From Norway to LatAm: The Story of Communications Platform Aldeamo

How one founder of an early 2000s telecommunications company leveraged strategic partnerships across Latin America to become one of the biggest communications platforms in the region.

By Maria Saldarriaga and Pedro Mejia
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9 minute read

At the beginning of the millenium, Latin America had around 39 million mobile phone subscribers and 10 million internet users. The concept of having wireless internet in your phone wasn’t born yet.

Nowadays, the region is home to one of the fastest-growing mobile markets in the world.

In 2021, LatAm had more than 500 million active mobile users - a figure that’s expected to increase to more than 600 million by 2025, and the cellphone has become the primary tool for internet access. If LatAm were a country, it would place third for countries with the most smartphone users in the world, right behind China and India.

Hans Christian Boehlke, a Norwegian-Colombian entrepreneur, knows this evolution pretty well. He and his partners built a multi-million dollar company leveraging the flourishment and evolution of the mobile industry in Latin America.

This is the story of Aldeamo, a communications platform as a service (CpaaS), that was born from Boehlke’s capability of seizing and materializing a business opportunity in Norway and replicating it thousands of kilometers away.

Boehlke, Co-founder and former CEO at Aldeamo, spoke to The Org to share his incredible odyssey of boldness, resilience, iteration and good partnership.

The novelty of the Internet

Born to a Colombian mother and a Norwegian father, Boehlke lived all his childhood in the coffee country. After finishing his studies in industrial engineering, Boehlke took a sabbatical and moved to Norway in 1994. During his stay in the Nordic country, he started using a novel public and open network called the Internet to download and read Colombian newspapers.

“Having the opportunity to be able to read the Colombian newspaper in Norway almost in real time, and for free, blew my mind,” Boehlke said. “I just knew that the Internet was a huge opportunity in front of me.”

In 1995, Boehlke decided to end his sabbatical and returned to Colombia determined to create a website business that later became known as Axestnet. “I understood that every company would need a digital presence on the internet, and by that time that meant a website,” Boehlke said.

Turns out, he was right. According to the Science Media Museum, the number of websites worldwide grew from 130 in 1993 to over 100,000 at the start of 1996.

In a matter of months, Axesnet became one of the most renowned website agencies in Colombia building iconic websites like semana.com, one of the most visited news website in the country; futbolred.com, the first football related website in Colombia that nowadays receives more than seven million visits per month; and empleo.com an employment website that works in Colombia and Costa Rica and has over eight million candidates in its portal.

Axesnet survived the dot-com crash in 1999 and continued to grow steadily. Boehlke retired from the company in 2003, leaving the management to his partners, and he went out to look for new entrepreneurial adventures.

Starting up again

After stepping back from Axesnet, Boehlke headed back to Norway in search of new opportunities that he could bring to LatAm’s market. He knew first hand that Nordic countries were five to seven years ahead of Latin America in terms of technology and innovation.

His plan was straightforward: find a Norwegian technological company willing to expand into Latin America, and make himself their partner in its business journey. The company would put the technological infrastructure, the operational platform and IT support, and he would take care of the rest.

After being rejected by a Norwegian company that preferred to expand its operations to Iran instead of Colombia, Boehlke got a 15 minute business interview with Eurobate, an Oslo-based company dedicated to the commercialization and distribution of cellphone entertainment via SMS, specifically ringtones and wallpapers.

By that time, the best selling cell phone worldwide was the Nokia 2600, and the mobile communications industry was starting to boom in Latin America, where according to an old IDC’s (International Data Corporation) report, “one in four Latin Americans will own a cell phone by 2004.”

Boehlke and his partner went to the meeting with Eurobate with a five slide PowerPoint presentation about his experience in Axesnet and the market opportunity in LatAm. “After my 15 minute presentation, the CEO of Eurobate shook my hand and asked me when I was going to start,” Boehlke said.

Two weeks later, Boehlke was back in Colombia constituting Celumania under a “50/50” profit split word deal with Eurobate. “We never signed a contract, that is one of the things I admired the most from the Nordic culture, their trustworthiness,” Boehlke said. “In Latin America, this deal would have taken a 100-page contract and at least six months to materialize it.”

Mobile entertainment as a business

Boehlke brought two partners to his new endeavor, Carl Petter Boehlke, his younger brother and tech expert; and Alfredo Angel, a business man with a great track record of helping companies internationalize.

