John Lauer would like to see Queen Anne and Magnolia become the first completely text-enabled neighborhoods. “It would be so fun to just run the experiment and see what happens,” he said.
So to make his dreams a reality, Lauer is offering his startup Zip Whip’s services for free to Queen Anne and Magnolia for the next six months.
Zip Whip (190 Queen Anne Ave. N.) started in 2007. Its technology allows land and toll-free phone lines to send and receive SMS (Short Message Service) texts.
Texting has become fundamental, but it’s not perfect: Not all phones can talk to each other. Lauer wants to be able to text his order into Pagliacci Pizza or text the attendance officer at Catharine-Blaine K-8 School to let her know his daughter is sick.
“If you really start looking at it, almost everything we do and interact with, somehow texting could make it better,” he said.
This isn’t Lauer’s first startup. His previous startup, which he started in Michigan, helped invent short code, like the five-digit number you text to vote on reality shows. That startup also created Twitter’s first short code. When it sold, he moved to Seattle to help with the transition for a year.
Lauer figured he’d do his year here and then move onto San Francisco. He loved the tech scene in Seattle so much that he decided to stay and create Zip Whip. And he’s stuck with texting.
“I really do believe texting is one of the most brilliant communication mediums that we have in our human arsenal now,” he said.
As needs change
The lower Queen Anne company has 20 employees among management, engineers, a small sales team and a social media, customer-support person.
Zip Whip’s economy package is $19.95 a month; the business package is $100 a month. Both come with unlimited texting and basic services, but the business package offers more specialization features. Signing up for Zip Whip doesn’t require any hardware or porting the line over. The company can activate a phone in less than 10 minutes. Customers can then respond from any text-enabled device, like a computer.
Zip Whip has 10 different industries where the product is doing well. The primary ones are businesses that work with people under age 35, because that’s the demographic that is texting the most. Repair shops, salons and doctors are using the service to notify their customers. Radio stations, like local C89.5 FM (KNHC), use it so people can text in song requests.
There are also some Queen Anne companies who use the service, like Supertooth Dentistry, Uptown China Restaurant and a few others. Zip Whip has 8 million mobile users and 3 million landlines and toll-free lines activated, Lauer said.
Plum Bistro inside the Seattle Amory (305 Harrison St.) plans to start using Zip Whip. Manager Jaclyn Wagner said that with the cafe’s awkward location and people’s 30-minute lunch breaks, it will help when customers can text in their order before they walk over to get it.
Plum Bistro has already started testing it out, and it was a “really positive experience,” Wagner said. The technology was too strong for its system, though, so Wagner’s waiting to get an iPad before she officially makes the switch.
Small- and medium-sized businesses are the target audience. Mom-and-pop shops have had the same phone number for decades, and it’s not likely they’d want to change to a cell phone. But small businesses are nimble, and they “can change like that,” Lauer said, snapping his fingers.
As valuable ‘as water’
Getting permission from all the major phone companies was a big challenge. Zip Whip is half-tech company, half-policy company, Lauer said: “We just spend a lot of energy working with the telecom industry.”
Getting texts onto landlines isn’t a technology problem so much as it’s an “industry policy problem,” Lauer said: “If there’s not somebody going out there pounding the pavement or lobbying the industry...that stuff doesn’t change.”
Some people have made the predictions that landlines are on their way out. Lauer thinks phone numbers are too fundamental and so landlines aren’t going anywhere.
“We love our mobile phones because we’re mobile. Businesses aren’t,” he said. “So, to me, it’s fundamental that businesses are going to need to speak the new language.”
Only about 5 percent of Zip Whip’s business comes from Seattle. Sales director Mike Vandenbos would like to see our high-tech town take on this technology.
Startups are brutal, and even though Seattle has a strong startup community where techies can commiserate together, it’s difficult, Lauer said. Lauer gets naysayers, even from within the tech community, who tell him texting is an old technology.
“You really have to stick to your guns, and it’s really hard sometimes,” he said. “You have really smart people saying, ‘Texting is going to go away,’ and you’re saying... ‘No, it’s not. It’s now as fundamental as water.’”
For more information on Zip Whip, visit www.zipwhip.com or call or text (855) ZIPWHIP.
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