Every once in a while, an app comes along aiming to provide users with disposable number, given the many reasons that an individual might not want to share his or her actual digits. Shuffle emerged a couple of years go do this; Burner has existed even longer.
Now, software engineers Chakshu Ahuja and Siddhant Sanyam think they'e come up with a solution for both individuals and small businesses that might not want to give out their number.
The friends -- who met as schoolmates at the engineering school The National Institute of Technology, Tiruchirappalli, and who today work at the mobile app performance company Headspin and at Facebook, respectively, have come up Proxytel.
It's a hack they created at TechCrunch Disrupt's Hackathon, which kicked off last night, but the duo sees startup potential in the idea.
The use case for individuals is obvious.; just ask anyone who uses Craigslist or Tinder. As for why small businesses need this: In the same way that a small business might want to provide its customers with a P.O. box for the sake of privacy, it might not want to give out its phone number in a very public fashion. (You can imagine this scenario playing out more frequently as more individuals become contractors who work for themselves.)
Huge platforms like Lyft and Uber already manage this process for their own employees -- so that passengers aren't calling their direct-dial numbers when they phone about the keys they left in the back seat, for example. But small companies don't have a lot of similar, affordable options. Even Google Voice has its limitations.
Enter Proxytel, which right now relies on an API from Nexmo, a cloud communications platform that helped sponsored the event, along with IBM's Watson (another sponsor), to create phone numbers that small business owners can implement easily to mask their real numbers and, crucially, to provide them sentiment analysis around the calls that do come in. If a customer is angry, for example, his or her voicemail might be brought to the company owner's attention faster than someone simply looking for more information.
Another key feature is that a number will be disposed off -- sent to the garbage -- on a timely basis (ostensibly hourly or daily). That means that if, say, a person using a mobile classifieds app like Letgo is talking with five different potential buyers, each would be provided a different number to ensure the "utmost privacy," says Sanyam.
As for a potential business model, Sanyam suggests that the service could be free to very small businesses thanks to the miracles of load balancing. Essentially, he envisions banding together small businesses that can share a set of numbers (depending on how many calls they typically receive in a day). Proxytel would manage them all to ensure that none is being used simultaneously.
As for bigger businesses, they'd likely be charged a monthly subscription fee.
It's like having a very affordable customer service help desk, suggests Ahuja. "Small companies don't have the manpower to [tackle this particular issues]. We'd fill [that void] for them."
"It's funny," she adds. "We just came up with this idea and it's obviously a very preliminary [version] of what we'd build [with more time]. But you wonder, why is there no such thing?"