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From one phone number, many; local startup Intryst aims to rid the world of unwanted calls, texts

Erik Alburg, left and Bryce Kaiser, right.

Tired of giving out your phone number? A Grand Rapids-based startup wants you to give people their number instead. Intryst creates bridge numbers so you can talk to people without the other party ever knowing your real number, and they plan to change the way you think about phone communication forever.
Ever given your phone number to someone and regretted it? If so, a Grand Rapids-based startup has a solution you may want to check out — one of those ideas that’s so elementary and potentially ubiquitous, you might feel surprised someone hasn’t done it already.

Intryst is a local company that provides secure phone numbers for Craigslist transactions and other types of meet-ups. Currently a two-man operation consisting of co-founders Erik Alburg and Bryce Kaiser, Intryst is at the moment part of the initial class of startups in Emerge Xcelerate, a six-month business accelerator from Emerge West Michigan that's funded by the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC) and the Local Development Finance Authority (LDFA).

After graduating from the accelerator on Xcelerate’s “demo day,” September 22, Alburg and Kaiser say they plan to hit the ground running in terms of growing Intryst’s user base, at which point the sky’s the limit. The two aren’t shy about the fact that they want Intryst to take over the world of talk-and-text, more or less.

Bryce Kaiser“We’re having early traction with Craigslist users, but we have much bigger plans than that,” says Kaiser, who serves as the company’s chief marketing officer. “We want everyone and their brother using this as their main communication platform, and we have very aggressive growth plans. By the end of next year, I want [Intryst] to be provisioning more numbers each month than AT&T.”

The way Intryst works is simple: You register your phone number via the Intryst website and provide a phone number for someone you want to talk to. Intryst shoots you back a text message from a new “bridge” number, and you can now message or call that bridge number to communicate with the person you wanted to reach in a secure one-to-one connection.

The person you’re talking with only sees the bridge number, and won’t have any idea you’re using a go-between; as far as they know, that bridge number is your phone number. At any time, you can text a command to the bridge number and Intryst will destroy the connection. The other party then receives a message from Intryst saying that the number has been blocked.

At that point, the jig is up, so to speak, but it doesn’t matter; the other person won’t have any way to reach you by phone or figure out your original phone number. No further potential for harassment, haggling or spam.

Erik AlburgAlburg, a mechanical engineer and self-taught programmer who serves as the company’s CEO, says he came up with the idea for Intryst over a conversation with his sister. While they were talking, Alburg noticed her phone constantly going off and asked her what was going on.

“She told me she met this guy on Match.com and he wouldn’t get the hint,” Alburg says. “She was like, ‘He just won’t leave me alone.’ In that same conversation, [these messages] happened two or three times, and I thought, ‘Hey, there could be a need here.’”

Alburg worked on some initial market research for Intryst and put together a core product design along with a simple mobile app, devoting his free time to the idea while working at his full-time job as a programmer and developer at Michigan-based Varsity News Network. Eventually, he heard about Xcelerate at Startup Weekend Grand Rapids and applied successfully to the accelerator, which allowed him to focus on Intryst full-time.

Kaiser and Alburg both say that Xcelerate, which provides $20,000 in funding as well as a technology package, design support, legal and accounting services and a wide variety of connections and mentorship opportunities, provided critical feedback and resources at key junctures in Intryst’s development.

Without the accelerator, for example, the two say they wouldn’t have hit on the idea to focus on Craigslist users as their initial target market.

“Erik and I have been both been part of different startup programs, but in both our opinion, this accelerator has done the best job of providing those resources,” Kaiser says. “Every day there’s people that walk up to you, tap you on the shoulder and say, ‘Hey, what can I do to get you further ahead?’”

As the company’s name implies, Alburg initially conceived of Intryst as an application for online dating users. Mentors and advisers at Xcelerate, though, convinced him to switch his focus toward Craigslist when he struggled to identify a single archetype of online dating user to whom he could market.

It was also around this time that Kaiser, a programmer-turned-marketer who had worked with Alburg at Varsity News Network, joined the company.

“With the scope of the accelerator, we had six months to target a problem, and that’s why Craigslist made more sense,” Kaiser says of the switch in focus. “There are all these different dating sites, whereas Craigslist is one site where everyone basically has the same experience.”

“Now if you picked up the app today and used it, you can use it just as well for Craigslist, or for dating,” he adds. “The capabilities are still there; it’s more just our messaging is the difference.”

In fact, the more time you spend texting with Intryst, the more its everyday uses — whether you like them or not — begin to multiply in your mind. Intryst arrives at a time when the Internet is decidedly obsessed with “ghosting”, or breaking up with someone by suddenly cutting off all contact.

