This is my story.
“Have you got a good idea? Share it with me.” These words changed my life.
My name’s Manuel and I’m 38 years old. I’m a dreamer, a visionary and I would say quite a reflective type. I’m an inventor and I have been one ever since I was a child. I am passionate about anything that helps change the environment around me and the world in general. Every time I have an idea I write it down in my “ideas diary.” I have already realised some of these, while others are awaiting the future. I would like to create a “factory of ideas,” a container where creative people and inventors can find space to develop and realise their dreams, ideas and projects of all kinds. I’m very lucky. I married Arianna in 2003 and I have two children, Filippo who is 6 and Sara, who was born on June 2nd last year. I attended Padua University and have a degree in engineering. I started my business career as a family banker for Banca Mediolanum where I met Ennio Doris, the man who changed my life.
When I started working for Banca Mediolanum, I had a dream: an idea that stuck in my head from when I was on my honeymoon in Kenya in 2003. It was simple; I wanted to cut the exorbitant tariffs for the calls made and received from abroad; I had been paying €6 a minute for each call made and received. Outrageous! I needed financial backing for this project and heard that Ennio Doris could be the right person. I wanted to explain my idea to him as I had heard through Banca Mediolanum about the article in “Capital” magazine regarding the famous meeting between Ennio and Silvio Berlusconi at Portofino.
In 1981, Capital magazine published this interview with Silvio Berlusconi, who concluded saying: “Have you got a good idea? Share it with me.” Ennio Doris had one of those good ideas to present to Silvio and, six months later, on 2 February 1982 the two began “Programma Italia” which became Banca Mediolanum in 1996.
I was fixated with the idea that if Ennio Doris could convince Silvio Berlusconi to invest in his idea maybe I could convince Ennio Doris to invest in mine. In the next two years, I tried everything to meet him: I wrote emails to him, his son, Massimo, and I asked my boss to organise a meeting with him. I even participated in a contest to open ten new current accounts in a month just so that I could win the prize of going to dinner at Ennio’s house in Tombolo, and I won. I was so excited when I had opened those ten current accounts in less than a week, but unfortunately the meeting with Ennio Doris was not to be. However, I just couldn’t give up on my idea. The first day at Banca Mediolanum, during a course at Tabiano Terme I saw an extraordinary video. The words that flowed across that screen have now become the guiding star of my entrepreneurial journey! “Impossible is just a word pronounced by small men who find it easier to accept the world we live in rather than try to change it. Impossible is not a fact, it’s just an opinion. Impossible is not a rule, it’s a challenge. Impossible is not the same for everyone. Impossible is not forever. Impossible is Nothing.”
Finally one day, I decided to continue my quest: I went to Ennio’s house in Tombolo. It was 14 April 2007 when I rang the doorbell to deliver my letter written by hand. Tombolo is a small town, but even so, it wasn’t that easy to find Ennio Doris’s house. I had to ask directions from an old man who was walking in the street. I asked: “Excuse me do you know where Ennio Doris lives please?” The old man had a very large smile on his face as he gave me precise directions to Ennio’s house. While I was standing there ringing the door, my legs were trembling. Then one of his guards came out and asked what I wanted, I said: “I need to deliver this letter to Ennio Doris.” The guard kindly replied: “Give it to me, when I see him, I will give it to him personally.” In the letter, I wrote about my project and my dream to become an entrepreneur and explained that I needed his help to accomplish my dream. I also mentioned that I had been inspired by his incredible story in Capital magazine and believed he was the right man to help me. For the whole of the next week, I waited for the phone to ring, but I heard nothing. The following Saturday I went back to Tombolo and rang the doorbell again. The same guard opened the door and asked: “What are you doing here again?” I replied that I hadn’t received any reply to my letter and needed to speak to Ennio urgently. He replied: “He’s busy at the moment, leave me your number, and as soon as he is free I’ll get him to call you.” I walked around the centre of Tombolo for almost an hour. And again the phone did not ring, so I decided to go home.
