MVNOs making a difference: How Better Life Mobile keeps vulnerable Australians connected
There are not many start-ups who see an opportunity in homeless shelters and among society’s most disadvantaged. Yet Adrian Panozzo and Russel Barnes, founders of Better Life Mobile, saw the social good that comes from being connected and have created a new kind of MVNO for Australians on low incomes or who are experiencing homelessness.
Working with the community
Better Life Mobile was conceived in Melbourne as a side project between two people with no telco experience between them, as Adrian Panozzo, Director of Better Life Group explains.
“Russel and I were from different backgrounds. He had a successful business in software and my career was in AFL but we were both long-term volunteers in the Melbourne homeless community.”
Russel and Adrian understood early on how important mobiles were to those experiencing homeless and low-income earners.
“For rough sleepers, a mobile phone is more than a luxury. It’s a necessity,” Adrian says.
“Phones are the most basic way to stay connected. If you are trying to live on a low income, you might not have a secure, permanent address.”
Adrian says being connected is becoming more important as services are increasingly delivered digitally.
“It can be very hard to get face-to-face access to government and other vital services. A smart phone is the main way people connect to services such as their bank and social workers, as well as finding a job.”
“We saw the opportunities but also challenges created by access to mobile phones. We saw many individuals with contracts that contributed to their indebtedness.”
“We thought there should be a better and fairer type of service for these people.”
The origins of Better Life Mobile
Better Life Mobile started when Adrian and Russel bought 100 SIM cards and shared them with their homeless networks in Melbourne.
From the beginning, Better Life’s focus was on being fair and ethical.
“When we started, our rule was to never give people a poorly constructed plan with more than they needed or could afford.”
Word spread quickly and soon they needed more SIM cards.
In order to scale their idea, Russel and Adrian approached a number of carriers.
“We had a lot of funny looks. People said this wasn’t a market they wanted to be in,” Adrian says. “Other times we have had people look at our users’ loyalty and say we should be making more money from them. But that’s not why we started Better Life.”
After seeing the appetite and benefits their service could bring to the homeless and disadvantaged community in Melbourne, the two founders had a decision to make. Did they continue in the hope they could make it work or call it a day.
“Russel and I like to joke it was lucky we never quit on the same day,” Adrian laughs.
Forging a partnership on shared values
Four years ago, Adrian and Russel had met Paul Zahra, Sales Director at Telstra Wholesale, to discuss Better Life’s requirements.
“They were entering the mobile market at probably its most competitive point for many years,” Paul says. “But we thought that if they could make it work, so could we.”
“People in business often talk about having the same mindset or sharing values without really meaning it. But I came out of that meeting feeling like they really understood what we were trying to achieve,” says Adrian.
Together Adrian, Russel and the Telstra Wholesale team worked to create a mobile proposition to meet the needs of users while keeping it simple.
“We had one plan. It was pre-paid and easy to understand, with a capped one-price plan with unlimited voice and SMS and a little bit of data.”
Better Life also connected with trustees, financial counsellors and government bodies to enable direct payment through channels such as Centrepay.
The foundations of success
Like any small business, Better Life Mobile has had its challenges, as Adrian recalls.
“The first few years were tough. We saw it is a side project to help a few people in the community. We employed a couple of people to run the customer support centre but otherwise it was just us. And it was completely self-funded.”
But Adrian and Russel quickly realised they were making a difference.
“People were referring their friends to us. These were people that not many other carriers previously considered as customers but on our plans, they were staying connected.”
The project was succeeding.
Growth and evolution
Adrian and Russel’s decades of experience working with disadvantaged groups has given them a firm sense of what they feel a plan should look like.
“There are some things we do differently to many other providers. We bill in calendar months for simplicity and we look to move customers to a better deal when we can.”
Recently, Better Life automatically migrated between two and three thousand customers onto a better deal they received from Telstra Wholesale.
They also deliver their customer support, or customer care as they like to call it, in a unique way. “We definitely aim to build a relationship with our customers. Our care team, led by Brodie and Judy, provide untimed and unscripted technical and social support. This might be directions to the nearest doctor, information about their local library or even the state of a customer’s veggie garden. We’re a communications company that loves talking to people.”
Still, Better Life Mobile has been a for-profit social enterprise from the beginning and has required regular evolution to remain competitive.
“One of our strengths early on was not understanding how challenging the market was, just how competitive it was. But the team at Telstra Wholesale has been very supportive in helping us to review the market and see what’s working or what might work.”
“For example, we recognised that many of our customers don’t need much data. We created a 12 month low-cost plan for just $109 per year, with voice and SMS, aimed at kids and seniors.”
Every few months Adrian and Telstra Wholesale reassess the market and adjust services or pricing where necessary to remain competitive and keep customer churn low.
“This is a business but it’s a business with a heart,” Paul Zahra says.
Seeing the results
The results of all that hard work have been impressive.
“We are growing month on month. We have a very low churn rate. And best of all, none of our customers can get in worse conditions because of their mobile plans.
“We are achieving the mission we set ourselves at the beginning.”
Their success has been recognised. Better Life is the first and only telco to be accepted by the Good Shepard Micro-Finance as a Financial Inclusion Action Plan partner. And it received the People’s Champion Award at the 2019 ACCAN National Conference.
What’s more, Better Life is attracting new customers from outside of its original target audience.
“We have a strong customer base, which is growing every month. And it’s not just the homeless community who value our approach. We are getting new customers from families and small businesses - anyone who is really careful with their money really. Now they account for about 30 per cent of the business.
“That’s great because the larger we become, the bigger the difference we can make to vulnerable Australians.”