Ganesh Kumar Bangah turned 23 in true techpreneur style. He listed a company, entered the Malaysian Book of Records as the youngest chief executive officer of a public-listed company, and pocketed his first 1 million ringgit ($328,812).
That was in 2002. Just a few years earlier, he had merely been an ambitious engineering undergraduate. He had been managing cybercafés and peddling a proprietary cybercafé management system, having developed it with a business partner.
“We started out selling the software but decided during the dotcom bubble to give it away for free in return for control of the first screen that people viewed so we could offer eyeballs,” Bangah recounts. Their plan was to sell advertising space on that prime landing page.
Call it guts or luck, he even got Vincent Tan, founder of the Berjaya Corporation conglomerate and one of Malaysia’s richest men, to bankroll his little start-up called Money Online or MOL. “Tan was one of the early movers who recognized the potential of the Internet and was investing in businesses in the industry,” he says.
With a financial backer onboard, Bangah dropped out of university to focus on the business. Within a year, he had signed up 15,000 cybercafés from around the world. It should have been a shoo-in success, but monetizing the Internet in Asia in the early 2000s was not easy.
Internet penetration in Malaysia at the time was just 15 percent of the total population, a mere 3.7 million. And in pre-Google AdWords days, online advertising was a tough idea to sell.
So Bangah switched his focus to the online payment business instead. Rather than give the software away for free, the cybercafés were asked to pre-buy a certain amount of MOLPoints, which they could resell to their customers. These points could be used to transact safely online.
Unfortunately, e-commerce was just catching on, and consumers still preferred the comfort and certainty of shopping the bricks-and-mortar way. Bangah decided if there wasn’t a market for his points, he would create a demand for them — by selling prepaid airtime reload coupons online and making it a currency of choice for online gaming.
“There was a game from (South) Korea that was very popular with gamers at the cybercafés. It was free to play but I had a hunch they would soon start charging,” he recalls. “So I went to the game publisher and secured the exclusive rights for the game in Southeast Asia.”
It was an astute call that gave Bangah his much-needed break and set MOL on course to being one of Asia’s largest end-to-end content, distribution, e-commerce and payment networks today. His MOL Global group comprises MOLPoints, an Internet wallet for purchasing game credits, content and services; MOLReload, which facilitates the distribution of prepaid airtime; and MOLPay, an e-commerce payment solution gateway.
Online gaming remains his sweet spot with sale of MOLPoints, predominantly for gaming credits, accounting for more than 80 percent of profits. “We control about 70 percent of the market in Malaysia and about 40 percent of the region,” says Bangah. He estimates that MOL is also among the top five leaders in the game payment industry globally.
“MOLPay is our fastest growing business even though it accounts for only 20 percent of revenue now,” he says.
MOL handles over 60 million transactions annually with a payment volume of over $500 million. This strength comes from having a complete payment universe: Content and distribution channels plus online and offline payment options.
“In the case of online gaming and content, it is a chicken-and-egg situation. Content partners will sign up with you only if you have channels, and channel partners will do so if you have content. So our success comes from having both,” Bangah explains.
It is a position he continues to strengthen by continually signing up new content publishers, which at last count, stand at over 500.
This is complemented by MOL’s links with more than 1,000 payment partners worldwide. These comprise over 680,000 physical retail payment channels across 80 countries, 88 online banks in nine countries, and major international payment systems.
In 2009, Bangah scored another coup when MOL acquired Friendster for an undisclosed amount. While the pioneer social networking site may have lost much of its luster with the entry of Facebook, MySpace and other similar sites, it still had a huge Asian following of over 100 million members.
Bangah is quick to clarify that buying Friendster was not about mounting a challenge against Facebook. “Friendster is a global brand while MOL was then primarily a Malaysian brand. Owning it has helped the MOL branding and opened doors for us to big players,” he says.
“We also bought it for its community. We thought that if we could convert 1 to 2 percent of Friendster’s members into MOL members, it would be quite substantial. And we have done that — our membership now stands at two million.”
Then of course there were the patents Friendster owned, which MOL subsequently sold to Facebook in a cash-plus-stocks deal, reportedly valued at $40 million. Bangah declines to comment on this citing a non-disclosure agreement.
Bangah has since turned Friendster into an online social gaming and discovery portal, a move that hopes to build up MOL’s revenue from online gaming. Since the acquisition of Friendster, that revenue has already tripled.
Now his plan is to go global with MOL. Having built strong footholds in Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia, and the Philippines, the group is expanding into Vietnam, Turkey, the US, Brazil and Australia.
The last two years saw the group buying several online content distributors and payment service providers to realize this ambition: Zest Interactive in Thailand; LoadCentral in the Philippines; Ocash in Australia; and Rixty in the US.
“Turkey will be our beachhead into the Middle East and North Africa region, and the US and Brazil for the North and South America markets,” he says.
Expansion into China, however, is not on the cards. “China already has a lot of strong players, so I do not foresee us making forays into the country,” he reasons.
That said, MOL represents more than 50 game publishers and developers from the Chinese mainland and Hong Kong, distributing their products to other parts of the world. Through MOLPay, the group also offers a China Payment Solution service in partnership with Alipay and UnionPay to allow online stores to accept payment online from customers in China.
Besides, he has an initial public offering to work towards. MOL was privatized by Tan in 2008, but will re-enter the market in early 2014. Bangah says there will be several more acquisitions and consolidations.
“It might be tough for us to be a leader in the payment industry in India or China, but we can focus on a niche — game payment — and be global leaders within that segment.”
There is certainly a huge market to be exploited. According to reports by market analyzing company Business Insights, global online gaming revenue is expected to grow from $16.4 billion in 2011 to $25.3 billion in 2014; almost half of that will come from the Asia-Pacific region.
As far as Bangah is concerned, he has barely skimmed the surface. His target is to become a company with $1 billion in revenue. “As long as online gaming grows, we in the platform business will grow.”