Ringing Endorsement: SimulRing Service Is Just the Thing to Keep You Connected
By Don Hamilton (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Call SimulRing (www.simulring.com) and have a new phone number to handle all your needs within seconds. Try that with your telephone company; it will take them longer to explain what you can't have than it takes for SimulRing to sign you up.
What does SimulRing offer? You get a phone number that you can assign to ring at any phone you want. Better yet, you can assign it to several numbers at the same time.
Suppose you are a doctor and want to receive a phone call from a patient at home or on your cell phone but you don't want them to know your home phone number. Give them the SimulRing number, go online and direct it to ring on your cell and home phone. The call will ring on both lines at once, perhaps as you walk in the door. You grab the home line because it is a better connection. After talking to the patient, you go back online and in 10 seconds transfer all calls to your answering service.
Is that worth $9.95 a month?
Road warriors are bound to be among the biggest users. You won't need a pager and a cell phone anymore. Just redirect calls to where you are going to be. If you are away from your desk, move your line to your cell phone. When you return, swap it back. Unlike so many things that claim to be easy and fast, this is.
What if you have a SOHO (Small Office Home Office) and want to be very connected? SimulRing gives you the ability to always be available. Even if your partner is five blocks away, he or she can answer the call. The first one to pick up the phone gets the call. Your customers will think they are calling an office full of people.
What about an emergency number for your kids? Rather than giving out three numbers, you can simply have them all ring at the same time at the home, office and grandma's house.
A typical service calls each phone in sequential order resulting in a long wait that some might not have the patience for. With SimulRing they all ring at the same time, even long distance (for a 12 cents a minute charge).
We interviewed SimulRing CEO Rob Meldrum to find out more about the business.
WWWiz: What is your background?
Rob: Twenty-one years in telecommunications. Right out of college I started with Ohio Bell telephone. That was in the days before divestiture when AT&T owned almost all the Bell companies. I went through a series of technical training classes with AT&T for about three years and then became an instructor of traffic theory and network design courses. I covered voice network, data network, PBX and central office network design.
I implemented a find-me follow-me technology for Cincinnati Bell that in essence would call one number, then another and then another until it found you. I called the first of 10 of our beta users and every one of them said, `I tried it once and I turned it off.' When I ask them why they said it was because it takes so long to call one number after another. Because I had been in network training, I realized that there was a way to put multiple calls out and then monitor for a pick-up condition. I ended up designing a system for Cincinnati Bell to do just that. It was done on a very expensive piece of equipment within the telephone company.
WWWiz: What kind of education do you have?
Rob: This will blow you away. I have bachelor's in English literature. The guy who actually wrote our software has a master's in electrical engineering as well as an MBA. He was with Bell Labs.
WWWiz: Who else helped with the technical development for the company?
Rob: A very good friend of mine called me one day and said his wife just got transferred to Japan, that his company was keeping him on to manage software projects and he had some downtime during the day. He suggested we try to redesign my simultaneous ring service so that it could be outside the telephone company network. He and I sat down and mapped out how we technically could make that happen, we bought a bunch of computer hardware and sent him off to Japan. Two years later in September of 1999, we had a working prototype. We had beta service in April of 2000. We had five 9's of reliability and paying customers by August of 2000.
WWWiz: What do you bring to the table?
Rob: I bring an understanding of the technology but I also understand what people want. Here are some of the things I brought. I can tell you the things you don't want to do. Here's how you can really make things difficult to understand and hard to sell. We stripped all those things out and what we have is this thing that is really easy to understand and really easy to use and service. We find out that once customers are on for about 48 hours, we never get support calls. The most common support call we get is ``I forgot my password."
WWWiz: How did you get financing and how much did you need to get the company going.
Rob: We raised a million dollars in angel and friends and family money. It started as an amazing thing with a friend of a friend who had started other businesses. This was before the crash. I was introduced to him and asked him for the name of a lawyer so that I could incorporate the company. He started asking me about the business plan and I e-mailed him a copy that day. He had me over for breakfast and said, ``I will write you a check for this much money on the agreement that you quit your job and do this full time." I had a difficult decision because I had to walk away from a 21-year career with five weeks of vacation and all that. My wife said, ``Would you just do it?" She was fantastic through the whole thing. I called up my folks and they said they were so glad I was doing this that they sent me a check. Theirs was one of the smaller ones but it was great that they supported us. We talked to friends of mine and friends of my wife and with that we got to a million dollars.
WWWiz: Are you still operating on that million?
