South Side-based firm hopes to ride a coming wave of mobile technology

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This is the first in a new monthly series that will highlight "companies of the future" in our region.

The beeps and vibrations warrant our attention like nothing else, but to two entrepreneurs on the South Side, the possibilities of text messaging have only just begun.

Mass text message movements -- such as those seen in the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti, or each week on "American Idol" -- are basic transactions that rely on straight-forward send-and-delivery methods.

Chanakya Damarla and Eric Boduch, co-founders of SMaSh Technologies, see a near future where text messages can reserve a table at the Olive Garden, or point you to the nearest Gap (and then give you a 15 percent off coupon once you're there).

When the two joined forces in 2007, Mr. Boduch was in San Francisco after stints at some public companies and Mr. Damarla was in Pittsburgh, noticing that people were starting to text like crazy. SMaSh "creates a platform for more sophisticated text messages" -- mass text messages that present various options based on how you reply.

Trends are on their side: A forecast released last month by network provider Cisco estimates mobile traffic will see a 39-fold increase in the next five years.

"When we're talking about trillions of messages being sent every year; we're talking about billions of dollars to be made," Mr. Boduch said.

A recent SMaSh venture worked with Pizza Hut and Sony's XBox. A Pizza Hut ad that gave players a number to text for a coupon was sent to XBox screens. A coupon code was then sent to the phone via text. Players also could send commands to learn the nearest Pizza Hut location.

"It works because you're not sitting there with your laptop always with you, but you always have your cell phone," said Mr. Damarla.

A major selling point of SMaSh is its "cookies for cell phones" technology. Cookies typically are used on the Internet as a way to track visitors. If you give a cell phone a cookie, it does the same task by tracking each user's previous activity and choices.

Though headquartered in a green building on Sidney Street on the South Side, SMaSh also has an office in San Francisco.

Both co-founders are graduates of Carnegie Mellon's engineering school. The Pittsburgh office has six full-time employees and a couple who work part time.

A giant chalkboard greets visitors to the office. Scribbled on the right side is a grocery list -- "bags for garbage" are needed -- and on the left side is the mantra: "What Would Cuban Say?"

That question was inspired by Mount Lebanon High School graduate, stocksman extraordinaire and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, who invested $1.35 million in the company in April.

The office space still has the feel of a young, semilived-in startup: One room is heated by three computer towers while the next has a box of Yuengling and a pair of stray khakis on the floor.

They have office chairs to sit in and office chairs still in boxes.

When naming the company, the co-founders needed a five-character word to coincide with a five-digit phone number that was textable ("SMASH" becomes "76274").

Nearly every possibility was explored until SMaSh was decided. That it also contained the letters "SMS," shorthand for "short message service," was an added bonus.

Buying online domain names for such common words is an obvious challenge, so the company's website is www.smashcode.com.

Plain-old text messaging can seem so antiquated in a world of smart phones with flashy displays that look like minilaptop screens. Why invest in a technology that may soon cede ground to a bigger and badder cousin?

The availability of mobile e-mail hasn't slowed text messaging's rise as a major form of communication, they said. And texting takes up less space, meaning the speed of delivery is much faster than sending a phone to a clunky website that has to load.

SMaSh envisions texting transactions to purchase concert tickets, make reservations at restaurants or subscribe to a sports feed automatically delivered with game updates.

The co-founders hope to net about $4 million in the next venture capital round and secure it by the end of the third quarter. They want to have about 15 full-time workers at SMaSh by the end of the year.

And though Mr. Boduch acknowledges that his aspiration "to be to mobile what Google was to search" is a little audacious, his partner put SMaSh's goals in more modest terms that still reveal the scope of the text message field.

"More realistically, being behind 10 billion or 20 billion messages per year -- that would be great," said Mr. Damarla.


Erich Schwartzel: eschwartzel@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1455. First Published March 5, 2010 5:00 AM


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