Rasello and Seconds Tapping Into SMS for Businesses

Smartphone growth is trending upward worldwide, but there’s still a huge percentage of the population using feature phones, and another group of users for whom a stable and consistent data connection is little more than a dream. A couple recent startups are poised to address those markets directly, both in emerging markets and in North America.

Tanzania-based Rasello, a new company out of SeedStartup‘s pilot program, launched in December to service the East African market, and aims to provide businesses operating in the area with a direct B2C route for reaching their potential audience. “Over 90 percent of businesses in Africa lack online presence,” Rasello co-founder Natalino Mwenda told BetaKit in an interview. “Having done extensive research we further discovered that businesses lack a direct cost effective avenue to communicate to current and potential customers – so we came up with Rasello Broadcasts.”

Rasello Broadcasts are a way for customers to sign up for updates from businesses. In effect, customers can sign up to “follow” businesses, much as they would on a social network, but since the system works via SMS as well as online, it doesn’t require an active data connection or smartphone to use. In Africa, advertisement firm InMobi estimates that around nearly 13 million of its mobile ad impressions comes from what it calls “Advanced” phones, vs. just about three million for smartphones. It’s true that a lot of those phones have access to some degree of web browsing functionality, but they don’t offer the ability to install apps, and, as mentioned above, internet availability in the developing world is often spotty at best.

“Unlike other markets, not everyone in Africa has a smartphone (or internet access) enabling them to get info through websites/social API’s – so the real value in this market is enabling people to receive instant information and responding via SMS,” Mwenda said. “SMS broadcasts are direct, instant and get people to consume the information as it hits their mobile phone much faster than any other medium.”

Rasello allows its users to follow and unfollow businesses via SMS short codes, and also specify the frequency with which they want to receive new messages, in order to avoid customers feeling like they’re being spammed. Rasello already has over 200 businesses signed up to use the platform, and it can provide those businesses with analytics information about their customers, so long as they sign up with Rasello’s free, web-based “xpad” platform for online notifications. It’s free for businesses to sign up to send online broadcasts, and prices for SMS broadcasts vary.

Like Rasello, Seattle-based Seconds uses SMS to connect businesses to customers, but it targets a very different audience, and provides a completely different solution as a result. Seconds allows users to interact directly with businesses via SMS in real-time, and also complete single-party transactions via text message, too. That means that in theory, you could see a poster advertising an iPad, for example, text a number specified in the ad, and automatically order an iPad and arrange delivery all in a single step, without an app, and without even a smartphone. Any phone that can send text messages can use Seconds’ system.

Seconds CEO and co-founder Nick Hughes said in an interview that right now, the platform is being used a lot by restaurants. With it, businesses can not only accept payment for delivery and take-out orders via SMS, but also interact directly with the customer to make sure their needs are being met. It’s more personal than a web-based approach, in addition to being more accessible, and also allows for on-the-fly changes. Businesses who want to use Seconds’ platform pay $1 per month per customer, with volume pricing available.

Hughes said Seconds is growing quickly. “Right now, we’re growing at a rate of about 150 percent month over month, and we’re just six months in,” he said, noting that businesses recognize the value of offering a solution that’s not only platform, but even technology-agnostic. In the U.S., smartphone ownership only just managed to exceed 50 percent as of earlier this month, so there’s still plenty of market for Seconds to sell to in terms of customers who don’t have access to apps.

Seconds isn’t just about SMS, however; Hughes said the bigger picture is in establishing user profiles that can be attached to any tech. “We’re more about the software and the identity,” he told us. “Attaching that user identity to other platforms is relatively simple.” That strategy should allow Seconds to work with other mobile communication tech, including NFC and Bluetooth 4.0, as they accrue more popularity.

For now though, both Rasello and Seconds are exploiting a market that often gets lost amid the flash of new technologies, and platforms like iOS and Android that are all about adding new capabilities, rather than making the most of what’s already there. Until strong, dependable mobile internet connections are ubiquitous and smartphones reign supreme, that’s still a market with plenty of growth opportunity for players with creative approaches.

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