Boston-based Pingup Sees Text-to-Business Service as Productivity Tool

8/13/12Follow @xconomy

If you’re worried about the decline of personal interactions, here’s a scary fact: 71 percent of teens prefer texting to phone calls.

That’s what the founders of Boston-based Pingup tell me, citing the social media market research firm Lab 42. And that’s good news for them.

“There’s irrefutable evidence out there that this is how they want to communicate—and we’re trying to make it so they can do it with businesses,” says CEO Mark Slater, who I caught up with earlier this month alongside his co-founder and CTO Milenko Beslic.

Looking to find out more about the local auto dealer’s inventory? Or make your next hair appointment? Or order a pizza? Pingup’s software allows you to shoot those questions off from your phone without having to open your mouth. (Of course, teens aren’t making some of these bigger purchases, but Pingup is betting adults are just as eager to avoid being put on hold.)

Widespread consumer-to-business texting sounds simple enough. So why hasn’t it happened yet?

“Timing,” says Slater. “That’s kind of a cliché term with startups. But a lot of it is timing. The timing for this is now; I don’t think it was three years ago. People are so comfortable texting. The generations that are now in their 20s—Gen Y—these people are text maniacs. It’s the right time for this to be adopted on mass scale.”

Slater has a bit of insight into Gen Y, as one of the founding members of Karmaloop, the Boston-based online retailer of streetwear that appeals largely to the teen and twenty-something crowd.

But while Pingup’s service has the potential for making life easier for consumers, the company sees businesses as its true customers. Ultimately, the software isn’t just designed to make it easier for people not to talk to each other. It’s also supposed to make it more efficient for businesses to run.

“It’s not as simple as the business just receiving the text message—we have to think about it through lens of user management,” Slater says. “How do I integrate this into standard operational procedures in the way that’s its not a distraction, but so that it becomes a standard productivity tool for me.” The first text to a business is sent with a message from Pingup, but as the number increases, the system routes it to a Web interface enabling employees to better handle the volume of communications.

Consumers can search out businesses through a directory on Pingup’s mobile app, and click a button to text. The start startup will soon roll out a feature that lets businesses handle the communication through iPhone and Android apps.

Further down the line, it plans to enable businesses to receive consumer texts through e-mail, Twitter feeds, and a tablet app, as well as integrate other functions like mobile payments—useful when consumers are texting to order takeout, for example.

For now it’s enlisting smaller, local businesses across a spectrum of industries. But Pingup sees its service supplementing communications tools for much bigger brands. It’s in discussion with a retail chain that wants to get 5,000 employees using the service, Slater says.

Last month the startup announced it raised $1 million in seed funding, from Avalon Ventures and angel investors (including Karmaloop founder and CEO Greg Selkoe). That cash will go towards building out Pingup’s multi-seat capabilities for businesses that want several employees answering customer’s texts, and want to re-route the conversation to the employees who are on duty.

Pingup has to work to make consumers aware of its service, particularly in a sea of other apps for browsing nearby businesses, such as Yelp. But the real value comes after the moment of discovery, when the customer wants to make contact.

“There’s the obvious challenge to promote the application and the marketing effort to let people know they can now use Pingup to chat with businesses. That’s a challenge with every startup, I guess, but we’re having good progress,” Beslic says. “But we’re not competing with Google [Places], Yelp, or Foursquare at all. This is to find a business to communicate with a business. The user proposition is completely different.”

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  • Peter

    This kind of communication with businesses seems to be the next natural step. Web sites will have contact us: telephone numbers, email, contact through the website…..now they will have “Download Pingup and then text us whenever you want”.