This week I sat down with Steven van Wel, the CEO and co-founder of Karma. I had a simple question: “where is this all going?” and, as is often the case, the answer is found in something like “where did this all come from?”
Steven, along with more than half the company, is Dutch. Frequent travels to the US with his co-founders sparked the idea: “You go from Amsterdam to New York, and the first thing you do is hunt for WiFi. You get off a plane, and you want to get online. You want to figure out where you're heading, figure out where your Airbnb is.”
“So you pretty much end up with a brick that is useless without WiFi.”
Data access for a modern traveler is painful, explains Steven. “The first experience you have when you enter a new country is a text message from your mobile provider that you need to pay $10 a megabyte. That's $60 just for sending one 'Hi mom… I'm in NYC' picture. It's embarrassing.” The safest thing is to aggressively disable every feature on your phone which might use that gold-flecked roaming data. “So you pretty much end up with a brick that is useless without WiFi.”
Yesterday in SoHo, outside the Karma offices, a stranger with a Spanish accent stopped me and asked for directions. She held up her perfectly modern iPhone, showing me a rendered Google Map of her destination, but didn’t know how to get there from here.
“You’re close,” I said. “Prince St. is that way…” I pointed, and then realized I didn’t know if she should go right or left at Prince. “Can you scroll over?” I asked her. She couldn’t, she didn’t have WiFi. I quickly surmised that she’d pulled up her destination with some local coffee shop WiFi, left the coffee shop, and instantly got lost in the maze of SoHo again. Her phone was a brick.
Karma’s goal is to solve this “brick” problem for everyone, everywhere. It wants to be a very thin layer between a person and the myriad of services offering internet access. That extends from the pricing structure on down to the Karma hardware itself. “The device should almost be ‘stupid’,” explains Steven. “It could never do anything wrong. No settings, no displays, no fancy stuff. Just a little box of WiFi.”
Karma’s goal is to solve this “brick” problem for everyone, everywhere.
So far, over 100,000 people have connected to the internet through those “little boxes of WiFi.” Karma launched in 2012 on Clearwire’s 4G WiMAX network. Steven and the team chose Clearwire (now owned by Sprint) because it was the fastest way for them to get to market, and allowed them to offer a truly seamless experience for users. When Karma launches 4G LTE on Sprint this year, the goal is to keep the customer experience the same, now with faster data in more areas. And, eventually, Karma wants its “little box of WiFi” to work globally.
“It will take time to get there,” admits Steven. “It will take 2-3 years to expand Karma to 20 markets.” The experience should be frictionless and without any surprises for users along the way. “Every time we plug in another network, it will increase your coverage. It won't be a new fee, it won't be a new bundle you have to add. ”
And nobody’s getting left behind: “Our early customers have been such great supporters of our service, and helped build Karma to what it is today, that we'll pick up most of the tab for the new hardware, and we'll try to keep doing that.” Karma promises to support existing hardware until eventually the WiMAX network stops working. And when that happens Karma will pay to upgrade them to the new hardware. Karma wins when its users have more places to use their data.
Ultimately, it’s this model which powers what Karma is and will become. It’s about relieving users from thinking about what service or device they’re using to connect, and roaming fees, and overages, and all surprises.
“If you look at data today, data is tied to a carrier and device. The unique thing we've done is take that data currency and attached it to you, the end user, and not to a network, and not to a specific device.”
I’m surprised I’ve never realized how schizophrenic our current method of connecting to the internet is. I’ve simply taken it for granted. Steven does not, and lists the offenders rapidly: “I have the cable company at home, airport WiFi, in-flight WiFi, coffeeshop WiFi… then I have my mobile provider, and within those categories, there are multiple providers.” This is what he wants to fix. “Us as founders want to use our devices wherever we go, and we don't want to be dragged into 6-7 subscriptions to make that happen.”
Steven himself uses his Karma constantly. He’s swapped his iPhone and data plan for an iPod touch and Karma. "10 years from now we might not need an extra device, like Karma, to get us connected. Karma could live inside your devices. The experience however should always be seamless, worry-free, and above all extremely easy to use. No-nonsense."
I’m not yet as brave as Steven, I think I’ll keep my mobile plan for now. But I like where this is headed. What if I didn’t think about how or what I connect to the internet?
Steven’s a typically happy guy, but he’s been positively bubbly since the Netherlands beat Spain 5-1 in the World Cup. Over lunch, my co-workers educated me on the topic of “sprinkles,” a highly compatible Dutch foodstuff. It’s a constant reminder that Karma is an international company, and won't be satisfied until there's simple solution to WiFi globally.