I’m often asked about how I come up with various business concepts and take them to market. Here’s a bit about how Your Private Line dot com came into existence…
After selling ITG I was most certainly not ready to retire and live on a beach. I wanted to create a new business. Although this time around I was in a precarious situation. The terms of ITG’s sale restricted me from competing with my previous company for 3 years. If If I was going to start a new business I had to come up with something new.
I sat in my office with a flip chart and started to think about the type of business I could create. I approached problem in the same way I would approach any problem. I started by making a list of things I could do. Then a list of things I thought I could sell. Then a list of things my previous company did.
Reality really set in when it hit me that my previous company basically did everything I can do! This was good when I ran ITG, but not so good when I can’t compete with them. Fortunately I do not take no for an answer. I knew there was a business waiting to be created. I just had to unearth it…
As I continued to refine the lists the solution surfaced. I could create a dot com business that provided sophisticated telephone system capabilities without customers needing to purchase costly phone system hardware. I had most of the skills needed to build the business and it would circumvent my non-compete agreement. ITG sold tons of phone systems, but we were not a phone company. We also built numerous ecommerce sites, but we were not a dot com. At that moment the concept of my telephony ASP was born!
As I’ve said in earlier posts, Invention is easy. Innovation is the hard part. I just drew the floating city in the sky (Invention/concept). Now I had to build a commercially viable business, which requires a business & marketing plan, logo, stationary, a website, sales material, payroll & accounting systems, business cards, federal tax ID, carrier grade data centers, capable employees, etc. in addition to actually creating the product (Innovation)!
To kick off the innovation step I did extensive market research. I had what I believed to be a good idea, but I needed to validate it as well as figure out exactly what I had to build. I interviewed everyone I knew and quickly discovered that most wanted advanced telephony capabilities (e.g. unified messaging, voice over IP, IVR, speech recognition, computer telephony integration, call logging, disaster recovery, follow-me calling, auto attendants, multi-language support, etc.), but they did not want to spend the millions required to build these services in-house.
We ran into issues like this with ITG all of the time. Every customer wanted everything, but when it came down to the wire they weren’t willing to pay what it took to get it.
When I concluded my interviews I was ecstatic. I validated that I was on the right track. Virtually everyone I met was quite comfortable with the concept of paying a monthly fee for access to advanced telephony capabilities.
The ITG business model was based on direct sales. You have to work non stop to keep “filling the sales funnel” in a direct marketing business. Accordingly, many of our projects were multimillion dollar engagements that took months to close. Monthly recurring fee businesses like YPL are nice because you have predictable cash flow. These are “Make Money While You Sleep” types of businesses.
I won’t go into all of the details it took to build the business here, but suffice of to say it was quite a lot of work. I had to create product road map, user interface (UI), construct the first datacenter, launch the website and hire developers to write millions of lines of code! I launched phase I of YPL approximately 6 months after conceiving it. The business was an overnight success. We had users throughout the world and a few out of it (NASA was one of our clients).
Although the business idea was very well received, marketing was what got it off of the ground so quickly. I used some of the tricks I learned when running a direct sales business to drive customers to us. We had thousands of unique website landing pages that were optimized to route targeted traffic to us (search engine optimization), we blasted the airways with commercials in key markets and I did a numerous media interviews.
Here’s a link to a Feb 2001 in Business First article that had a good overview of the business (All Lines Routed This Way). It’s fun reading this article now. It had quotes in it from me about voice over IP (VOIP) being a new technology!
Here’s one of our radio commercials that targeted small businesses and dot com’s. We were spoofing Auto Attendants in this one:
What I am most proud of is that the YPL business model was truly leading edge. We launched the worlds first web-based PBX system. We preceded Vonage, Skype, softphones, Avaya, Cisco, etc. How cool is that?