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Answering the call to develop cooler phones

Those who think cell phones could use a little jazzing up may want to check the latest offerings from Seattle-based Wildseed, a developer of intelligent faceplates. With packages that bring together ringtones, video clips, pictures, and games, the company’s faceplates define “interactive.” CEO and founder Eric Engstrom talks about wireless, teens, and thinking like Archimedes.

How did Wildseed get started?

In 2000, we came up with a number of really cool services for young consumers, but as many people know, consumers aren’t willing to pay for services. I learned a lot about this aspect of a service model when I was running MSN Internet Access. We have a mantra at Wildseed that “people buy atoms not bits.” Look at the Internet today, two of the most successful companies are a bookstore, Amazon, and a rummage sale, eBay.

At first, I couldn’t figure out a way to get paid for these new cool wireless services. Then we started applying the idea of Smart Skin intelligent faceplates–a physical package to deliver digital content to phones in a way that consumers would pay for.

Why do you feel there’s a need for your services?

What is there about wireless that is fun today? No one has tried to create an entertaining, comprehensive experience on phones today. Wildseed is doing that. There are also some really sound economic reasons for focusing on the youth market because this segment has $4,000 of annual disposable income. These are the consumers driving the $10 billion game industry and the $8 billion box office revenues. They’re very technically savvy and they’re looking for products that complement their lifestyle, which is all about friends, fun, and fashion. We combine those three factors into a product that’s cool to use and cool to be seen using.

What are some of the ways you reach this target audience?

You need to catch their attention. This is done through leveraging the brands they already like and are already spending money on. There are so many different sources–music, sports, celebrities, and games. Plus, you have to keep current on trends and what’s hot so that the product will satisfy their lust for the latest thing. You have to talk to them all the time. They’re the best source of market research anyone could ask for. Every single feature in our software has been approved by the kids. We tossed a lot of features and kept others and honed them. We are very diligent about listening to the end consumer. That makes the software experience better.

Why do you think that what you’re doing will change the cell phone industry?

I don’t like to do things that have a small impact, I like to revolutionize an industry. Just like Archimedes, with a lever long enough and a place to stand you can move the world. That is what makes technology fun to build and what makes shipping that technology to broad markets so important.

What kinds of challenges do you see in your business?

We’re software guys, so the pace at which the hardware manufacturers are able to roll out products is sometimes a challenge. We want to see our software out in the market; however, wireless phones take a long time to build for real reasons–there’s testing and certification involved. So my biggest challenge is my patience.

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