ICE+ mobile panic button app for smartphones

AAT is in the news again, with CEO Loet de Swart featuring prominently in the Sunday Tribune’s Business KZN supplement on 19 August 2012. For those of you who didn’t catch it in print, here’s that article, by Alan Cooper, reproduced with kind permission from Independent Newspapers KZN:

Loet de Swart Chief Executive Officer of Always Active Technologies makes it his business to stay abreast of the latest communications technologies.

The Dutch are famously organised travellers. Some 80 percent of motorists belong to that country’s Automobile Association, the ANWB, and many use the association’s online mapping service to plan their business trips and holidays in minute detail – a facility made possible by a collaboration between global satellite navigation giant Tom Tom and Always Active Technologies (AAT) a small company based in Kloof.

So it’s perhaps fitting, if entirely co-incidental, that the Chief Executive Officer of AAT, Loet de Swart, was born in Holland, although his family moved to South Africa when he was still a young child.

And mapping is just one aspect of this multi-faceted tech company. AAT has earned a solid reputation among those in the know for helping business make the most of mobile phone technology to communicate with their customers and other businesses.

“More than 11 million South Africans access the internet via their mobile phones compared to just six million who use personal computers,” De Swart points out. And AAT is riding the wave of this surge in mobile data use, providing a range of innovative applications and services to some of South Africa’s biggest companies.

Since it was founded just over ten years ago by De Swart, Rob Fisher and Greg Mahlknecht, AAT has grown from a start-up comprising just a handful of “tech heads” to a company employing 35 full time staff with some 53 000 users per month of its various mobile and online services.

Fischer has since retired, but maintains a stake in the company and Mahlknecht, highly respected in geek circles, remains active as the company’s Chief Technology Officer. De Swart, as Chief Executive Officer, is the public face of the company, along with Business Development Manager, Alan Haarhoff.

De Swart’s father was a property developer before he retired. His mother was a housewife and his father’s right hand in business. After matriculating from Thomas More College in Kloof, Durban, De Swart tried his hand at several things, including running a few successful businesses and a spell in the police force as his National Service obligation.

“I ended up travelling the world and working in various business environments which offered some great experiences.” He worked in the Middle East for a while, including for ABN Amro Bank as a researcher and for the Kahlifa family (the Royal Family of Bahrain) putting together joint venture projects.

“I came back to SA for a visit, met my wife Michelle, settled down, started AAT, had two daughters, Alexandra and Izabella, and never looked back.”

De Swart says the IT landscape is changing faster now than it ever has. “In my opinion this is due to the mobile device and the adoption not only of the device but how the device is used and information is consumed. AAT aims to leverage our current ‘tools’ in the mobile space, including SMS (short messaging service), MMS (multimedia messaging service) and LBS (location based service) , USSD (Unstructured Supplementary Service Data) as well as mapping to deliver user friendly, accessible, everywhere mobile applications.”

The Kloof-based company, the only one of its kind in KwaZulu-Natal, has already built an impressive list of these mobile applications, headed by their flagship product, Vodacom Messaging, which offers the mobile giant’s blue chip clients, including South African Breweries, FNB, Africa Bank, Ellerines, South African Revenue Service, Blake, Private Property, Mango and Kulula a powerful range of mobile solutions. Between them they send a staggering 50 to 60 million sms and mms messages each month using AAT’s technology.

StreetMaps.co.za is the most popular on-line South African mapping website and includes points of interest, directions and satellite imagery overlays, while their SouthAfricanWeather.co.za web and mobi sites offer up to date and easy to use weather information to some 70 000 unique users monthly.

AAT’s Premium Lite product offers a no frills, affordable, premium rate SMS service, MySuperHero is a mobile and easy to use employee performance recognition tool, Mobile Cow is a mobile research and surveys tool, and the company’s 4Mobi service offers mobile phone friendly site development as well as mobile marketing campaigns.

De Swart is particularly excited about ICE+, a voice free, cell phone panic button that notifies a user’s emergency contacts by SMS and e-mail when pressed. It works on any mobile phone, pinpointing the user’s position using GPS and Wi-Fi if built into the phone or cell tower triangulation for older phones, and alerting selected contacts and a security team that they’re in trouble.

“We’re also currently beta testing an ICE+ app for smartphones running iOS, Android, BlackBerry and Windows Phone. A product like this has huge potential for tapping into the vast market for people who want to feel secure, but can’t afford an armed response service or want an additional layer of security that they can take with them when they travel around South Africa,” says De Swart.

Another recent product is mStatements (short for mobile statements). Companies using this service can offer their clients the ability to receive and query their financial statements from their mobile phones without installing an application or downloading software.

Uses include credit card statements, account statements, reward programme statements, flight booking confirmations, utility bills and medical aid claims update statements.

Haarhoff says one of their clients, a micro-loan provider of credit for customers of building merchants, is a huge fan of the service. “Their customers love it. Many live in rural areas far from the banks. Thanks to this service they can use their mobile phones to check how much credit they have before making the long trip to town to buy building materials.”

The company is also able to send quarterly statements and a variety of personalised warning letters to its clients.

“There are so many benefits to using mobile statements over old fashioned paper based statements. They’re far cheaper, with no printing or postage costs. Because of this, they’re also far more environmentally friendly. And, thanks to delivery receipts, the company knows for sure that their customer has received the statement, right down to the date, hour and second it arrived. There’s no grey area, no room for ‘my dog ate it’ excuses.”

Haarhoff says there are a few competitors offering this service, “But what makes ours unique is that it can be used by any cellphone currently on the market, not just smartphones or MMS capable handsets.”

One of the company’s guiding principles is to produce “device agnostic” services and websites, that can be used by people on any device. “We believe that someone using an older or less sophisticated cell phone should be able to access the same range of services as someone on a smartphone or tablet computer. Sure, the look and feel will be different, but the core information should be the same.

“If your company is using a data service that doesn’t offer this capability, you’re failing to reach a huge swathe of your existing or potential customer base,” says Haarhoff.

De Swart says it’s thanks largely to producing innovative products like these that AAT has been able to grow its revenue at an average of about 30% year on year since inception. And while it’s largely operated under the radar until now, it is gearing up for an aggressive growth and marketing drive with the aim of doubling its revenues over the next two years.

He believes three words best describe the people who work at AAT: motivated, disciplined and happy. “We like to employ people who are able to manage themselves and their projects so that are not required to micro-manage or police anyone.

“I would say that the ethos at AAT is one of a relaxed environment where our people are given all the opportunity to build a future for themselves and performance is rewarded,” says De Swart.

And the secret to their business success? “Find an itch and scratch it. Once you’ve done that and got a customer on board it’s all about service, service, service. With competition like Google, you have to really be incredibly in touch with customers needs.

“When you’re constantly innovating, like we are, there will come a time when you screw up or technology lets you down. Then it’s about how quickly you fix the problem and make amends to your customers. Our customers have stuck with us and given us increasing levels of new business because they appreciate the one-on-one service we offer.”

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