An impossibly jaunty tune suddenly erupts from the uncharted depths of my handbag. According to the selection of ringtones that came with my four-year-old mobile phone, it is called the "The Buffoon". Alexander Amosu, who is sitting next to me, laughs. "It's quite poor," he says of the irritating, tinny drone. And he should know. For Amosu is the man who launched what is now the UK's number one provider of mobile-phone ringtones.
Luckily for the 28-year-old, there are a great many people out there who would never put up with such an unfashionable trill on their handset. Last month, for the first time ever, the sale of mobile ringtones is believed to have topped those of CD singles sales, which average £70m a year, according to the Mobile Data Association. This year's growth of about 60 per cent is expected to continue in 2004, creating a £100m industry.
One result of this unforeseen boom is the creation of a generation of ringtone millionaires. And Amosu's rag-to-riches story is typical. It was in 2000, aged just 24, that he accidentally stumbled on his lucrative new career. Amosu sent his brother a ringtone he had made on a phone with a composing facility. The tune was "Big Pimpin'" by Jay-Z, which he had listened to over and over again, painstakingly keying in the tones on the keypad.
His brother's phone went off at college and immediately all his friends wanted it. At the time, the vast majority of people only had the ringtone that came with their phone. Already a budding entrepreneur - he had been earning extra money at college by staging parties and balls - Amosu made his brother's friends come round to his house and pay him £1 for the ringtone. In the first day he made £7. "I thought: 'That's fantastic! What would happen if I made a catalogue of ringtones and advertised it?' My brain went into work mode." He did some research and found only one company in the UK and several in Germany providing ringtones.
Amosu decided to specialise in R&B music and, within six weeks, had come up with a further six ringtones. He installed an extra phone line, with a premium-rate number charging £1.50 a minute, in the council house he was living in with his parents. He advertised the number on the back of 20,000 fliers he made for his next party. On the first day, R&B Ringtones made £97. Amosu gave up university.
Within four months he had moved the operation out of his parents' council house into two offices in Islington, and employed 21 staff selling 1,000 ringtones. "We were making the songs all day long as they were coming out," he says. In the first year the turnover was £1.2m. In 2002, he was Young Entrepreneur of the Year at the Institute of Directors Black Enterprise Awards.
At one time ringtones could only be downloaded from the internet. Now one simply has to dial a number advertised in magazines, newspapers or on television and the ringtone is sent to the buyer's handset in the form of a text message at a cost of between £1 and £3.50.
The popularity of ringtones has been further increased by record companies, which now add downloadable ringtones to some of their releases. A few labels have even released the ringtone version of a single before the CD, such as "Mandy", by Westlife. "It's common practice now for music groups and companies to consider mobile content as part of their launch strategy," says Roger Craven, marketing director of Amplefuture, the mobile software developer.
Another reason for increased demand is the fact that the variety of ringtones has increased by about 1,000 per cent in the past year. As well as pop, classical, jazz, national anthems, and film and TV theme tunes, there are also animal noises made available by the British Library, courtesy of its vast sound archive, which include colobus monkey calls, a desert cobra attack, loons yodelling and cattle lowing.
The quality of sound has also vastly improved. Many phones are now polyphonic, capable of playing multiple tracks, rather than a series of notes. An increasing number have the capacity to play CD-quality "true tones". Sadly, however, true tones may well turn out to be the most irritating rings of all time. Nokia's, for example, include snoring, screams, a toilet flushing, glass breaking and, in particularly dubious taste, the sound of a car screeching and crashing.
For Amosu, all this competition simply shows the marketplace is buoyant. And his ambition is undimmed by success. It was not having the right trainers as a child that kick-started Amosu's desire to make money. He was born in Britain, but moved to Nigeria at the age of two with his parents. Ten years later, he returned to Britain before his parents, to live with his grandmother and younger brother. They moved into a council house in Wood Green, north London. There was so little room, Amosu had to sleep on the sofa in the sitting room. At school, he couldn't relate to the other children who wore Nike and Adidas trainers. He didn't even have enough money for school dinners. "All the kids that everyone liked had the latest gear," he says. "I couldn't fit in. I had really geeky and ugly clothes. I had two options - I could either go in just these trainers or I could work for them."
Amosu got a paper round and bought himself a pair of Nike trainers. His classmates suddenly started talking to him. "From there I thought if I needed something I would just have to work hard for it. I saved the money and kitted myself out to look pretty and before you knew it I was quite popular in school," he says.
While he was resitting his GCSEs and studying for a business start-up course at college, he put on a football tournament. He secured the college's pitch for free, charged each player £5 to enter and bought a medallion for £3.50 and a trophy for £10 for the winner. He made a £750 profit. He staged a further six tournaments in other sports, and also began to put on parties and inter-college balls.
While studying computer-aided engineering at North London University, Amosu also set up a house-cleaning business which eventually made more than £1,500 a week. At the age of 21 he bought his first car - a Fiat Uno turbo costing £1,500 - from money he earned on the side, working on Saturdays at Tandy, the electrical store, from 9am to 6pm and then from 7pm to midnight at Pizza Hut.
A year ago he sold 80 per cent of R&B Ringtones. He refuses to say how much for or to whom. Amosu still provides the company with 11,000 monophonic, 7,000 polyphonic, and 1,000 true tone ringtones. He still owns R&B World - the former parent company of R&B Ringtones - which is now the UK's number one provider of mobile ringtones and graphics. The cash enabled him to set up www.mobsvideo.com, which provides 30-second video clips for mobile phones. By the end of the year, he hopes to expand it to entire programmes and films.
Amosu, a likeable, courteous chap, bought his home, a three-storey modern townhouse in Edmonton, a scruffy area of north London, as soon as he made his fortune. When he signed the deeds and moved in, he couldn't believe it. "My bedroom in my mum's house was smaller than this kitchen," he says. Now that he is a father - he and his fiancée have a three-month-old child - he wants to move to Surrey, because the kids from the estates speed around the development.
Parked outside the house is his Porsche, while his fiancée has a Mercedes. He bought his parents their council house, though his mother stills works as a nurse, and his father is a hospital orderly. He has also bought homes in Alicante and Nigeria. But the big spending has stopped there. The only sign in the house of serious cash is the flat-screen television. While there is champagne in the fridge, Amosu is drinking squash. You would not judge him a millionaire from his appearance; he is wearing a grey pullover from River Island. "If I see something in a shop and it's cheap, I'll buy it. It's in-built in me. I don't actually like spending money. I think it's quite easy to make a million. The hardest part is keeping it," he says. Neither do his headquarters reek of dosh. His empire is, in fact, housed in his garage, which looks like a computer geek's bedroom. It is occupied by his staff of two - a slouching youth named Toothpick and Amosu's PA, Joanna.
"I'm able to buy anything I want. But I've reached that goal. Now it's the next goal - to make big money. It wasn't that hard to be where I am today. I haven't done anything special. I've just seen opportunities. All I need to do now is to work twice as hard to get three times forward. Money doesn't drive me, it's being successful that drives me," he says.
There are, of course, the hangers-on, particularly since he has appeared on television. "I'm a bit wary when I don't know people and they try to be friends with me," he admits. He now calls his fiancée, whom he has dated for seven years, his "wife" to put off female admirers.
One of Amosu's three mobiles goes off. Good God, it makes the sound of a phone ringing. "It'll be my mum," says the millionaire, who, like most sons when their mother calls, lets it ring.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies