expert views« Back to Expert Views Listings
Managing Director, Gramercy Millennium Group
Anthony Stonefield, Managing Director of Gramercy Millennium Group in Africa, is a true digital visionary. Once he found his direction, he and his teammates—four of whom were South Africans working in San Francisco and Santa Monica—had conquered the mobile telephony frontier and built the foundation of the data-over-mobile revolution in 11 whirlwind years.
His personal journey from his birthplace of Port Elizabeth to New York, Florida, the Tech Coast of California, Dubai, Johannesburg and finally Cape Town is a story of innovation and dogged perseverance in opening up new frontiers in the digital economy, and it’s a journey that has brought him into the action end of the SABLE Accelerator.
The story starts with the self-exile chapter of a teenage South African leaving his homeland rather than serving the Apartheid machine. He headed for America, where he stumbled around for a period in the New York Tri-State area and Florida before heading west on a presidential scholarship, eventually earning a bachelor’s degree in Biology at University of California–Santa Cruz with psychobiology and creative writing minors.
Psychobiology spoke to his interest in the ways in which human consciousness processed stimuli. It may have had little to do with technology at the time, but in one way or another, it led Anthony into the direction that would mold his professional life. He married his psychology professor, a talented singer-songwriter, whom he persuaded to convert from her tenured track professorship at Santa Clara University to become a dedicated singer-songwriter.
“This focused me on supporting her career in the independent music scene—song-writing, music production and talent management,” Stonefield says. “In the early ‘90s, she also consulted for Paul Allan’s Interval Research Corporation in Palo Alto, where they were dabbling in electronic bulletin boards and email…which captured my imagination.”
What he saw before anybody else was the possibility of taking bits of music from CDs, compressing them and then distributing them over public digital networks, which he recognized as a possible way for independent musicians to break the bottlenecks in music distribution and marketing.
He packaged and hawked the concept around, and it was picked up by AT&T/Bell Labs, who saw the coming decline of the value of phone calls and wanted to test content delivery as an added-value proposition for its customers. AT&T Labs saw the potential of Stonefield’s vision and brought him on as a development consultant.
“Between 1994 and 1999, a gaggle of South Africans and one Brit, all in Santa Monica, built a digital song marketing and distribution platform—the first secure commercial electronic audio distribution system in the world—eight years before iTunes arrived,” Stonefield says.
The Saffers and token Brit had, in effect, created the foundation for the music industry revolution. This was all happening during the Dotcom boom, and the Internet was the technology driving all before it.
“My desire to distribute music had turned my attention to technology. I found I was very much a cutting-edge guy, into scratched-on-napkins-level innovation and taking it all the way through to the exit. My personal artform was creating ‘hits’ out of technology—in this case creating the downloadable music business. But the democratizing power of the Internet soon spawned free distributors Napster, MP3 and others which, for about a decade, undermined the commercial opportunity for digital music distribution.”
The battleground then became a race to get the largest number of digital audio players into users’ hands—a numbers game against which you could assert a claim to having a massive audience. The technology had started to smother the content. Stonefield, however, believed this was wrong-headed and that the technology should almost invisibly deliver and present the content, not the other way around.
“I believed we should rather embed the audio player within the song, as it were. This self-playing song format we launched under the moniker ‘MP4’—which caused a bit of a stir at the MPEG board—and it piqued the interest of the innovation folks at Nokia Ventures in Helsinki. They contacted me and asked me to present my vision for the future of entertainment on mobile phones. Well, at this time , we didn’t have any idea what kind of entertainment we could render on cell phones. But, on the guidance of a friend in Helsinki, we reverse-engineered some of the early Nokia GSM phones, found a replaceable MIDI tone slot, created and licensed 1,000 song clips in MIDI, and e-delivered the MIDI clips to phones via SMS to be set as ringtones. We told Nokia that this was all we could do today. Then we presented a grand vision for the future, wherein users could project auto-playing media onto their friends’ phones via so-called peer-to-peer ‘Super-distribution,’” he says.
“Well, the silly little MIDI ringtone website we put up as a demo literally blew up in our hands. We almost totally ignored it and, within six weeks, we found we had 150,000 users all over the world. And within nine months, we were serving over 380,000 ringtones [per] day,” he says.
The story ended with 12.5 million mobile users around the world downloading MIDI clips as their personal ringtones.
“Almost by mistake, we had pioneered rich content delivery via mobile networks and created what eventually became the $8 billion mobile ringtone market. During this market development, AT&T asked us to build a ringtone store for them, and we went on to do the same for T-Mobile USA, Fido Wireless, Alltel and Virgin Mobile,” he says.
The result was that in 2002, Stonefield sold his company, Moviso, to Vivendi-Universal USA, and it became the leading mobile content provider in North America.
It had taken 11 years to get to the top table. Many lessons were learned during this long incubation period, but the small team of pioneers and savants that Stonefield gathered around him had taken digital mobile distribution a quantum step forward. They had managed the first mobile application anyone was willing to pay for and created a vision for personal super-distribution that mobile applications have yet to reach.
