Why we think Burner Connections is a non-obvious no-brainer

The better part of two years ago, my co-founder Will Carter and I came up with the idea to connect 3rd-party apps to Burner.

It was a lightning bolt of an idea — not so different from the way our original idea for Burner felt, actually. A thing we hadn’t thought of previously, that instantly seemed obvious to us when we did. It was just suddenly clear to us that phone numbers should talk to other apps and parts of the stack, the same way email does.

For a long time it fell into the category of “very interesting things we could do when we had time,” not a core focus item for Right Now. In the universal time scale of lean startups, anything that is not hair-on-fire important can be confidently calendared somewhere between “after the next raise” and “maybe never”.

A few days ago, we released Burner Connections. We obviously became convinced the time was right, and I wanted to share some of the reasons why.

First, we have been noticing our users keeping Burners longer and longer, using them for more and more things beyond the single-serving, short-term use cases we originally created it for. From dating to marketplace transactions, from one-off projects and customers to entire businesses, people are running whole channels of their lives on Burner. Vintage neckwear sellers on Etsy, Christmas tree delivery services in Portland, public defender’s offices in Southern California… not to mention platinum-selling rap stars and as-seen-on-tv bounty hunters… have all set up Burner to manage their projects, customers, parolees, and personal lives.

This is despite the fact that the product design continued to reflect our early focus on disposability and short-term use. On the first version of Burner, it was actually comically easy to erase active numbers; temporality is inherently interesting, and we considered this a feature not a bug… until we started hearing howls from users who tapped the wrong button mid-transaction. There are still plenty of uses for time-boxed numbers, but we’ve come a long way in helping users manage more permanent ones. Auto-renewing Burners, the top feature request of the past half year, shipped with Connections. Blacklist features, which let users block an individual number from calling them on a Burner (rather than burning the whole thing), will be in our next dot-release.

A common denominator to many of these semi-permanent use cases, particularly the more transactional ones, is that there’s often another app or web service involved. Maybe an explicit “app” like Tinder, AirBnB, or Paypal — we got lots of questions and public comments about how to use Burner for this or that app. Or maybe the more generic background layers of the personal OS, like file systems and calendars.

But people were dipping in and out of Burner from other workflows, cutting from one app, pasting to another. We ourselves were frustrated by the experiences of doing these things not just on Burner itself, but in native apps too. Particularly when it was so obvious — to us, anyway — that we could connect these things more seamlessly.

Another driver of our conviction emerged from a different quarter entirely: watching our team’s use of Slack. Very quickly after we started using it, engineers and non-engineers across the team were plugging in everything from Github and New Relic to Twitter and searches for mentions on Hacker News, along with plenty more, on a self-serve basis. It quickly became the primary hub of communication and need-to-know information across all the team functions and tools we use.

Slack, as its fans quickly discover, is a virtuous circle — the more you use it, the more useful it is to have other stuff integrated into it; the more things you integrate, the more useful it becomes. Importantly but in a poorly understood way, it’s equally valuable because of what it enables you to ignore (notifications, channels, individuals if you like, whole organizations if you’re in several). Debates about whether enterprise chat is a fad miss the point— Slack is not about chat; it’s about the convergence of lightweight communication and information access, on a personalized basis. It’s enterprise pub-sub. It’s a better, more manageable UI to the 2 things that matter most in a knowledge organization: people and apps.

Within an organizational context, the other communications interface that has some of these features is, of course, email. Slack is email’s peer now, in the broader context — Slack is on a mission to “kill email” for internal comms, and is winning the fight in many organizations that embrace it. But even Stewart Butterfield acknowledges email isn’t going anywhere in situations where external communications are key. This is because email is an externally addressable endpoint on an open protocol across organizations. And because, like Slack, email clients and data stores function as platforms that integrate with other key apps, most notably CRM.

For individuals, small business, and many professional and semi-professional users, though, email is already dead. The executioner? SMS.

This is the other key observation we have from running Burner for the last 2+ years: for many people, SMS is the new email.

So it’s not just that people are using Burner in interesting ways, it’s that they’re doing so because SMS has become the primary channel for more and more things, and the current tools (carrier-controlled phone numbers, native messaging apps) suck.

Apparently email wasn’t in the consideration set.

Which is one reason why SMS-based services have emerged as a mini-trend in startup world. Why do people like these things? Because SMS is where they live, and operating from there is a great workflow, comparable to typing a search query in the address bar of a browser. Why open an app when a quick command-line input will do? And also because the SMS inbox commands the highest attention from most people, and they like getting their responses there. (People are pleading for customer service interactions via text.)

