resumé | writing | other work | altitude | blog

return to index

Publication: Business Brainwave, 2005

Alex Amosu is Britain’s First Ringtone Millionaire

Thirty-year-old Alex Amosu’s life story isn’t so much rags-to-riches as bleeps-to-bundles of cash. He is making money to the tune of millions – and to the sound of technological change. The north London entrepreneur made his first million at the age of 24 by selling ringtones of the latest R&B and hip hop tracks. The first he sold was, appropriately, a monophonic version of ‘Big Pimpin’’ by the New York rapper Jay-Z. An expletive-peppered monologue that few feminists would approve of, the track is a story of street-hustle entrepreneurialism – it could have been written about Amosu himself.

The 30-year-old is inquisitive, daring, resourceful and connected. He drives a Porsche Boxster, the car of choice for the self-made man who’s keen for everyone to know just how well he’s made it. An archetype of the generation who instinctively understand and exploit succeeding waves of technological innovation while their parents struggle with setting the video, Amosu is adept at spotting the confluences of youth culture and new mobile, internet and communication behaviours, and leveraging them into hard cash.

He has turned street culture into hard cash by keeping his eyes and ears open and forging opportunity from adversity. ‘From an early age my gift - or my problem - was that it was difficult to ask my parents for money,’ he says. ‘I was forced to go out and get money for myself. All the ideas come from me looking round and seeing opportunities that can be turned into revenue. Whether they’re successful or not doesn’t really matter - I need to do it, market it and if it works, make money.’

At school Amosu made £1,200 from organising football tournaments, after team captains refused to pick him. He diversified into organising college balls and a launch a company to clean houses for pregnant women. At 21 he was making interviewing staff in the college canteen and pulling in £4,000 a month. Then came the big idea.

‘I bought a Nokia phone, found the Composer facility and programmed “Big Pimpin’” into it,’ he recalls. ‘My brother came in and said, “that’s really good – can I have it on my phone?”. I didn’t think much of it. He went to school the next day, and it went off in class. Everybody went crazy - they all wanted it. So then there were 21 people on my doorstep - no way was I going to give everyone a ringtone for free. I said, “okay, give me a pound each.” That was my first ringtone scheme.’

It’s hardly news today that ringtones are today big business - worth $3.5bn globally in 2003 - or that the unfolding communications technology landscape is the new millennium’s Wild West, where fortunes can be made from a good idea swiftly executed. ‘People can come in with a good idea and make a lot of money,’ Amosu observes. ‘The mobile market has made so many millionaires in a short space of time. It’s about having a good idea and being the first to do it.’

Following the text-message boom of the late-Nineties, Ringtones metamorphosed seemingly overnight from the latest public annoyance into one of the biggest cash cows for the sector. Revenues continue to outstrip sales from legal music download services like Apple’s iTunes Music Store. Moreover, it’s a sector that has been grown not by the chronically short-sighted major labels – the copyright holders who also fumbled the emergence of MP3 downloading - but by progressive independent entrepreneurs like Amosu, who was there at the start.

By the time he reached in his final university year – he studied aeronautical engineering – Amosu quit to expand his fledgling company, R&B Ringtones. His recruitment strategies were as inventive as his marketing model: he hired his mother and brothers to answer calls and dispatch ringtones from the family living room using cheaply available mobile technologies, PCs and premium-rate phonelines.

Meanwhile Amosu promoted the service on the back of flyers for college balls. ‘I ran back home from handing out flyers at a Valentine’s Ball, and I’d made £91 by the time I got home. I had one computer at the time,’ he says, ‘and the company grew by word of mouth. Before I knew it we had four computers in the living room. Within four months we’d made enough money to hire 21 staff and an office in Islington.’

By the 2000 – when both mobile phone and broadband uptake in the UK increased sharply – R&B Ringtones boasted a seven-figure turnover. ‘At the end of the year the accountant told me we’d made a million,’ Amosu says. ‘He told me, “officially, you’re a millionaire. You made £1.6 million”. I was 24.’

Amosu’s own surprise at the news reflects widespread bemusement at the speed with which new technology channels and media formats can establish a mass-market footing these days. Only a few years ago, the notion that a ringtone of a dancing frog would beat Coldplay to Number One was inconceivable. But as anyone who has teenage children will tell you, the success of the Devil’s Own Dance Music is not just a reality but also a mystifying indication of the shape of things to come. Both handset manufacturers and operators were to an extent taken by surprise by the domination of ringtones. Amosu identified their appeal early on.

‘I did some research, and found there were three companies supplying Ringtones,’ he says. ‘One in Germany, one in the UK and one in Holland. All the ringtones were pop and rock, not R&B. I thought, perfect - I’ll take that market.’

‘I definitely wish I’d had the Crazy Frog idea,’ he adds. ‘It works because it’s different from the norm. It has a twist. Ringtones are a very personal thing. They’re a fashion statement and they’re about individuality - everything a teenager wants to separate themselves from everyone else.’

Amosu’s insights into the a world few research and strategy agencies have dared to penetrate – the murky teenage mind - have led him to a range of new mobile ideas that seem certain to turn a pretty penny in ARPU (average revenue per user). Next comes his ‘inspirational ringtones’ - biblical passages, quotable cinematic nuggets and momentous speeches, such as Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a dream…’ monologue.

Secondly there’s his latest concern, It’s an idea that grasps fully the potential of 3G video handsets - an online community portal that encourages video-enabled mobile users from 21 countries to request and share film clips.

‘A guy in, say, Sweden can sign up and say he wants to receive free pop videos,’ Amosu explains. ‘A record company will call me and says they want to release a new video before it goes to MTV, and pay me to deliver it to handsets. This service is 99.9 per cent accurate in targeting – if users get it on their phone, you know they’re gonna watch it. Compare that with TV advertising - you can’t guarantee who’s going to see a video.’

Amosu is already thinking big with Mobsvideo, aiming for between five and ten million users – an entirely reasonable figure given more than 1.5 billion people are now mobile-equipped. A TV-capable mobile service is also planned, as is a system to permit credit card-style payment from handsets.

Amosu is determined to plough new and lucrative furrows in the digital world. He says he’s ‘a pioneer not a follower.’ He sold R&B ringtones for a seven-figure sum 18 months ago and aims to retiree at 40 – but not before he’s designed and manufactured his own handset. ‘I’d like to give the big boys a run for their money.’

© Kevin Braddock


All content ©2004 Kevin Braddock

website designed and built by JetLabs Ltd.