Textperts: Sarah McVittie
The Textperts founder on setting up her SMS information service.
Have you ever wondered if sheep shrink in the rain? If you lie awake at night pondering such questions, then rest assured that you can sleep easily from now on, thanks to Textperts (formally called 82ASK), the winner of the 2006 Startups Award ‘best use of technology’ prize.
The service allows users to text absolutely any question to its service. Costing just £1, an impressive 85% of questions are answered within five minutes.
Textperts was the offspring of Oxbridge graduates Sarah McVittie and Thomas Roberts. Both were working as financial analysts for investment bank UBS Warlberg when they struck on the idea.
“We were being paid to analyse data but we spent most of our time locating it,” says McVittie. Frustrated at not being able to source fast, accurate data, they began researching the information market. A commissioned survey showed demand for a service offering fast, reliable answers to users’ queries.
“We decided to just go for it,” says McVittie, “We were young enough  that we didn’t have much to lose. We both had partners but neither of us were married.”
The company was founded in June 2003 from their living rooms. Using just their savings and a basic IT system cobbled together by friends, six months later they launched a basic free email version today’s text service. “Thomas and I did everything ourselves and were ringing around to find the answers. We thought, rather than automate, let’s understand how the customer will use this.”
The need to make money soon arrived though. Settling on the £1 (and £3 for a weekly subscription) pricing model as well as SMS as the preferred platform, came from surveying the 2,000 people who had used the service for free.
First year turnover of £500,000 was a positive start but the direct competition, in the form of Issuebits soon arrived. McVittie admits to being “slightly ruffled”, but reacted proactively by urging journalists to write up comparisons, confident they’d come out favourably.
Further growth has been helped by angel investment of £1m, funding new technology to streamline the service and deliver superior levels of automation.
“When a question is asked, the system learns to recognise and categorise based on previous questions and answers. If the question can’t be dealt with automatically it is passed on to our ‘texperts’.”
The company is now based in Cambridge, has six full-time employees and 150 trained ‘texperts’. With contracts from Guinness World Records and the Association of Football Statisticians on board, a book of the most interest questions, which sold 5,000 copies in its week, and a £2m turnover forecast for 2007, the future looks bright.
And McVittie plans to roll out into other English-speaking countries, no doubt curing the insomnia of millions of others pondering why you never see baby pigeons…