Technology Innovation Awards - Tampa bay Winner by Janet Leiser | Senior Editor
Entrepreneur Happy Rideout founded ReadyAlert Services after seeing the chaos caused when phones went down after the 9/11 attacks. Text messaging works when calls can't be made. Next year will be a big one for the company.
Like many people, fear gripped Happy Rideout and his colleagues at Franklin Templeton Investments as the World Trade Center collapsed.
They worried about their co-workers training at Franklin Templeton's recently acquired New York City office. They couldn't reach them via telephone. Everywhere, frantic callers overloaded phone systems, sending them crashing.
Then an e-mail arrived from the co-worker who usually worked three cubicles away from Rideout at Franklin Templeton's Tampa office. She'd sent a text message from a pager to say she'd escaped.
Out of that experience came the idea for ReadyAlert Services, a Largo firm started by Rideout, 59, a longtime IT guy, and Bob Austin, 55, another tech geek who's also good at marketing and selling.
The entrepreneurs have spent the past several years and $2 million establishing a text messaging system based on proprietary technology to provide service to emergency agencies, such as Pinellas County Emergency Management, the Miami station of the U.S. Coast Guard and all of Florida's fire chiefs. When telephones calls won't go through, text messaging still works on the low-bandwith spectrum.
ReadyAlert can save lives during a hurricane. Or it can be a communication tool for businesses. Florida-based Market Street Mortgage, one of the nation's largest retail mortgage originators, uses it to communicate with employees if there's an emergency such as a hurricane.
"We know text messaging works," Rideout says. "Text messaging worked in the 9/11 attacks. It worked in the London bombings. It worked after the tsunamis. It worked in the hurricanes."
Says Austin: "People are starting to adopt it. They're not so afraid of it. They're recognizing it is affordable and it works."
From church to market
Austin and Rideout were business associates for about 15 years, when Rideout, who developed ReadyAlert's software with the help of three friends, asked for marketing and sales advice.
They met at Rideout's St. Petersburg church on a Saturday.
"They were technical guys," Austin says. "They didn't know about selling; they didn't know how to take it to market."
Austin made an offer.
"I realized this is leading-edge technology," he says. "This is new concept stuff."
Austin joined the company as president in May 2004. There are now four full-time employees, including the two entrepreneurs.
Rideout, the chief executive, and Austin decided their target customer would be small clients, such as fire departments and schools, since national companies provide similar service at a higher price to large customers.
"We knew we didn't want to be everything to everybody," Austin says. "We knew whatever we did, we wanted to do it well and keep it affordable."
At first glance, the technology seems simple. After all, anyone with a computer and Internet connection can send a text message.
But it's more complex. ReadyAlert has 32 claims for patents pending related to the software.
For a starter, cellular telephone service companies typically block numerous messages from one sender, labeling it spam. That was one kink that had to be worked out.
ReadyAlert establishes a database for customers with the contact information, including e-mail addresses and cellular telephone numbers. The database is maintained by the client.
When a customer sends a message, it goes to all addresses in a group. If a person is at home or work or in the car, he'll get the message at all registered e-mail addresses, phone numbers and personal digital assistants.
And ReadyAlert's software automatically formats each message.
"It doesn't matter whether you use Alltel, Nextel or that new Las Vegas company, we are platform neutral," Rideout says. "We have software that says you're sending an alert to Nextel and to format for Nextel, Cingular or Verizon."
Because messages are formatted, they're delivered quickly, he says, adding: "People say, 'Well that's just a few milliseconds.' Well, when you're sending out hundreds or thousands of messages it makes a difference."
The company has three servers, including the two used as backup. The primary one is at Peak 10's Louisville, Ky., facility, far from Florida so it's more likely to survive any hurricane that hits the Sunshine State.
For businesses that need to know their employees received notification, ReadyAlert's two-way service also includes confirmation for the sender. That service is $2 per user per month, with no limit on how many messages can be sent.
Cape Canaveral's port uses ReadyAlert to notify workers when a ship arrives early so the workers are there to meet it.
A NASA engineer unsuccessfully tried to find flaws in the messaging system for three weeks, Rideout says, before finally recommending it to his chief.
One of ReadyAlert's first test clients was the Pinellas County sheriff's SWAT team. The Longboat Key Fire Department is also a customer.
"We spent over a year working on our infrastructure, making sure it works," Rideout says. "If you're going to service SWAT teams, emergency management and fire departments, you're risking people's lives. We had to make sure we had it right."
Prior to ReadyAlert, the Pinellas SWAT team relied on e-mail, which worked about half the time, Rideout says. Pinellas County government contracted with ReadyAlert to provide one-way emergency text messages to all residents.
ReadyAlert provided service free to 15 customers for more than a year to work out kinks and ensure the system's reliability. Technicians upgraded the system on suggestions from customers.
Ready to go
In June 2005, the firm began soliciting paying customers on a large scale. So far, there are about 50,000 users.
"The product is ready," Rideout says. "We don't have a huge amount of development going on anymore."
Most of ReadyAlert's business comes from word-of-mouth. Those who use the service recommend it to others.
After showing the executive director of the Florida Fire Chiefs Association how the service works, they were invited to the association's annual trade show.
"I walked through the show looking for another company like us and I couldn't find one," Austin says. He was told ReadyAlert is the only company that provides the service to fire departments.
"I'm selling to customers something I believe in," Austin says. "I know how it works. I've seen the results. I see it help organizations. I'm not just trying to sell something to make a buck."
Both Rideout and Austin have a lot riding on the company's success.
"We're both investing all our time and energy into the company and not drawing anything out," Austin says.
They've tried, but haven't been able to find outside capital to assist with the building of the infrastructure, so they've had to do it on their own. They have received help from the STAR Technology Enterprise Center, a tech accelerator in Largo where they have an office and receive advice, as requested, from other entrepreneurs that have built successful technology companies.
They say they're on the cusp of becoming profitable within a few months.
"We're at the turning point here pretty quick," Austin says.