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5/9/2004

Incubator spinoff keeps track of phone minutes

By Tony Kindelspire
The Daily Times-Call

LONGMONT — Ask your 15-year-old daughter how many minutes she has left on her cell phone plan for this month. Do you think she’ll know?

This simple question was the inspiration behind the formation of The Alerta Group, a four-person startup company operating out of CTEK-Longmont’s headquarters at 2400 Trade Centre Ave.

For a fee of $24 a year, The Alerta Group keeps track of its clients’ cell phone use and notifies them of the status of their account. They don’t monitor where or to whom calls are made, they simply keep track of an individual’s minutes — and notify them before they go over their plan’s allotted amount and lapse into 40-cents-per-minute land.

Such an idea could very well get the attention of the parents of a lot of 15-year-old girls — so hopes Carl Herrmann, The Alerta Group’s president and CEO.

“At $2 a month, that’s the equivalent of going over your plan by five minutes,” said Herrmann, who launched his company in April of last year. “We have a saying: ‘It’s like a gas gauge for your cell phone.’”

Called “Minute Check,” The Alerta Group’s product picks up where cell phone companies leave off. As a customer, you can find out how many minutes you have left each month, but that typically involves either calling your cell phone company or checking its Web site — something Herrmann refers to as “the pull model.”

“Whereas, what we do is push the information to you when you need to know,” he said. “Some kids just forget and they don’t know they ran over. And as you know, the phone company doesn’t tell you you ran over. That bill just comes.”

Of course, Minute Check isn’t just for kids. Customers determine when they would like Alerta to notify them — for instance, when they’re down to 10 percent of their monthly allotted minutes — and the company sends them both a text message and an e-mail notification.

For many plans, going over your allotted minutes by 10 percent can equate to doubling of a monthly bill.

Herrmann, who describes himself as a “business generalist,” lives here and formerly worked in Longmont years ago at Solbourne Computers. George Kakatsakis is Alerta’s vice president of engineering, and he provides the know-how for the technology the company uses.

Kakatsakis said that the company’s current client base of about 50 customers is spread around the country, including Tennessee, Oregon, Washington and Texas.

“It doesn’t matter where they are because all the plans are standardized nationally,” he said.

To date, there has been no major marketing push for Minute Check, but that’s about to change. Starting off by marketing the product directly to consumers, Herrmann said the next step after that will be licensing the technology to the phone companies themselves.

Beyond that, he said the “holy grail” of the company’s technology would be to roll out a whole series of “alert-driven, wireless transactions.” But he stressed that these wouldn’t be spam messages; rather, they would be practical notifications that can strengthen the relationship between a company and its client base.

“We’ve found that they’re only useful if it saves you time or money,” Herrmann said, adding that he sees applications for such automated alerts in the banking and credit card industries and even for places such as video stores. “We believe the benefit they would find is they would have happier customers.”

The Alerta Group has filed for a patent for its “alert-respond” technology.

The company currently is in the process of raising money for its Minute Check launch, and Herrmann said at this point, the company is on track to be in the black in 2005, as per its business plan.

“My sense of our product is it’s about control — it’s about having control,” Herrmann said. “If you know (you’re going over), and you made this choice. ... You’re emotionally prepared when you go over and some of those minutes are 40 cents per minute.”

For more information on Minute Check, please visit their web site at www.minutecheck.com

Tony Kindelspire can be reached at 303-776-2244, Ext. 291, or by e-mail at tkindelspire@times-call.com.