Who’s your person that you turn to for X? You know — that barista that knows your order by heart, the tailor that makes every piece you bring fit bespoke, or the plumber that saved you from flooding your bathroom… twice.
When you have an “in” with an amazing small business you’re set, but getting in can sometimes be a challenge. Small business owners focus on their craft and providing goods and services to existing clients, often at the expense of picking up phone calls to address potential inquiries. That’s what Bob Summers, ODF6, realised when he was setting up a Google Ads project for small businesses around the world.
As a result, he decided to make it his mission to empower small businesses with conversational AI capabilities in order to convert phone calls into new clients. Goodcall serves as a stand-in employee for answering calls — no matter the time of day or night — to answer questions that make up the majority of inbound calls. It allows small businesses owners to service current and potential clients, creating more sustainable and growing enterprises.
But when Bob initially came to On Deck, he was at a crossroads. The decision to pursue Goodcall would mean having to leave a stable job at Google in the midst of a global pandemic.
Surrounded by a new network of ambitious builders, he was emboldened to take the leap. Less than 6 months after leaving Google, Goodcall is announcing an overextended $4 million funding round led by Neo and joined by Foothill Ventures (first investor in Zoom), Merus Capital, Xoogler Ventures, Spencer Rascoff (Zillow co-founder and ex-CEO), Harry Hurst (cofounder Pipe), and others.
Ahead of the company’s official launch, Bob met with us to share his experience leading up to the big day, including: fundraising, On Deck, and making the decision to leave Google.
What an exciting time for Goodcall! Thank you for sitting down with us. Could you give us some insights into your entrepreneurial journey?
I have a computer engineering degree from Virginia Tech and an MBA from MIT. And I had done five startups before I joined Google.
The most successful of those was a video conferencing application, nanoCom, which reached 5 million people. I grew the company out of my apartment in a small rural town in Virginia. It was pretty good, a paid product for consumer video conferencing, but its downfall was the introduction of Skype, a free product with $50 million in venture capital. That sent us into a tailspin and wiped us out. I didn't know anything about venture capital. That's why I went to MIT to do the MBA. I was thinking, “Oh, my God. I don't have the right design pattern. I need to learn more and broaden my understanding of the world a bit.”
Then I spent a little bit of time in venture capital and angel investing. But I realized that I like to build things and I got back into products. The company I had right before I joined Google was called Fitnet, which is a personal trainer for everyone. Fitnet connected personal trainers with their clients using iPhones. It was a live and on-demand fitness platform using the selfie camera to watch users move and to give scores. Ultimately, we weren't able to make it work.
As the project was winding down, Google came to me and said, “Hey, you’re entrepreneurial! We've got this project focusing on local, small businesses.” The project, in Ads, made it easier for local businesses to advertise and get customers through Google. Usually, Google advertising is very complicated — used by big companies with big marketing budgets. The problem seemed to be that Google wasn’t helping small businesses.
The project launched a small ad unit in San Francisco for plumbers, locksmiths, and HVAC businesses which relied on phone calls. When the businesses decided they wanted more leads, they would turn the service on. They didn't have to worry about the copy, or the editing, or the auction, or any of that stuff. Google took care of all that on the back end. Google would charge $20 for each call that would come to the business. I was hired as a Google product leader to grow that unit from San Francisco, nationally, and globally.
That’s an incredible opportunity to land with your entrepreneurial background. How did that pave the way for Goodcall?
Through my work with Google Ads, I discovered a really interesting problem. Small businesses don’t prioritize an inbound phone call over the activity that they actually specialize in. As much as we want to connect with our local business, they're actually not set up for scaled customer acquisition.
My thesis was to bring Google's conversational AI, Google Assistant, to businesses. Conversational AIs (like Google Assistant, Amazon, Alexa, and Siri) allow you to talk to a computer and they will do something — maybe answer back or set a timer or reminder.
The idea was to apply those capabilities to the small business space. For example, to answer simple questions like: “Are you open today? How much do you charge? Do you have vegan options? Do you have WiFi? Are you dog friendly?” These are questions you might call about before going to a store or cafe. They tend to be repetitive, so anyone can be trained to answer them.
I spoke about this idea internally. It won a Google hackathon and received good support. I then found an incubator in Google called Area 120 and received full funding to build this project. It was launched as CallJoy and was extremely successful.
Especially after COVID started, it was growing. The key product metrics were positive, but from Google’s perspective it didn't quite fit within the universe of something to scale in Google. It was determined that there was potential if it was grown outside of Google. CallJoy was shut down last July. The burden was on me to decide what to do.
That's where I was a year ago. I either had to continue working at Google on a new project or leave the company to continue the vision as a startup.
That’s an incredibly difficult decision to make. What encouraged you to take the leap back into entrepreneurship?
There were all these things weighing on my shoulders at the time. Leaving the comfort and security of big tech to go do a startup was very hard. Even though I'd done startups in the past, I live in Silicon Valley with a family — it's very difficult to make that decision.
Last July or August, a Business Insider article caught my eye. It was about a company that had formed during COVID and raised $2 million, where the founders met each other when they had joined On Deck. I had never heard of On Deck before that, but in October 2020 I ended up joining the ODF6 cohort. Ultimately the On Deck Founder Fellowship provided me the confidence and the additional network I didn't have to take the leap.