Operations started at the end of 2004, and since the first quarter the company had traction. “We were lucky, as soon as we landed in the country we closed our first deal with one of the major mobile phone operators in Colombia and started selling right away,” Boehlke said.

The deal between Celumania and the mobile operators was straightforward. The latter had the clients and the billing relationship with them; and Celumania had the capabilities to leverage a new revenue stream from selling entertainment products to these clients. In other words, Celumania would promote and sell their ringtones and wallpapers through the mobile operator client databases, and the mobile operator would charge and collect the money. The agreement was based on a revenue share where 60-80% went to the mobile operator and 20-40% to Celumania, depending on negotiations.

Celumania experimented selling directly to customers through credit card payments, but the majority of their segment didn’t have credit cards. They rapidly understood that mobile operators were crucial to their model.

Everything was going well for Celumania until May 2005, when Boelhke and his team received a termination letter from the mobile phone operator, who was their only client at the time.

“We messed up because of ignorance,” Boehlke said. “It was a very long contract with a lot of clauses. We ended up breaching something we were not aware of and despite the fact that it was not even relevant, the contract had to be ended.”

The first week after receiving the termination letter Boehlke and his partners thought it was the end of their new business adventure. However, they were still receiving a decent amount of orders into Celumania’s portal. They started looking at the data and realized that a lot of them came from Peru, where they were not operating in—yet.

A good mistake

Celumania had a second shot, and Boehlke and his partners were not going to waste it. “I got on an airplane and flew to Perú right away,” Boehlke said. “The first thing I did was look up a trustworthy partner who had connections with the mobile phone operators.”

Six months later, Celumania was running operations in Perú and gaining more traction than Colombia in its beginnings. Boehlke and his team had started the expansion playbook to grow beyond Peru.

According to Boehlke, the playbook was simple: “find a reliable partner in the new country and make him co-owner of the local business; close a partnership with one of the top mobile phone operators; and offer local entertainment products like ringtones from popular songs of local artists.”

By 2010, Celumania had expanded to Guatemala, Nicaragua, Salvador, Honduras, Costa Rica, Panama, Ecuador, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Bolivia, Dubai, Bangladesh and Kenya.

Celumania became one of the most renowned companies for mobile entertainment. It was so well positioned in the industry that record labels started approaching them in order to get their artists' songs as ringtones. “Ricardo Arjona was having a concert in Guatemala, and we launched a raffle in which every downloaded ringtone from Arjona’s songs would participate in tickets for the event. In just one day we got 40,000 downloads,” Boehlke said.

At its peak, the company was selling more than $2 million in mobile entertainment on a monthly basis.

Aldeamo

With the smartification of cell phones—which started with the iPhone’s launch in 2007 and LatAm’s penetration of 3G mobile wireless that went from 9% in 2010 to 42% in 2014— Celumania's business started to become obsolete fast. More and more mobile users started streaming songs via YouTube, chatting via whatsapp and downloading wallpapers directly from Google.

In 2016, Boehlke stepped aside from leading the company, and Alfredo Angel stepped in. “Angel is a very organized guy, and has the abilities and the willingness to explore new ways, and take the hard decisions to keep the business running and growing,” said Boehlke.

With Angel at the front, and the entertainment business rapidly declining, the team started looking for new opportunities and came across an untapped market for companies to get closer to their audience by leveraging communication from new digital channels.

That was the birth of Aldeamo, a communication platform as a service, that connects businesses with their customers efficiently through technology, omnicanality and artificial intelligence.

“One of the toughest and smartest decisions that Angel led, was to close the entertainment deals that we were still billing but were resource intensive, to focus our attention on the building of Aldeamo,” Boehlke said.

Their first clients were the same mobile operators they served with Celumania, but this time Aldeamo was helping them to build better relations with their clients. “We are grateful to the cellular operators, because they have been the backbone of our company,” Boehlke said.

The product proved to be a necessity in the market and Aldeamo started to expand its reach to other clients like banks, retailers and every type of business that has a direct communication with their clients.

Today, Aldeamo has become a market leader in LatAm with a team of 130 employees, more than 900 customers across 12 countries and enables more than 500 million transactions between businesses and their clients per month.

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