Venture Investing in Wireless Communications Technology: The ThinAirApps Case

Venture Investing in Wireless Communications Technology: The ThinAirApps Case

Stephen J. Andriole
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60566-018-9.ch004
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This is a case study in venture investing. ThinAirApps (TAA) created, developed, and sold wireless middleware software products and services. Founded in July 1999, the company received its first and only round of venture financing in June 2000, raising $13 million in equity capital from Safeguard Scientifics, Inc., and a group of angel investors. The company’s software products enabled enterprises of all types and sizes to rapidly and cost-effectively “wirelessly” enable their mobile workforces; giving professionals access to not only common data such as e-mail, calendars, and contacts (groupware), but also data from more complex desktop or server applications, databases, or other systems. All of this data resides “behind-the- firewall.” Adding to TAA’s uniqueness was its ability to access this data securely. Let us remember that in 1999 voice-over-wireless was prevalent in the United States. Corporate America had largely embraced the administration of cell phones to workforces, and just one year before, AT&T Wireless had cracked the code with its One-Rate national business calling plan. However, the transmission of data (other than voice) over a terrestrial network to handheld devices such as cell phones and PDAs was not a broad commercial reality. In 1999, according to the Strategis Group, there were less than three million smartphone and wireless PDA units sold (by 2004 the number had exceeded 60 million). In addition to a host of players including Research in Motion, Palm introduced its seventh generation PDA device, the Palm VII. This first fully-contained wireless device for Palm exploited underused terrestrial data networks to provide users primitive (by comparison to today’s technologies) access to a variety of wireless data, including Palm-sponsored e-mail and selected Internet destinations. The uniqueness of Palm and its open development platform, which gave rise to an industry that developed everything from games to productivity enhancing applications for use on the devices, created a watershed in the wireless data industry, and was largely the basis for the TAA business model. TAA became an early leader in the rapidly developing yet immature wireless data industry. At the time of our investment, TAA’s product, ThinAirMail, was the single most frequently downloaded add-on application for the Palm VII device— nearly 30,000 individuals were using it to access their e-mail wirelessly. While the company was just entering its revenue stage, it had already established significant market awareness by enabling tens of thousands of individual users to access their personal e-mail while on the move. The company’s product was based on open standards—in other words it ran well regardless of which device operating system (Palm, BlackBerry, WAP-enabled cell phone, Java 2 Micro Edition, etc.), network (TDMA, CDPD, CDMA, etc.), or application (e-mail, or other enterprise application for which TAA wireless API’s had been created) was being used. The company’s revenue model was based primarily on enterprise sales of its flagship product, the ThinAir Server, which was a middleware server that connected to the corporate e-mail server (more often than not Microsoft Exchange) and allowed customization for connecting to other applications. Thus, the low-hanging fruit of instantaneous wireless data access could be realized—groupware including e-mail, calendar, and contact information was at a professional’s fingertips while otherwise disconnected from the network. The TAA Software Development Toolkit (SDK) allowed organizations to build custom connections from their other enterprise applications directly into the ThinAir Server. The opportunities were significant, inventory pricing on a real time basis, instant ordering, real time accounting system updating, and all while away from the office and disconnected from the network.
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The Thinairapps Opportunity

So what did the opportunity look like? The due diligence team was provided the following information about the company, the “space’ and the financials.

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