Startup Culture Ignites ITExpo

by Dave Michels

I went to ITExpo to catch-up with many telecom people and learn new things. But as a resident and fan of Boulder, I am also somewhat intrigued by the local start-up world. These two world’s met once before – at Gluecon. The Gluecon conference addresses the glue required between various APIs and technologies. It is really what “unified communications”, or “CEBP”, should be about – but “Glue” has more stick to it. At GlueCon I met Jeff Lawson, CEO of Twilio. Twilio is among a new breed of companies that enables unified communications as a service. Though Twilio is a California company, among Twilio’s early investors is local startup mentor and founder of TechStars, David Cohen. [The next Gluecon is coming up in May].

Well, back to ITExpo and the telecom world, I finally met Larry Lisser – who so far I had only met through Twitter. Larry is a principal of Embrase Business Consulting which guides telecom (and other) startups. The idea of Startup Camp was “to better expose and support the very early stage: those companies disrupting in the trenches, those still bootstrapping, those without the benefit of PR budgets to generate the visibility and partner opportunities they needed to get to market faster. Those in voice, mobile, video, network and other forms of emerging telephony.” [Quoted from Larry’s Blog.]

What I need to state clearly here is this was an electric event. It should not have been – this was not a start-up crowd. Nor was it well timed – it was at the end of a long day of sessions and exhibitions. Time to go back to the hotel before dinner. But instead, it was a packed event – guessing 200 people. The energy in the room was unlike any other ITExpo session. I attend quite a few telecom events every year and I never describe any of the meetings or sessions as “electric”. But that’s what startups do, and startups just don’t fit into my normal world of enterprise communications. There is plenty of innovation among the enterprise players – but it isn’t raw. It is filtered and branded. Google was quite innovative with Google Voice, but the real innovation came from Grand Central which Google acquired. These are the early Grand Central’s. Telecom isn’t particularly associated with young vibrant companies – the barriers to entry over the decades were significant. But like so many other industries, the web and new APIs are unleashing innovation in even the most stubborn industries.

Twilio sponsored the event, and Phonetag contributed on the spot with drinks and giveaways. Though still considered a startup themselves, Twilio is no longer early stage – and just completed $3.7 million in funding. Plus their service powers two of the presenting companies. Twilio’s sponsorship contributed to travel costs for the presenters.

After the event was announced, 25 early stage participants applied to present. Four companies were selected based on stage, originality, market potential, and other factors. The presentations were American Idol format with panelists instead of judges providing feedback to the new CEOs. The audience was also allowed to contribute ideas and suggestions. The panelist were:

  • Michael Mildennberger: a founder and CEO of multiple telecom startups and currently Managing Director of Corporate Finance Partners Americas.
  • Randy Busch: CEO of Jazinga another entrepreneur and technology startup veteran.
  • Thomas Howe: CEO of Thomas Howe Company, an experienced wth design and development of communications equipment.
  • Andy Abramson: CEO of Comunicano, a asymmetrical communications consultancy geared toward technology startups.

Before the presentations started, we were treated to a great keynote by Jamie Siminoff, founder of PhoneTag, now part of Ditech Networks. Jamie’s keynote addressed the many myths and challenges associated with startups. Then, four companies made their unpolished pitches, with (get this) sincere interest in feedback. They were:

SayHired: Mark Thomas of SayHired discussed how telecommunications technology can facilitate the applicant screening process. Thanks to the Internet, employers can be deluged with applicants on posted positions. SayHired leverages the Twilio platform to perform applicant screening over the phone. By using an IVR to deliver prerecorded interview questions SayHired automates one of the most time consuming tasks associated with hiring.

Close-Haul Communications: Robin Coxe is leveraging her Ph.D in Particle Physics (somehow) to create the GAPfiller product. It is a low-power GSM Access Point designed to fill cellular network holes. It acts as a femtocell using SIP trunks to provide GSM cell coverage in remote areas. The GAPfiller is based on Asterisk and OpenBTS and delivers service to GSM phones independent of mobile carriers. Though the technology would work anywhere, Close-Haul is targeting remote areas to avoid conflicts with major carriers.

Fonolo: Shai Berger presented – and ever since, I’ve been finding numerous sites that can benefit from Fonolo’s services. Fonolo thinks telephone IVR systems and websites don’t need to be totally disparate. Both IVRs and Websites perform various routing services to deliver the guest to the right information – but neither talks to each other. If the guest has navigated through a website and then requires assistance over the phone, why completely restart? Fonolo effectively enables session information to passed between systems. The solution is amazingly simple – like many ideas are – but remains beyond the grasp of so many. Jeff Jenkins presented. Who is going to be the next Twitter? Possibly because they are effectively replicating its service with a telecom twist. Twitter was designed arond SMS – that’s why its limited to 140 characters. But Twitter is a web applications, and SMS isn’t a big part of its base. Ironically, there are a lot more cell phones than desktops and both cell phones and SMS continues to grow. wants to turn SMS into a marketing tool – geared around the cell phone as the primary client. The idea is marketing campaigns can be implemented with either lists or via keyword responders that deliver information directly and cost effectively over SMS.

It was so nice to feel this innovative startup spirit alive at an industry conference. The transition from digital to VoIP was not as disruptive as many predicted. But now that VoIP is here, the real possibilities are arriving – a wave of new products and services are transforming the industry. No assumption (albeit dialtone makes sense, T1s are cost effective, long distance is expensive, whatever) can be assumed to be true any more. The industry is about to deliver new services ranging from visual communications to location-based solutions that were either incomprehensible a few years ago or promised and unfulfilled for decades.

It reminds me a bit of the movie Jurassic Park. The film broke special effects barriers by using technology that was not available when filming began. With the innovative mind, cloud based platform services, and web APIs, entire services can be created in the time it took to dial Grandma on a rotary phone. Please hold for innovation (but not for long).