Startup svengali Paul Graham has a favorite maxim for entrepreneurs. Instead of searching for a great idea, focus on a problem you experience in your own life, then try to solve it.
The best salesman in the world can’t land a deal until there is a client to hear his pitch. That was the daily frustration for Ray Swyers, a middle-aged salesman of mind-numbingly boring compliance software that helps big corporations manage risk.
First there was the difficulty of finding a phone number for his mark, then getting past the receptionist. Emails he sent typically disappeared with no reply. So Swyers set out to invent a system that would allow him to discover the direct line to anyone, at any company in the world.
“The reason this system didn’t exist is because there wasn’t a guy with my brain stuck doing a job like this,” said Swyers. “I had an itch that needed to be scratched.”
Betabeat was skeptical that a software pitchman and amateur mathematician could really get straight to the desk of the rich and powerful. So we invited Swyers in to demonstrate his system. The software, ReadyFone, is still in development, so Swyers swung by the office to demo his method live.
When Swyers is hunting down a phone number everything else fades into the background. He’s a bloodhound on the trial of ten digits. Receiver cradled under one ear, his left hand flies across the keypad, punching numbers, hanging up, dialing again, while his right hand scrawls a web of digits and arrows on a scratch pad.
I gave Swyers a “seed number” at Bloomberg’s corporate headquarters, in this case the extension for a low level PR staffer. His mission: get Lex Fenwick, head of Bloomberg Ventures, on the line.
“All right, getting some executives now,” says Sweyers, rolling up his sleeves and doing a pantomime in the air of a man reaching around in a dark cave. “Its like you’re crawling around in there and you can feel when the trail is getting warmer.”
Twelve minutes later Swyers hangs up, puts down his pen and leans back in the chair. “I gotta say, their system is really just wide open.”
Phone freaking was an early passion for Apple founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. Before they revolutionized the personal computer, the pair built “blue boxes” that allowed users to make long distance calls free of charge. “If we hadn’t made blue boxes, there would have been no Apple,” Jobs said in an interview.
To Swyers, the phone system represents one of the last troves of information untapped by search. “It’s this monolith entity that has remained pretty much unchanged and unexplored since the 1970s,” he says.
“It sounds very interesting,” says Kevin Mitnick, infamous phone hacker turned security consultant, when asked about Swyers’ work. “If they could get something to do voice recognition, this would be a very powerful tool. Imagine connecting this to a social network like LinkedIn and using that to map out an entire corporate network.”
Back at the Betabeat offices, I switched places with Swyers and dial the last number on his messy scratchpad of Bloomberg LP contacts.
“Hello,” said a slight British accent as Lex Fenwick picked up the line.
“Mr. Fenwick, it Ben Popper.” Short, awkward pause.
“Hello, Ben,” Mr. Fenwick replied, his tone informal but guarded, unsure yet if he was supposed to know who the fuck I am.
“I’m testing out a system for a new mobile app that lets you find the direct phone line for anyone, at any business in the world.”
“And you meant to call me?” Fenwick said with a laugh.
“Yeah, it worked like charm.”
“Good, glad to hear that. Goodnight.”