20 NOVEMBER 2002

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The French Connection

Matthew Vella talks to the entrepreneur cum restaurateur Philippe Favre, the charismatic Frenchman behind one of the most revolutionary and innovative breakthroughs in virtual retail and mobile telephony

At Bon Pain in Gzira, Philippe Favre is getting ready for the day’s work. He is the owner of Chez Philippe in Gzira, aka Bon Pain, and the atmosphere is as sedated as any early morning should feel. Philippe is rolling cigarettes, familiar kitchen sounds are tinkling in the background, and everyone is waiting for me, thirty minutes late as it is.

Besides him is Henrik Piski, his German partner in I-Point Ltd. Philippe and Henrik have just created what is one of the most extraordinary ideas in virtual retail. The idea itself is not as revolutionary as its simplicity. But as Philippe says: "The easiest things are the most difficult to come by."

I-Point is the new vanguard of virtual retail for mobile telephony. It’s free, fast and has 24-7 service. The concept is relatively simple. Mobile phone users who are subscribers to the service can purchase top-up cards through their phone.

"All they need to do is phone a number, after which they are messaged their 14-digit code to top up their mobile account. It doesn’t even cost a cent, since subscribers only need to hang up after the first tone and we’ll message back the code. Their debit or credit card is then debited to the company, without having the need of course to walk over to a shop.

"But of course it’s a flexible arrangement. You have no obligations. You can go to any shop you want to buy the card. Obviously there are considerable advantages. It is basically a virtual shop. It is open 24-7. The shop itself comes to you, and it is free."

Philippe says this is in fact the first of its kind, both in the country and internationally. The idea has attracted an initial market response that has already brought over 1,000 subscribers to I-Point, clearly indicating a rosy future ahead for these entrepreneurs.

Henrik Piski says the company only started on 1 October this year, and having attracted such a satisfactory number of clients, both entrepreneurs are delighted at the response they have had.

"When just a few weeks ago it had started to rain heavily, our customers doubled over the day. That is a confirmation of the flexibility and viability of I-Point. The service it offers goes beyond normal retail boundaries", Henrik says.

Philippe says that I-Point is the only one of its kind in the whole world, and that leaves many wondering what future prospects this could have for the company in the coming months.

"In Malta there are around 250,000 subscribes. 92 per cent are prepaid customers. That is our limit. Of course, they need to have a debit card or a credit card. But today that is something that almost everyone has. Even at colleges and at university, students start filling in forms to get their debit and credit cards. And that is the only thing you need.

"Marketing is now our main priority for the future. It is explaining to the people and showing them how easy and fast it is to use I-Point that we now have to concentrate upon. Convincing more people is the next step, because people need to know what type of service they are really making use of.

Henrik says that as far as marketing is concerned, the nature of the idea demands a more direct approach to selling.

"Traditional marketing is no longer working as much as it used to before. Newspapers and magazine advertising does not suit as much the needs for such an idea where we have to explain such a facility in a more direct fashion. But direct marketing is the way to communicate and explain better what I-Point can give to the customer. We have already done this in the recent IT fair or at university with stands where we can explain to people exactly what the service is all about and how the system works.

"People need to trust you, to know that you are selling them such a product. It’s like a little snowball that gathers more snow the more you roll it, and then just starts rolling on its own. It takes time and effort, but that is how it works."

I-Point is quickly gaining popularity, not only for its fast-selling success, but also for its revolutionary concept. Maltacom recently contacted I-Point to offer them the exclusivity on their Easyline package. It clearly shows how a top mobile company has clocked the duo in time to make use of such a retail service so directly related to the nature of the expense.

Henrik says that such an arrangement has already given the company more credibility with a favourable response generated by a greater interest in the service. With telephony companies already eyeing how to further their own opportunities through I-Point, an international market is lying wide open, and this, Philippe says, is already happening.

"We were approached by other people at the recent IT fair, where we were asked to extend our services in certain parts of Northern Europe. We also had other interested offers from Spain, Ireland, Germany, Greece and Cyprus. When you think about it, the service can go anywhere, there are no fixed boundaries. The idea is basically there."

