The Disappearing Desk Phone Is Turning This Cambridge Company Into A Unicorn

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The CEO of Fuze, formerly ThinkingPhones, Steve Kokinos, stands in the company's offices that are rapidly getting too small, thanks to the company's sudden growth. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
The CEO of Fuze, formerly ThinkingPhones, Steve Kokinos, stands in the company's offices that are rapidly getting too small, thanks to the company's sudden growth. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

How many unicorns do you know in Greater Boston? No, not the statue on the Old State House. "Unicorn" is the tech sector term for a fast-growing company valued at $1 billion or more.

You’ve probably heard of DraftKings or maybe the Waltham data management company Actifio.

But there’s a little-known Cambridge company that’s reaching the stomping grounds of that mythical creature valuation. On Tuesday, ThinkingPhones announced it raised $112 million in a new investment round (bringing total investment up to $200 million) and is changing its name to Fuze, the name of a company it acquired in November 2015.

And it's booming by helping companies move beyond the old office phone.

Yes, that black or gray office phone that office workers have been tethered to for years got on the nerves of Steve Kokinos and his co-founder Derek Yoo 10 years ago when they started ThinkingPhones.

"It was a real head scratcher for us," Kokinos remembered, "that something so important to people’s everyday lives at work would be trapped inside systems that are so inflexible and so difficult to use."

His company, ThinkingPhones, has built cloud-based software that runs on top of legacy phone systems.

Kokinos demoed the software recently at his office in Cambridge near the Alewife station. As he dialed Yoo, his computer screen popped up with a picture plus background information, such as the last time they talked and emailed.

"So we’re able to pull data from LinkedIn, Twitter, Google and Salesforce," Kokinos said as he looked at the information populating his screen. "Now it’s showing his work history, contact information. But the idea is that any of that information I wanted to know, I’m knowing as the call is coming in, or as I’m making a call."

The software also lets workers text from their work numbers, as well as set up video conferences with outside clients. They can also answer their work calls from the road and see the same information about the caller on their smartphone. And once the call is over, the interface automatically prompts salespeople, for instance, to schedule a reminder to follow up.

The system makes it easy for young employees to ditch the desk phone altogether. But it also makes it easy for workers to keep a work phone in the office if they prefer, by making it more accessible.

The market has been responding recently. Just last year, ThinkingPhones grew from 230 to more than 700 workers.

"It’s a good problem to have," said Nell Heisner, the company's director of talent acquisition as she took a break from a department meeting on on-boarding practices. She's been very busy, even though she often has to sell people on the decade-old startup.

"I think we’re just on the cusp of people knowing exactly who we are," Heisner said of the recent growth. "So I think it will make it a lot easier from a recruiting standpoint. But it will also make it ... you know a lot of people come to companies because they are new and unknown and fresh. It may cause some of them to think twice about: ‘OK, so what do I want to do going forward? Do I want to jump to the next unknown thing or do I want to stick here and see it through?’ "

The company is trying to keep its startup culture despite the sudden growth. Avery Schneider joined the company in August, and said CEO Kokinos still interviews each hire.

"I think he asked me what I do for fun," Schneider remembered. "And so we started talking about music. So I think we talked about guitar for about 20 minutes. Honestly, all it did was set the scene for something that I definitely wanted to be involved in."

The growing number of customers is fueling the hiring boom. Some local clients include Acquia and InsightSquared. The company said The Associated Press is also a customer. Kokinos is not complaining that he had to wait 10 years for some corporations and organizations to buy his company’s product.

"There’s many, many entrepreneurs who were overnight successes who were many years in the making," Kokinos said. "So I think we’re more the norm than the exception. But having a little bit of time to get our platform right — that work really laid the foundation for what’s going on now."

The latest round of investment announced Tuesday morning is going to build on that foundation.

Now called Fuze, the company is going to use the $112 million to expand globally and continue to find ways to help workers communicate.

This segment aired on February 9, 2016.

Headshot of Curt Nickisch

Curt Nickisch Business & Technology Reporter
Curt Nickisch was formerly WBUR's business and technology reporter.



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