But ghosting as we know it — where you still have to ignore all those angry, heart-wrenching texts and delete scads of tirade-filled voicemails — looks primitive compared to what you could do with Intryst. Give a romantic fling your Intryst number at the outset and you can simply destroy the connection at a command — they’re not just “ghosted,” they’re out of sight, out of mind.

Of course, if your fling becomes something more, you might be in for an awkward conversation down the line if your now-significant other ever finds out you gave them a bridge number — or maybe you both have a laugh when it turns out they gave you an Intryst number too.

Besides dating, Alburg and Kaiser hope to bring about the end of putting your phone number on your resume, LinkedIn profile, D&W “Yes!” card — anything that might put you at risk of getting spammed, scammed or contacted in some way you don’t want. Although Alburg is known to employ a quick demonstration of how a phone number can yield all sorts of sensitive information through simple web tools, Kaiser is quick to point out that Intryst don’t want to play “the fear game,” as they call it.

“‘Communicate with confidence’ is kind of the phrase that we use,” Kaiser says. “Be more confident about what you’re doing out there. If you want to get a deal on something and buy locally, you shouldn’t have to sacrifice your safety to do that.”

Kaiser and Alburg also have plenty of additional features for Intryst in the works: They’re developing a mobile app for iOS that’s currently in beta and will offer more robust capabilities, and they eventually plan to move over to a “freemium” model that will offer additional features to power users, like a dedicated Intryst number. Users will be able to give out that number and approve any incoming contacts from a queue, and can destroy other numbers’ one-to-one connection with the dedicated bridge number, just as with any other Intryst number.

Intryst also has functions for cash-free payments in place, powered by Venmo, which aim to cut down on the risk of cash-based sales. And the app allows users to create profiles and rate other users using either the mobile app or simple text-based commands; the more the user base grows, Kaiser says, the more powerful these reputation management tools will become.

“[With a dedicated Intryst number,] I could post my phone number on a billboard somewhere, and people could call all they want but it won’t affect me,” Kaiser says. “I get to see the queue of requests, and information about them [if they’re using Intryst as well]. So you can really take control of all your inbound communication this way.”

“My goal, later this year, not even my own mother is going to be calling me on my old number,” he adds.

Of course, just like Craigslist itself, Intryst has a dark side to its obfuscating nature: It basically turns your phone into a series of “burners,” or disposable phones. What does the company plan to do when a drug deal or other illegal transaction goes down via Intryst, or when an Intryst user goes missing after a meet-up despite the safeguards?

While Alburg and Kaiser decline to outline any direct actions at press time, they say they’re aware of the potential issues and are committed to developing the app in order to make Intryst as safe and law-abiding as possible. For example, they’re already partnering with law enforcement to provide a database of safe meet-up places where Intryst users can request a meeting.
“We haven’t fully explored what possibilities we have there,” says Kaiser of the potential for criminal activity. “We don’t have an official stance on that yet, but it’s certainly something we’re thinking about going forward.”

Alburg says that after Xcelerate’s demo day, Intryst will move into an office with other businesses from their Xcelerate cohort. They plan to hire at least a full-time programmer to free up Alburg from his current development duties, but beyond that, all they can say for sure is they want to hire people who are ambitious and versatile — even if it means they end up leaving to pursue their own ideas down the line, as Kaiser and Alburg have done in the past.

“We want to hire entrepreneurs,” Alburg says. “We came from [Varsity News Network] to create our own startup, and we’re starting to creating this ecosystem where entrepreneurs create entrepreneurs which create entrepreneurs, and I think that’d make West Michigan a really fun place to be, very quickly.”

Alburg and Kaiser both make it clear that as long as it makes sense for the company, they plan to keep operations in West Michigan. The two know that widespread success for Intryst will probably bring pressure to relocate to Silicon Valley or elsewhere, but they say they’ve grown passionate about the startup scene here and want to remain a part of it as long as possible.

“What Erik and I believe is that there are plenty of resources right here in Michigan to try and do what you’re going to do,” Kaiser says. “Certainly you can raise higher funding rounds out West, but the talent is here, the resources we need are here, and honestly, our families and lives are here. So why would we go anywhere else?”

Steven Thomas Kent is the editor at Roadbelly magazine and a high-tech, high-growth features writer at Rapid Growth Media. You can reach him on Twitter @steventkent or e-mail him at steven.t.kent@gmail.com for story tips and feedback. His stories are made possible by support from GR Current.

Photography by Adam Bird

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