Rob: Yes, as a mater of fact we are. We won the Investors Choice Award at the Upside Showcase in Palm Springs and through that publicity and some contacts here we have developed a short list of VCs we are talking to. The slaughter that took out a lot of companies made the VCs a little skittish but at the same time there is money waiting to be invested in the right business model. The first couple of angels we talked to before the slaughter were really big into the idea of giving away the business and selling advertising. We really resisted that because I knew how much the service would cost and didn't want to be on the hook for providing free service to five million people. We don't have freeloaders on the system. It is populated with business people who really want and need to use the system. That helped us enormously with the usability of the service early on. It was a smart move on our part and we don't have 10 millions users yet but everyone we have is paying for the service.
WWWiz: How much of the company did you have to give away for a million dollars?
Rob: I can't say how much but basically we did warrant coverage. At this point we have not determined the exact percentage of the angels because we don't have VC money yet. It's going to turn out not to be a terribly big percentage of the company.
WWWiz: Under a quarter?
Rob: Yes. We told the first investors that we would set the value when a professional investor comes in. Their warrant means that they are buying more shares for their money than the second-round investor will. Our pitch was that we are going to protect you. These are people that we are going to have to sit down at Thanksgiving dinner with.
What we were really betting on at the time was that we were going to make this work and it was going to be successful and derive a decent valuation in our first round of funding. In fact knock on wood we haven't done the deal yet but it looks like we are going to be able to get a reasonable evaluation on the company because we have a proven working model and we are selling the services today with paying customers onboard. It is a very different kind of sale then when two guys approach a VC with a great idea but nothing that works yet.
WWWiz: Would you become profitable even without another round of funding?
Rob: Because of our startup costs we would need some amount of funding just to keep the lights on say five or six months from now. However if we wanted to stop with the seven markets that we are in, we already have verbal commitments for angels even if we don't get the VC money. Either way we will become profitable in all seven markets. Our current projections are that we will be profitable in these seven markets before the end of the year.
WWWiz: What are your seven markets?
Rob: Seattle, San Francisco Bay area, Los Angeles, Orange County, San Diego, Dallas and New York City. Two of the seven markets are well on their way to profitability. In the others we are currently establishing retail agreements that will take us to profitability before the end of the year based on the sales results we have had in the other markets.
WWWiz: How many employees do you have?
Rob: We are right around 10 employees.
WWWiz: What is the division in percentage between technical and sales/management?
Rob: I would say 60/40 with the larger part technical.
WWWiz: How many customers do you have?
Rob: Because of our NDAs (nondisclosure agreements) I am not allowed to divulge our total numbers. It's in the multiple thousands so far. We have a sizable customer base for such a young company.
WWWiz: How do you handle corporate customers? Do they get something different?
Rob: No. They go right onto our site and sign up individually. They do get a bank of numbers in sequence. Someone would look at a stack of business cards and all those numbers would be in a series. We don't have to discount because most of our competitors are not capable of doing simultaneous ringing. The one competitor that is doing it charges a nickel a minute for service. Where we have priced our service we don't need to discount.
WWWiz: What other services do you offer today?
Rob: We also have a service called SimulPage that allows you to get rid of your pager and get all your paging messages to your cell phone. So we include a touch-tone interface system that will send your pages to your cell phone. It eliminates one device that you would normally have to pay for and carry around. We also offer a stand-alone voice mail system that is not associated with one of your phone numbers so you can eliminate the call forwarding charge that you normally have to put on a phone line.
WWWiz: How do I change my phone targets if I can't get online at the moment?
Rob: Right now we offer Internet access and WAP access and in about two months we will be offering a telephone service that you call and talk to a live person and they will make the change for you.
WWWiz: Will you automate that system?
Rob: When I was with Cincinnati Bell, we deployed an IVR type solution for this purpose and even with a great design it ends up being a very clunky interface. It ends up taking a number of minutes to get through the thing and it tends to frustrate people. We have decided to make it easy. If for some reason you have a new phone number you want to put in and you don't have access to the Internet, we will provide a live person who will get the transaction done in 30 seconds.
WWWiz: What kind of patents do you have to protect yourself?
Rob: We have multiple patents on our so-called intellectual property. We have several umbrella patents that cover a dozen technical areas. Our approach has been to patent the actual solutions to problems we have encountered and then fixed on the way to getting the product working. It is interesting because what we have done is a step beyond the patents that are out there. We are in very solid shape in terms of the patents. We anticipate six to 12 months from now having those patents granted.
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