Innovative communications startup TEN DIGIT Communications recently took up residence at Upward Hartford. President and Co-Founder Gary Brandt offered advice for aspiring entrepreneurs and explained the importance of contributing to Hartford’s innovation hub.
INNOVATION DESTINATION HARTFORD: When and how did the entrepreneurial bug hit? Is this your first startup?
GARY BRANDT: I came from a public accounting background. I worked in telecom and then clean tech and renewable energy. I gravitated toward working with “the smartest people in the room.” So I’ve had a good run with working with engineers who make innovative new things. I seem to have found a role working with them, helping them put the business skin on technologies.
I’ve had this in my blood for quite some time. This isn’t my first startup, I’ve had several, including my own consulting business, Blue Ridge Consulting.
IDH: What inspired you to launch this particular startup?
GB: Well, I’ve wanted to make a difference. There are businesses that are built to just survive and there are businesses that are built to make a difference and transform. I knew I wanted to make a difference.
It was important to me to find a good-purpose business and a business that had enough staying power. And I wanted to invest in doing it right—which takes more time. It takes a lot of energy, it takes a lot of brainpower, it takes a lot of people, and it takes a lot of thought to get things right.
IDH: What services does TEN DIGIT Communications provide and how is the company making a difference?
GB: What our company does is we eliminate on hold. If you think about, today, after 140 years of continuing to develop and innovate the capabilities of the phone infrastructure, we come to find out nobody wants to use their voice, they want to use their thumbs first.
We do this in our mobile communications world all the time—we have the ability to go between texting and voice. But in business communication, we still only have voice.
TEN DIGIT Communications developed the texting equivalent of the voice phone infrastructure. We’ve brought this to businesses, enabling people to text first, talk second, which is what we refer to as “the modern call model.”
IDH: When did you launch the company?
GB: A little over three years ago. I came across the idea of text enabling the landline and toll-free phone numbers. We started off just doing that, thinking that would be a novel enough business.
IDH: But then you had to pivot.
GB: Right. I know enough from my entrepreneurial experience to realize the first making of your company is not the making of your company. You need to refine your value proposition so we took a measured approach in marketing and selling our initial idea. We took our time, studied the market, and tried to continue to focus in on where the highest value proposition for our business was.
And we realized it was at call centers. But it wasn’t that simple, because text enabling a call center by itself wasn’t sufficient. We had to put a platform in place that would dovetail with all of our potential clients’ other platforms. Over the years, they’ve been sold so much stuff for handling all those voice calls, we had to fit in their world.
We had to develop a platform that would not create a disruption in their existing platforms. That was where the complexity came in—but that was where the big value came in as we had that figured out.
With that value comes growth and continued refinement. There are about 12 of us right now. The majority are still developers. I expect we’ll be about 25 people by the end of the year. Of that 25, the majority will be developers and the rest focused on business and marketing.
IDH: TEN DIGIT Communications has created an innovative communication system. In terms of the business concept, what does innovation mean to you?
GB: Innovation to me stretches beyond just technology. Innovation involves your entire business model from top to bottom. Over the years I’ve come to learn that engineers can pretty much do anything—but the fact that they can do them doesn’t mean they should. They should only do them if it makes sense on the business model side of things as well.
So, the marriage of technology innovation with business innovation makes tremendous sense.
When we approached our business concept, I didn’t just want to solve the technological challenge, I wanted to understand the business model. I wanted to make a difference for the customers of the contact center and the agents who work in the contact center—but I also wanted to make a difference for the shareholders of that contact center in terms of improving their financial performance.
We enable the call center to do 20% to 40% more with the same amount resources or they can reduce their headcount accordingly. With our system, the agent who used to have a 30 calls per shift can now handle anywhere from 90 to 150 conversations per shift using our Intelligent Messaging Platform.
IDH: It increases the efficiency too.
GB: Correct. Innovation to me is the complete approach we took for the technology—we didn’t just accept the technology, we put it into a business model and we priced it differently as well. It is more than just a single dimension. It’s all the dimensions. When you can make them all work together then you’ve got a truly innovative business model.
