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French extreme sports star revolutionizes the mobile world from Tallinn

What follows is no ordinary tale: a story about a French extreme sports star who has broken his bones on over twenty occasions, worked as a stunt-man in Hollywood and finally arrived in Tallinn to start a new phase of his life…

No Ordinary Guy

Although this is a common claim, in this case it is true to say there is really nothing ordinary about Taïg Khris. Zero. Zilch. Nada… Nobody could have predicted that this extreme sports star with Greek-Algerian roots, who grew up in Paris and became a celebrity in France, would end up in an office in the Old Town in Tallinn where, with dozens of employees at his startup, he plans to revolutionize the telecoms industry worldwide.

Although Khris is famous in France, he has never made a considered effort to escape the attention, and yet in Tallinn even the people in the startup scene seem to know very little about his activities.

Taïg Khris has no ordinary background as you might already have guessed. Born in Algeria, he moved to France at the age of five together with his parents and elder brother in order to start a new life. Neither Taïg nor his brother Lino had attended a single day of school − they never went to elementary or high school, not to mention university. Instead as a boy, Taïg learned roller-skating in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower. He thought this was supposed to become his profession. At the age of sixteen, Taïg was chosen to participate in his first world championships in Germany, but due to a lack of money he did not spend his nights in a hotel but…on the street. Unfortunately he broke his hip-bone before the competition and was taken to hospital.

Having also tried his hand as a magician, Taïg returned to the world of extreme sports and soon earned his first professional contract with RollerBlade, bringing in 2 000 euros monthly.

Actually there may be at least one commonplace thing about Taïg, at least as far as the world of extreme sports goes, and that is that during his career, he had various broken bones on 15-20 different occasions (he lost count and doesn’t know the exact number), had seven operations and spent countless weeks in hospital. ‘When I was healthy, I could earn quite well but each injury automatically meant the loss of income for an unknown period of time,’ he recalls. When he happened to be fully fit, Taïg won two world championship titles in his field and once at the ‘Olympic Games’ of extreme sports − the X Games.

‘Despite this I always knew that one day my sports career would be over and I would have to find something else to put bread on the table,’ he says, sitting in the modest kitchen of his Tallinn-based startup Onoff Telecom.

Searching for His Way

After becoming famous as an extreme sports athlete in France, this is what he set out to do. At the turn of the millennium, his first video game, Taïg Khris Aggressive Inline, was produced. In the years that followed, he also appeared in numerous French reality- and other TV shows − for example, the French version of ‘The Amazing Race’ (which he won), the TV show ‘Dancing with the Stars’ (where he made it to the final) and he also hosted his own adventurous TV show, ‘The Taïg Show’.

In between TV stints he jumped with roller skates from a height of 40 metres from the Eiffel Tower in front of 100 000 spectators (breaking a world record) and, a year later, from the church of Sacre Coeur in Paris (another world record). Even when he started taking acting lessons and tried out in the film industry, starting to work as a stunt-man in film productions, nothing indicated that he was later to become a success-orientated IT entrepreneur. However, it was his work as a stunt-man which prompted Taïg to turn over a new leaf and put away his skates perhaps for good.

Taïg was working as a stunt-man stand-in for Channing Tatum on the Hollywood production ‘Jupiter Ascending,’ and in one of the scenes he had to catch the character played by Mila Kunis, who was falling from a height. However, in catching the stunt-woman Taïg broke his leg. ‘While I was recovering in hospital in the weeks after, I realised that I couldn’t continue like this. I needed to find a new and permanent challenge for myself. I decided to become an entrepreneur,’ he recalls today, three years later.

 

Ground Rules

Taïg set himself six rules to follow, and these have led him to founding his startup, Onoff Telecom.

Rule number 1:
Choose a huge industry.

‘Most people choose the field of their company on the basis of their own interests and not on the industry itself. It would have been easy for me to remain in the world of extreme sports, but I didn’t want to. It’s a fact that number one in whatever field of extreme sports will always earn less than the thousandth of the footballer in the world,’ he explains. As a top extreme sports athlete, Taïg could earn 200 000-300 000 euros per year when working at full stretch, but when injured, the time out could extend to a year or more and, during that time, his income was zero. Hence he decided to choose a totally new sector and more stable for himself − telecom and IT.