“SMS is the new email” has a bunch of implications that would make this an even longer piece if I went into them. But as a short version, email used to be controlled by IT departments and commercial ISP‘s; then hotmail & rocketmail/Yahoo! came along and made email free and ubiquitous (and hugely valuable); then gmail evolved it into a platform that could integrate along many vectors, and enabled an entire ecosystem (and email became even more valuable by orders of magnitude).

SMS wants evolve along that same curve. Violently. Users will expect it , even if they don’t realize it yet, because every other core communications protocol, including the major social and OTT communications apps, has a platform angle. (There are a lot of messaging apps, but none of them have dial-tone status, excepting a few regional leaders in Asia.) Businesses are shifting attention to driving SMS opt-ins and enabling messaging-based customer touchpoints, which, unsurprisingly, have massively higher open rates and CTR’s than email. Lead-gen dollars are chasing those numbers, shifting from email to phone number capture.

There are complexities to the analogy, but SMS is well on its way down this path. The phone number is today a mostly-open protocol supported by a robust infrastructure and protected to at least some degree by regulation. (Every number on the namespace is unique, non-duplicative, universally addressable, and accessible via a sufficiently large number of carriers and entry points as to be universally accessible.) Numbers are already freeing up from carrier control, not just because of consumer-facing products like ours and predecessors like Grand Central/Google Voice, but because of players like Twilio and Bandwidth, who are aggregating the business pieces and simplifying the technology interfaces of the public phone network — making it possible for consumer app makers to treat the PSTN as a ready-made, AWS-like input.

All of the end-users of smartphones are already using SMS for key information, important tasks, commercial transactions, opt-in alerts, etc., and, as noted above, are hungry for better tools.

It was an internal hack day that put us over the top. Our small engineering team cranked out v1 integrations of Slack, Evernote, [redacted but totally useful api] and [redacted not particularly useful but definitely entertaining app] in one taco-fueled afternoon, while the non-engineers on the team riffed on potential future ideas (and served beer).

As we worked through the demos and awarded the prizes (drones!), it became clear how much excitement and consensus there was across the team for this. All the factors above were in the background, but in the end the decision to roadmap Burner Connections made itself.

We’ve spent months building and hardening this, and we’re excited to see Burner Connections in the world today, in the form our first four integrations— Dropbox, Slack, Evernote, and Soundcloud. You can check out the detailed launch post or the video below, but the TL;DR of those integrations are, respectively:

  • auto-archiving picture messages and voicemails to Dropbox
  • cross-posting texts and voicemails to Slack, with inline replies
  • the ability to easily build a custom SMS bot powered by the Evernote UI
  • auto-posting voicemails as Soundcloud tracks

Based on the early reaction from press, partners, and Apple — who named it a Best New App upon release — we think we may be on to something. In the weeks to come, we expect to hear a lot more feedback about what people like about Connections, what improvements they’d like to see, and what our next set of integrations should be (though we’re already working on a few).

We’re excited as a team to hear it, and we also want to thank all the folks who‘ve shared it already— many friends, family, and creative technology peers* were generous enough to kick the Connections concept around with us in the abstract, talk through integration details, and/or play with early versions that helped us get to our first release.

Connections will help Burner’s core business. We’ve had 10 consecutive quarters of revenue growth, in large part driven by cohort math as we’ve evolved beyond “throwaway” phone numbers and added product features in support of our broader value proposition. Connections builds on this by creating stickiness and driving usage when users attach Burners semi-permanently to other apps. Our integrations with first-class apps like Dropbox, Evernote, Slack, and Soundcloud — and the many more to come — will help us attract new users as well, by opening up new use cases, channels, and marketing opportunities.

But the bigger picture of Connections is that our customers will get more value out of Burner when they connect their phone use cases to the apps they use to facilitate them — and more generally when their all-important message & phone inboxes are actually connected with the rest of their personal OS.

We hope connected phone numbers will come to be recognized as a “non-obvious no-brainer”, as we are now totally convinced that text messaging is evolving into a platform the same way email did (only much faster), and that the phone numbers of the future will inevitably act much more like software — programmable, connected, free and nearly-free, and not controlled by an oligopoly.

This is Burner’s vision for the future of phone numbers. We can’t help thinking that before too long people will scratch their heads at the idea that it ever wasn’t this way.

*Hats off in particular to Tara Tiger Brown, Sean Bonner, Amit Runchal, Jory Felice, Daniel Raffel, David D. Zito, Ryan Junell, Sam Pullara, Eli Portnoy, Joe Fernandez, Weston Westenborg, Eran Hammer, Nikolaus Bauman, Jessica Torres for their critical feedback and contributions.

P.S. Interested in being part of this mission? Join us.