With hindsight, it was a good decision to buy that ringtones.com URL, reflects Simon Buckingham...
Earlier this week it emerged that Mobile Streams had quietly disposed of its ringtones.com URL for $750,000.
So ended one of the most remarkable sagas in the history of the mobile entertainment business, a saga that began with one £20 outlay and generated 'hundreds of millions' of pounds.
Remarkable, but not often told.
About time it was.
When I read the news I called Simon Buckingham, CEO of Mobile Streams, whom I first met a decade ago, to get the full story from him.
He told me that back in 1997 he was working for Vodafone UK as a business partner manager. He was sat in a meeting with Nokia, watching a demo of the 8110 'Matrix phone, the first handset to support ringtones.
The Flintstones theme was trilling out, and Simon got thinking.
His thinking went along the lines of 'yabbadabbadoo'.
He went home that night to see if www.ringtones.com was available. It was. For £20.
Simon carried on working at Voda, but was amazed to see the site deluged with hits even though it contained only a holding page animation.
The popularity of the site, allied to the fact that Voda wouldn't give anyone under 30 a senior management role at the time (he was 26), spurred Simon on to quitting his job.
Within three months the site was populated with basic monotones, being sold through premium rate IVR at up to $17.99 a time.
"I couldn't understand why people would pay so much, and where they were all coming from. Then I realised it was mostly business users on work phones," he says.
Before long, ringtones sellers were springing up all over the world, many of them basing their business models on dubious subscriptions and copious mass media advertising.
Mobile Streams did neither.
Simon says: "We we only ever sold single downloads, and we never spent a single penny on advertising in 13 years. We didn't have to because we were top of every organic search. It was great position to be in, because it was the advertising outlay that destroyed a lot of these companies."
In time, mono and polytones begat truetones and it was time to approach the record companies for rights.
Simon approached this in typically opportunistic fashion. "I sat down in the Sony cafe with Paul Brown and offered him £1 a ringtone, and we shook on it."
However, label relations weren't always so cordial. Later, when mobile content began to proliferate, Simon was physically threatened by one burly exec who wanted his rights back. He was terrified, but he didn't give in.
Meanwhile ringtones.com rampaged on for minimal outlay. "We'd just follow the traffic. As soon as it hit a certain volume, we'd start a localised version of the site in a given country. It was very straightforward."
ringtones.com ended up in 43 countries and was the foundation of a larger Mobile Streams B2B organisation that would eventually comprise 13 worldwide subsidiaries and achieve a public listing.
Even now, with the ringtone boom well and truly over in mature markets, the site is still buoyant – with traffic up 20 per cent in LatAm this year. So why sell?
Well, it's all about investing for the next wave.
"I'm looking ahead to the smartphone era, where there's not much of a market for ringtones," he says.
"That's why I've launched our cloud-based app store Appitalism. I didn't want to fund it by selling stock, because I think the stock is undervalued, so this was a good way to raise some investment capital."
He discloses that he could have sold for more than the $750,000 but preferred a clean and quick sale.
Just the 37,500 per cent profit, then.
He was robbed.