Growing up on a north London council estate, Alexander Amosu learned earlier than most that there were two ways to get what you want in life. “You either stole it, or you found a way of paying for it.” Amosu, now 33, opted for the latter. He got a £10-a-week paper round and earned enough money to buy a new pair of Nike trainers in weeks. “I realised then that I didn’t want to be poor anymore.” He tried several businesses, from cleaning services for pregnant women to organising parties, until in 2000 he hit upon an idea that saw him quit his degree in computer engineering.
Playing around with a new Nokia 3210, Amosu sent his brother a ringtone, which he had just made using the phone’s composing facility. Based on the tune Big Pimpin’ by the rapper Jay-Z, it was an instant hit with his brother’s classmates, 21 of whom came knocking at his front door the next evening looking for it. “So I put my entrepreneur hat on and said, if you want it, you’ll have to pay £1 each.” That evening, “I sat there with £21 on my lap and thought, what would happen if I made 100 or 200 ringtones”?
Amosu found there were only two other firms making ringtones, both focusing on pop-music-based tones. “There didn’t seem to be anyone doing hip hop or R&B. I thought it was my duty to bring those ringtones to the world.” His father was none too pleased. “He said I was throwing my life away playing with mobile phones.” But Amosu hooked up a premium-rate phone line to his home in Wood Green and advertised on the back of 20,000 fliers he’d made for a party at university. “I made £6 in the first day, and aggressively grew from there.” Within four months, he’d made enough money to get a £2,000 a month office in Islington, which he kitted out with 21 staff. Half were taking calls, while the others made the ringtones. “There were other teenagers like me making ringtones, so I put adverts around colleges for ‘designers’ at £5 an hour.” Now called R&B Ringtones, the firm advertised in newspapers and on TV. “If we did a full-page advert in The Sun for £6,000, we would get five times that back in a week. That’s how phenomenal the market was.”
At the end of his first year, his accountant told him he’d turned over £1.6m. “I said, ‘Hold on, let me go to the ATM and check if you’re pulling my leg’. And there was over a million in the bank.” Over the next three years, the group did another £6.3m in sales, before Amosu decided to sell up. “Every Tom, Dick and Harry was doing ringtones. When we put another £6,000 ad in The Sun, we got back £6,000 a week later.” A German telecom who wanted his ringtone back catalogue paid just under £9m for the firm in 2004. Amosu got married, had “two kids and moved to Edmonton, where I bought a three-bed penthouse” and began working on his next venture: designing phones for the rich and famous. But despite his rapid success, he is no fan of the ‘money is everything’ mentality. “For the older generation, their way of being successful was through education. Unfortunately now, you can be a footballer and a multi-millionaire, and be unable to read or write. Things have changed.”