Part of my journey was to validate that this was a good idea — that there was market opportunity — and that it could be technologically done outside of Google. The last thing was that Google would clear it, making it legal for me to work on the idea. While I was in ODF, I cleared all three of those hurdles.
Toward the end of my Fellowship, Goodcall was selected by On Deck to present in front of a group of VCs at Demo Day. There were 20 or 30 companies presenting in front of around 150 VCs. I presented on December 12th and within a couple of days, I had leads saying, “We want to fund you. We want to learn more.”
That started to give me some confidence. Most importantly, there were people that said, “If you leave Google and you build this, we will be your customer. We will distribute it for you.”
When I left Google in January, I had no expectation of being able to raise a single dollar. I didn't know what the environment would be. I had raised money in the past with my other startups, but I wasn't sure what was going to happen. My wife and I had decided that I could try for 18 months, use savings, and then in the worst case scenario I would go get another “big tech” job.
By the end of March, we had closed $4 million in fundraising — double the amount that we had targeted.
That’s incredible. Could you share how that process worked?
I engaged the On Deck Fundraising Concierge plus there was the group of people who saw me pitch at Demo Day. There were 20 solid leads and I followed up with every single one. Some of them were very prestigious names like Sequoia and a couple of other big brand VCs.
Some said “no” but a couple of them proceeded and did diligence. A couple of those went forward. If one person put in money personally they then referred me to a friend and that person would put in a significant amount of capital. I would say 20% of the fundraise came through On Deck.
The rest of it came through connections from Google. That Google relationship lives on even after we leave. Part of what makes jobs at Google and some other big tech companies really good is that their networks exist even beyond employment. That’s certainly the case for the relationships that I built.
Could you explain how the On Deck process affected fundraising?
In October I formed a team of six people for the global build weekend. We were a fully remote group of folks located in New York, Brazil, Austin, and San Francisco.
Some of the product questions had been solved prior at CallJoy, but we were starting from scratch and building a prototype, trying to get it in front of customers by the end of the weekend. We built the prototype and won two out of the four categories — People's Choice, voted on by the On Deck Fellows, and then the VCs’ top prize.
So I had a prototype and in preparation for the December pitch, we received pitch training led by Melissa Karginnakis, ODF5 and co-founder of skritswap. She taught us how the best pitches are done. Melissa taught us about pausing — letting people hear what you’re saying. I never practiced that before. In fact, when I get nervous, I get really fast. I practiced; so, when I went into Demo Day with a refined pitch.
When I started fundraising, I already had my assets. I had the prototype product, the business plan, and the pitch was good. There was momentum. The alternative is I didn't do On Deck and I'm starting from zero.
What have you earmarked the funding for?
It enabled us to hire the core team by the beginning of April, one of whom was my former CTO from Fitnet. We are a remote-first team, so he still lives in Virginia.
Then I was looking for a designer-product leader and had trouble finding them.
Based on my experience, I knew that the quality of the people in On Deck was high. Every single person that I interfaced with, or got to work with, met this common bar. It's not unlike the network inside of Google. You're at this certain echelon — everyone is hard working, curious, and clearly open to remote collaboration.
So, I went to the On Deck directory. I started looking for anyone that was in design or product and started sending messages through Slack and On Deck. And I found Phil Wall (ODF2) who had been doing contract work and was looking to join.
The first contact I had with Phil was through a Slack message in the On Deck channel. We hit it off immediately and it was great because we were both from On Deck. As I went through an interview process and I realized that more than just a designer, Phil was also really rich in product sense. So the core team was founded — myself, Phil, and Daniel. We've been working since the beginning of April towards a launch.
Along the way we've hired some contractors. And we have a summer intern, who is a Stanford senior — top of this class in AI.
What are the upcoming things we can expect to see from Goodcall?
We're going to launch Goodcall as a free product. We are providing this service at no cost to the solo entrepreneur — to a single store, single phone number. When they start adding a location or other staff members they can upgrade to our pro and premium plans. For those we charge $19 or $49 per month, which is an incredible value in the marketplace. It's designed to be that way.
Because small businesses are classically difficult to get in touch with, difficult to connect with, we depend on our partners for distribution and assistance. At launch, we'll be partnered and fully integrated with Yelp, which is the number one place for local reviews. Beyond that there are other major platforms that we're working with now. But we're seeking additional partnerships with big platforms that work with local businesses.
Our number one mission is to empower local shops and services to grow. We’re going to ease the burden of choosing whether to serve the person in front of them or the one that's calling on the phone. We’re especially proud to provide this service at no cost to those solo business owners.
Learn more about how to partner with Goodcall for distribution here.
Empower small businesses to help more customers by joining the Goodcall team.
“I've always had a soft spot for helping the "little guy" with access to cutting edge tech that was previously only available to those with big budgets. From my first startup, LinkExchange, to past investments like Thumbtack and others, I've consistently seen massive opportunities in catering to local businesses. Bob's technical leadership, his experience doing similar work at Google, and his passion for nurturing young talent made him a natural fit for Neo."
— Ali Partovi, CEO, Neo
Note: This is part of a series where we talk to On Deck Founders alumni about the companies they’re building and what it will take to propel them to the next level. Consider joining our incredible community of founders who have launched over 1000 companies worth over $9B. Apply here.