The phone call that I had been waiting for arrived on Monday. The secretary of Vittorio Colussi, the Commercial Director of Banca Mediolanum, had organised a meeting with Vittorio for the following day. I had been talking to Vittorio for about an hour when Ennio Doris entered the office and sat next to me, he said: “Ok Manuel, tell me about your idea.” I began to talk freely, interrupted occasionally by questions. At the end of the discussion, Ennio stood up and picked up Vittorio’s telephone. He dialed a number and then I heard: “Hello Maurizio. How are you? I have a young man here who I would like you to meet. He has an interesting idea that you might be interested in.” Maurizio Carfagna is the General Director of H Invest, the family company of Ennio Doris. A few days later, Maurizio Carfagna met me in his offices at H Invest. At the end of the meeting we parted, agreeing that he would give me a reply within the next few days. The reply that I received a week later by email wasn’t what I had expected: “Dear Manuel, we looked at your project, but we are sorry. We feel that the idea is not of any interest to us.” Even though it was painful to hear, I felt that I had only lost a battle but not the war. A few weeks later I decided to return to Tombolo with a new letter: but Ennio Doris was on a trip in USA and I didn’t get his reply immediately. One day while I was driving I received a phone call from Serenella, Ennio’s personal secretary; the call was very brief: “Manuel, Ennio Doris would like to see you, are you free on the 5th of September?”
On the 5th of September in Milan, Ennio Doris finally opened the door to his world. I had an appointment at 11.00 am in his offices on the fourth floor of Palazzo Meucci in Milan 3 but on that day his English lesson seemed to never end: Serenella finally let me in at 11.45 am. I was extremely nervous, but I began to explain my project and when Ennio Doris asked me: “What are you looking for?” My reply was: “A partner to help me develop my idea.” He replied: “And if you find this person what you will give in return?” My reply: “A share of the company.” Ennio Doris was so impressed by my determination that he decided right there and then to finance my project. As he shook my hand, he said: “Ok Manuel, let’s create this company on a 50/50 basis.”
A month later in October 2007, Zeromobile was created, the first global mobile operator in Italy, and my dream had become a reality! The initial capital for Zeromobile was 200 thousand euros. “H Invest” invested 100 thousand euros, and my brother in law, Daniele Bortolotti, and I put in the rest. Zeromobile entered the market in 2008 and offers a low cost international roaming tariff up to 85% less than the tariffs other operators, in more than 100 countries and incoming calls are completely free. In 2013, Zeromobile introduced You&zero, an on-net tariff between Zeromobile sim clients in over 100 countries at only 15 cents a minute for calls.
I don’t drink alcohol, wine and I hate beer and spirits, except “VoV”, made with a base of eggs that I remember as a child. My grandma used to give me this drink with some milk when I visited her and even today when I see her, she says: “Would you like some VoV?” I love Coca Cola and, I drink about a litre a day and so does my son Filippo.
It was the beginning of July 2010 when my friend Massimiliano Bertolini invited me to dinner. I’ve known him since 1995, the same year I got engaged to Arianna. Both are from Gambugliano, a town a few kilometres from the centre of Vicenza where I have been living since January 2013. Even though Massimiliano likes beer and a good wine, that evening I came with a different kind of wine from Spain without alcohol that I had opened a few days before. I was intrigued to see Massimiliano’s reaction to this non-alcoholic wine. During the dinner, I asked him: “What do you think about marketing a non-alcoholic wine?” Massimiliano replied without any hesitation: “Why not? Great idea.” In September we launched Winezero, our very own wine without alcohol.
We needed financial backing for Winezero as we did for Zeromobile and a partner to help develop and promote the project internationally. In 2007, not long after Zeromobile was launched on the market, an article was written in the Italian daily newspaper Corriere della Sera. The next day Ennio Doris called me to say his friend Renato Della Valle, a real estate investor had mentioned that he was interested in Zeromobile and would call me for more information, but that phone call, however, never came. So while I was thinking about a financial backer, I remembered this fact and called Serenella to ask for Renato Della Valle’s number. I called his office and managed to arrange an appointment with him in Rome. We went to meet Renato and after only a few words about our wine without alcohol he said: “It reminds me of when I was young” and he added: “I don’t drink, and I hate wine.” We couldn’t believe it. It was incredible, but the best was yet to come. Renato Della Valle concluded the meeting with “Guys, I’ll see you in Milan next Thursday.” I couldn’t have imagined what was going to happen that next Thursday. Renato Della Valle arrived and said: “I said to my friend Ennio that I would only invest in this project if he invested in it too, and he said he was going to… so.” Two weeks later, Renato Della Valle and Ennio Doris bought shares in Winezero amounting to an investment of 50 thousand euros each. Renato Della Valle, however, was only with Winezero for a few months, after which Massimiliano, Ennio Doris and I bought his shares.
