Jerusalem Report

Smart SMS

Yoni Bazak is bucking the trend with a start-up based on the most low-tech mobile phone feature there is – text messaging.

Smart SMS
Photo by: NATI SHOHAT / FLASH 90
Starting a start-up has never been easier. Creating a website, which a decade ago required at least a modicum of programming effort, can now be accomplished with ease, using off-the-shelf tools. Internet server time, which once cost a fortune when you had to buy and maintain the servers yourself, can now be rented as needed at minimal cost, and today’s aspiring young entrepreneurs generate new start-up ideas as readily as they surf from one site to another.

Even the concept of simply building a start-up around a Web page – a radical new idea only 10-15 years ago – can seem rather quaint to the “digital natives,” many of whom had mobile telephones when they were still in school and cannot really recall a time without at least a rudimentary Internet connection. In the lives they live today, they are constantly connected to smartphones, checking up on the latest developments in the virtual social networks to which they belong.

It is not surprising therefore that at today’s start-up events and competitions, many of the ideas being pitched involve smartphone applications or social networks – or both.

“The trend is strongly tilted towards applications,” 28-year-old Yoni Bazak, who recently took a break from his master’s degree studies in game theory and computer science to found a new start-up, tells The Jerusalem Report. “A typical idea runs along the lines of ‘how about a smartphone app that knows your current location using your GPS , and directs advertisements to you from shops as you walk past them.’”

Bazak, however, is openly and deliberately bucking the trend. His start-up is based on the most low-tech mobile phone feature there is – text messaging. The idea is that instead of using a different dedicated phone application for each separate service request, all a user would need to do is send a text message to a single number with a simple statement such as “send a taxi” or “deliver pizza.” An automated system at the start-up’s office would then parse the text message and implement natural-language processing software to send the request on to participating businesses that would then provide the requested service.

Bazak relates that the idea came to him partly because he was bothered by how closely entrepreneurs of his generation, when generating ideas, were sticking with what they were familiar with in their own lives – the world of super-smart apps – instead of taking a hard look at how most people still relate to technology. This, he says, leads too easily to a dismissal of potentially profitable ideas that do not make use of the absolute latest cutting-edge technology.

“If you look at the total market of mobile telephones around the world, the vast majority of them are not smartphones,” Bazak says. “That means that an idea based on an advanced application isn’t even relevant to them. But they all can send and receive text messages. And even among those who have smartphones, most people don’t really use many of the applications they have. There are so many apps that people don’t even know what is available, much less download all the relevant apps. It can take them time to really learn how to use them. But everyone knows how to send a text message.”

Bazak is somewhat atypical in the current crop of young Israeli entrepreneurs. He is not an alumnus of what is known as Unit 8200, the prestigious computer and electronics unit of the Israel Defense Forces intelligence branch, often considered a training ground for founding a successful civilian start-up. Sporting a bushy beard and a kippa, Bazak is from an observant family with deep connections in the settlement movement – he was born in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem, and now lives in the Tekoa settlement.

But Bazak does exhibit a characteristic that is typical of many aspiring entrepreneurs Yoni Bazak is bucking the trend with a start-up based on the most low-tech mobile phone feature there is – text messaging – a knack for viewing everything he sees as a potential business opportunity. The Report caught him on a day in which he was planning his wedding in October, an activity that has triggered his imagination.

“If I see something that could be a worthwhile undertaking, I immediately start thinking about it,” says Bazak. “For example, now that I am planning my wedding, I got to thinking about booking wedding locations.

I could imagine a site that would book dates at several wedding halls wholesale and then make them available to couples. This is just one example of how always to look for opportunities.”

After several years of yeshiva studies in Tekoa, Bazak went on to study mathematics and computer science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. But the call of start-ups was too strong to ignore. A couple of years ago, he set up a website for sales of religious books, almost single-handedly.

“The website concentrates on sets of books that are usually purchased as a complete set, rather than dealing with individual books,” he explains. “Complete sets can be bought and sold in greater bulk. They are standardized so customers know what they are getting. I work directly with the publishers, getting wholesale prices and then reselling on the Internet.”

Running the book-selling site requires little attention from Bazak, with the income freeing him to concentrate on what is now demanding his main attention – getting the text message start-up off the ground. The start-up team is for now comprised of four: Bazak, a team member working primarily on software development, one working on software development along with systems integration – getting email, fax, textmessaging to all work together requires a lot of integration – and one member, currently the only woman on the team, whose task is to focus on general business development and marketing.

The four are friends or friends of friends from university. “Plenty of others are interested in getting involved, but for now we need only four,” says Bazak. The team is self-funding at this stage – not an uncommon state of affairs in early stage start-ups, given how inexpensive it is to produce the first stages of development.

The initial road map calls for focusing on rolling out the product in the Israeli market before expanding abroad. This is a strategy that is successfully used by many start-ups.

Israel provides a compact market with many tech-savvy users in which to gain experience and iron out bugs before trying to tackle a larger market in which failure may be more painful.

Bazak likes to use “find a taxi” applications as an example of the advantages of using his text messaging system over a smartphone application. “In a ‘find a taxi’ application, you fire up the application and request a taxi to be sent to your current location,” he says. “Such applications exist but few people have downloaded them.

Many who have downloaded them end up rarely using them.”

“Our idea is to obtain whatever you need by sending an interactive text message,” he continues. “You send a text to our number saying ‘send a taxi.’ As simple as that. An automated system parses the text message and determines what service is being requested.

Think of it as a universal application that is on our system rather than your telephone.”

Bazak is especially hopeful that potential customers who do not have smartphones, essentially the bulk of mobile phone users around the world, will appreciate having a wide range of services available to them by way of text messages alone. But he also claims that it will be attractive to smartphone owners. “Suppose that you want to send an immediate email, for example, and you have a smartphone but you do not have Wi-Fi access,” he says. “All you need to do is send a text message containing the email message you want sent, along with the email address to which it is to be sent, and our system does the job for you.”

“We can send a fax for you,” he says, excited at the range of possibilities that he can imagine. “If you are in a situation in which you need to send a fax but have no easy access to a printer or fax machine, but you’ve got your mobile telephone on you, send the content of the fax and the fax number to us and our system will do the rest. The possibilities are endless. You want to send a complaint to a company of which you are a customer? Send us the text of the complaint and the name of the company and we will make sure it arrives at the right destination. You don’t need to look up the contact information.”

A business concept involving text messaging comes with several built-in advantages.

There is no need to download an application, no installation required. Technological understanding or expertise is certainly not required of potential customers. Since all a customer needs is a phone number to which to send a text message, the start-up can make use of traditional advertising channels, such as billboards, buses and even flyers to reach customers who are not necessarily tied to the Internet every minute of the day.

The technological burden, however, is shifted heavily to the company. It will have to prove that its automated system can really handle a very wide range of messages composed freely in natural language, a task that has historically proven to be extremely difficult. Does Bazak have any regrets that he has not chosen to build a company around a smartphone application instead of text messaging? The answer is an emphatic no.

“There are very few apps that have really made money for their creators,” he replies.

“There are some, but I don’t count those that have made, say, $100,000 for their creators.

That is not ‘real money’ for a start-up. On the other hand, text messages are actually a proven and immense money-maker for mobile telephone operators. Billions are raked in on that alone. If we can tap into that market, we can be successful.”


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