Tuesday, September 12, 2006

FivePlus to Latvia's Russians: davai!

Well, I think I got that right. Davai in Russian means, sort of, "on with it", "let's go" or such. Whatever .. as my readers know, I don't speak Russian, but most of the country does and many of them because they are, in fact, ethnic Russians .
Anyway, the Moscow-based company FivePlus (5+), named after the best grade (the A+) of the old Soviet (and pre-WWII Latvian) school system, will be starting as an MVNO running on the Bite network next week. For now, the website at that link is half-finished, but Russian readers may find some interesting tidbits. Looks like the pre-paid cards will be sold on the internet, just as Bite does.
As the company's CEO Eugene(or Yevgeny)Lupov, a Russian entrepreneur who spent many years in the US, told this blogger, FivePlus hopes to get around 50 000 users in Latvia by the second year of operations, which puts us somewhere in 2008. In the first year, he sees 20 000 users (by early fall 2007, I would guess).
The first thing that comes to mind is -- what took these guys so long? Everybody talks about Latvia's Russians in one way or another, often in politicized, often in strange terms (how are you treating your Russians is sometimes asked of Latvians by foreigners in the same tone, like have you been abusing your housepets?). Well, the Russians are mostly fine, thanks, so fine that there is a substantial middle class that buys and consumes most of the stuff that well, the middle class consumes anywhere.
And, of course, the Russians have not forgotten their language, culture and that they are part of what has become a global non-state community (from Brighton Beach to Buenos Aires and Tel Aviv) looking to a still rather influential and controversial and multifaceted nation-state (Putin's Russia, Arabs with balalaikas if you watch the oil price, or whatever.) So it was about as surprising as a daily sunset that somebody has shown up with mobile services aimed at this market in Latvia.
A better time might have been when Latvian Russian Russianess was under pressure, such as when thousands of kids were in the streets sorta protesting the school reforms around two years ago. It probably would have worked to stand in the crowd hawking the ethnic Russian phone card the same way that Bite Toxic cards were given out to schoolkids of all ethnicities. But that could well have backfired. Even looking political is a major risk, and, besides, you can't make too many generalizations about the politics of Latvia's Russians. After all, the Fatherland and Freedom nationalists and the even more radical "All For Latvia/Visu Latvijai" youth nationalists have some ethnic Russian leaders.
Anyway, the hot youth market is probably lost. Your barely 20s are mostly bi-or trilingual, they are part of the MTV Generation and probably don't identify very much with Russia (long, boring trip to see great-aunt Lidiya in 1993 and then your dad took off for a week to Novgorod in 2000 when the dear old lady died, some lady named Ljubova shows up in 2003, knew your mom in from Pioneer camp, whatever that was, near Kiev, 1982, but that's not Russia, is it? ). Bring home a 5 + these days and get your MTV cut off for a month. So, basically, this is a service for the 40+ people at best.
Content is going to be another issue, or rather getting good commercial and user-generated content. All kinds of Russian pop singers, comedians, etc. seem to be coming to Riga all the time (judging by the posters on walls) and there is a Russian Drama Theater, radio and TV in Russian, Russian websites and print media. The problem is getting some of this to fit on mobile phone screens and to get phones on the market that support Cyrillic text entry (again, a problem I have never dealt with, though I understand there is much use of Roman phonetic spelling, which doesn't exactly boost the Russian language as it is supposed to be written.). But FivePlus has hinted they will sell phones specially adapted for their services.
Tariffs will also have to be as cheap, if not cheaper than landlines and somehow competitive with Skype and the like.
So, we shall see if FivePlus can give itself a good grade a year from now.
I would appreciate any comment from my Latvian Russian readers who probably have a better handle on this than I? I mean, can you read Chas on your phone while sitting in a park in London?


Anonymous said...

well, why you are so about their origin. I.e. why you assume that some markets are lost and so on? I would imagine they are not getting into this way of marketing yet, are they? At least I do not see any quote to 'Russians commin' kind of things.


Juris Kaža said...

What I am saying is that, given both mobile, internet and real-world content (newspapers, TV) available in the Russian language in Latvia, it may be difficult to sell a specific mobile service aimed at Russians. Most Russians in Latvia already have mobile phones and if they need help (checking their bill) or services (Russian songs as ringtones, Russian language anecdotes, whatever), they can get those, too.
I don't know what markets are lost or not. It would be good to hear from Russians in Latvia if they are excited about a mobile phone service for Russians, or whether they already, in fact, are served in Russian when they need it.

Anonymous said...

well. seems I'm just not getting in to idea of what 'mp service for russians' might mean at all. If these guys are aiming to get audience by providing some specific content and not being competetive in terms of costs - they are just mental. I'm quite sure that rich 'russian' content might be a nice '+' for youngers - but nothing serious comparing to cost/quality factors.