If you missed the launch of Three UK’s sub-brand Smarty on 31 August, you were not alone.
Smarty – a digital, low-cost, SIM-only offering that turns unused data from each month into a discount off the next bill – did not get a big bang launch with an advertising onslaught, celebrity endorsement and media interviews with the CEO.
A few stories began to trickle out in the press as the Smarty website appeared alongside Facebook and Twitter accounts, but there was no official commentary from Three.
This week, European Communications caught up with Adaptive Lab – a self-styled design and innovation consultancy – that Three hired to help develop its new offering.
Daniel O'Connell, Product Strategist at Adaptive Lab, worked on Smarty and says initial market research revealed people feeling ripped off by “sneaky back door charges” and being locked in to contracts.
“Smarty’s mission is to put trust back into mobile,” O'Connell says.
The brand’s simplicity, fairness and honesty tagline is designed to convey that, but it is hard to stand out in a crowded market that includes the likes of O2’s giffgaff, Dixon Carphone’s iD and Lebara among many others.
Indeed, Smarty launched the very same week that Vodafone unveiled its own sub-brand, VOXI, which trumpets endless social data to under 25s.
But what is arguably more interesting than the offer itself is how Three and Adaptive have gone about developing the sub-brand and how that might help to transform the way operators work.
Part of what Adaptive Lab likes to say it specialises in is building “beta businesses”.
In short, its mantra is that business is not just about the creation of an end product – it is increasingly about the process of creation that will define success.
While this might sound the sort of line a management consultant would utter, in a world where telcos are investing a lot of time and money on digital transformation programmes it is timely and important.
“Three is a really interesting company,” says O'Connell.
“I think Smarty was an experiment in working practices as well as an experiment in the mobile market.
“It was given a mandate to challenge working models of the mothership.”
The Smarty team was drawn from a few different places, including Three and Adaptive, and given a punchy six-month deadline to create, develop and launch an offering.
O'Connell says Smarty was established as a start-up and took the minimum viable product approach – launching with just enough features to satisfy early adopters.
For example, you cannot call abroad with a Smarty SIM and roaming is not yet available.
It’s all about iterating, O'Connell says.
“We had to make some interesting decisions around how minimal to make the product,” he explains.
“There were points where it became it clear we had to make difficult choices to meet the deadline.
“We had to take a red pen to what we were trying to build.”
Another challenge was what O'Connell describes as “maintaining the rigour of being customer focused”.
He explains: “The easy thing to do is to say ‘Let’s not bother with this round of customer testing as we don’t have time.’”
Unsurprisingly, given its below the radar launch, details about how Smarty is performing remain under wraps at Three.
O'Connell thinks 2018 is going to be an interesting year as it is set up for “a battle of the sub-brands”.
He adds: “It’s about meeting the needs of different groups and being able to react fast.
“[The companies] that will be successful will be those that meet needs of customers.”
But he is also clear that the benefits of Smarty’s approach could be much wider than reducing churn or attracting new customers.
“Beta businesses are what big companies need to do to succeed in the long term,” he says.
“They need to be more experimental and behave more like start-ups than big corporations.”