I have always been passionate about technology and for many years I have been a subscriber to Focus. It was June 2009 when I read a short article about a Luxury Watch Phone. I did some research on the Internet and saw that there was a jewellery shop that sold them in Verona. I called to make sure the watch was available and then went straight there to buy it. Actually, I realized immediately that the Watch Phone was of poor quality. However, the idea of a high-quality watch-phone excited me. I liked it so much, that when I arrived at the office, I skyped Massimilano: “Can you design a wristwatch-shaped bracelet?” His answer was: “Sure. I can.” In a few days, we had our wonderful Watch Phone, the design was spectacular. Only the name was missing. We decided on Mercury. So we filed the Mercury: patent at the Chamber of Commerce. We were so proud. The idea was original because it consisted of two pieces with one detachable piece that could be placed in the ear like a kind of receiver. Mercury was not just an idea. It had to become a real product. As Mercury was a fashionable design product, our first thought went to designers. So I started calling all the major Italian fashion designers. I even managed to speak to some of them personally, and we also went to see some of them. Roberto Cavalli for example, loved the idea so much that we went to visit him twice in his house in Via Senato in Milan. Although the Mercury project attracted a lot of interest, it was, however, very complex and scared all our potential investors so much so that during the winter of 2009 we decided to set it aside.
In early December 2010, Massimiliano and I were on our way to South America to promote Winezero, when I received an unexpected email. It was the response I received to an email I had written a year earlier, in December 2009. I wrote to a company in New York that produces a style of Watch Phone, saying they had seen my request, and that they were interested in a partnership. That reply, with a year’s delay was amazing, but it had awakened a new interest in Massimiliano and me for the Mercury Project. As soon as I got back to Italy, I immediately started to rethink the project and after a few weeks, I said to Massimiliano: “Why not build a smartwatch, or a watch that connects to the phone and receives phone calls, text messages, email notifications and lots more.” I hadn’t worn a watch for many years, because I thought that the traditional watch had a limited scope, it only tells the time, whether it’s a Swatch worth a hundred euros or a Rolex worth ten thousand euros. On the other hand, a smartwatch is “smart” and so, a few months later, i’m Watch, was launched. The first smartwatch in the world. At last, i’m Watch was a watch that I could also wear. The choice of the name was very important; i’m Watch was thought of very carefully: the “i” stands for “Italy” and “m” stands for “manuel” and “massimiliano” and “Watch”, of course stands for watch. When I suggested the name to Massimiliano, he loved it. In mid-January 2011 we developed the first i’m Watch design with the cooperation of the agency that followed the launch of Zeromobile. At the beginning of February, while Massimiliano and I were on a trip to Dubai to promote Winezero, we demonstrated the i’m Watch to the exclusive distributor of United Arab Rolex. It was the gold version, as we initially thought about having only the finest versions of titanium, silver and gold. His reaction was so enthusiastic that it convinced us to launch a new business venture. In March, we formed Blue Sky with 50 thousand euros capital and trademarked i’m Watch. A few weeks after we put it on our website on presale (which was initially www.imcollection.it), to figure out how the market would react to such an innovative product, “i’m Watch, the first smartwatch in the world.” We never expected what happened in the following weeks: worldwide everyone was talking about i’m Watch and in a few months we received over ten thousand pre-orders. An incredible amount.
