Austin-based Vobi.com, a cloud-based collaboration startup which will sell its services through mobile operators, has raised $1.5 million in Series A funding from Dallas VC firm Trailblazer Capital. The firm specializes in communications companies that have unique IP, explains Vobi CEO Mark Castleman, making it a good fit as Vobi’s lead investor.
Castleman himself has extensive experience in both telecommunications and collaboration, most recently with PBX Central, a PBX-as-a-service company he founded, where he now sits on the board. He brings that experience to Vobi, which has been in stealth mode for around two years.
Vobi will offer subscribers a platform for online collaboration, allowing them to work on projects, share files, media, and more. It’s not an online file storage site, though – it only works to connect users with those types of services. And access to Vobi’s dashboard is based on your phone number.
In practice, the way this may work is that instead of phoning a co-worker or client and then instructing them on how to view or edit a given file – maybe through a WebEx meeting, a URL they type in, an email attachment, etc. – they can simply enter in their phone number at Vobi.com and a workspace for collaboration is presented immediately, no effort required.
While that sounds simple enough in concept, the technology that makes such a thing appear seamless is non-trivial. To be clear, with Vobi, you’re not typing in a username and password to access this portal – just your cell phone number. “We’re big believers in mobile phone numbers being the key identity element,” explains Castleman. “It’s globally unique. My phone number in France is accessible, but my social security number in France means nothing.” He also notes that email addresses aren’t completely portable either – when someone leaves their company, for example, they lose access to that email.
After using the phone number to connect its users, Vobi will then connect a user’s mobile number to their other identities like email, and accounts on various cloud services or social networks, making it something like a smarter caller ID. On this front, the service may compete with other startups, like TechCrunch Disrupt finalist CallApp, for instance, but Castleman explains that it’s not just about delivering additional info to enhance a phone call, it’s actually about collaborating while on the call.
“Our enterprise use case is that you have a workspace – your tablet, desktop or laptop – and your voice interface is your phone, ” he says. “Meanwhile, you’ve shared content with [your call recipients] like your Box, or Dropbox, or Salesforce, and emails. When you make that call, on your Vobi screen on your laptop or computer, you get an activity stream that shows you all the content that you’ve shared, and you have a collaboration panel.”
“We reconstitute the workspace in that environment to show you what your last interaction looked like, as well as any asynchronous shares you’ve done through Box, etc.,” he adds.
More simply put – it’s a smarter collaboration service that picks up where you left off, after having first authenticated users via their phone numbers.
To make this work, Vobi needs carrier relationships as well as partnerships with online cloud services. Castleman – who happens to be on his way to an AT&T developer conference today – says he can’t provide details at this time as to who those carriers and partners will be, but he would say that the service will launch when it gets at least one of the top U.S. carriers on board. That’s expected to take place this year.
Vobi is designed to be a good fit for carriers, he tells us, as the base feature can be sold like other monthly, subscription-based features such as Call Waiting or Call Forwarding, for example. “Through the carriers, like a switch, it’s turned on. And once it’s turned on, it’s like electricity. Now the applications are like the various things you plug into it,” he says referring the forthcoming Vobi-connected apps that would connect a user to Salesforce, Box, and others. “That’s a great model for the service providers, too, because they’re used to it and because they know how to sell features,” he adds. The apps will be sold both in the operators’ app stores and in the consumer-facing markets provided by platforms makers like Apple and Google. (Vobi is first launching on mobile as an iOS and Android app.)
However, in a move that could also prove disruptive to web conference providers like GoToMeeting and WebEx, users won’t need to install a smartphone app to use Vobi. They could simply type in their cell phone number to start a collaboration session on their notebook or desktop. Because the Vobi is tied into carriers’ database of subscribers, it will immediately know who’s logged in and who they’re currently talking to, and present the screen accordingly.
Vobi’s technology is fully functional, and all of its pre-launch efforts now are being directed at commercialization of the service at scale. The company, co-founded by Cameron Cooper, filed its patents years ago, and has been very quietly and deliberately moving forward ever since.
“The carrier world is a slow-moving world, but once things get baked into that world, they have the ability to have an enormous impact,” says Castleman. “When you embrace them, you can really do some cool stuff because – let’s face it – everyone is their customer.”