“We’re a technology company… The innovative technology, that is the centre of everything we do,” said Guy Krief, CEO of Upstream, as he tried to simply explain his company’s complex and highly successful business.
Upstream’s main objective is to accelerate mobile commerce in emerging markets largely throughout Africa and Asia. A prime example of Greek engineering and innovation, the company was founded by a pair of Greek entrepreneurs – Marco Verimis and Alex Vratskides – in 2002 and has its largest office in Greece, although its headquarters are in Luxembourg. Krief explained that the diversity of Upstream’s employees is almost as wide spread as the markets it serves. “We have 29 nationalities at Upstream,” he said. Working as an Upstream employee, he says, “you have access to a quite large pool of very talented and well-educated people, especially on the engineering side.”
Upstream engineers create software and digital infrastructure that enables billions of people in emerging markets to effortlessly receive and pay for affordable digital subscription services on mobile devices. Upstream currently has 80 million paying subscribers in 45 countries who made purchases worth $237 million in 2016 alone.
The company is an example of the paradigm shift that is being seen in the Greek economy, as an increasing number of Hellenic companies become more extroverted and export driven. Upstream’s cutting edge product development and global vision are evident through its emphasis on bringing the latest technological offerings to emerging markets. Surprisingly, it doesn’t even focus on the Greek market; the company’s vision is set on making an impact in the developing world.
Krief joined the team early on, in 2004, working initially in product and innovation roles, then utilising Upstream’s unique ecosystem of entrepreneurship to work his way up to Chief Innovation Officer and finally Chief Executive Officer. Before being appointed CEO in 2017, Krief founded an Upstream spin-off company – something he said all employees are encouraged to do – called Persado. The company is a leading provider of AI-generated cognitive content for top global brands and made CNBC’s Disruptor 50 list in 2017.
One of the keys to Upstream’s success, Krief said, is the company’s embrace of failure. “One of the things that was very unique to Upstream, and I’m still trying to keep that uniqueness [as CEO], is that failure was really encouraged; it was almost celebrated – as long as you knew why you failed, as long as you had a rationale in the plan when you tried and you understood the reasons of your failure, so that next time you could be successful. … I don’t think historically we’ve ever, ever succeeded before failing.”
Krief himself is familiar with failure – he came to Greece from France to set up a French bakery and failed in his attempt. He had a run as a TV comedy series and radio show host before eventually ending up at Upstream and subsequently climbing the ranks to the top.
Beyond a culture of diverse backgrounds, embracing failure and encouraging innovation, financing is another key component to successful entrepreneurship. Upstream recently received 25 million euros from the European Investment Bank Funding scheme that will be put towards the company’s research and development. “The loan is about us having the ability to invest in R&D, in more innovative technologies without having to take into consideration any of the small microeconomic fluctuations that we will have,” said Krief. “This [loan] has allowed us to grow our engineering team and to keep investing in our technology.”
Some of the innovative technology Upstream has already created includes a foreign language lesson service that is available on all platforms – from text messages on simple devices to full-blown Android applications on smart phones. The company’s Language Learning Service has enrolled 11 million subscribers across 15 countries, including 10 in Africa and three in Southeast Asia. It was even nominated for the 2016 Global Mobile Awards in the category of “Best Mobile Innovation for Emerging Markets.” It is one of Upstream’s most successful services, said Krief, especially in areas where knowledge of the English language is low, such as North Africa and South East Asia.
Upstream also launched a micro-insurance service in Vietnam, which allows people who do not have access to basic health coverage to easily buy it through a phone. The company also offers basic health services to help people understand their symptoms and receive explanations of whatever health issues they are facing.
Upstream is not only bringing opportunities to these regions for commerce through data access, it is helping create opportunities for economic growth and social inclusion within these emerging markets. “We have a lot of local employees, we have local offices and we’re participating in the economic life of the country,” said Krief.
With Upstream’s embrace of the data revolution that is taking place across emerging markets, it seems to be set up for anything but failure. Krief explained that in the early 2000s, Upstream monopolised on the mobile revolution across the emerging world. Now the company is focusing on the data revolution, given that more and more people have access to smart phones. Upstream plans to continue working more closely with mobile operators across Africa, Asia, Latin America, and further, to offer affordable and secure access to digital services, for the next 3 billion on-line users.