Burn This Number After Calling: Greg Cohn on Burner

Story by Benjamin F. Kuo


Almost everyone has had some situation where you wanted to give someone a phone number, but only temporarily--think Craigslist, or maybe at that bar or business conference, where you want to hand out a number, but only have it work for a short while. It turns you, you can actually do that, with Burner, a new iPhone app developed by Los Angeles startup Ad Hoc Labs. We caught up with serial entrepreneur Greg Cohn, who brought us up to speed on what Burner is about, and the story behind the app.

Let's talk first about your app. Can you describe what it does and how it works?

Greg Cohn: Burner is an app that we think of as a privacy layer for your phone. The basic functionality is it allows you to issue temporary and disposable phone numbers, very quickly and easily. You can issue multiple numbers at one time, give each of them a name, and each of them operates as a standby, private line on your iPhone. At any given time, you can have multiple numbers, turn the ringers on and off individually for any number, and have different numbers active. There are lots of applicatoins for that, ranging from a straightforward utility, where you might need a number for Craigslist or for a dating site, to the times you might need to give out a phone number in context of shopping for a car, or to give a number to a salesperson or something that might involve marketing. You might also use it for more fun things, like posting to Twitter, or where you might be a YouTube celebrity and want to temporarily post a direct-to-fan phone line.

What's been really interesting about that, is we've been very open ended talking about what you might do with it, and there are people coming to us with very interesting use cases. In some, we've heard from doctors and attorneys who thought this might be an interesting way to keep in touch with patients and clients, without having to give out their personal cell phone number. We've had political consultants who have thought this would be good for a grassroots calling bank, and other things besides. We're excited to see what people will do with it.

Where'd the idea come from?

Greg Cohn: Funny enough, this actually started as a feature in another application, which was more strictly constructed around hosting office hours. The idea was that prominent people who might have a small following might post their availability to chat for 20, 40, or 60 minutes to Twitter of Facebook. The example is a venture capitalist who might want to take calls from entrepreneurs, or a celebrity or someone who might be an expert in a field, like law or accounting. They might post to go to this app, I'll be available for the next X minutes. We had strictly constructed rules for handling inbound calls, such as limiting call times, automatically picking up the next call, and so on.

However, when we shared it with some of our friends and investors, and just our friends and family in general, we got lots of feedback. They told us it was sort of interesting, but they were just not sure they would do office hours. And, some celebrities told us they just didn't want to do that. But, all of them really responded to the idea of creating a temporary number, which they could use for Craiglist, and which they also came up with other ideas. So, we came that idea, and started working for six months polishing it up as its own product. It was originally just a one week prototype, but everyone loved it, so we just made it better and better form there, and productized it.

Is creating new phone numbers really that easy?

Greg Cohn: Interesting enough, it's a function of our timing that we could create this product, because the technology is around us. It turns out that phone numbers and telephony is becoming increasingly available. Although it's not quite a commodity, it's certainly available as a service, similar to the cloud services and computing world. We actually work with a company called Twilio, which is able to handle all of the extreme telephony involved in managing large banks of phone numbers, which we can access essentially with an API call. An actual telephone number is not the scarce resource in our supply chain. The hardest part for us, and what really took the longest is actually the user interface, and making it easy to use, and intuitive, helping to make it clear when people have multiple, different numbers, where those calls are coming in from. We also had to think through all of the privacy controls to make this useful.

What's the background of yourself and your team?

Greg Cohn: I spent the last five years at Yahoo, where I was leading strategy and business development on innovation efforts, mostly related to social and developer problems. I worked on and helped lead Yahoo's original deal to do Facebook Connect, and also worked with Google on Flickr, where you could log in with Google to that and other parts of Yahoo. I was also very involved in the strategy on Yahoo's Brickhouse incubation effort. I also helped develop FireEagle, which was arguably the first location platform for checkin. We made lots of innovations in the user information and social identity realm. In the last year or two, there's obviously been an explosion in mobile smartphone penetration and development of similar services. It's also worth mentioning that this is my fifth startup. I'd been an early and senior employees in three, and one as a founder, most notably, which we sold to Orbitz in 2003, and also at a company now called Everyday Health, which is part of Waterfront Media, where I ran South Beach Diet online. My co-founder, Will Carter, is a mobile developer and design researcher, who has been developing innovative, experimental applications, and in some cases interesting product applications since the beginning of the mobile explosion. He's worked with Nokia and several consultancies here in Los Angeles, and also had his own shop for awhile. We hooked up an on an earlier project, found we had some good chemistry, so we decided to develop this together. Our third person, our lead engineer, came from Google's back end team, and also had done his own startup in the meeting space. We're a very entrepreneurial team, although we're small and nimble at this point.

Were you here in LA with Yahoo?

Greg Cohn: I was, for ten years here in LA. I've also been very involved in helping L.A. succeed as a technology community, and have been excited about that. I made the overt choice to stay in LA to start this company, because I feel we've got a really great community and a groundswell happening here. We've got lots of talent to hire. I'm in Silverlake on the East Side, and there's actually a huge pool of talent here, both coming out of schools on this side of the city, and who are working and living on this side of town. We like to think of ourselves as part of the rising tide in both Los Angeles as a market, as well as our own geography within Los Angeles, and hope to attract people to this side of town.

What's next big thing for you?

Greg Cohn: We've seen lots of demand for Android, and also a ton of demand for international expansion. Our initial goal had been to put this on the iPhone in the U.S. and Canada, to see if there was a market for this. Based on the reponse, and we've only been out there for a few days, we're seeing a ton of success in the U.S. We're very eager for us to expand this in both of those directions, to make a product that can be supported on all of the major platforms. There's also an interesting set of opportunities that have to do with how people might use a Burner number in different context. A good example of that is dating, where things are going mobile, and there are lots of online dating applications which want to be in-line, and make it easy for you to get out a phone number to somebody which is not necessarily your real number. We're working on it, but haven't deployed the capability yet, for third parties to obtain a number through the Burner app, and return to that app with a number. We're also looking for a server-based version of that API as well.



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