With 65M Subscribers in 43 Countries, Upstream Co-founder on Doing Business Around the World

The world isn’t flat according to Marco Veremis. He's CEO & Co-founder of Upstream, a mobile commerce company operating in 43 countries and more than 25 languages. Just this past year, his company Upstream converted 65 million paying subscribers and handled 10 billion consumer interactions. He joined Startup Grind Athens at InnovAthens to tell a packed room of entrepreneurs his vision about doing business around the globe.

Opportunities Within our Differences

Most Silicon Valley startups focus on mature markets like the United States and Western Europe and see markets as flat: that they try to ship products that can attract millions (if not billion) of users with a streamlined process that doesn’t leave much room for local differences.

While this might be a great approach for B2C companies, Upstream's success is based entirely on leveraging local aspects of emerging markets.

In many African countries for example, mobile is the only window you might have to connect with the rest of the world. Upstream is leading the innovation in areas where the only way to learn English is through your mobile phone. This is key to Upstream's continuous re-invention, keeping growth dynamic. How dynamic? Last year, their revenues exceeded $250 million and they show no sign of slow-down.

Building for a Global Audience

But how do you keep scaling from a small advertising firm to a multinational organization?

Marco explained that Upstream went through 4 distinct stages, moving from one business model to another as the firm hit a ceiling in sales. From a mobile marketing company, Upstream is already moving up the value chain, now into a mobile commerce enterprise business, and entering the digital payments industry for the first time.

The inspiration was obvious: people in emerging markets want to experience new services, but they just don’t have the means to pay for digital goods. Marco gave a simple example: Brazil’s Google Play market is ranked #2 in total number of activations, but #22 in total revenue generated.

So why the big gap?

First, because many Brazilians are unbanked: they don’t have a credit/debit card to purchase apps, thus need an alternative way to buy. For Upstream, this screamed opportunity, allowing them to step into the m-commerce space offering payments through billing the mobile operator. 

Secondly is income versus pricing. Marco provided another real example: $1.99 might be 1/20 of an American’s daily income, while the same price add up to 1/5 of a Brazilian’s daily income, or even up to half of a person’s daily income in Africa.

The world is not flat, suggests Marco: we need to offer local pricing and payment tools to enter and conquer emerging markets.

Experimenting Towards Success

Upstream is leading innovation not only in words, but with actions. Persado is the prime example of an experiment that started within Upstream and was so interesting that it reached €18 million in cost run rate. It was then that Upstream's executives decided that Persado would spin off into a separate company. Upstream’s Co-founder Alex Vratskides joined Persado as CEO while Mr. Veremis sits on Persado’s board. It’s a tangible way to support new ventures and keep the innovation culture strong.

Marco has also embraced other smart ideas that started from Upstream employees, such as Workable by Nikos Moraitakis and Spiros Maniatis. The two ex-employees realized that the expensive hiring platforms Upstream was using were not even close to solving the issue of finding the right candidates in an effective and efficient way. When the two quit and started Workable, which recently raised $27 million in a Series B with Balderton Capital, Marco saw the opportunity to get involved early, contributing starting seed funding because he trusted his former employees.

Raising Money & Building Culture at Global Companies

Speaking of raising money, Marco shared with the Startup Grind Athens attendees that Upstream started with only €600,000 in funding and grew quickly based on the revenues that came from their clients. The success came from being able to have a flexible business, ready for a pivot when needed.

The only constant variant is the company’s values which are not negotiable. Marco also highlighted the fact that you need to be ready to fail, which made Upstream a better company the moment he stopped worrying much about failure. He hates advice because it’s a kind of nostalgia. He favors questions instead.

A true business leader, Marco Veremis gave amazing insight to everyone and Greece should have more entrepreneurs like him that export high-tech to the rest of the world while maintaining a high level of ethos, a unique Greek word that is the true compass of everything that Upstream is doing.