Meet ThinkFest’s Start-Up Winner: Relay Network

We've got questions for CEO Matt Gillin. He's got answers.

One of Philadelphia magazine’s choices for coolest start-ups, Relay Network, won the popular vote at this year’s ThinkFest, earning them the coveted title of start-up of the year. As a mobile technology company founded in 2010, Relay aims to close the gap between businesses and consumers by providing one-on-one direct communication, all via cell phone.

Relay has put customers in touch with companies in health insurance, retail, financial services and more. Eliminating pesky customer service hold times and granting immediate service on secure networks, this sounds like the ultimate consumers dream.

We spoke to Relay Network CEO Matt Gillin about his company’s recent ThinkFest success.

Philadelphia magazine: When were  you struck with the idea for Relay Network come from? What was the “eureka!” moment?
Matt Gillin: It really all started one day when I was sitting in my car. My job at the time had stopped paying my phone bill and I had no idea. AT&T sent me a text saying they were about to turn my phone off and to “click here” to resolve the issue. Within 45 seconds I had my bill paid. Most importantly, we had the idea that what if every business had the same idea AT&T had, that they could alert you about not paying a bill or to ask you a question. It came on a fluke really, three years ago, ever since then we’ve been rapidly focusing on giving businesses a better way to communicate with customers.

PM: So, how exactly does the technology work?
MG: It’s meant to be the best personal communication tool designed to work like Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter. The service allows the consumer or business to connect. It basically works like this: You get invited to join the channel, if you accept, it sets up a private communication channel to contact the company. The way it’s set up is by an invite system, it’s basically a two-way text capability. Since texting wasn’t made for business, we built this Twitter-like feed designed for customers to take action on sensitive stuff, text isn’t secure but the private channel is.

PM: To put it in terms for those who are not so tech-savvy, is it an app?
MG: Not exactly. As soon as you accept the invitation to connect with that company, you get a text. The text provides a link, and once you click the link, you’re all set up on a private channel. One click communications capability.

PM: What do you say to those who are wary about sharing personal information over phone and text?
MG: The idea is that personal information is never shared over text. SMS is not great for business, since it’s not secure. We use text just to tell you the invite is there, and then you click on the link in the text and get to a private page. One of the major problems with texting is privacy and security, and if we can notify people via text, then get them on a private channel, you get the best of both worlds.

PM: That seems to tie into the company’s philosophy: “When it’s better for them, it’s better for you.”
MG: The old channels that businesses are using to communicate with their customers — it’s broken. [For businesses,] if you call, you get voicemail. Send letters, they go in the trash. Email goes right to spam. From a consumer perspective, you can’t call a business and speak to someone directly without being put on hold through customer service. We saw a massive opportunity here to get businesses connected, much like in the way we connect with our friends.

PM: Can you give a scenario in which someone would use this service to contact a business that Relay represents?
MG: Sure, we have big clients and small businesses. Traveling is a great example: You make a transaction, and the bank security system picks it up and declines the charge. They call the client’s home phone saying please call us, but then you have to find your own way to call the bank, say from a different country, no one wins in this situation. With our system, all it takes is creating a text message.

PM: Does this service just benefit consumers in the Philadelphia area, or is Relay adapted to serve a broader range of consumers?
MG: We’re national and pretty large; 600,000 people every month are engaging on our platform. Millions of people have used our service in one way, shape or form.

PM: What’s your take on the Philly start-up scene?
MG: This is our third startup in Philly, we think the last year or so has been the most active I can remember in a long time. It’s starting to feel like the 1999 to 2000 period again. You have a ton of access to capital, most importantly there’s great access to really smart people. We’ve long been believers that Philly is a great place to start a business.

PM: Speaking of Philadelphia start-up businesses, like those at ThinkFest’s Start-Up Square, how did it feel to be in a room filled with like-minded entrepreneurs and start-ups and win the crowd over?
MG: The whole event was really cool, and it was our first time there. The people who came through were an eclectic mix, definitely a lot of interesting people. The Kimmel Center was an interesting environment as well. It’s fun to have it in such a compact area with other entrepreneurs and you get to talk about what’s working and what’s not working. The whole energy of the event was really strong.

PM: Were you able to pitch to any of the guest speakers at ThinkFest?
MG: We pitched to Josh Kopelman and Jose Garces. Josh, who is also an entrepreneur, was an easy pitch.

PM: What’s next for Relay and what can we expect from the future?
MG: You’re going to see us … trying to transform healthcare and how customers interact with the healthcare systems.

PM: I have to ask about the neon green mascot dog cleverly named Dash. Where did that idea that come from?
MG: Good question. I have two sons, one loves the color green and one loves dogs. Our co-founderPaul is my one son’s godfather and he thought it’d be fun to have a green dog in the office.

More about Relay Network at