Bringing Order to the Address Book, Sensobi Targets Underserved Blackberry Mobile App Customers
You’ve been scrolling through your phone’s address book for minutes now just to find the coworker you call the most. Because his name falls at the end of the alphabet, he’s buried behind dozens of other entries, many of whom you probably haven’t called in years. Shouldn’t a smart phone be smarter about managing your contacts?
Enter Sensobi, a BlackBerry application that organizes your address book by analyzing who you talk to most and alerting you to the people you’re ignoring. Developed by a Cambridge-based startup of the same name—derived from a Zen term signifying simplicity and harmony—Sensobi tracks how many times users have called, texted, or e-mailed a person and assigns varying points to the different forms of communication. Lengthier phone calls score more points than brief chats, too.
“We realized your phone knows more about you than anything else does,” says CEO Ajay Kulkarni, 30, referring to his and co-founder Andy Cheung’s inspiration for using a mobile phone to reconstruct and understand personal and professional relationships.
The people with the most points appear at the top of the Sensobi address book, regardless of alphabetical order. Sensobi links content from text messages and e-mails to contacts’ names, so never again will you be left dumb when your boss asks you on the phone if you’ve seen his most recent message to you. “It helps you save face and facilitates a much richer conversation,” says Kulkarni, a 2008 graduate of MIT’s Sloan School of Management.
It all started when Kulkarni wanted to find a way to make sense of the different business cards and phone numbers he had collected from classes, conferences, and past jobs, which included a stint as a bond analyst at Citigroup and positions at other startup companies. In December 2008, he teamed up with high school friend Cheung, 29, who had been laid off from his job as a developer at Right Media following Yahoo’s acquisition of the online advertising company.
They opted to design their application for RIM’s BlackBerry—the phone Kulkarni says “doesn’t get as much love” from developers as its younger, flashier counterparts. There’s truth to his statement. In November, Apple announced that the iTunes App Store had passed the 100,000-app mark. By contrast, the fledgling BlackBerry App World—launched in April—has just 3,000 offerings.
But Sensobi’s creators saw an opportunity in BlackBerry’s loyal and business-oriented consumer base, a group they’ve targeted through Twitter and tech blogs. “They’re starving for apps,” says Kulkarni. And Sensobi, officially incorporated in January 2009, has helped feed them, first with a free application it started offering on its website this summer after several months of development. With months of tweaks and internal improvements to its online version, Sensobi’s finished app hit BlackBerry’s app store around Thanksgiving, selling for $10. A free, test-run version provides a limited analysis of users’ top 10 contacts.
Since its initial rollout this summer, more than 10,000 people have downloaded the Sensobi address book in about 40 different countries, some of which don’t even offer English platforms on their phones, Kulkarni notes. He says he’s confident that using the free version of the address book will incite users to purchase Sensobi in full, especially to unleash its potential in strengthening mobile relationships that have gone cold.
It might be obvious that your business partner would be your top contact in the Sensobi address book, as Cheung, who’s now based in Holland, is in Kulkarni’s. But Sensobi doesn’t just tell you what you already know—it shows you who you’re unintentionally forgetting and offers practical solutions to reconnecting with them.
Users can see the contacts who have obtained few points and set up reminders to call them at regular intervals. They can also tag certain calls for follow-up, assignments that can synch with calendars on other software programs such as Outlook. The notifications are grouped together on a to-do list, a one-stop visualization for those who use the time they’re stuck in line or waiting for a flight to catch up on phone calls. If users fail to keep up with their assignments, the Sensobi address book will brand that contact as falling off users’ radars. (In addition to providing a limited analysis of just your top 10 contacts, the free Sensobi app only lets users hook reminders to those 10 contacts and set calendar appointments a week in advance.)
Sensobi is exploring a possible expansion to the iPhone and Android, as part of its quest to make enough money off the app to fund the company, Kulkarni says. At present, the team is funded by their own savings, friends and family, and a $12,000 infusion from TechStars, a three-month entrepreneurs’ boot camp that accepted Sensobi as part of its inaugural Boston class. Most of the TechStars funding is still in the bank, though, says Kulkarni. He and Cheung—the company’s only employees—don’t yet take salaries. Kulkarni does most of his work out of the nearly empty Alpha Tau Omega fraternity house at MIT, which was vacated following the organization’s expulsion from the school in September. An ATO alum and entrepreneur has since invited Sensobi and a few other startup companies to work alongside him in the house.
Sensobi is also looking to expand the app by incorporating data from users’ social networking sites into the software’s communication analysis. But rather than simply telling you how many “friends” you have, Sensobi seeks to make sense of those connections, whether online or mobile. “What we want to get back to is understanding what your actual social network is—not the one created on Facebook or Twitter, but one that consists only of the people you actually talk to,” says Cheung.