One day in late March, I received a phone call: it was the secretary of Oscar, Doris’s son-in-law and the marketing director of Banca Mediolanum. Mr. Oscar Di Montigny wanted to meet me to get more information about i’m Watch and set an appointment a few days later. The meeting was held at Banca Mediolanum’s offices and when I was leaving, I bumped into Ennio Doris, who had been in another meeting. He was in a hurry, but I just had enough time to show him the brochure of i’m Watch. We had fifty copies printed of i’m Watch on glossy paper coated with UV veneer. I also had time to say: “I’ve just been with Oscar and he liked i’m Watch a lot, do you think you might be interested in this business? Could I speak to Mr. Carfagna?” It could have been that he was in a hurry or perhaps because he trusted me, so his reply was: “Yes, yes, talk to Carfagna.” Mr. Carfagna knew about the i’m Watch project already, as Massimiliano and I had talked to him about it a few weeks before. On that same day, I called him and said, “Mr. Carfagna, I spoke to Doris about i’m Watch, and he mentioned that he was interested in the business, and I need to talk to you. Can we make an appointment?” The following week we met at Via Senato, at the H Invest headquarters. There was Massimiliano, Ennio Doris and Mr. Carfagna and myself. For about an hour, I answered to Ennio Doris’s and Carfagna’s many questions and in the end, once again, Ennio Doris believed in me and a few days later he joined Blue Sky shareholdings.
The delivery dates were the weak point of the i’m Watch project. The design and the subsequent production were assigned to a company in Padua. Initially, we gave rather “too optimistic” delivery dates that we communicated to the market without a filter. This proved to be a serious mistake, but through mistakes we learn, right? In the next six months, I spent every minute of my time on the i’m Watch project. It was a unique experience. I found myself coordinating a team of more than twenty-five people in different fields: hardware, software, design, marketing and communication. Every single decision was put to me first. Nunzio was one of the key figures in the i’m Watch project. I met him a year before for the Zeromobile project: I was introduced to him by my agent, and he was given a campaign for a value of 200 euros. Then Nunzio left for Australia and on his return, I gave him another small campaign for Winezero. But it was the i’m Watch project that consolidated our relationship. When I called to ask him to manage the launch campaign, I said: “Nunzio, invest €100 a day.” In a few days, we had reached 2000 euros a day, and we were getting between seventy and eighty orders a day at that time.
On 25 October 2011, we finally unveiled our i’m Watch to the world at the ARM Conference in Santa Clara. Everyone was waiting for this event, since no one had ever seen what was this i’m Watch going to be like. In fact, for about a month, on the home page of our website, there was a red velvet curtain that covered an i’m Watch and a countdown. At 10:00 am, in Santa Clara, 7:00 pm in Italy, the veil has finally been removed from the i’m Watch but the website could not cope with the over 100,000 simultaneous accesses and was not accessible for over two hours. After Santa Clara the fame of i’m Watch grew even more, and with fame, greater expectations for the product: it seemed that everyone was waiting for the arrival of i’m Watch. On 12 January 2012, we presented i’m Watch at CES in Las Vegas, CNET called i’m Watch “the Armani of the smartwatch”. It really was an incredible and unprecedented success.
On a Friday evening, in early May we went to dinner at Ennio Doris’s home in Milan; at one point, I asked him: “Could you lend us Mr. Lombardi? We are in a difficult situation with the delivery dates. We can’t meet the deadlines. His help could be useful.” His response was: “Manuel! Great idea! Go ahead!” Edoardo Lombardi was CEO of Banca Mediolanum and was now its vice-president. Mr. Doris had spoken to me about Mr. Lombardi in one of our meetings and I was struck by his words: “Manuel, I’ve had two great strokes of luck in my life. The first was meeting Silvio Berlusconi and the other was meeting Edoardo Lombardi.” After all, Mr. Lombardi was the first person I had thought of during those critical moments. “Better is the enemy of good”, “Worrying means taking care of in advance” and “there are important things and there are urgent things“: these are some of the lessons I learned in two years as his apprentice.
