sipVine, a North Kansas City-based provider of affordable, yet feature-rich VoIP phone solutions, has been providing business customers hosted digital phone solutions at affordable prices for nearly a decade. The state-of-the-art digital phone solutions sipVine provides are flexible and expandable, with all the features, options, and configurations of a traditional business phone system—but without the system administrative costs and service contracts common to relationships with many telecom service providers. In short, sipVine delivers state-of-the-art equipment and hosted digital phone service to businesses around the region and from coast to coast. In a recent sit-down interview, sipVine's Chief Executive Officer Robert "Bob" Conner, along with Chief Technology Officer Colin Wells, and Mark Greim, Vice President, Sales & Marketing, discussed how they faced technology and marketplace challenges and built a company that serves customers throughout the country. Their mission: make business phone service simple, reliable, and affordable.
From Left: Mark Greim, Bob Conner, and Colin Wells
Q: When starting up sipVine in 2005, what was the first order of business?
Colin Wells: Our first step was to develop the product. Selecting the operating platform and VoIP phone line-up was critical, then developing the code to handle multiple customers, scripts for bulk provisioning, and securing space in a data center were several of the activities that consumed our early days.
Bob Conner: We also had to find some businesses that were willing to take a chance on us. Looking back, we owe so much to those businesses, as they put their faith in us on such an important part of their business. Thank goodness for visionary, early adapters, or our early days would have been more of a struggle. We simply had to have confidence in our vision, which was to develop an enterprise-class phone system and service that drove economic and operational benefits to small and mid-sized businesses.
Q: What was another early challenge you faced?
Conner: After securing those initial clients, we obviously needed to get more on board quickly to fund our operations. In 2005, the VoIP was still conceptual or unknown to the business marketplace, certainly within the small to mid-sized business community. There was enough fear of the technology that we even avoided using the term VoIP, instead marketing as digital phone service.
Wells: Well, some of those fears were legitimate, as general internet stability and capacity were not as they are today. We tackled those fears head on with our approach to voice quality.
Q: What were your early learnings in starting up sipVine?
Conner: There were many for sure. Perhaps the biggest lesson learned was to hire great people and ones that would bring skills and capabilities to the company that add to our skill set, not duplicate those that exist. Such an approach allows you to be more well-rounded as a company and reliant upon the many, not the few, to achieve your goals.
Q: Some say voice quality over VoIP is still a concern. What has been your approach to addressing this?
Wells: True, most hosted VoIP providers address it differently, as they suggest to their customers that they simply add bandwidth. Not only do we believe that approach is financially inefficient, but isn't always effective. sipVine deploys a router or a transparent bridge device on our customer's network, which has our QoS software [Quality of Service] built in. This approach prioritizes voice packets over data, ensuring your voice calls are crisp and clear. If there are other factors impacting voice quality, we always work with our clients to help diagnose and solve them. We believe this is a huge differentiator for us in the market.
Q: How else do you differentiate your business in the marketplace?
Mark Greim: We do not require contracts, which definitely is a different approach than the traditional phone service providers. Where that is a very tangible difference, the root of our differentiation is our approach to customer service. We want to earn our customers' business every day. Our investment in resources is such that everyone strives to really know each and every one of our customers. How different is that? Try calling a large telecom or national VoIP provider and see if their call center approach stands up against our attitude of being our customer's personal phone department. As we grow, we are challenged to build tools, systems, and processes to maintain this approach.
Conner: As Mark indicated, this approach to our customer service has led to a loyal customer base. Those first clients we had in 2005 are still on board, and we have very little customer churn, despite the fact that we do not hold customers to term contracts!
Wells: I'll add that our knowledge of our customers comes from the fact that we are willing to build their phone system and call flow in a customized manner. We are also there to take over all administration, so we do act as their phone department. Our sales team captures the particulars on how the system should be built to match their unique needs, and my team builds the system and "gets to know" the customer from that standpoint. Therefore, when the customer calls in for service, we have been exposed to how their business operates from the communication standpoint.
Q: Who are your competitors?
Greim: This has definitely changed over time. In our early days, our competition was more of the technology than a provider. Getting people to embrace VoIP over analog systems was a competitive hurdle for sure. Soon thereafter, we were in daily competition with the incumbent providers, which were your typical large telecom providers such as AT&T and CenturyLink. Other regional providers came into play as well. Today, we are seeing more and more national VoIP providers out there who display the same approach to customer service as the traditional carriers, which provide us an angle to differentiate ourselves.
Q: What is your biggest marketing challenge?
Greim: We invest our available funding into human resources to maintain and grow our business and not into marketing. We are not going to fund traditional marketing efforts, as it is difficult to compete against the budgets of the major telecom and well-funded national VoIP providers. Thus, we are challenged to market over the internet using social media, search engine optimization, and paid search. The challenge is high as any search term involving VoIP is very expensive and dominated by the nationals. Every day, everyone at sipVine works hard to be company evangelists, as getting the word out about us and our approach to service is definitely resonating in the business community.
Q: Businesses go through several stages. What stage do you see sipVine in today?
Conner: It is hard to believe we are already nine years into our business. I would like to think we were still entrepreneurial in spirit, but the reality is that we've moved into more of an operational stage. Early on, everyone wore many hats and they were charged to get it done regardless of title or role. Today, we have processes, operational structures, and clearly defined roles and responsibilities, so it feels a little less entrepreneurial. We are still growing each and every month and endeavor to maintain the spirit of innovation and development.
Q: Speaking of development, what's next for sipVine?
Wells: There's always something going on from an operational efficiency and network development standpoint. Those efforts are not always visible to the customer, however. We do have several items on our product roadmap, including some new phones and on-line resources.
Q: What message do you have for entrepreneurs?
Conner: I'm glad you asked that question, as I have a strong affinity toward the business start-up community. In fact, we have supported many start-ups over the years. There are so many lessons to share, but I'll boil it down to a couple of key points. Grow within your means and avoid debt. It is difficult to do, but if you are able to reinvest your profits into resources for service and growth, you'll avoid the traps that huge amounts of venture capital can bring and maintain control of your destiny. I would add that even though your product and service may be very cool, build your business around offering exceptional customer service and make it a strong part of your culture. Such an approach will lead to the most effective marketing avenue: referrals!
sipVine is a hosted digital phone solutions provider to businesses of all sizes. You can reach sipVine by calling their toll-free number, (855) 747-8463, or by visiting their website at www.sipvine.com.
This interview was condensed and edited.
Steven James Scearce
is an independent journalist and blogger who specializes in technology, business, and marketing. View his LinkedIn profile