Over the past 14 years, ICT Solutions Firm Fonicom has built an impressive portfolio of clients – which includes four Fortune 500 companies and 43 Telcos – expanding to provide services to partners across five continents. At its helm, CEO Renaldo Arciola has steered this growth, proving that even home-grown enterprises can punch above their weight.

Renaldo Arciola is the epitome of a self-starter, and a living example of the way in which fortune favours the brave.

At the beginning of the millennium, Renaldo began exploring the opportunity to tap into the tech industry. “I was fascinated by technology, although I couldn’t visualise which role within the industry I could pursue,” he recalls. By the age of 12, he had already started dabbling in new technology, by building Malta’s first Bulletin Board System (BBS), a connected platform which allowed people to exchange messages via computer modems in the pre-internet era.

Later, while continuing to find his feet, Renaldo became a shareholder in a property servicing company, specialising in flooring and upholstery, a role which was outside of his expertise, but which allowed him to test some of his approaches. “We brought in a lot of technical innovations – some of which are still being used in that industry today,” he smiles.

Renaldo’s drive to think outside the box, and to generate new processes and ways of doing business marked the start of Fonicom. “The company I was working for at the time was on the market in search of a new phone system; the goal was to acquire a set of devices which could be integrated with a computer system in order to automate staff workflows and client interaction. I remember calling up various suppliers to request quotes, all of which were very expensive and could not justify the cost in terms of value. I then recall thinking, ‘well, I can build this myself’ with the technical knowledge I had gained from creating the BBS,” Renaldo continues.

He started to research what it would entail, and crossed paths with Kias Hanifa, who would eventually take on the role of Chief Technology Officer at Fonicom. “We met in an online forum, and realised we were trying to achieve the same thing, albeit with different approaches. So, we started to collaborate, building this phone system, while also discussing how we could monetise our ideas,” Renaldo says, adding that he was then encouraged to participate in Malta’s Junior Chamber Best Business Plan competition. This was a crucial initiative that led to the first round of seed funding for the company, back in 2008.

“That was a very critical moment, since, through this opportunity, we also met some of our first investors and shareholders, some of whom are still with us today, and who have been instrumental in helping me grow personally, and helping us build the business,” Renaldo says. It also pushed the enterprise through two further successful rounds of funding which allowed it to start to consolidate its offerings.

Today, Fonicom provides systems integration – including networking, security, storage and cloud solutions – as well as specific solutions within the telecoms sphere and a software house specialising in the development of AI, Machine Learning, Automation and Productivity technologies. Fonicom is also the company behind Raiseaticket.com, a cloud helpdesk solution ranked among the very top in the industry, used by over 5,000 customers worldwide.

“One of our biggest achievements from those early days was our ability to onboard top tier blue-chip clients. Nowadays, we provide our services to 43 telco operators and enterprises, across five continents. These include some of the largest firms in the world, including four Fortune 500 companies. We’re a relatively young company based in Malta, yet we’ve managed to expand to the Netherlands, and even to India,” Renaldo attests, adding that the enterprise has recently been awarded the Dell Rising Star Award. “It has only been awarded seven times in Dell’s history, so this has been quite a journey.”

Part of the secret to this success, he says, is to “spend time researching, thinking and trying to understand what clients need. Many times, entrepreneurs try to create a new market, when there’s already a market and a gap within it, waiting to be addressed. So, you must do your research and try to position your company and offerings strategically, creating a portfolio of products and services that bring value to customers.” Renaldo thinks that, locally, we can become too focused on replicating an idea which has been implemented before, elsewhere, thus “cannibalising the market.”

In his view, long-term progress can be achieved through four principles, which, the CEO explains, have been adopted at Fonicom. “Firstly, we aim to provide value to all our stakeholders – be they our employees, clients, or shareholders. Secondly, we always try to keep things simple. This may sound like a cliché but streamlining and simplifying processes and offerings is essential. Thirdly, we keep business nimble, and, finally, we keep searching – we don’t settle – in other words, we keep searching for ways to improve, to become more efficient and to extrapolate more value,” he explains.

Adhering to these axioms over the years, the company has navigated significant disruption within the telco technology space. “Our origins were deeply rooted in telecoms – we used to design systems helping operators innovate and move to modern interconnection methods, based on IP. However, as soon as VoIP started being consumerised and mobile data started to proliferate, we saw transformational changes within the industry. The same applied to the enterprise technology space,” Renaldo says.

Understanding these seismic shifts and what to look out for is key, and Fonicom’s leadership team ensures the firm keeps up with developments. “Every three years we go through a consolidation period, where we analyse industry trends and make sure to position ourselves in the right place, using the right tech, the right expertise and affecting the right execution. This exercise often brings about a radical shift in the way we operate and deliver our offerings,” he explains. Renaldo relishes the creativity that his role provides – “it gives me a real kick, and we’re very lucky to have directors and shareholders who give us the space to be inventive, really ambitious, and to go after dreams that appear to be wild goose chases,” he laughs. Indeed, this is also part of what differentiates Fonicom from its competitors. “One of the reasons why our people and our clients opt for us, is our approach. We think outside the box and are capable of executing – which gives us the ability to punch above our weight. So, rather than simply throw resources at a problem, we think smart,” he says.

Looking ahead, 2023 will see an expansion of the company’s portfolio of offerings, with a focus on AI. Indeed, the firm is in the process of developing a powerful AI tool – which is currently going through rounds of tests in beta form – and which can be used to facilitate the creation of content and streamline processes across various sectors. The game-changer, here, is that the application interface makes the tech simple to use, even for non[1]specialists, due, in part, to its use of natural languages, such as English.

“We realised a division exists between those organisations that are in a position to attract and pay for AI expertise and those that are not, but could still greatly benefit from the capabilities such technology provides. So, by means of this tool, we’re working on democratising AI and making it accessible in order for it to be used in ways that are meaningful to different professionals and businesses.” Moreover, this, he adds, is part of Fonicom’s drive to align itself with robust ESG principles. “Making AI accessible is very much tied to our overall goals and objectives for the company,” he attests.

Ultimately, he concludes, underlining the philosophy which has led to the company’s success, “at every turn, there’s an opportunity waiting to be seized. The key is to recognise it, figure out where the value lies, and the best way to capitalise on it.”

This article is part of the serialisation of 50 interviews featured in MaltaCEOs 2023 – the sister brand to MaltaCEOs.mt and an annual high-end publication bringing together some of the country’s most influential business leaders

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