Denver’s Mobile Accord Raises $6.6M to Take Pulse of Developing World

When Colorado entrepreneur James Eberhard started developing content for cell phones in the early 2000s, the most advanced thing they could do was blast out tinny-sounding ringtones and send out text messages.

Eberhard, founder and CEO of Denver-based Mobile Accord, turned those ringtones into a company worth about $40 million when he sold it in 2004, and through Mobile Accord he has turned text messages into a vital fundraising tool for nonprofits. Now, Mobile Accord wants to use texts to enable nonprofits, humanitarian organizations, and businesses to gather the opinions of hard-to-reach people in the developing world, and today the company announced it has raised $6.6 million and unveiled its newest product, GeoPoll.

Mobile Accord was founded in 2005, and it more or less invented the mobile donation industry with its mGive platform. If you’ve sent a text message that’s donated $5 or $10 for relief services to aid hurricane, tornado, or flood victims, the nonprofit almost certainly used mGive to collect and process the donation.

With GeoPoll, Mobile Accord thinks it has a product that will turn mobile phones into research tools for humanitarian organizations, governments, and businesses.

“The world is changing. Developing nations in Africa and Asia are growing at historic rates. Yet for any organization trying to better understand these regions, they’re largely running blind in terms of market intelligence,” Eberhard said in a release.

The recently closed funding was officially Mobile Accord’s Series A round, and brings the total amount raised by the company to $11.6 million.

These days, Mobile Accord dominates the market for mobile donation services. Nonprofits using mGive have raised about $72 million, and Mobile Accord processes about 85 percent of all donations made in the U.S. by text messages, president Steve Gutterman said. The company’s big breakthrough came following the 2010 Haitian earthquake, which was the first time donating to nonprofits through mobile phones became a mainstream phenomenon. Most recently, it has helped raise money for victims of the floods that inundated areas around Boulder in September.

GeoPoll has the potential to be an even more lucrative product. GeoPoll uses short message service, or SMS, to send mobile phone users survey questions. It takes about 5 to 10 minutes to go through a survey, and agencies can reward respondents with credit on their phone bills.

While Mobile Accord launched GeoPoll today, select nonprofits and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have been using it for a couple years. GeoPoll’s appeal is that it can reach and survey people faster and cheaper than traditional methods like face-to-face surveys. It works in places with very limited access to the Internet and gives voice to people who previously were unreachable, Gutterman said.

“We’ve been able to get some pretty profound data for people, and part of it is the power of asking people who’ve never had a voice before,” Gutterman said.

One example is the World Food Programme, a humanitarian agency that is affiliated with the United Nations. The WFP has used GeoPoll to monitor the progress of its nutrition program in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and it polled 140,000 people in a single day.

Mobile Accord has developed a methodologically sound process to collect its data to give clients relevant and reliable information from representative samples. It can survey people anywhere with the exception of North Korea, Gutterman said.

GeoPoll will be available in 42 markets by the middle of next year. NGOs and governmental agencies in those markets distribute about $45 billion in aid and spend about $4.5 billion to monitor their programs, according to Gutterman.

Getting a small amount of that could be a big deal for Mobile Accord, but the really big money could come from market research firms and businesses that are trying to sell products in rapidly developing parts of the world. By the end of 2014, GeoPoll will have about 500 million people in its network that it can survey, Gutterman said.

Mobile Accord has not disclosed who invested in either of its rounds, but Gutterman said it has not raised money from traditional venture capital firms. Instead it has relied on a small number of high-net-worth individuals in Colorado and the New York City-area to raise funds.

They’re still expecting a high return on their investment, though, and Mobile Accord thinks it can deliver.

“There is a real opportunity for meaningful revenue here,” Gutterman said. The market for NGOs alone “is a $5 billion-plus addressable market, we have no direct competitors, and it’s a highly fragmented and inefficient market. So it doesn’t take many percentage points of market share to get to a pretty interesting company.”

Mobile Accord’s leaders have shown they can make money from mobile phones. Eberhard’s prior company was 9 Squared, which sold ringtones and other content for mobile phones before the dawning of the smartphone era. He sold 9 Squared to a British company in 2004 for a reported $40 million.

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