Coming clean about why I left CallFire

What are your thoughts on the latest CallFire initiatives?
I get this question a lot these days. In order to give my best answer as a company founder, I had to take my PR gloves off and get honest about performance. If you don’t enjoy tech, policy or business strategy, stop reading now.

DISCLAIMER
***Very importantly — the working relationship with Morgan Stanley, IGC and Ron was Fantastic. As was it to work with my founders and partners for so many years. Our venture and debt went smoothly, as did our acquisition which turned out to be a fantastic one for everybody. To all team members that read this, please do not take anything personally. And thank you for working so hard on everybody’s behalf.***

This article is an opinion piece, by the original CallFire founder. These claims are a representation of past business trends and are NOT in any way considered business secrets of CallFire — nor are they a reflection of the current CallFire business outlook. CallFire rumors indicate the company is doing well financially, which is what matters. Any claims I have casually made in this article can be verified with employees. The email addresses contactdinesh@gmail.com, dinesh@skyyconsulting.com and dinesh@callfire.com all contain email trails and database query data to back these opinions and outcomes. My opinions are driven by queries we ran on the original AsteriskDialer and CallFire databases, as well as by referring to (pre 2014) adwords, analytics and the original dailydelegator (internal) data. My opinions and gut feelings about business outcomes, sadly, are not driven by RJmetrics integration (nothing against RJ). Note: It has been 3 years since I left CallFire this month.

Much like Google and Apple have showed the world, when companies get big enough they have a responsibility to use their power and money to improve the biz+gov ecosystem for everyone. Despite how small a company we were, we were doing millions of messages and so that’s exactly what CallFire tried to do in San Francisco. We showcased the feds our sensing tech, that shut down bad telemarketers before they ever had a chance to abuse our system. We taught them the procedures we used so they could take these procedures to other telephone companies, improving the ecosystem and thereby decreasing the amount of bullshit telephone calls that the carrier network saw. I’d be really interested to see any university-based study on telemarketing pre and post-callfire. It is more than likely that annoying calls to consumers actually went down over time. In various policy discussions over 10 years with industry professionals, the federal government (FTC/FCC), and various agencies agreed that (given how easy-to-use our technology was to abuse) we became one of the top protectors of consumer tele-privacy in the world. This should be surprising to anyone who was told this article was real — as my buddy Will says, it’s a fake and not based in fact. The fact is we had a strong history of working with investigative authorities — specifically Punit and I had become CIA informants, giving the organization lists of users that were attempting to abuse the platform overseas. The interactions I had with them were infrequent, but my relationship with them and other folks in Government, has always been cooperative and positive.

All that aside, here’s what folks from CallFire and the industry, have been asking me recently:

CALLFIRE

  1. How do you think the new CallFire CEO that replaced Ron is doing?
  2. Companies tend to get more “corporate” over time. Do you think it’s OK that CallFire is going this way, or should we push for our old DNA?
  3. For the geeks out there who really care about startup culture — how did mainstream investors change your life?
  4. Did you get fired from CallFire or did you quit? Was it because of drugs?
  5. Do you think that Komnieve should leave or stay at CallFire?

INTRODUCTION
Before I get started on these questions… here’s a little background. I’m the original founder of CallFire — I am an ex coder, marketer, ui guy, self proclaimed finance expert, mba and am experienced board member. I have helped run relatively high technology SMBs.

To be frank, we built CallFire by not giving a rats ass about other telephone companies, because they were not very fun to use. My friends and I created asteriskdialer (a dialer built on top of asterisk…) because we wanted to build something easy to use for social reasons — and we realized quickly that business people could use our stuff too. We predictively marketed to folks who seemed to have a natural inclination to call about telecom (folks that got in touch when we were doing asterisk installs), but in the beginning we had no interest in making money as a standalone telephone company. Our interest was software.

Unfortunately, early on, it was the shady telemarketers that we were constantly shutting down. Truth be told, CallFire’s genesis had nothing to do with B2B or a strong need to “change the way the world did business.” There was a cool factor of automatically speaking to 1000s of folks who called your phone number, at once. It was cool to us that just about anybody could call or text 100 friends with a click, for pennies.

Our formula for disrupting telecom was simple:

  • Try out other boring telephone platforms.
  • Do something useful on their platform after logging in.
  • Casually determine a market opportunity.
  • Create something more interesting and fun.

