It's unusual to bounce from a wireless operator to a startup and back again, but that's the boundary-blurring career path that Orange France 's Giles Corbett has followed for more than 20 years.
After receiving a degree in Politics and Economics from the London School of Economics, Corbett spent four years at French mobile operator SFR , followed by five years at mobile game developer In-Fusio , a year as a venture capitalist and a two-year stint at a mobile social networking startup.
Since 2009 he has been leading the charge at Orange Vallée, a subsidiary of the giant French operator charged with building "something agile, rapid and user-focused" -- not words traditionally associated with a telco.
The mandate came from Orange itself, but to stand any chance of success it was decided that Orange Vallée, using the less than catchy "Life Is Better On" name had, for all intents and purposes, to be independent of its parent.
"We needed enough leeway to get to the point where we could show what we'd done," Corbett said in a recent interview.
"Life Is Better On" succeeded in building Libon, which was enough to convince the operator to call its prodigal son back home last year.
Libon is Orange's free over-the-top (OTT) communications app, launched in November 2012. Similar to Telefonica Digital's Tu Me, the platform includes free HD calls and messages and a souped-up voicemail service across 95 countries, most of which are not traditional Orange markets. A $3 monthly premium version allows for one hour of international calling to 37 countries, unlimited customized voicemail greetings, voicemail transcription and unlimited storage. (See Is Orange Really Innovating?)
Interestingly, Corbett says it would have been "incredibly hard" to build Libon within the confines of Orange. Innovation, he said, can't start within a telco, but it should end up there. It had to be independent to prove the naysayers wrong and notch up some successes before it could convince the carrier to embrace OTT, which it had thus far seen as disruptive.
"We had a number of wins that let us go back to the mothership and show them," he said. The group also had a few failures, but that ability to fail, scrap ideas and start over was vital, and lacking at a big operator.
Basically, Orange Vallée needed to act like a startup. Even now, he classifies his group as part of the parent, "but keeping one foot out."
A fear of cannibalizing existing voice revenues was part of the reason for Orange's hesitation in developing OTT services in-house, but Corbett said it has proven to complement -- even augment -- existing revenues. Instead, it's eating away at Skype, he claimed.
Libon usage was three times higher than for traditional OTT apps during its first six months on the market. Corbett attributed this to the user experience and because it's an easy service to understand, coming from a wireless operator. For a typical free app, 3 to 4 percent of users will upgrade to the premium version, but Corbett said that number has been in the double digits for Orange.
Innovation inside the machine
Now that Corbett and Orange Vallée have their street cred to back them up, they plan to continue to disrupt the communications experience, this time from within Orange's walls. Next up is getting in on the trend of moving communications away from the device and into the cloud. Orange is currently building a browser-based version of Libon that works on any screen with the customer's one number. Trials are planned this summer with a limited group of "friends of Libon."
When talking about Orange's roadmap in OTT, Corbett chose his words carefully, not revealing much, but he can't help but let his passion for innovation seep through.
"It's a bit of poetry in a communications app," Corbett said of one such forthcoming but undisclosed feature. "It's beautiful."
Corbett also wouldn't commit to working with partners in the future, but said he's open to the idea. The company re-evaluates what features and products are important to it every four months, discarding some services, repurposing others and reinvigorating those that are deemed relevant and critical. Right now, for example, one developer in the group is "obsessed with ring-back tones."
That doesn't mean ring-back tones will be the next focus for Orange, but it's now empowered to explore them or anything else, without having to forge out on its own this time around.
"The team does feel it can take risks," Corbett said. "It's not a big deal if it doesn't work."
— Sarah Reedy, Senior Editor, Light Reading