Stuart Levinson #24

Startup Entrepreneur

Talk To, CEO and Co-Founder

It's helpful if the person who originates the idea is opinionated. Trust your instincts.





Interview by Heidi Legg

Would you describe your first STARTUP?

My first startup in 1993 was called Venetica and we were the first to market with software that helped banks, pharma, and government tie large content systems together. I started the company with $45,000 and spent three or four years building up the cash flow from our services business.

You seeded yourself?

Yes, with friends and family. About 5 years in we recognized a need for something in our industry that didn't yet exist and we went for it, funneling all of our cash flow into a product and transforming ourselves into a software company.

What was exceptional about the company at the time is that it wasn't exceptional. It was the time of the Internet and bubbles and bust; it was all about how fast could you go and how fast could you own the market, while we were funding ourselves and moving very slowly. Then the Internet bubble burst, and we were just growing a little each year. Slow and steady.  In 2004, IBM acquired the company.

What did you LEARN?

And what I have learned from TalkTo is that the only way to do this is to surround myself with amazing people. They're a source of inspiration for me because they're smarter than I am and they're hugely passionate. When I get into a place where I don't have the energy to make this thing happen and I walk in and feel the passion they have for what they're doing, it just brings me right back up. I have found recently that I have mentors inside the business and that for the first time, I am going to people that work with me and say, 'what do you think I should be doing here? What advice would you give me?' It’s powerful and it's honest feedback, and it's more helpful for me than anything else.

How did you end up in CAMBRIDGE?

I left IBM in 2006 and went abroad with the family for a couple years before finding Boston and starting over.

What's burning a hole on your DESK?

This is a funny one for me because I share a small desk at home with our nine year old, so I'm lucky if I can find the keyboard and the mouse. It's covered with gorillas and Minecraft and art projects, and at work I share a large workspace with the team. The only constant between them are my notebooks. I live online all day long but all of my important thoughts and ideas go into a notebook. Obviously running TalkTo is the main focus right now.


TalkTo is the first way to text any local business as easily as you text a friend. When you need to check for pricing and availability or to make an appointment or find a table at a local restaurant, you don't need to call anymore. You can text any one of them in America or Canada and you'll get a text response within a few minutes.

We're totally changing the way people think about contacting local businesses when they need something, and it started with this crazy idea that we all text each other because we don't want to talk on the phone anymore. Yet when we have to call City Sports to ask if they sell kids’ soccer shoes, we end up on hold while they check inventory and when we'd call a hotel and say, 'do you have a room available?’ we find ourselves on hold, being transferred, etc.  Why can't we just say this is the name of the place, this is what I want and then get on with our day? It’s about saving time. It's about avoiding phone calls. It's about a modern way to communicate with the places that are around us.

When did you know you were onto SOMETHING?

My co-founder Riley Crane and the others on the team, we'd been working on this idea for about a year and then one Friday afternoon, Jennifer and I and the kids were trying to get out of town for a road trip. As we were getting ready to leave, I texted a restaurant in New Hampshire to see if they had a table available for that night and then I texted a hotel that I knew of in Maine along the way to see if they had connecting rooms and if they had Wi-Fi. I sent it and forgot about it and loaded the luggage into the car, and as we were backing out of the driveway, my phone buzzed. I looked down and there was a text message from the restaurant saying, 'we've got a table. We'll see you at 8:00' and then a few minutes later, I get a text from the hotel saying, 'we do have connecting rooms and we have free Wi-Fi'. That was the first moment I felt the magic of what we were doing.

I had even forgotten that I had sent the message. It was that powerful that I was able to send it and get it off my mind and then get that response.

We were then selected out of 1,200 startups to be a finalist at the biggest tech conference of the year for startups. It was Tech Crunch Disrupt San Francisco and six from 1,200 were selected. We suddenly found ourselves on stage presenting to thousands of people with people like Marissa Mayer, now the CEO of Yahoo, and the top VCs in the country grilling us live. It was a huge moment and then we started to get attention from consumers and from venture capital and it's been a whirlwind ever since.


Here is Techcrunch Disrupt video

Do you give out numbers yet?


What do you want to change about PUBLIC OPINION?

When we tell people that you should be able to text any local business, they look at you with glazed eyes and the first reaction is, 'you can't do that. That's impossible'. People think that in order to contact a store or restaurant or salon, you have to pick up the phone and call them and so we're totally disrupting the way people think about connecting with local merchants. I think sometimes the simplest ideas are the most powerful.

We're changing habits. This idea that you can text local businesses as easily as you text friends is a new behavior.

Once you start using it, you wonder why we weren't able to do this three years ago, so I think the thing we're trying to change is behavior rather than opinion. If you call a store to find out if they have something, then we failed. If you call to find out if a table's available tomorrow night, then we failed. If you call to book a haircut appointment or a nail appointment or a yoga class, then we failed because you can text every single business in the United States or Canada and you'll get a text response from us within a few minutes.

ANYWHERE in the North America?

This is one of the important things that we did in the very beginning, which is we didn't want to come at this from the merchant side. We came at it from the other side and decided that before we launch, we want every single restaurant, store, salon, hotel, and local business available to text from day one. The way we do that is studying how to route messages to businesses. Sometimes we chat it to them, sometimes email it to managers on the floor of the store. If we don't know how to route your message, then we have a call center that makes the phone call for you. If we don't know how to route it digitally, then we make an old-fashioned phone call. We do the work for you to get the response and we send you back a text.

What’s your REVENUE model?

If we're the easiest way for you to communicate with local businesses, then we're going to be in between lots of commerce transactions. We have an opportunity to monetize that consumer end business transaction, and then there are lots of other advertising and affiliate relationships.

We raised $3 million and we're using that money to make TalkTo as simple and delightful for consumers as possible. All we care about right now is making it the easiest way to interact with businesses.

How do people DISCOVER TalkTo?

Word of mouth. One night at midnight we put together a video saying, 'Hey, we're TalkTo. This is what we're doing,' and Tech Crunch called and said they wanted to interview us and we went down to New York. That helped.

Where do you get your NEWS?

I'm kind of old school. Wall Street Journal during the week and New York Times on Sunday. And really old school… I love the first twenty minutes of the News Hour.

For real time big events it's Twitter, anything David Brooks has to say, and I subscribe to the Economist.

I'm inundated with tech news all day and not only from blogs that I follow but also from my team who send out their favorite posts and articles.


Moving to Cambridge in November. We've been living abroad and generally moving around for a lot of years. We have loved our apartment in Boston and living along the river and getting to know the city, but it will be so amazing for our kids to be surrounded by kids. The shops on Huron are village-like and Cambridge is an amazing place. I love the people here.

What's your SECRET SOURCE?

The reading room at the Boston Public Library at Copley. I started spending one or two days a week there, with the big long tables and green lamps, surrounded by big art and architecture, and lots of other people doing their own thing. On a pretty day there isn't a nicer place to be than the inner courtyard. I have an office now, but when I need to get away to brainstorm or be creative, I steal away to that room in the library and it never disappoints.

Anything you want to SHARE?

It's helpful if the person who originates the idea is opinionated. Trust your instincts. I think it's great to surround yourself with these other ideas and maybe try some of them, but don't lose what you originally wanted to create. You may find that there is room for both ideas to work.

I also thought you'd enjoy a video from Colbert. It's my TalkTo co-founder Riley Crane who was at the Media Lab when I met him and we started brainstorming the ideas that became TalkTo. He became quite famous for winning DARPA's red balloon challenge, finding 10 hidden red balloons around the country in under nine hours.

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