Innovation requires more than just the technology, it involves a complete new look at the business.
IDH: Who are your clients?
GB: We started off very focused for two reasons. One, we were building the platform and filing patents, so we didn’t want to get too far ahead of our intellectual property protection path. We then went to IBM and they liked what they heard and saw. They became our reseller and took us to CenturyLink, which did a proof of concept last fall and basically turned this into a broader rollout before the end of last year.
CenturyLink was our first big contact center customer. We have dozens of smaller customers who are just using the texting functionality but not all of the features available in the Intelligent Messaging Platform.
IDH: How did you become involved with Upward Hartford?
GB: We started building our platform out last year. Once we had narrowed down and iterated enough times to know exactly where the value was and built the platform, we approached some investors in Boston.
They told us Connecticut wasn’t a friendly place to do business and we needed to move. I thought: Why? That doesn’t make sense.
The insurance companies make a lot of money, the financial services, the hospitals, they all make a lot of money. It doesn’t make sense that people would have to leave.
I began to think: If we did stay in Connecticut, what would it look like? I approached Ron Angelo, who used to be in the economic development office, and he connected me with the Department of Economic and Community Development (DECD) Small Business Express Program. We applied for a grant and a loan and got the funding with the condition that we would be located in Hartford.
I didn’t know any of the spaces here in Hartford. Upward Hartford was just coming on the scene. The Colt Building had some space, but I thought: If we’re going to create a presence here and we’re going to service the insurance and financial companies, I should be downtown. And so we chose Upward Hartford.
IDH: In addition to the DECD and Upward Hartford, what other Connecticut startup resources have you tapped into?
GB: We are just getting started. We presented at the Crossroads Venture Group in May. We’ve also had some conversations with Connecticut Innovations to see if they can help us make connections. Getting those introductions at a decision-maker level is really the key thing we can get from our contacts or our relationships here in Hartford.
What we’re hoping to get from Upward Hartford and other contacts, such as Innovation Destination Hartford, is help getting into the entrepreneurial ecosystem.
IDH: Why do you feel it’s important to be involved in innovation hub that’s growing here in Hartford?
GB: From the perspective of hiring of developers, I think you get a nucleus of folks looking for cool projects. Therefore, you get smart people finding other smart people and gravitating to them. That’s healthy.
And then I think there’s an energy level that comes with “young thinking.” The idea of being in an innovative space—generally everybody brings positive energy. And you walk out with greater energy yourself being in that environment.
If you’re starting a business, you have too many things that can be very tough problems to solve and you need full energy. So the more you can be around people who boost the energy of the whole company, the better.
IDH: Earlier in the conversation you mentioned you did a lot of refining your original business concept. Would you say that’s your biggest piece of advice?
GB: A little background—I’m born Canadian and naturalized American. I still get involved with the Canadian consulate in Boston. I’m one of the lead mentors for Canadian companies trying to come to the United States.
So I do a lot of mentoring and I see a lot of different businesses at different stages. The interesting thing about being an entrepreneur is it’s the one time in your career where are you can throw the darts first and then go and put the target on the wall afterward.
You don’t know where your business is going, so you throw the darts and then you say that’s exactly where I was heading, that’s exactly what I want the business to be. Because everything else is just a guess or a hypothesis about what you think the customers will want, how they will buy your product, and how they’ll do things.
And you might get them all right, but the biggest thing I tell entrepreneurs is you’ll probably get most of them wrong.
They are guesses and you don’t know until you go to market. You don’t know what the competitors are going to do, you don’t know how the customer is going to receive your product, and if you go in too bullheaded, you’ll spend a lot of money thinking you’ve got the best of something and no one will buy it.
So my best advice for an entrepreneur is: Your first foray as an entrepreneur or may not be the one. Don’t get worried if it isn’t, because if in fact one out of 10 entrepreneurial things succeeds, that means nine out of 10 don’t. But those nine out of 10 might’ve just been the first iteration of the one that did.
Learn more about TEN DIGIT Communications www.tendigitcommunications.com.