Ennio Doris was leaving for Mexico for a Mediolanum convention. He returned to Italy the following Sunday and on Monday morning Marilena, the Mr. Lombardi’s secretary called me and said I should call Mr. Lombardi in the afternoon at 3.00 pm. So I did and a few weeks later Mr. Lombardi became president of i’m S.p.A. In early June, we announced that deliveries of the first three hundred i’m Watches would begin on 18 June 2013; the date had been met so we started the delivery of the i’m Watch that had been pre-ordered. It took about six months to process all the orders, but in the end, the target was reached. At CES 2013 we presented i’m Droid 2, a completely revised version of the i’m Watch operating system. i’m Droid 2 introduced some amazing innovations. We had, in fact, invented smart tethering, an intelligent system to manage i’m Watch data connection that improves battery management. Also at CES 2013 we presented i’m Here, an extremely small smart locator. A few months later i’m Here became i’m Tracer, which is a wristwatch locator for kids.
At the beginning of 2011, the word “smartwatch” did not even exist. If googled, there almost no hits, but just a few months later, the word smartwatch had become synonymous with i’m Watch. But this was not enough, despite having been the first in this new area, we were unable to conquer the smartwatch market. In September 2013 at the IFA in Berlin, Samsung unveiled its first smartwatch: Samsung Gear was only the first in a series of four products that Samsung has put on the market in the last twelve months. In September 2014, Apple introduced its Apple Watch, an extraordinary smartwatch that includes many of the features that we had envisioned in 2011, and we had added to our i’m Watch. But how could we compete with two such huge competitors? On 1 October, 2014, i’m S.p.A. went out of the Wearable Technology market with the suspension of sales of i’m Watch. In total, we sold over fifty thousand i’m Watch belonging to the various collections: color, tech and jewel. A very large number over and above all our initial expectations. At the first meeting we had in April 2011 with the company that designed the i’m Watch, we had said: “We plan to sell about a thousand, including versions in titanium, silver and gold.”
It was the evening of Thursday, December 18th, when I wrote an email to Ennio Doris: “Thanks Ennio for everything you have done for me over the years and in particular my heart-felt thanks for Zeromobile.” As always, his answer was not long in coming and the next morning: “Manuel, in life you often happen to fall. What matters is being able to rise up again.” A few months later those words were a sort of premonition, considering the ChatSim’s success worldwide.
Ennio Doris is an extraordinary person and in recent years he has helped me to realize all my dreams and grow. He did so even on February 4th when he sold his share in Zeromobile (I now own 100% of the shares). Once again, his vision has made it possible to launch my entrepreneurial adventure successfully toward the future.
Everyone was asking me: “Do you have WhatsApp?” Plus many of our customers and Zeromobile dealers had started telling us: “Zeromobile is really interesting and it makes me save money compared to my service provider but I use only WhatsApp when traveling.” So I asked myself “WhatsApp?” One day, in early December, I decided to download and try the app on my iPhone. I couldn’t believe my eyes: over 90% of my contacts had WhatsApp! In a split second I realized that the world was really changing and I soon came up with the idea: creating a SIM card dedicated to WhatsApp. This is how WhatSim was born, the first SIM to chat free of charge and without limits using the world’s most famous messaging system. It made its world debut on January 21st. The utmost attention went into every single detail and the choice of the date was no coincidence at all: July 21, 2014 was the date when I had decided six months earlier to leave Wearable Technology market with my i’m watch.
I had given myself six months to come up with a new grand project: that time had come!
The international premiere with the press was a huge success among WhatsApp users as well as among the users of other instant messaging apps (Telegram, WeChat, Facebook Messenger, etc.). On February 26th came the announcement that WhatSim had become ChatSim: the world’s first SIM card that is compatible with all the main instant messaging apps in order to meet the needs of all users.
May 19, 2015, 11:00 AM: the new world launch:
ChatSim’s escalation: Zeromobile’s start-up becomes an independent company thanks to its huge success.
Angelsim acquires a share. The investment company Angelsim Sarl is a partner to the transaction. It has decided to invest €1 million euro in the business set up by Manuel Zanella, which is already worth over €4 million euro after a few months from its launch. ChatSim has won over users and investors and is growing exponentially: over 100 thousand SIM cards sold in a few months and distribution agreements signed in 30 countries.
The target is to sell 1 million SIM cards by 2016 also through the agreement with Angelsim Sarl.
The future of my story is yet to be written.
Vicenza, Tuesday, June 02, 2015