Logging into CallFire, with the intent to communicate with friends & family, can be very fun. (Give it a shot to see some magic, it’s free to try.) By starting an account with CallFire, regular people have the capacity to receive 10’s to 1000s of calls at once, or make similar amounts of outbound calls in an emergency. Our tech saved lives, helped find puppies while I worked there, and now boasts close to 300,000 customers and made CallFire and it’s subsidiaries a relatively well known brand in telco, despite the relatively small financial footprint it made compared to our competitors.

We designed and built something that could call or text all our friends at once, or millions of people in an emergency while maintaining call-quality and SLA-level uptime. The tool had to be easy enough for grandma to use and powerful enough for a developer managing multiple contacts. A platform like this could save any organization (like governments and nonprofits) a lot of time. It was a slight evolution of something more advanced than the blue box my uncle (now a director of engineering at a cool engineering company) we bought (or built?) in the 90's. That’s the truth about how CallFire started — and I think the first time I’ve ever told the story. That culture is why we created so many products at CallFire, it’s why we launched FriendCast, and it’s why we helped start Hallo. We wanted to make communication amongst friends (or any group globally) — easier and more fun.

<add our old sexy product images here later>

During my tenure at CallFire, we launched 5–10 products. (voice messaging, phone numbers, ivr, call tracking, FriendCast, and several others). These were ideas turned into unique lumps of code, each with it’s own bootstrapped marketing campaign that would often grow into a profitable line of business (In some cases, only if you turned off Adwords would it be profitable… but strategically, we made the decision to always push core terms.) Although each product carried out vastly different use cases — product development is what drove innovation and stability.

A: How do you think the new CallFire CEO that replaced Ron is performing?
Answer: He seems to be doing great, but honestly I have no clue! I have not worked with him nor was I consulted when he was hired. He seems concerned with cutting costs — which I LOVE! Rumor is the CallFire team likes working with him and he’s doing good things for the business. If he’s not happy, or if he, the team or the board wants him to move on, I’d be happy to come back to manage things until we found a CEO with the right DNA for CallFire. #spreadtheword
 
B: Companies tend to get more “corporate” over time. Do you think it’s OK that CallFire is going this way, or should we push for our old DNA?Answer: The most important thing I learned while working with power-hungry partners, investors and strong-willed technologists is this: anything that’s confusing to you (but to nobody else) should scare you. This includes tricky accrual accounting, hiring outside management, anyone with big titles or anyone caught spending unusually long amounts of time with lawyers. Watch out for these things. Stick to hiring folks with strong outcomes-backed resumes and positive WORKING relationships. Ignore here say and the media and speak directly to someone’s contacts to get an idea of who they are. Stay honest and real business people will do business with you in the future. Sheep tend to follow the media.
 
C: For the geeks out there who really care about startup culture — how did mainstream investors change your life personally and/or CallFire’s culture?
It was very tough. There was a lot of writing involved and presentations once we had institutional money on board — which is boring and time consuming. We faced many challenges together while attempting to grow CallFire faster:

  1. Investors came through with a handful of reasonable enterprise introductions, but while I was there we were not able to parlay those into significant deals.
  2. There are social expectations around which industries you can be involved in after you get seed funding or get major airtime. This is silly, because the largest shareholders play across the shadiest of industries — including medicine and adult. I was heavily involved doing research of other communications technologies like weightless, the adult industry with two business partners and performers, cannabis quality control research and (of course/most importantly) had several other high tech projects in the preliminary research phases — for fun. The board seemed to have a problem with all my research, for one reason or the other — no matter what the timeline or who the beneficiary was — my time was now theirs. Personal innovation seemed to end after we brought on the big guns — a culture I was not interested in personally. It was no longer “cool” to be different or push our boundaries, I felt.
  3. Investors brought in a few more customers, but not nearly as many as we had hoped.
  4. The association with big banks seemed to help our credibility with customers and new investors. It became easier to get a meeting after I had Morgan Stanley in the door.
  5. The association with big banks did not seem to augment our geek cred or API business.
  6. Investors dress really well and traveled frequently, making for more interesting conversations than our own. We had to pretend building stuff was sexy. They spoke occasionally fancy travels and of [certain] parties, which I grew accustomed to hearing about at our dinners. I was young and innocent then.