In fact, he raised $14 million for a start-up called Emotive Communications to pursue that grander vision of phone-to-phone content sharing and peer merchandising via 3G mobile phones. He further pursued this vision, leading a mobile Internet communication project at Qualcomm Labs in San Diego and leveraging the mobile chip manufacturer’s several hundred million-dollar push-to-talk infrastructure. But the vision remained several years ahead of its time.
When Nokia approached him to drive their applications ecosystem in the India, Middle East and Africa region, he finally returned to South Africa. The circle was complete, and the young technology Turk was back home with money in the bank and a vast array of knowledge and experiences, not only of mobile technology and its possibilities, but also a keen sense of what it takes to drive a technology vision and get it to market successfully.
So armed, he joined the boutique merchant bank, Gramercy Millennium Group, to head up the company’s technology investments, venture advising and infrastructure innovations in Africa.
“I will limit my involvement to six or seven start-ups that really excite me,” he says. “I guess I’m being pulled into becoming a hands-on mentor, investor, and in some cases, an entrepreneur in residence.” Essentially, this means that he has a focus on technology ecosystems, media and communications innovations, and human-machine interfaces, particularly in the mobile and online environments that ideally can have social impact in Africa. And he’s a firm believer in driving the vision and not getting sidetracked.
“If you want to be a tech entrepreneur, first you have to accept that you’re a bit crazy,” he says. “It’s like you can play three chords and have decided to become a rock star.”
To carry the metaphor home, he explains that in the U.S. alone, around 35,000–40,000 new songs are released each year, but the market capacity for hits is only about 20. “That’s an ocean of failure,” he says. “It’s the same on the tech front. The big billion-dollar wins are extremely few and far between—more a freak of nature than a planned endeavor. You need to recognize that, as a tech entrepreneur, you are an artist of technology, and your friends and family need to support you as such. You have to see it as an evolving career and persevere through a long spiral of diminishing failures, constantly fine-tuning your vision and execution chops.
“This is where the SABLE Accelerator is such a great initiative. As a young up-and-coming tech entrepreneur, it’s vital that you get plugged into a group that appreciates who you are, understands what you need and gives you the best opportunity to hone your capabilities [and] realize your vision.
“SABLE is a perfect manifestation of what my goal was in returning to Africa. Most of the techies in South Africa come out of universities. This usually means they tend to be more regimented and calculating than their US counterparts. They need to become more aggressive [and] less risk and failure averse, especially if they aim to break into the US scene.
“I really see getting your technology built and your vision realized as mental street fighting, and given my own experiences, I think I can help provide local tech entrepreneurs with some guidance as they confront the demons that pop up in their paths. I’ve been there, and I believe I can assist in a number of ways to overcome or skirt obstacles, many of which are not tech-related at all.
“The bottom line is that your vision or concept is just the starting point. Don’t get hung up on filing a patent. I have 10 and not a penny from one. You will need to quickly identify and accept that people may not use your technology in the way you intended. Then, once you have proven that ‘the dogs will eat your dog food,’ sales and marketing [are] likely the only lift from the basement to the penthouse. And on your way up, you will have to learn to pivot fast enough to stay ahead of the dozens of copycats that will quickly seize upon your early successes. It is very rare for an entrepreneur to be a technologist, a product person, a marketer and a solid businessperson. Learn who you are, and find partners to fill in the holes with people who will watch your back from [the time] you get your first money to when you get your first buy-out offer. It is through this entire entrepreneurial lifecycle that SABLE can be an essential ally to South African tech entrepreneurs who want to play in the bigger markets.”
About Anthony Stonefield
Anthony Stonefield is a seasoned innovation executive and currently serves as Managing Director of GMG Investment Management at Gramercy Private Equity. He has 20 years of front-line entrepreneurial experience spanning a wide range of areas, including digital media, social messaging, gaming, mobile health and eLearning, in addition to mobile location-based services across the U.S., Europe, Far East and Sub-Sahara Africa
He is a co-founder of Emotive Communications Inc. and served as its Chairman of the Board and Chief Executive Officer, where he managed the deployment of a consumer application. Stonefield also co-founded InfoSpace Media Studios in 1994 and serves as its Chief Strategy Officer. Until late 2012, he led Nokia’s MEA region efforts to manage the value-added services ecosystem and developer relations. He is a technology pioneer and serial entrepreneur of 18 years, designing and producing successful interactive media applications for the telecom industry. He previously served as the Chief Executive Officer of Moviso LLC. He has conceived and produced applications for networked media development, distribution and marketing, including pioneering downloadable song distribution and popularizing and expanding the worldwide ringtone market. He is a member of numerous advisory boards, including GoMetro, e-Classroom, UWIN, Vicinity Media, Africa4ward, Virtual Mobile Tech, Smart Science Networks and more. Stonefield earned a bachelor's degree in natural science and biology from the University of California–Santa Cruz.
Other Expert Views:
Q&A with Piet Barnard and Dr. Andrew Bailey, Piet Barnard, Director, Research Contracts and Intellectual Property Services, UCT and Dr. Andrew Bailey, Intellectual Property Manager, Research Contracts and Intellectual Property Services, UCT