By Ekaterina Larsson
Images: Justin Phelps
I met Justin Phelps at STHLM TECH FEST – an event where start-ups, investors, journalists and designers in Stockholm can come to meet the whole start-up ecosystem. We started a conversation as I followed my friend Rami for a cigarette break. Justin told me what he works with and I decided that it sounds very interesting. We made an appointment and one lovely autumn day I climbed the stairs down to the Joors’ office (yes, it is on a basement floor). We sat down to talk about start-ups in the 90s and nowadays, burning out at work and changing your lifestyle, plus doing something good for this world. In the course of our conversation it came up that Justin is one of the Burning Man pioneers and an organizer for Borderland (a version of Burning Man in the Nordics).
Hallo Justin! So tell me about Joors.
Joors was started over four years ago by Carl Aspenberg and Tomas Olsson, after they spent many years working for Telia and Ericsson. They had this idea that they can make internet free and launched it in Sweden two years ago. The company was a full spectrum phone company with free internet. They gave it a shot but it did not really work out. The company did not get enough traction – Swedish people did not want to sit through commercials. So they shut it down in 2014 and re-opened later. In emerging markets, where internet can cost 5-10% of your income, this kind of idea becomes very valuable. And no free Wi-Fi exists there. The founders figured out that this model would work really well in those markets. Through our partnership with Telia we got into Nepal, where we first launched and started off with free internet. And people were very receptive to it.
So how does it work? Is it like an app you download in order to get free internet?
Yes. We work with the phone companies because it is a technology that is integrated deep into the phone system. You download an app and you can use Facebook, Twitter, etc. You get credit for watching ads and then you can use that credit for internet. We also fulfill a CSR goal by giving free internet access to the World Health Organization, non-profits, government resources, Wikipedia, just a handful of sites that we think are really useful for everybody.
So Joors started in Nepal in 2015? How is that going?
After the successful launch and beta testing they got purchased and the new owners shut down the program. One of these classic start-up pains. But now in Bolivia we are going directly to the operator and they are not looking to be bought so it should work.
And what is the future vision for the company?
We are becoming much more interested in NGO work and how to use the technology to help the world, and not just monetizing. We are starting a foundation to fulfill that goal and to clearly separate humanitarian from commercial work. We are, of course, first a business that is trying to make money. But this concept is so useful for lifting up the world so we want to pursue it.
And what is the foundation going to do?
The foundation is going to work in cooperation with local phone companies, local governments and global aid organizations to bring access to informational and education resources for free. It will be sponsored by the global community or local government initiatives. In many cases, like in Africa, we see that when a company comes in and is using local resources, they have to promise to do some kind of social good. And those are the kind of sponsors that we are looking to partner with. The ad sponsored side is completely removed from this operation, it is just providing free information.
How about you yourself Justin? What is your journey? How did you get here?
I was in the San Francisco start-up scene in the 90s and have been through 5-6 start-ups. I started my own company. I kind of lived and breathed start-ups. I liked the rollercoaster ride – you never knew if you would have money for food next week or if you would become a billionaire the week after that. But after the last start-up I had spent a year working 50-60 hours per week. And the last few months I was burning through my own money. I was so burned out I felt I needed to do something different. I thought – I am going to move to Sweden and have a nice, well-balanced life!
Politically I was leaning to the left in the US, and SF is also the most left city in America. I worked for the Green Party during political campaigns. I had some friends in Sweden, my first girlfriend was Swedish and I wanted to do something completely different. Something balanced and relaxed, instead of the wild rollercoaster of the start-up world. So I came to Sweden and worked as a consultant. After two years I got bored of the well-balanced life and started to look for start-ups again and got to Joors.
What attracted you to Joors?
Both the commercial and the humanitarian potential were huge so that attracted me to Joors. Also, it is a global company, promising a lot of travel and adventure. The idea of revolutionizing telecommunications is happening and it is one of the most impactful ways to present technology.
Do you feel the rollercoaster ride here?
It is still a rollercoaster but it is not as intense. It is still exciting and challenging. That is the beauty and excitement of start-ups – you never know what is going to come to you. You are not pigeonholed in front of the computer and never get to see the outside world. There is always something interesting happening.
When you were doing your own company, what was it about?
It was gaming services. We were doing game hosting in early 2000. We partnered with major game houses to help them bring their games to the public. So we did game hosting, distribution, polishing, building interfaces, web interfaces. Mostly it was providing leased servers for the fastest possible connection for collaborative games.
And that must have been profitable?
Yes, it was. I was a real hard core programmer, and my friend Jesper joined. This was after the crash in 2002. Jesper was really into games and I was into bleeding edge super computer technology. The concept was that we were going to be a game service provider on super computer. It is a super buzz word but the scale of economy is great – you can put more games on less systems and share the resources better. We built it up and it was the most intense period because it started with just me and my partner in an apartment smaller than this office. We brought in a couple more guys and we were starving. At one point we were 4 guys in a house just working 20 hours a day.
How many years did you do that? And what happened afterwords?
I did it for 2 years. Then I sold my shares in the company. You can imagine the intensity of people living and working that close together for a long time! Jesper continued with the company for a few more years and sold it for a lot more money than I sold my shares. But I had to take a break. I went off and enjoyed the Caribbean for a couple of years.
Would you start your own company again?
Yes, I would love to. In a few years, after Joors is successful. I have a list of startup ideas and I really think that Sweden is an amazing place for it because there is so much talent and such a supportive eco-system.
Do you have any advice for people who want to start their own company?
If you believe in something strong enough, you do not need to get approval for it from people. You do not need to hear whether it is a good idea. I think it is passion that is going to make it happen even if it is not the best idea. I think ideas are important but it is more about tenacity, persistence, and the team that you build, the people that you bring on board.
You cannot do it alone?
Doing it alone is possible but it is harder. Do it with people that you have some background with, don’t just jump into bed with somebody! There is a great analogy that a much better entrepreneur has made: “Picking you partners for a start-up is similar to marrying somebody – you would not just marry a stranger.” Know their background, know what you are getting into, because you are going to have the most intense experiences together! And you have to survive it!
What are some of the pitfalls?
I think a lot of people give up too soon because they are hungry or they just feel beat up. Expect two years of deprivation. Some people can make it happen in three months and they are amazing. Just persist and live and breathe your business! To be really successful you need to be consumed by it.
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