September 10, 2012

Jana CEO Nathan Eagle on ‘Enabling Social Good’

Plenty of companies have expanded into emerging markets like India or Brazil in recent years, but few are as focused on those countries’ emerging middle class than Boston-based Jana (formerly txteagle). Using cell phone airtime credits as incentives, Jana connects brands like P&G, Pfizer, and Microsoft with consumers in those countries.

“When these big global brands try to engage with women in rural India, their options are limited to things like putting more money in the pockets of people who own billboards and radio stations,” says Jana’s cofounder and CEO Nathan Eagle. “We’re providing global brands a mechanism to redirect that money directly into the pockets of the consumers they are trying to reach. By enabling consumers to earn mobile airtime in exchange for completing surveys or purchasing products, we’re legitimately providing economic empowerment.”

When Eagle cofounded the company in 2009, his biggest challenge was getting buy-in from mobile carriers. “I was literally flying all over the world trying to establish these carrier partnerships,” he says. “As we got traction, that case became easier and easier.” Backed by Spark Capital, RBC Ventures, Qualcomm Ventures, and Esther Dyson, Jana currently partners with 237 mobile carriers, giving the company access to more than 2.1 billion people in over a hundred countries.

Now, the company’s challenge is adapting to customer’s needs and preferences in each country. “This is not a one size fits all,” says Eagle. “What works in Pakistan doesn’t work in the Philippines. It’s tricky when we start engaging with consumers and have to learn very quickly what works and what doesn’t. Couple that with the need to be in dozens of different languages.” Eagle explains that being extremely agile and data-driven has helped the company adapt. 

One adaptation was changing the company’s name last fall. As the company’s focus shifted from SMS to mobile web, Nathan says having the word “text” in the name confused clients. “We picked ‘Jana’ because it comes from the Sanskrit word for people and that’s ultimately the core asset of our business,” he explains.

Between offices in Boston and Singapore, Jana has about 22 employees and is actively recruiting engineering talent in Boston. The company recently launched a couponing campaign in Indonesia for Dannon where consumers got credited airtime for purchasing yogurt. This campaign doubled the sales of bundled yogurt packs.

“Couponing is a foreign concept for most of the world,” says Eagle. “There’s no Sunday paper to clip out the coupons; there is no technology at the point of sale to redeem them. These big global brands are unable to deploy the standard types of promotional campaigns that have become so ubiquitous in this country. We now enable this type of consumer engagement across all emerging markets.”

With over 3 billion prepaid mobile phone subscribers in emerging markets, Eagle predicts airtime incentives will become a standard way to reward consumer action. He adds, “we measure our success by how much of the $200 billion spent on advertising in the developing world we can redirect into the pockets of these ‘next billion’ consumers. We’re trying to enable social good on a massive scale.”

Susan Johnston is a journalist and contributor to VentureFizz.  You can follow Susan on Twitter (@UrbanMuseWriter) by clicking here.