Startup of the Day-SmartTouch


Interview with John McDonough, entrepreneur and CEO of SmartTouch

Who are you?

John McDonough, entrepreneur and CEO of SmartTouch. I began my wireless career in QUALCOMM where I led the development of groundbreaking chipsets to commercialize CDMA and DSP technology in mobile phones. I’ve been in the wireless space for 20 years and I’ve had the pleasure of being involved in some revolutionary transformations over that time.

How do you feel being the most promising ‘company of the day’ per Microsoft?

Very excited. There are a lot of ups and downs while starting a new company and this is definitely an “up.” It reaffirms that we’re on a good path. Microsoft products have been central to our development and allowed us to move quickly from day 1. We’re honored to be recognized for those achievements.

What did you do before creating your company?

At QUALCOMM, I led development of the first CDMA downlink chip (1 chip of a 5-chip set, which commercialized CDMA in the early ‘90s). I also led QUALCOMM’s DSP chip development through the first two generations. My first start-up was Dot Wireless, a fabless wireless semiconductor company, acquired by Texas Instruments in 2000. I stayed with TI after the acquisition and ultimately left as GM of the CDMA chipset business unit. Not long after, a small team and I set out to solve new problems in wireless – which led to the founding of SmartTouch Mobile.

How did you get the idea? What s the genesis?

SmartTouch’s inspiration came with our realization that people desired access to all sorts of information on their mobile phones but there was no user friendly and cost effective way to do it. Typical wireless data plans are costly and a vast majority of wireless subscribers either can’t afford them or do not see much value in them because mobile browsing is such a cumbersome experience. At the same time, SMS is a ubiquitous service with an extremely high rate of adoption. Users already pay for SMS bundles and the incremental cost of using additional SMS messages is virtually zero. Recognizing this, many brands were already offering SMS services across a range of categories, from banking to social networking, sport scores, weather and more. And, mobile users were already typing DOS-like commands to get this information on their phones. Uptake has been stymied by the fact that it’s nearly impossible to remember all the SMS commands and syntax to access such content. What was missing was the UI to connect users with all the services out there, on the text messaging plan they already pay for. So we developed a tremendously simple interface, wrapping SMS commands into an elegant scroll-and-click menu to access web content.

What do you sell? What is your company’s mission?

We don’t sell anything. SmartTouch is free to users! What we offer mobile phone users is fast, easy access to web content without having to pay for a data plan. We package access to favorite web brands in intuitive, graphical widgets, and deliver the info through the SMS channel. In many ways, SmartTouch is like an on-phone appstore. Because it uses SMS, users leverage their existing text messaging plans. Data charges aren’t incurred except with initial software downloads (and even those can be sideloaded). For our brand and content partners we leverage a ubiquitous channel to enhance the depth and breadth of mobile interactions with mass market customers. We implement solutions quickly, often without any upfront cost and with minimal risk. We make money by sharing in our partners’ successes, typically with a revenue share on advertising, transactions and / or subscriptions.

What is your market?

Our market is everyone who needs access to web content on-the-go but either isn’t satisfied with the mobile web experience, doesn’t have a data plan or doesn’t want to pay data charges. There are 200M U.S. mobile phone users without data plans and we deliver mobile web services to them through texting. That’s a big market. We’re not looking to take on mobile web browsing per se. Our market is the mobile users who want to do something specific, and do it quickly. They don’t want the whole web, they want to update Facebook, check their account balance, order pizza or check a price on Amazon. That’s it. And SmartTouch is their shortcut to getting that done.

Any clients? References? Partners? You want to quote?

We offer content from many companies across a variety of industries. And, we’re continually adding high quality, branded content that our users will love. We get great feedback from partners. It’s one of the things that keeps us going. Some of our favorites are: “It’s genius.” “So simple I don’t know why someone isn’t doing it already.” “Very slick.” “It’s a great application. It looks good and is obviously well thought out and well designed.” “I want it.”

Funding history? VCs? BA?

We are self-funded by our founders.

Growth? Internationalization?

Since we ride on SMS, launching to international markets is a natural step. Texting is huge in the US and it’s even bigger in other markets like India, Philippines, parts of Latin America and East Asia, and most of Europe. All are potentially exciting markets for SmartTouch.

How many employees do you have? How many developers?

We have about 20 people involved in SmartTouch on a daily basis. About half are developers, with development responsibilities divided between India and San Diego.

Are you hiring? If yes, what? Where?

We’re always looking for great people, particularly in San Diego, who are team players, can take on responsibility and who consistently deliver exceptional results.

Which platform are you building on? Why? ( No taboos)

We’ve launched our beta on Windows Mobile 6 because it’s an exceptional development platform, providing flexibility and stability. Our servers are running Microsoft .NET. SmartTouch is a mass market product so we will augment our phone coverage by supporting additional mobile operating systems by the end of 1Q09.

Do you have any Software IP? Is there something that you’re the only one to do on the market?

SmartTouch is the first and only mobile widget platform based on SMS. We have 2 comprehensive patents pending.

Who’s your role model?

One of my role models is Dr. Andrew Viterbi, QUALCOMM’s co-founder. He has accomplished so much in so many areas - spanning deep technical know-how to academia and business. He has also founded several successful companies. He is a courageous entrepreneur who has applied his abilities against tall odds to achieve amazing results.

Where do you see opportunities today in the Software/internet areas?

The biggest opportunity we see is in delivering simplicity: transforming a complex solution into a seamless, intuitive user experience. There is so much potential in mobile and mobile internet technologies, but the user experience is too often cumbersome and confusing. Users get frustrated and give up. Every time a user says, “Wow. That was easy!” it creates opportunity within the mobile ecosystem.

Looking for funding? If yes, how much?

We’re currently seeking a first round of VC financing. We are very capital efficient and our product and business model are inherently scalable.

What about the BizSpark Program? What do you think? Are you going to join? Why?

We are new members to BizSpark. We’ll be looking to our network partner for insight, guidance and introductions. The BizSpark software resources will be especially helpful in streamlining our development.

Any advice to young Software entrepreneurs?

Nothing is more satisfying than creating a product people love. Pay attention to your customers and move quickly to continue to beat their expectations, every time.

Anything else you’d like to say?

We’re serious about always wanting to improve. If anyone has suggestions or feedback that will help us do that, please drop us a line:

Also check out our website for more information.

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