Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
We provide call forwarding services and virtual phone numbers for businesses. We help companies in the financial services industry, travel & hospitality, healthcare & pharmaceuticals, and e-commerce communicate with their customers around the world.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I grew up in Marseille, France, and moved to the US for school when I was 18. After graduating from school, I worked for Banque Nationale de Paris in their Houston, TX office, before getting my MBA from NYU Stern School of Business.
At the time, I was in my third job in financial controls and analysis but wasn’t happy with that. I was frustrated working financial analysis jobs and decided I wanted to be independent.
I read an article in the Wall Street Journal about the “international callback industry”. Small US entrepreneurs were selling this service abroad mainly through networks of independent agents. The article mentioned it was a fast-growing segment. They also pointed out small barriers to entry (no large dominant player, relatively low upfront capital investments). And I figured my international background and being trilingual gave me some relative advantage.
Before following up on this idea, I looked into starting an educational learning (EdTech) company and put a small ad with no product to sell to test the idea. But then I saw an ad in the WSJ opportunities section that offered to sell the equipment for a callback business. I responded to the ad and received a pretty cool “tutorial” on the business along with an offer to buy equipment.
From that point, I started researching other equipment vendors as well as bulk international call minutes wholesalers.
I did not know telecommunications whatsoever, but when I got really serious about this idea, I reached out to the telco director of the company I was working for. He helped me decipher the “tutorial” and proposal I had received from the equipment vendor.
I had never worked with a database before, so I had to pick up an MS Access for Dummies book when I took delivery of the equipment. I was also told that the invoicing component was not ready and I had to build something on my own.
I also reached out to my brother in France to ask him if he would be interested in becoming an independent agent for me; I ended up gaining a partner. I also reached out to other international friends but neither gained any agents nor other partners.
The idea was not unique since I got it from an article touting the explosive growth of the industry. The idea that I could sell the service by reaching out to friends and family and developing a network like this was obviously naive and I found out quickly, so I built a website on Compuserve and joined forums that were marketplace of the industry, and I also found international publications where competitors were advertising so I just copied them.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
After reviewing the hardware/software offering from the WSJ advertiser, I found a computer telephony show in LA. There I met several vendors offering similar equipment and software for equipment and software.
We go above and beyond to keep our current customers happy so that hopefully they’ll achieve great success with our services and remain customers for a long time.
Only after I had paid in full for the package when I got delivery, I found out that the invoicing module was not ready so I had to create my first invoices with Excel and then started learning the basics of MS Access to create an invoicing system.
I created my pricing from reviewing my competitors’ offers and created a basic independent agent agreement from a combination of several competitor agreements.
Describe the process of launching the business.
My brother and I each put $55,000; half of that amount was used as a deposit with our first vendor of minutes and the rest was used for working capital. We financed our equipment which was about $30,000 at the time with a lease from Bank Of America.
I started advertising in Compuserve forums and my brother started cold calling businesses in France where he was based. After a few months, I started putting ads in Jeune Afrique, Asia Business, and Newsweek International Edition. Newsweek ended up being our best source of business (clients and independent agents) for quite a few years.
May 1999 – not our first website, but the first website URL uwtcallback.com (after our CompuServe website)
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
I emphasized call quality very early on. Call completion percentages were extremely important to us, so I resisted implementing unattended, untested, and unproven route changes. To support quality, I also focused on only using the big-name carriers.
Customer service is also a major focus for us. We go above and beyond to keep our current customers happy so that hopefully they’ll achieve great success with our services and remain customers for a long time.
Our number one marketing tool is Google Ads followed by SEO work and then direct email marketing and LinkedIn prospecting. We tried expos a few times in the past but could never figure out how to make those successful.
We tried to sell roaming SIM cards on Amazon for our foray into International Roaming but this business was never successful.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
We have been profitable since the second year of operation and we now serve more than 2,000 business customers worldwide.
When we started, we sold a lot through independent agents which helped us gain a worldwide clientele without a physical presence besides France and the US initially. The France office was closed many years ago and we have had a sales office in Thailand for the last 4 years or so. We also have some of our customer support staff in Peru.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
One of the best things about starting this business is that I have met many great people. Like my COO, Bulent Erkaya has been with me for the last 17 years and has been running most day to day operations for the last few years.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
Some of our newest products are built with Asterisk and WebRTC. We also use Spearline to place in-country test calls to numbers that we provide from other countries.
Where can we go to learn more?
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