Fleet-footed start-up Fonebox takes on the big telcos

Jordan Grives of Fonebox

An established entrepreneur by the time he was a teenager, Jordan Grives is now taking on the big telcos.

Jordan Grives faced a big problem. The young entrepreneur was a “kid offering to take over a service that is pretty important to business”.

“The biggest challenge really was being taken seriously,” says Grives, chief executive of Fonebox, a telecommunications company that now handles thousands of businesses’ inbound calls from its Brisbane offices. These days, Grives is 26; back then, he was straight out of school.

“You’ve got to kind of almost fake it till you make it,” he says of fronting up to middle-aged chief executives’ offices and trying to convince them to entrust him with a large chunk of their customer service.

“It’s a cliché but it’s kind of true. Once people start to get to know what your business is, it does make it a bit easier.”

Fonebox has recently taken on its 70th staff member and is on track for a A$10 million turnover this year. Grives grew up with an entrepreneurial spirit. He says he “didn’t do great at the basics” while at school but excelled in business.

“Ever since I was able to get a job, I had a job, no matter where it was,” he says.

Grives is renowned for hocking cans of soft drink from his specially lined high school locker and pulling in hundreds of dollars a week while still a teenager.

"The biggest challenge really was being taken seriously. You've got to kind of fake it till you make it,"

He also took part-time jobs in everything from hospitality – “friends still know me as working at Muffin Break” – to labouring, where he “realised that was definitely not for me”.

On leaving school, Grives joined his parents’ message-on-hold business, which his actor-father had created. It was a request by a client that awakened Grives to a niche in the market.

“They effectively wanted a 1300 number and I said ‘yes we’ll have a go at it’,” he recalls.

Related: Making the leap from employee to founder

“We set it up on one of the bigger guys’ infrastructure, and it didn’t work the way that the client needed. So I found a company in Melbourne that had a very simple IVR [interactive voice response] solution, which is a ‘press one, press two, press three’ sort of option, and we found that worked quite effectively. From there, I just started to roll through different industries, offering 1300 and 1800 services, basically as ways for clients to ring through to them and route calls to their nearest location.”

While the main game might appear to be answering phone calls and responding to clients, it’s also delivering detailed reports about who called from where and why.

“That’s our speciality – we can offer some pretty comprehensive reporting platforms, which is where the clients see a lot of that value,” says Grives.

“A lot of people want to know where those calls are coming from. How long they are sitting on the phone for. Are the calls coming from Google? Where else are they coming from online?

“We have an insurance company on our books, for example, that has close to 1000 numbers with us, and it spends millions of dollars on advertising. It wants to know what’s working and what isn’t. And our service really allows the company to see that.”

For now, Fonebox has grown organically but may consider mergers and acquisitions in the future as a means to further grow the business and continue taking the fight up to the bigger telecommunications companies.

One piece of advice

Be fleet-footed. “We’ve kind of gone for that Zuckerberg thing of move fast, break things, fix them. Because a lot of our products are pretty innovative, we have to make sure that we are keeping up to date with the latest technology – and that doesn’t always mean that it goes smoothly.”

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November 2015
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