I-Point is basically the progeny of Page One, a business solutions company, which Philippe says has served well for the creation of new ideas.

"This is in fact the spin-off of Page One, where we have tried to build on an idea which comes by when catering for other major companies such as airlines. We hatch an idea and then decide to test it in Malta."

Philippe and Henrik say that Malta serves as an ideal microcosm of greater markets where one can launch new technologies in an environment that is much easier to operate in.

"Malta is small and that it is advantageous for start-up companies who want to test their market. Henrik and I call Malta ‘our laboratory’. This is a market where you can try a product and then see what the response is going to be like. Certain business practises here are also easier to make than in other countries. You can make contacts much easily. You can talk to a bank’s chairperson if you like. That is something which will not happen elsewhere."

Philippe Favre has now been in Malta for the past 17 years. Before that he was scouring the world, away from his native Cannes, but has now settled with his wife and kids. He talks nostalgically about the seventies when temping around Cannes, working in the film festival or the numerous fairs that are held there annually.

He later left for America in the late seventies, working in movies and as a sound and lighting technician, and since then toured Europe and exotic places, working around a number of companies on the way, until finally being transferred to Malta from a tourist resort he worked with.

His first venture was the Tigne delicatessen Le Gourmet. He then worked at Peppino’s until when in 1991, he launched the only translation company on the island, International Translation Agency Ltd, along with another partner, linguist Rachid Titouah.

"We had started with a very small capital of Lm200. I paid the rent for the first three months, then I bought a second-hand electrical typewriter.

"When Internet arrived, our coverage extended considerably. Before 1996, 99 per cent of our business was local. Today, 60 per cent of our business comes from foreign companies and organisations.

"We are now recognised by both governmental bodies and foreign organisations such as the UN and its organs, having provided translation and interpretation facilities for large conferences in Africa, Mexico and in the future, Berlin. We were also asked to provide translation services for the Lockerbie trial, since we are the only company which can cater for the Maltese language.

"We still want to remain a small company. At the moment we are 30 in all. This means that we can offer a dedicated service. If we had to expand it would probably be for the long-term.

"Translation and interpretation are no simple professions. It takes years to study. If you have to translate a legal document you need to know what the document is actually saying, otherwise a small mistake could turn out to be a big mess.

"Today one also has to take into consideration localisation. Localisation is the new way to do translation, where one has to keep in mind both the limitations of the language and also its cultural constraints. When translating software, for example, one has to respect the word length that will appear in dialog boxes on the PC. You may need to translate something in German but you also have to make sure that what is being translated can be done in so much space.

"Localisation also means that you have to understand certain cultural affinities. When translating in Arabic for example, you have to know certain cultural taboos which might crop up when translating. This makes translation and interpretation a very complex profession."

Our conversation leaves much time to talk about the impending business climate facing even the most innovative of entrepreneurs.

Henrik says that cash flow problems are the main concern right now, and that this is stopping companies from investing.

"There are lots of ideas which are not being carried through."

Philippe says this could not have been a worst time to start a business venture. "We are possible starting off in the worst time, but we are ready to offer a service to people. We don’t need a large investment. All we need is to have more direct marketing to explain better how people can make use of such a service like I-Point."

But things are sweet for Philippe Favre. I-Point’s brilliant start can only be a toast to more success in the future. Along with Henrik Piski, he has managed to devise a new breakthrough in retail that previously belonged only to the realm of the Internet.

"I enjoy doing the things I like, and that’s what I have done so far. Bon Pain, for example, is a place where I enjoy spending time because I like meeting people, I love food and I like entertaining.

"Many of the people here are usually from the nearby business outlets and companies but the place is still a casual eatery. Tomorrow we shall be having the Beaujolais Nouveau and people will be coming in here at eleven in the morning and leaving at seven in the evening. There will be a great atmosphere. I will probably have to wheel some of them outside."

Copyright © Network Publications Malta.
Editor: Saviour Balzan
The Business Times, Network House, Vjal ir-Rihan San Gwann SGN 07, Malta
Tel: (356) 21382741-3, 21382745-6 | Fax: (356) 21385075 | e-mail: editorial@networkpublications.com.mt