Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Tellme like it is

My very first client at Schwartz was in the voice recognition space. Like a lot of companies from the age of the bubble, they had great technology and a lot of money that they blew through. I remember walking into their office and seeing the company logo stitched into a carpet that sat in front of the reception desk. I have no idea if the VCs authorized that purchase.

In any case, while this company targeted itself at telecommunications companies and large enterprises, another similar company had a more consumer-friendly model. Tellme launched with a consumer service that let you get the weather, news, sports scores and a few other things.
Both companies talked about the idea of "Dial tone 2.0." The basic concept was that instead of picking up your phone and hearing the familiar dial tone, you hear a voice saying "who do you want to call?" And instead of pushing buttons, you just give it a name or a series of numbers and POOF, the person is on the other line.

Never mind that dial tone 2.0 is actually the one we have now and dial tone 1.0 was the original operator who connected you to a person when you gave her that person's name. So the next dial tone would actually be like the first dial tone only without actual people.

In any case, my client fizzled (later selling its technology to a wireless carrier) and after the dotcom bust Tellme stopped updating its service so regularly. I remember calling it during a golf outing in September 2001 to get news updates. I also used it for New York Jets scores through the winter. But when the updating stopped, so did my usage.

Over the next few years Tellme changed its strategy from a consumer-facing service to one aimed at call centers. I recognized the sounds when I called certain companies. Today, as Microsoft added Tellme to its arsenal, Rob Hof at BusinessWeek had a great blog entry outlining how he'd talked to the company and even visited them at least once. In fact, he liked the technology a lot, but just couldn't find the story.

This happens a lot in PR. You get in front of the right people, give them as much positioning and as many stories as you can, but sometimes it just doesn't feel right to them. There isn't much you can do but keep trying.

But while Rob didn't see the story many other publications did. I remember reading huge profiles of the founders and of the company. So even without the hit in BusinessWeek Tellme still managed the $800 million deal.

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