Startup of the Week / NokNok: Calling for Free Wherever You Are

Who's there? Cheap roaming! Travel has been the delight of mobile operators and bane of chatty consumers. Until now.

With its threadbare sofas and grass-green carpeting, this office on Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard looks more like a bachelor pad than a high-tech firm. Yet it is home to the cutting-edge Israeli startup NokNok, whose 11 developers are creating an application to making calls for free, wherever you happen to be.

When you wander the world and call home using your mobile phone, you are "roaming," and it costs a mint.

NokNok is far from the only company addressing the roaming issue. The Israeli startup Cell Buddy ("One SIM to link them all" is another. Each has its own solution to the problem.

NokNok was started just a year ago. “It all started when I took a trip abroad and came back with a really high mobile phone bill for incoming calls. I hadn’t known that when we go abroad, we pay for incoming calls too,” says NokNok’s co-founder and CEO, Idan Bachar. “So we decided to look for the ultimate solution for people who go abroad and just want to talk.”

The application, says Bachar, enables people abroad to talk to people in Israel, making and receiving calls, for free. Moreover, it breaks out of the app-to-app model, which requires both users to install the application to talk to each other.
"Unlike other well-known applications such as Skype or Viber, our application does not require the other party to install it. And unlike services such as Skype Out, it doesn’t cost anything to make calls outside the network. Also, you can reach customers with your regular number, without having to teach people new things.”

Receiving a call: To receive a call from abroad, users must be connected to mobile Internet, for instance through WiFi.

NokNok can accept any incoming call to the customer’s regular number and turn it into an Internet call, as Skype does.

The call “wakes up” the application: the customer hears the phone ringing and can accept the call.

Getting a call: The second part is the outgoing call. Again, mobile Internet is necessary (Wifi, usually). NokNok takes your Internet call and turns it into a call for an ordinary telephone.

If customers get all this for free, how does NokNok intend to make money? “At this stage, we are not talking much about a business model,” says Bachar. “We want people to see the product and love it, just like we’ve fallen in love with it.”

Okay. What next? “We came out with a beta version of our app for iPhone three months ago, and already have 150,000 people and hundreds of thousands of minutes of calls every month. We'll have an Android version soon and then plan to expand to Europe, the United States and Asia. We’re also working on an application for the Windows Phone.”

NokNok has raised half a million dollars from private investors and winding up another large fundraising round.

Its location on Rothschild Boulevard, the most high-end street in Israel, makes life a bit easier for the developers who work there. As one developer quipped: “Any time we want a focus group, all we have to do is go out to the street and grab people.”

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