Text Any Business: 5 Questions with TalkTo CEO Stuart Levinson

In case you’ve ever wondered why you can’t text stores and businesses the way you text your friends, well, you can.

TalkTo, a Cambridge, MA-based startup, has been working on the problem for a couple of years now. And this week the company rolled out a Web app that works similarly to its mobile apps, letting consumers send text messages asking businesses whether they have a certain item in stock, say, or book an appointment or order takeout. TalkTo works behind the scenes to contact the business via SMS, chat, e-mail, or phone call, and then makes sure the consumer gets a response via text.

TalkTo came out of stealth mode at TechCrunch’s Disrupt conference in San Francisco last year. It raised a $3 million Series A round from Matrix Partners in early 2012. The big idea is to change how people communicate and interact with businesses—no more phone calls, for starters.

I caught up with TalkTo’s co-founder and CEO, Stuart Levinson, to ask him about the business of texting businesses. Levinson (pictured below) previously founded Venetica, an enterprise content integration company, back in the 1990s and sold it to IBM in 2004 (where he served as vice president of content search and discovery for a couple years).

Here’s a transcript of our chat via e-mail:

Xconomy: What was the genesis of TalkTo, and how has your product evolved to this point?

Stuart Levinson: We spent almost a year brainstorming ways to make communication more spontaneous. At first, we thought about the challenges of communicating with people around us when something surprising happens. It was a fun and interesting challenge, but we began to realize that communication was evolving in very different ways.

Communicating with friends was simple: type in a name and send a message. But getting answers to daily questions like “Do you have it?”, “Can I book it?”, and “Are you open Saturday morning?” most often required phone calls and waiting on hold. So we were no longer talking on the phone with our friends, but we’d hold to talk with strangers! So we had this crazy idea that we would make it possible to send a text message to any business in America, as easily as you text your friend.

X: How big a business is this? How do you make money, and do you see expanding into other services (marketing, rewards, etc.)?

SL: Every time someone calls a business is an opportunity for TalkTo! Transforming consumer-to-business communication from a call-based model to a text-based model is a big opportunity. We have no plans to expand into other areas right now. We just want to be the easiest way to connect with any business.

Revenue is not our goal right now. But when we look at how people are using TalkTo—to find products, book appointments, get reservations—we’re confident there are good paths to revenue.

X: I saw a report that said people are texting less for the first time. Are you sure SMS is the right medium for consumers?

SL: The takeaway from that report isn’t that people don’t like texting. There were trillions of text messages sent between friends and family in the U.S. last year. It’s that smartphone apps such as Apple’s Messages, GroupMe, etc. that send texts over IP rather than SMS are eating into SMS usage. We are part of the trend that’s causing decreased SMS usage. The vast majority of our messages go over IP, not SMS.

X: How do you get enough businesses to sign up? Is that the biggest challenge?

SL: We have challenges, but that’s not a particularly big one for us since businesses don’t have to sign up for TalkTo to work. Our biggest challenge is making people aware this is even possible. The first inclination is to pick up the phone and call. We’d rather the first inclination be “Why would I call when I can text?”

Many people just think it’s not possible to send a message to ANY business in America for free, but we’ve been focused on this for a couple years now. We’ve figured out how to make it possible, and we want everyone to try it out. Communicating with businesses to let them know how they can customize their communication preferences is important, but it’s not as urgent since tens of millions of businesses are already available on the platform.

X: What lessons do you apply from Venetica and IBM?

SL: I learned a ton from that experience. What it takes to build early teams, how to stay focused even when it seems ridiculous! At Venetica, we pioneered a new way for organizations to simplify how they connected to information, and in the early days it was daunting. A few years later it became an essential part of IBM’s vision, too, so they acquired the company. Here too we’re doing something brand new, so knowing how to be patient is something I took away from the earlier experience. In the early days, our friends would say, “You can’t do that!” and now they’re saying, “Of course you should be able to text a business!” Getting to that point from an early idea is so much fun it’s hard to describe.

I also want to give a nod to my co-founder, Riley Crane, and the team. Being surrounded by people that share the vision and seeing them bring their own great ideas and skills is what makes new ventures possible. I guess that was another lesson from Venetica… surrounding yourself with amazing people is the surest way to find success.

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