Stuart Levinson and Riley Crane want to make communication between businesses and consumers a little easier.
Levinson and Riley created TalkTo, a mobile app that let's you text local businesses with specific questions that get an almost immediate response.
How does TalkTo work? As Levinson explained “Say I am in need a new power cord for my MacBook, I can use TalkTo to send a text to RadioShack asking, 'Do you have a MacBook power cable?' They then respond, 'We only have the 85 watt charger, its $80, we close at 9'."
What TalkTo is trying to do is eliminate the need for calling stores and, as Levinson put it, needing a "To Do" list to remember to schedule appointments or find a very specific product.
"We are like the search engine for the store shelf," Levinson put it. "When you need to find something immediately, the only thing you can do is call the store or go in. TalkTo allows you to text the store and get a response."
With more and more people using their mobile phone's to do everyday tasks like setting up reminders, organizing schedules, etc., the idea makes sense. Instead of setting up a reminder to call a local clothing store to see if they have a shirt in your size (and then maybe having to call a few more if they don't), TalkTo allows you to text the store as soon as you realize that you are in need of a specific shirt.
By creating an almost interactive To-Do list, TalkTo has found a way to bypass the type of tasks that have a tendency to turn into time-wasting wormholes.
Launched in April of last year, the original idea for TalkTo was to figure out how to create a spontaneous communication platform to connect with people who are in the same location. As Levinson said, "We could never figure out how to get all these people on the same platform."
The company made a pivot when they realized that there would be more value in being able to spontaneously communicate with the places that surround us, especially when we have a specific question or need.
The app is probably the best way to communicate with the businesses that people seem to have the most over-the-phone engagement with these day: restaurants, salons, and retail stores. "All those things that we used to call for, we can now do with text," Levinson explained. "That is, do you have? how much is? when will you get? can I order? can I get a table tonight? or can I book an appointment?"
From Charlotte to Boston (By Way of Florence)
Levinson himself has made a few interesting career/life pivots on the way to settling in Boston and leading a mobile communication startup.
After attending UNC, he stayed in Carolina, starting a company called Venetica, which was a systems integrator for imaging and document management systems. While running Venetica, Levinson met David Skok who, around that time, had started Watermark, which did imaging and document managing. The two formed a connection as Levinson's company became a reseller of Watermark's products.
Skok has had a major influence on Levinson. As he put it, "David is my entrepreneurial mentor."
"During my time at Venetica, every bit of material that his company created, whether some sort of training or marketing manual or paper, I kept in a drawer because I wanted to emulate everything that he did."
Venetica was acquired by IBM in 2004, and, after working for the large corporation for a couple of years, Levinson reached out to Skok for some advice.
"I wanted to take a break," he said, "So I asked David, 'If you could travel anywhere in the world, where would you go? He said Tuscany."
Levinson continued, "I respect David a ton. Neither my wife nor I had ever been to Italy, and we don’t speak the language, but we packed up our stuff and the kids and moved to Tuscany."
At first, life in Italy was just as Levinson and his wife imagined. "My picture of what I wanted to do was to live in a small house, drink cappuccinos everyday, walk the countryside, maybe paint. When we landed in Tuscany, it was just like we had pictured it."
"By the third day," he said, "I was out of my mind, it was too quiet. So we moved closer to Florence."
The experience ended up being just what Levinson had hoped. "It was life-changing in the ways you’d expect," he said. "[Here] We live in a bubble. Being able to get outside of the way we consume news everyday [in America] is in-and-of-itself amazing."
Levinson says the entire adventure changed the way he and his family approach life. "Everything they say about the texture of life there, the importance of food and conversation, is true," he said. "When you meet someone you don't ask what do you do, life is more meaningful. In Italy, they casually talk about food, life, politics, sex, religion, and all the things we don’t talk about"
"The sweet life was finally being able to understand what they truly cared about."
While the experience was unbelievable, Levinson couldn't keep down his entrepreneurial itch for too long. He went to the local baker, to the local hospital, anywhere he could think of, to try and find a job. He even thought about starting a company in Italy until he was told that he'd need two lawyers, one straight, and one, as he gestured in a serpentine hand motion, not so much.
TalkTo is Born in Cambridge
So after Italy, Levinson and his family moved to Boston to start something new. As Levinson said, "We came back and chose Boston because of the venture community, what was happening in tech, and we loved the city. Also, we thought it was better than San Francisco or New York for our kids."
After some time, Levinson discovered Riley Crane. "One day I read an interview about Riley, who was at the MIT Media Lab at the time," he said. "The article was about how Riley and his team had won a DARPA challenge to find 10 red balloons in random locations nationally."
"I was fascinated by it," Levinson said and he reached out to Riley. The two ended up having a couple things in common . "The same month I moved here," Levinson said, "he had moved from Switzerland, AND, his wife was Italian."
After trying to figure out how to improve person to person location-based communication (an idea which was probably influenced by Levinson's and Riley's experiences abroad), the two thought of what eventually became TalkTo. As Levinson explained, "This idea that you should be able to text stores just as easily as you can text other people seemed so ridiculous and hard to do that we both decided that this is the challenge that we are going to go after."
In addition to launching last April, TalkTo also announced a $3 million Series A round from Matrix Partners. (Skok, who has had a major influence on Levinson, is also a Partner at Matrix.)
Currently, TalkTo is seeing more users taking advantage of the time-saving app than ever before. As Levinson said, "We are starting to see an increase in word-of-mouth, and we are trying to figure out how to continue to scale."
TalkTo is making it easier for consumers and businesses to communicate. "We want to change behavior," Levinson concluded. "Every time you think you need to call a company, you can just text them instead."
Maybe, instead of running around looking for specific pair of shoes or calling five restaurants for an evening reservation, you'll have more time to connect with the people around you and experience life to the fullest, as the Florence-influenced Levinson originally imagined.
Dennis Keohane is a staff writer for VentureFizz. You can follow Dennis on Twitter (@DBKeohane) by clicking here.