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Original Article

Big Company Sound, Small Company Feel

In her column the other day Paula Bernier of New Telephony posed the question, “What’s Really New in VoIP?” That was my thought exactly after trolling through recent “news.”

Skype has a new Internet video service. It brings validation to the net as a platform for video, but it’s news because it’s Skype.

In the race to zero, FuturePhone is offering free VoIP calls to 50 countries until 2010. SunRocket’s offering once cent a minute calls to Asia. Nice if you have overseas relatives.

Yet another service is offering WiFi VoIP calls on cell phones. VoIP Service Blog has an item about using your Nintendo DS for VoIP calls. Nimbuzz is offering a new IM service on mobile phones.

And despite oceans of ink spilled on the Apple iPhone, nobody has actually used or even touched one.

About the juiciest news lately was Talkplus’ ShadowNumber calling service, designed to accommodate your secret life - the one your spouse doesn’t know about. Now, maybe I’m a cynic, but I confess to being skeptical that grownups are shocked, shocked that VoIP is being put in the service of illicit liaisons.

Five years ago, of course, all of this would be headline news. Today it’s not even novelty.

But just because new breakthroughs aren’t bursting on the scene daily, doesn’t mean that there aren’t significant developments in telephony. Take for example, GotVMail of Weston, MA. The start-up company has skyrocketed to 35,000 customers of its small business virtual phone system in three years using analog telephony technology.

It’s an interesting mix of marketing with old and new technology.

Tellingly, the company doesn’t call its service a hosted PBX, which it closely resembles. GotVMail isn’t about making phone calls. It’s about having a professional “voice” when customers call regardless of what you’re using to answer the call. The company’s tag line is “Give your small business a big company sound.”

It’s a good example of understanding what customers get from any product isn’t the elegance of the technology - too often lost in the high tech world. It’s the value they get in terms of doing business smarter, cheaper or better. In other words, more profitably.

The value in this case is having a reliable “big company” phone system that sounds professional, routes calls to the right person, and lets people stay connected on the road. Hence, the choice of analog technology.

“Calls go over the PSTN to our data center which is full of tried and true analog technology,” explains David Powers GotVMail’s VP of Communications and self-described chief cook and bottle washer. “In the telecom business part of what customers are buying into is an expectation that when you pick up the phone anywhere you have a dial tone.”

The company’s business grew from founders Siamak Taghaddos’ and David Hauser’s own experiences with phone systems in startup companies.

“All of these [problems] had to do with putting network infrastructure in place,” explains Powers. “Both found out what it’s like being a small entrepreneur trying to get an issue resolved with a Verizon. It’s like the Lily Tomlin joke, ‘we don’t have to, we’re the phone company.’”

GotVMail is not just delivering phone service. It’s delivering a phone service uniquely tailored to small and home-based businesses.

“We see ourselves as entrepreneurs serving entrepreneurs,” Powers continues. “We tell people if there’s a more cost-effective way of doing business with us. When was the last time Verizon called you and said, ‘Let me save you money?’”

The guiding principal of GotVMail’s design is that small businesses have “infinitely finite resources,” explains Power. “The platform is built from the ground up for small business. We weren’t an enterprise telecom company going down market.

“We don’t want them to have to buy anything except our service,” he continues. “So what we set out to do is make our technology talk to anything - landlines, cell phones, PDAs, smart phones. We’re technology-agnostic.”

Why not a VoIP system? “I like what VoIP does for me, but I don’t want to spend $189 for every phone,” answers Powers.

GotVMail’s service looks to be a competitor for Grand Central. In fact GotVMail is seeing a lot of transferred numbers coming from the service, Powers reports. But while Grand Central is a solution for the individual, GotVMail is a solution for business.

Being in GotVMail’s target demographic myself as a one-person office, I decided to try out the service myself.

You sign up on the website with a credit card. You can transfer an existing number, get a new number or request a ‘vanity” number. Alas, 1-800-CAR-OLYN was not available. So I went with an assigned 877 number.

Calling plans start at $10 plus per-minute charges that range from $0.048 to $0.074. You get 10 to 20 extensions with each plan and can add new extensions in groups of five for $10 a month. The average GotVMail customer pays $30 to $40 a month total, reports Powers.

The service comes with a slew of built-in PBX features like extension transfer, after hours calling mode, and music-on-hold. Additional features like dial-by-name and information extensions are also available at a $5 to $10 charge. You can forward calls to up to six different numbers.

GotVMail has an online manual that steps you through setting up your account. Account and extension management can be done through a Web browser or the phone. The Web interface is simple and intuitive and has a nice flow tree that shows you where you are in the process.

Using the phone keypad to configure an extension is, well, no more complicated than any other telephone system. And with GotVMail’s clear diagrams and spoken instructions to help you along, at least you don’t have to squint over mouse type in a printed instruction book.

I can attest to the fact that the system is well designed for its targeted audience of small and home-based businesses like eBay “power sellers.” From start to finish, setting up my account took 19 minutes, including time for a do-over after making a mistake.