,” Kaddoumi said.
Still, Kaddoumi and Yusupov report that they see the value in keeping the service active provided it can be helpful to existing bitcoin users in developing countries while attracting new bitcoin users to the ecosystem.
Yusupov reiterated Umbrellab’s dedication to the program despite its costs, adding:
“We will keep it that way in order to offer users the same rates in bitcoin as they would pay directly. In some countries our prices are not the best in the market, but we’re trying to improve this all the time and will announce every change as we go.”