We’re no strangers to interacting with businesses through the internet and mobile apps in the U.S., but in developing regions that’s not a luxury most people have. In countries like Tanzania, Rawanda and Somalia, most people’s sole means of communication is a basic feature phone, so if you’re business wanting to communicate with your customers digitally, you pretty much have one choice: SMS.
But for San Francisco startup Telerivet, SMS is plenty to work with. It’s designed a low-cost cloud-based SMS management system and Android app that lets businesses and non-governmental organizations turn an ordinary smartphone into a messaging gateway. Through that gateway a company’s customers, clients and employees can access data through simple SMS messages.
I had to chance to chat with Telerivet CEO and co-founder Joshua Stern, who definitely has a unique story behind his company. Like many Silicon Valley startups, it began with a computer science degree at Stanford University. But instead of diving into the tech sector in Silicon Valley, Stern joined the Peace Corps in 2006, doing a two-year stint on the remote island of Pemba in Tanzania setting up computer labs at local schools.
That involved setting up generators and building basic electricity infrastructure before Stern could plug in his first PC. And the communications networks weren’t much to speak of. If Stern had a question for a volunteer or one of the local residents, getting an answer required sending out one of the village children to ask it in person.
That’s where the seeds of Telerivet first emerged, helped along by the proliferation of 2G mobile phones throughout Africa. Telerivet began offering its first SMS technology to NGOs in Africa in 2012 and quickly expanded around the world. Its network is now up and running in 156 countries and has connected 1 million people to local businesses, clinics and NGOs through the simple text message.
One of the key selling points for Telerivet is its simplicity. It doesn’t require procuring any kind of short code from a local mobile carrier or hiring a development team to build out a communications service. All it requires is an Android phone with a local SIM card. That phone basically acts as the central SMS communications terminal for a business or organization. A group of templates running on the phone and in the cloud interprets those messages and generates responses.
For instance, a local clinic can send out appointment reminders to its patients via text message. Or a trucking company can automatically send out updates to its drivers on the locations of their next pickups. Users can interact with the system as well, sending messages that can be used to retrieve specific data. They don’t even necessarily have to incur the cost of a text message.
Telerivet has set up its platform to interpret “flashes,” an ad hoc signaling system popular in developing countries, which requires a user to call a number and then hang up after a certain number of rings. Since the call is never connected, no one is charged, but the ring sequence signals to Telerivet what kind of information is being requested and sends the appropriate to data to the caller based on their phone number. So in the trucking example, a driver can call HQ, let the phone ring twice before hanging up and then receive an SMS detailing his schedule for the next day.
Telerivet has raised $1 million in seed funding so far from Javelin Venture Partners and angel investors. Stern said the the company’s standard service fee for a business is just $30 a month, which makes it affordable in the developing countries it targets. That means in order to scale it has to sign up a lot of businesses to its service. But considering the size of the developing world, Telerivet has a lot of room to grow.