Tigits hopes to dial down the online dating creep factor

I've never tried online dating, but I know friends and family members who have. And while I've heard a lot of lovely stories about people finding a soulmate (mostly via eHarmony commercials),horror stories are just as common. Toronto entrepreneur Sean Miller heard many of these horror stories while on his own search for love online, and it led him to wonder how many of these women were giving out their phone numbers to less-than-desirable men. So he decided to build a way for women to give out their phone number to potential suitors without compromising their privacy.

Toronto-based Tigits provides a secondary, changeable phone number to people who are looking for security and privacy on their phone. Subscribers' real phone number is masked by a set of temporary digits (hence Tigits - get it?). I entered my name and phone number, and in about 10 seconds I had my new Tigits phone number and voicemail PIN. Finally, anonymity is mine!

The Tigits number allows you to call out from your permanent number by calling your Tigits number, waiting for the prompt, and then dialing the number you wish to call. That person only sees your Tigits number displayed, and if someone calls you it displays your Tigits number so you know someone is using it. If you pick up a Tigits call a voice prompt will tell you who's calling and ask if you want to accept - if you don't, the person on the other end will be none the wiser.

Your number also comes with voicemail - if someone shady calls you can direct them to your Tigits voicemail, or you can direct calls automatically to your voicemail. You get an email every time you receive a Tigits voicemail, and you can get the messages e-mailed to you as an MP3 attachment. And if you gave your Tigits number to a bad first date who you no longer want to contact you, you can change your number (it's free to change it and you can do it as many times as you want). The price for the service ranges from $9.99 for one month to $6.95 per month for a year.

Tigits founder Sean Miller has a background in business development, and previously held positions at DoubleClick Canada and Excite Canada. "My passion is ideas and then going to make them happen," he says. "My strength is coming up with a sort niche for a market that is quite big and finding out what is missing from that market then going out, developing the idea, finding the right people and the right partner which is key to getting investment." Online dating provided the spark for his next big idea. "I was single and I was online dating and I really am a curious guy," he says. He would ask his dates about their past online dating faux pas, and found that many women had horror stories about guys who wouldn't take no for an answer and kept calling their phones. "That's when I got the idea," he says. "It just hit me."

Initially Miller thought his primary demographic would be women involved with online dating, but he quickly realized there was another market opportunity. "Originally we thought it would be women for safety, but what we're finding is that men are a big component of it, which was a surprise, in fact more than women," he says. He also realized it has other applications, like a second phone number for businesses so they can keep their primary number private and have a second number you give to people. "We're finding that to be a good market, you know real estate agents, doctors, lawyers and people that want to have a number to give out to a lot of people." And not all of the professions are male-dominated. "We also have some escorts," he says with a laugh.

I can attest to this secondary demographic of businesses. As someone who works at a four-person startup, it can be really annoying to give out my personal cell phone number for business calls, but I need people to have access to my cell since I'm often out of the office. I'll be giving out my Tigits number from now on, and hopefully it works like a charm. But just because it can be used for business doesn't mean it can't be fun - local video blogger Sean Ward has talked about his love for Tigits, and even made a video showing how Bill Clinton might use the service (see above).

The team tested the product in December with family and friends, and launched in the GTA on January 15th. Currently the company is funded by private investors, and is partnered with one of Canada's big telecommunications companies. They have a board of directors that includes Lavalife founder and new Dragons' Den addition Bruce Croxon, and president of TELUS International Jeffrey Puritt, and all of those individuals invested as well. They have a small team of three full-time staff, but Miler says it's enough to get the product out the door. "It's a small team with a great board and great direction," he says. Though they are partnered with one of the telcos (can you tell which one from their board?), the service works with all wireless and landline phone carriers.

He also says a big challenge is communicating what their product actually does. "It's really about getting people to understand the usage, to understand why this is a product that is so useful," he says. "It's like explaining call waiting when that first happened. So our biggest focus is on educating people about what it is because when they understand it they use it and they convert." He thinks the one-month free trial will be one way to get people in the door - similar to Netflix, users can try the service for one month without entering a credit card number or committing to a subscription. "We want everyone to try it for free," Miller says.

Right now the team is focused on getting the word out, and building out new functionality. "Our focus is really to look at integration as a huge area, we'd like to be able to integrate with dating sites," Miller says. They'll also be adding SMS and long distance capabilities to the service, and plan to expand across North America in the next couple months.

Photo by macrofarm on Flickr.

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