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Israeli start-up turns your email into a phone

Posted By Nicky Blackburn On August 26, 2007 @ 10:46 am In | No Comments

Yoomba CEO Elad Hemar: ‘We’ve got to a situation where people have to manage four separate identities and four separate address books just to talk to 20 people. That’s not instant communication.’Phoning from your email? Elad Hemar admits that at first it sounds ludicrous. But this is exactly the service Yoomba, the Israeli company Hemar cofounded and launched just a few weeks ago, has developed.

Subscribers who use the Yoomba online service can make web-based calls or instant-message anyone with an email address. It doesn’t matter if the user is a member of Skype, or Yahoo, or Google, all you need is an email address and a telephone headset. The service is easy to use, and free, whether you’re calling your neighbor or your Aunt Gladys in Australia. Missed calls go to voicemail.

“It won’t be long before you hear people saying ‘Give me a call on my email’,” says 36-year-old CEO Hemar. “If you Yoomba enable your email, it becomes like a phone number. You don’t have to register a new identity, or learn new applications. The software works in Outlook, Outlook Express, Microsoft Hotmail, Yahoo Mail and Google. You just click a button and make the call to anyone, even if they don’t have Yoomba software. It’s as simple as sending an email.”

While web-based calling and instant messaging are now ubiquitous on the Net, the current systems are closed. If you belong to Skype, you can only speak to Skype users. The same goes for every other service.

While Internet users have been campaigning for interoperability for over 10 years; the portals, whose main interest is obviously to bring as many users to their domain as possible for business reasons, have resisted all efforts and instant communication has remained closed.

It was frustration with this closed communications experience that drove Hemar and co-founder Ronen Babayoff, to look for an alternative. “It just doesn’t make sense to continue in this way,” Hemar tells ISRAEL21c. “People are tied to specific closed portals. If they want to talk to someone on Gmail, they have to register on Gmail, the same is true with Yahoo or any of the other portals. There is a lack of immediacy here. People can’t communicate freely. We’ve got to a situation where people have to manage four separate identities and four separate address books just to talk to 20 people. That’s not instant communication.”

With this in mind the two men examined today’s two most successful modes of communication – email, and the mobile phone – to see if they could repeat this experience with web-based calling.

“With email and the mobile phone communication is direct. With e-mail all you need to know is the e-mail address and you can send a message. The user replies with a click of a button. The same is true of the mobile phone. You can call anyone you want, and they reply instantly,” says Hemar. “We wanted to provide that same flexibility on the web.”

Yoomba was founded in 2006, and the project was initially self-funded using money Hemar and Babayoff raised from their previous company, Informative.com, an interactive marketing solutions company based in the bay area of San Francisco. At the start of 2007, the company closed a round of financing with two large VC companies, Global Catalyst Partners and US Venture Partners. Hemar declines to give details of how much the round was worth, but says it was sizable. It’s thought to be in the region of several million dollars.

“It’s an impressive round of financing for a pre-launch company in Israel,” admits Hemar.

The technology was launched in July at a conference in San Francisco, and just two weeks later had managed to attract subscribers from 55 countries around the world including India, Brazil, France, Italy and the US. Subscriber numbers have not yet been released, but Hemar says he plans to announce them in an “orderly fashion”.

Yoomba built its software by laying a peer-to-peer topology over the e-mail network. “It’s like a parallel layer over the existing network,” explains Hemar.

The program also brings all your e-mail connections into one place. “We call it the empty fridge problem,” says Hemar. “When you go to buy a fridge you are excited to use it. You bring it home, install it, and when you open it up, it’s empty. It’s the same with all these communication networks. You register, and do the application, open it up and it’s empty. You have to start adding users within the closed application. We don’t do that. We load everything up so that when you open the program, it’s already there.”

The program requires Active-X to run efficiently, though users who prefer to download the program traditionally can do so. Hemar insists emphatically that there is no spyware or adware added. “We only have good stuff. Babayoff and I are both Internet users like everyone else, and we wouldn’t do to our users what we wouldn’t want done to ourselves. We hate spyware and adware and don’t want to do them.”

There were some user complaints that the program spams a user’s e-mail address book, but Hemar refutes this. “We never send out anything behind the scenes. We want to make things as easy as possible for our users, and if we keep repeating ‘Are you sure you want to send’, people will get fed up. They like things to be fast, easy and immediate. On the other hand we don’t send out invitations without user approval. The people who complained probably just didn’t read the text.

“In the first week, we had over 1,000 blogs, and 96 percent of that was positive. There were a few complaints, but when you have hundreds of thousands of users, and probably millions in the future, there will always be a few that are unhappy. We are, however, fixing and improving things all the time. We didn’t want our users to be upset.”

Today Yoomba employs 20 people, most of whom work out of the company’s headquarters in Menlo Park, California. There is also staff at the company’s R&D offices in Herzliya in Israel.

Hemar’s goal is to keep Yoomba free of charge. “This is what users want and the way the Internet works,” he explains. In future, the company will explore sponsorship, advertising and other business models. “If it grows properly we will find a way to monetize around it,” says Hemar.

As for the future, well Hemar is cagey. He doesn’t want to say too much. He tells a story instead. When the program was launched in July, an Israeli journalist came to him and asked how on earth he had managed to keep the earlier round of fund-raising out of what is a notoriously gossip-ridden press. “It was a good investment but we found a way to focus on the important stuff,” says Hemar. “We really want to focus on building a great product and a great experience for users, and that’s the important thing here. Not how much money we raised or the number of subscribers, or what we are going to do next.”

He does give a hint, however. “In the future we will be able to do more than just phone or text. Next year I see the announcement of new services and new ideas. We are building Yoomba to be an Internet company, not a telephony company,” says Hemar. “This is the new Internet. It’s not the separate, walled-off Internet of the past. We’ve taken the only universal online network – the email – and built our service on top.”

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