D: Did you get fired from CallFire or did you quit? Was it because of drugs?
Answer: I quit shortly after Ron rallied the team for an early title change (him to CEO, me to CSO) due to “circumstances,” they said. This sudden change was cleverly introduced at a time that was extremely beneficial to anyone who wanted to disrupt our founder-led board structure. We knew the team wanted to “try new leadership” and we had already agreed to that. The problem was, an early shift of Ron to CEO also gave him early hiring and firing authority, created a board change that the team didn’t discuss, and gave him and others the ability to task our employees with non-board approved “work” initiatives. I was already unhappy with the performance of the Everest campaign and our ad-management team. We spent a huge chunk of our money on those and saw very little return.

In the last 5 years CallFire strategically took $20m in debt and dolled out somewhere around $3–5m in comp and expenses that were recommended by new management. (This is a rough figure, and is intentionally inaccurate. -DR). Regardless, these numbers, given our growth in that period, are probably too high to be healthy. The company was almost at $15-18m/yr in 2013. Now we’re gunning for $25m in 2016 according to a conversation I had with Vijesh at a bar recently. This is healthier but more or less — straight line growth, and verifies there was a lot of hot air about “change” and improved leadership when I left the company. I’m sure the company grew more than it ever has in any given 3-year period, but sadly — our revenue numbers are targets I could have easily hit myself, without incurring a ton of debt or additional costs. [Our original/lean ways of doing business seem pretty reasonable now — huh V? Extend my congrats to the team and the new CEO — best of luck this year and next.]

To be frank, the changes that were made did NOT yield anything that resembled a sustained 20–30% YOY growth curve. It may be an unreasonable number for anybody to hold us to that — given that most of our revenue came from small businesses spending less than $100/month for our services. Looking back, it’s borderline unethical to hold founders to a growth curve that’s so aggressive, often necessitating leadership changes. A part of me wonders if this was an old-hat trick to take board control at the first possible opportunity. After all, I just got out of a year long relationship and wasn’t feeling my best. It really was unfortunate timing…

Though the timing WAS right for me to leave, the reasons were ALL wrong, and it caused a monumental shift in board control even the CallFire guys didn’t see coming. The ethical thing (IMO) for the team to do would be to reinstate my board seat, just not as chairman — for the sake of founder board control which should have been retained. That’s not what happened and a series of mistakes by my old partners led to a very precarious situation at CallFire, that has since been mitigated. The board seat issue can be fixed next year if the team thinks it’s the right thing to do — I certainly do. I quit hastily after a bad meeting with partners, who seemed to care more about the fine print of our contracts than my actual business outcomes. Good thing I didn’t hold anyone but our engineering team to their word. Because heads would have rolled if I cared to make my point, in 2013. My exit was sudden and a surprise to everyone involved — except the board. Something wasn’t right, so I had to leave. I’ll leave it at that.

Regardless, my departure had little to do with Corey, other business ventures or drugs. My team and I saw the future of CallFire differently and I wanted to give them their shot, but I could no longer see myself working with them or trusting certain partners. Even my cofounders seemed to be embracing the corporate culture more than I was. I needed time to digest these changes and time to find new projects, so I quit. I took a horrible parachute (which should have been 3 years (not 1) and watched the company seemingly utilize my old marketing campaigns and existing EZTexting marketing campaigns, to champion most HEALTHY growth while I was gone. My hunch is that CallFire may need to rely on Radio, Pandora, TV and other terrestrial forms of advertising next if the current ad networks have been exhausted.

D: Do you think that Komnieve should leave or stay at CallFire?
Answer: The team loves him, so he should probably stay. Technical founders add credibility and a different geek-cred to CallFire’s company culture. That said, the company will be fine either way. He would make a great VP of Sales, if he can take himself out of the board room. It’s never too late to make these sorts of offers or changes.

-END ARTICLE-

Hope that answers your questions everybody. I’ll syndicate this sucker to my Facebook feed.

Cheers,
Dinesh

  • Google: I often think, if all gmail data were essentially public, how much safer/better off would the world be? Thank you btw, for adwords.
  • My family: Sorry for my absent mindedness these last 3 years, as I searched for new people & projects as I studied various industries and grappled with severe anxiety.
  • My old friends from CallFire and Skyy: Sorry for being out of touch.
  • The fellas: Thank you for always having my back, as it took me years to deconstruct these truths to myself. Love you guys.
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