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FreeConferenceCall.com founder helped by the perfect name

David Erickson says the Long Beach company's moniker still drives most of its sign-ups.

September 18, 2011|By Salvador Rodriguez, Los Angeles Times
  • Dave Erickson, founder and CEO of FreeConferenceCall.com, is shown in his office in July. The Long Beach company recently moved to a new building.
Dave Erickson, founder and CEO of FreeConferenceCall.com, is shown in… (Ricardo DeAratanha, Los…)

The gig: David Erickson is the founder and chief executive of FreeConferenceCall.com, the nation's largest privately owned conference calling service. Started 10 years ago, the Long Beach company now has 60 employees and handles 20 million calls a month. The service counts as its customers small businesses, nonprofit groups, government agencies and religious organizations. It also was used by then-Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. John McCain to coordinate their 2008 presidential campaigns.

Restless: A native of Downey, Erickson skipped college to work in construction. When he was 23, he persuaded owners of a curb and gutter company to sell him the business with no money down; he paid back a portion before selling the company and its debt two years later. Erickson was able to negotiate another no-money-down purchase of a company when he took over a landscaping business, which he ran for a little over a year before shutting it down. Erickson also tried his hand at insurance, getting an agent's license and starting his own investment annuities firm.

Finding his place: It wasn't until Erickson came across someone using a computer to make a video call that he became interested in the telecommunications industry. He hired a programmer to help him develop vDesk, a program that allowed users to make voice calls, hold video conferences and share what was on their computer screens with others.

When a door closes…: But few businesses were willing to pay for the vDesk service, and then a rival offered a similar service for free. "What started my mind thinking was, 'How can I give away a conference call for free to compete with them? Because if they're going to give what I do for free, I'm going to give what they do for free,'" he said. Conference call providers typically make money in two ways: By charging customers a fee for the call and by sharing toll revenue collected by the phone companies, which often amounts to a fraction of a penny per minute. Erickson wondered what would happen if he cut out the customer fee and just shared the toll revenue with the phone companies. He could say the service was free. All he needed was a volume of calls so great that the fractions added up to meaningful revenue.

It's all in the name: With not much cash to start his business, let alone buy publicity, Erickson knew the service's name had to be perfect. At 3 a.m. Oct. 26, 2001, after hours of agonizing over a name, Erickson thought, "Why not just call it what it is?" The next day he checked Web registrars and FreeConferenceCall.com was available. "I kept checking the spelling because I was thinking 'You know, I probably spelled it wrong, and I'm going to release it spelled wrong,'" he said. "All of a sudden it just seemed like the name I had to have."

With an obvious name like that, generating call volume was no issue, and the name still drives 78% of sign-ups. "As soon as I got it together and saw the registrations happening and the people signing up and people calling the toll-free line saying, 'So this is it? I don't get a bill?' I knew they were so excited they were bound to be talking to their friends about it," he said.

One-man show: Business took off, but for more than two years Erickson was the only employee: He was the accountant, the customer service agent and the Web master. "I knew what [customers] wanted to see in my service, the problems they were having, their visions for what it could be," he said.

Moving up: Even as the company grew to include 60 employees and moved to a new building, Erickson said he refused to stray from his core business beliefs: no borrowing, find the most efficient way to do things and listen to customers. The company, which saw its revenue grow to $23 million last year from $17 million in 2009, is aiming to increase its market share of conference calling to 30% from 10%. "I know those are really big numbers, but I think that we're on our way," he said. "So long as we're giving the consumer what they want, and the consumer is happy and we're getting all their needs, then the only thing left is growth."

business@latimes.com

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