Rule number 2:
Invent something that no one else has thought of.

‘As I often lost my phone and had to use different phone numbers and SIM-cards in different countries, I started to ask myself why phone numbers have to be locked onto SIM-cards. Why couldn’t they be transferred onto the cloud, made universal and accessible like e-mail addresses?’ he asks. ‘It is totally ridiculous.’ This became the field of activity for Taïg’s new startup Onoff Telecom.

Rule number 3:
Build a company which offers a service.

’Uber has no taxis, Airbnb has no hotels. Onoff Telecom wants to become the biggest mobile operator without its own network, own receivers or SIM-cards.’ Taïg explains that, for years, telecoms has been a closed system which has been blind to the need for innovation. This is where he spotted an opportunity.

Rule number 4:
User experience is king.

‘Your product needs to be beautiful, comfortable, simple and intuitive to use. If you achieve this, there is no need to advertise. It will start to spread by itself.’

Rule number 5:
Build up a single brand which you can sell globally.

‘It makes life so much easier.’

Rule number 6:
There has to be easy worldwide distribution.

‘That’s why I chose mobile applications.’

What is ‘onoff’ App?

This is how the idea for the mobile app ‘onoff’ was born. The app allows you to keep an unlimited number of phone numbers on one phone, which you can use simultaneously, or turn on or off as you desire with just one tap on the screen. You can have phone numbers for France, the USA and the UK or some other country on one phone and make your calls and send text messages for local network prices.

Of course in the beginning this was just an idea, born in the unlikely setting of a hospital bed. Taïg had had no previous contact with the telecom or IT sector. Moreover, he didn’t even know if it was possible to build something like this. He didn’t know the type profession of a person who might be able to transform his dream into reality. But soon enough he found out that he needed a systems’ architect and was able to approach someone from the local telecoms company. ‘His fee was 1 500 euros per day, but I had just 6 000 euros on my account!’, he relates. ‘I asked him whether he could find out within four days whether my idea could be implemented. Four days later, I was 6 000 euros poorer but at least I knew it was possible.’

This was the encouragement which Taïg needed. In the days that followed, he locked himself into his room to write a thorough business plan. At that point in time he didn’t have a cent to his name. But it was money which was needed to step into the telecom business. ‘I took out the contact list of my phone and contacted every person on it who I thought might have money,’ he recalls. And it worked. He must have had a lot of generous friends, as just a month later, Taïg had drummed up a whopping total of one million euros from his friends, other skaters, even his cameraman and his surgeon; in return he gave them together a 20 per cent share of his new company!

Finding the Right Location and People

Now it seemed the time was ripe to really start working. He needed a team, an office and the momentum to start developing the app. ‘IT-engineers in France are of good quality, but they cost a lot of money. At that moment, one of my friends had lived for four years in Estonia, and he suggested that I move here,’ relates Taïg. In February 2014, he stepped off the plane in Tallinn for the first time. A photo on his Instagram account records his first winter day in Estonia, when the temperature happened to be as low as −20C!

Despite this freezing beginning, Taïg has high level of appreciation for the two people he employed first in Estonia − Simmo, Head of the Design Team, and Maksim, the Chief Technology Officer. Some time later, his brother Lino also moved to Tallinn and now manages the daily business in the office. To date, Taïg has attracted another five million euros worth of investment into his company, making its estimated market value some 25 million euros. And now the product, at least for the French and British markets, is ready. In France alone, the ‘onoff’ app has been downloaded more than one million times, and over 10 million text messages are sent with it every month. Next Taïg will target the US market and, in the beginning of 2017, mobile networks of several other countries are set to add ‘onoff’ into their apps.

‘We need more investments and, as early as next year, we are due to rapidly grow our service volume and the number of employees. It is a race between us and our competitors and we plan to win it,’ says Taïg. Considering how he has got to where he is and with his determination, it makes no sense to invest against his continued success!

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