Snapshot of a Tipping Point: Ontela Teams Up with T-Mobile to Deliver Photos Online

Seattle mobile startup Ontela is announcing today that its photo-sending service for camera phones is now available through T-Mobile, via a partnership with the photo-sharing website Photobucket. The news comes on the heels of Ontela’s software going live on Verizon Wireless phones in November (also through Photobucket), as well as being pre-installed on four of the top five handset manufacturers—Nokia, Motorola, Samsung, and LG—as of last month.

Together, these deals could represent a tipping point for Ontela, which in the past year has been signing up wireless carriers and social websites en masse in an effort to become a mainstream service for sending and uploading pictures from mobile devices. Its software automatically sends photos from your camera phone to your e-mail inbox, computer, or photo-sharing site. Ontela sells its software to wireless carriers, who in turn bundle and sell the service to subscribers as part of a monthly package. The company was formed in 2005 and is backed by some $15 million in venture funding from Steamboat Ventures, Oak Investment Partners, Hunt Ventures, Voyager Capital, and Eastven Venture Partners.

To get the story behind the T-Mobile deal, I visited Ontela CEO Dan Shapiro at his company’s digs in the historic Smith Tower in Pioneer Square. We strolled up to the famed “Chinese Room” on the 35th floor, which is filled with intricately carved decorations and wood furniture, a gift from the Empress of China to tycoon L.C. Smith. The outdoor deck gave us a great view of downtown Seattle, Elliott Bay, and the surrounding mountains (that day was a bit drizzly, though). Back in the office, Shapiro gave me a demo in which he installed the photo-uploading software on a random phone in about a minute, took a picture, and e-mailed it to me. Most other mobile applications are “freaking impossible to install,” he pointed out.

The T-Mobile deal brings the total number of carriers offering Ontela’s software to 30, Shapiro said. All the top handset manufacturers except for Apple now offer the service, and this is the first time it’s available on smartphones and BlackBerries. No Android G1 yet, though—and apparently the iPhone is not a very good fit for Ontela. Nevertheless, Shapiro said, “We’re really excited. About half of U.S. subscribers can get our service now.” He added that T-Mobile’s subscriber demographics are a really good match with Ontela. “T-Mobile users take a lot of pictures,” he said. “With the launch of their new applications store, they’re poised to do amazing things with this product.”

Shapiro also told me about how the latest deal came about. “It took two and a half years of having thoughtful conversations with carriers about what’s important to them,” he said. “‘Here’s what we think you’re doing, and here’s how we think we can help move the needle on your business.'” Whether it’s reducing costs or providing a service that customers really want, Shapiro said, a deep understanding of the carriers’ needs is crucial. “Listening as well as telling—that’s important. ‘Here’s how we can help you build your business.’ That takes a long time.”

Lastly, I asked Shapiro whether the close proximity of T-Mobile’s headquarters (Bellevue, WA) played any role in the deal-making. He replied that the key meetings actually took place outside the Seattle area—typically at big wireless conferences in places like Las Vegas, San Francisco, and Barcelona.

It reminded him of how he originally met venture capitalist Tom Huseby, the mobile guru who is chairman of Ontela’s board. It was February 2006, and they were all in Barcelona for a 3GSM World Congress meeting. Just milling around, Shapiro happened to spot Huseby’s nametag on his shirt and introduced himself. The two hit it off, and Shapiro ended up giving Huseby a photo-uploading demo. Having their first meeting in Barcelona was kind of funny, seeing as Huseby’s office was just a couple blocks away from Ontela. But it fits with the notion that in the mobile world, it doesn’t matter where you are, as long as you have a connection.

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