The phone number is probably one of the most important identifying numbers in your life — it's how people reach out and get in touch with you outside of Facebook, Google, and whatnot. But the landline phone number, especially for small businesses, has basically gone nowhere in years.
That's where NumberAI and Tasso Roumeliotis' team come in. The company launched to build a system that allows small businesses to connect their landline numbers digitally and interact with them in a lot of the same ways consumers expect today. When you text a number, for example, you expect that the recipient will see that text — and not that it goes into the void. That's where the system starts, and NumberAI adds additional tools on top of that. The company also said it has raised $1.6 million in a seed financing round from Draper Fisher Jurvetson.
"We thought busienss was a very nascent spacious area to be exploited," Roumeliotis said. "What we're looking to do is redefine that small business phone number. Whether it's landline or mobile, we want to make it a more rich experience. Think of it as an AI receptionist. We are going to work with the telecoms as the distribution partner for us."
The second benefit that Roumeliotis expects to see soon is Google and Apple starting to add phone numbers in search results, like Maps, that allow customers to text those places directly. So, for example, if someone looked up a bar in the area and saw one they liked, they could text that number to see if the bar has a certain beer in stock. That text then goes through like a normal text and is routed onto NumberAI's service, which helps employees address it or set up bots to communicate with customers.
Roumeliotis hopes to sidestep the difficulty of acquiring customers by working through phone providers that are already giving businesses a phone number. Small businesses can get access to some of the basic features that NumberAI can provide, while telecoms are able to tell their customers that they are getting an additional suite of tools to go with their business phone number. If all goes well and NumberAI drastically helps their businesses, they may want to start buying more premium products.
Still, something like this might end up with problems related to spam — or getting employees on board with dealing with an inbox and not jumping on the phone. But some situations, like calling at 10 a.m. to place an order for a bowl of mac and cheese, might make more sense to go through online. There would be a higher volume because the barrier to communication would be coming down, but that's also where auto-responders and smart replies come in through NumberAI in order to manage that new influx of information.
It's an area that's probably going to be of intense interest for messaging companies, like WhatsApp, which will look to court small businesses and get them to use WhatsApp as their core communications platform. There are also other tools like Zipwhip which have raised a lot of venture financing. But acquiring customers outside of telecoms, and bringing them online, can be a very costly process, Roumeliotis said. Even when you go door to door to acquire those customers and they actually do come online, it will take a long time before the actualizes the value that it spent acquiring that customer.
"WhatsApp is not really a big player in the US, and Facebook Messenger is but only for certain interactions," Roumeliotis said. "But if you're on your iPhone and you're iMessaging, and you have friends that are on Android, the connector — that independent connector — is the phone number. While you have folks like Apple who would obviously want to be the center of the universe, you still need the phone number to connect. That business phone number is the lifeline to their customers. They would never give that up. We see much more resistance in giving that up."