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Business Observer Friday, Jan. 22, 2010 11 years ago

1-800 Niche Filled

A Gulf Coast entrepreneur is on a mission to show fellow entrepreneurs the power of the toll-free vanity phone number.
by: Mark Gordon Managing Editor

In a social-media driven world dominated by Twitter tweets and Facebook posts, the 1-800 jingle might seem to be an old-fashioned way to reach customers.

But David Ashley is no fuddy-duddy.

The east Manatee County-based entrepreneur has sung various 1-800 jingles thousands of times as he built a unique and profitable business over the last two decades. Ashley's company, Telename Communications, leases toll-free vanity numbers to other businesses and routes and monitors the incoming calls.

Says Ashley: “Our customers have found a simple yet effective way of ingraining their numbers in the heads of potential customers.”

Here's how it works: Telename controls more than 700 phone numbers for the U.S. and Canada that start with 1-800 and 1-888, from 1-800-Income Tax to 1-800-Tinting. Other numbers the company controls include 1-800-Brake Repair, 1-800-Drain Clean and 1-800-Weight Loss.

Telename will provide the applicable toll-free vanity number to a business in one of more than 200 metro markets in North America. Fees run from $100 to $200 a month for a company to sign up with Telename.

The beauty to Telename is it can rent the same number to 200 businesses, all in the same industry. So, for example, the company can rent the number 1-800-Skincare to doctors' offices anywhere from Sarasota to San Francisco.

Telename then routes each incoming call to the proper location through a central office it runs in Yakima, Wash. Telename can even route calls within a metro market or area code. So for instance, an air conditioning repair company with offices in Venice, Sarasota and Bradenton — all 941 area code numbers — can have its calls sent to the proper office.

Just like any other toll-free number, the call is free to the caller. But in addition to the fee for using the number, a Telename client pays per call he receives, usually at a rate of 7.9 cents a minute. Of course, a high call volume likely translates to more potential business.

Theo Etzel, president of Naples-based Conditioned Air, has been a Telename client since the mid-1990s, soon after Ashley founded the business. Prior to Telename, Etzel plastered a standard, phone-company issued, non-memorable phone number to his company's trucks and vans.

“Now people associate 1-800 Cold Air with us,” says Etzel. “It has given us real top of the mind reference with customers.”

Ashley came by the business nearly 20 years ago by accident. At the time, Ashley sold real estate in his native New Jersey. He had virtually given up on a previous career: Bartending and training bartenders.

That work had taken Ashley to Sarasota, where Bennigan's hired him to train its bartenders in the late 1980s. Ashley returned to New Jersey in 1991 — but he kept up payments to AT&T on 1-800-Bartending, a number he picked up when he thought he was going to run a bartending school.

The career, however, hadn't given up on Ashley. Turns out a Philadelphia-based bartending school had run radio ads using a similar phone number, without the 1-800. Yet Ashley would still get several wrong number calls a day, usually right after the ad ran on the radio.

So Ashley called the owner of the school and told him what was going on. The owner told Ashley he ran other schools on the East Coast, all with a similar number based on the local area code.

Ashley says he went to sleep that night literally dreaming about the business possibilities. He spoke with AT&T about the technology side of his idea. Once he had the concept down he launched Telename — what he then called the marriage between a toll-free vanity number and a small business.

Ashley declines to discuss Telename's annual revenue base, only to say that it's more than $1 million a year.

Ashley's big challenge in 2010 is something he shares with many clients: He wants to increase sales in an environment where businesses want to cut back, not spend more.

One way Ashley plans to tackle that challenge is to have Telename do more face-to-face sales pitches. He recently hired independent contractors to recruit clients in California, New York and Washington state. Like any good entrepreneur, Ashley believes once he gets in front of a potential customer, his product will sell itself.

“Small businesses are bombarded by all sorts of solicitations,” says Ashley. “It's hard to break through that and talk to them.”

1-800 Don't Do This
David Ashley's company, Lakewood Ranch-based Telename Communications, has provided toll-free vanity phone numbers to companies for almost 20 years. There are some common errors Ashley says he sees when businesses sign up for a 1-800 number.

The top five mistakes:

• Number hybrids: Ashley says this is the most common mistake he sees, when a business owner combines words with digits for the number, such as 1-800-493-TINT. The first part of the number with the digits clouds the words and the entire number is usually forgotten pretty quickly. “A hybrid might save a few dollars on the monthly fee,” says Ashley, “but over time, you'll throw away thousands on advertising and thousands more in missed business opportunities.”

• Stick with 800: Ashley says the 877 and 866 prefixes, which he will provide to clients, tend to produce more misdials. The 1-800 number, he says, is still the most recognizable number to the general public.

• Vanity selection: Choose a 1-800 number that tracks the industry, not the name of your company. So 1-800-Car Rent could work for a rental car business, but 1-800 Joe's Cars isn't as clear. Says Ashley: “Avoid spelling out your company name unless you are sure everyone knows your company name.”

• Spelling Bee: Make sure the number you choose is easy to spell. Avoid letters such as Q or Z, since not all telephone keypads have those letters.

• Spread the wealth: Don't be selective with the placement of the vanity number. It shouldn't just be a jingle to go at the end of a radio ad, but a full-fledged marketing and branding tool. “Make it the front door to your business for everything you do that the public sees or hears,” Ashley says. “There is a reason why FedEx places the 1-800-Go FedEx number in all of their advertising.”

— Mark Gordon

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