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Vendor selection process: When gambling with a UC startup backfires

UC pros shared their cautionary tales of what happened when their decision to choose a startup from their unified communications vendor selection process backfired.

This is the second story in a two-part series on evaluating startups for your unified communications vendor selection process. Check out the first part of the series to learn how some UC pros have ensured success when they selected startup unified communications vendors over established incumbents.

During the unified communications (UC) vendor selection process, startups often tantalize with flashy functionality and innovation. But startups also present a certain amount of risk to an organization. They can go under, be acquired or simply stop taking your calls.

Startups are always happy to write up their success stories with customers as case studies on their websites. But what happens when those startups fail to deliver? Some UC pros shared their stories with

Now you see it, now you don't: A startup UC vendor's disappearing act

When Paul Roybal became CIO for Bernalillo County, New Mexico, a few years ago, his organization was supporting 50 BlackBerry devices for county employees.

We didn't get a lot of support from the vendor. To be honest with you, they didn't do that much follow-up and [the project] fell through the cracks.

Paul Roybal
CIOBernalillo County, New Mexico

Now he supports about 500 smartphones from a variety of manufacturers. His users have a bottomless appetite for mobile business applications, and he has a critical need for a centralized management platform to deliver mobile UC and fixed-mobile convergence (FMC) services.

When he started looking for unified communications vendors with strong mobile UC portfolios, Roybal discovered that few of the major UC vendors had much to offer. His only options were three startups: Varaha Systems Inc., Agito Networks and DiVitas Networks. He wasn't thrilled that his mobile UC vendor selection process was limited to three startups.

"You always [have concerns about startups] because they're driven or guided by venture capitalists and their first, second and subsequent rounds of capital infusions into the company," Roybal said. "[You wonder] whether they're going to succeed with that or whether they're going to be around … but at the time, the number of solutions out there was pretty limited."

Roybal knew personally a sales representative at DiVitas, which he said made him feel more comfortable with that company. He bought a license from DiVitas to begin testing its product with about a half-dozen devices in 2008.

But once the initial sale went through, his sales and support representatives seemingly vanished and any deployment plans went with them, he said. He had very few technical problems with the DiVitas server and client software, but he was concerned about the vendor's limited handset support at the time and what it might cost him to switch over carriers and devices.

Roybal abandoned the project after a year and he's now preparing to do a proof of concept with with DiVitas' rival, Agito. He said the aborted DiVitas deployment cost his IT team more time than money.

"We really never got to the next phase [with DiVitas because] we didn't get a lot of support from the vendor. To be honest with you, they didn't do that much follow-up and it fell through the cracks," Roybal said. "Two years later, a sales rep called and asked how it was going. I was like, 'I don't know, you ended it a year ago, and we haven't heard from you since.' They're awful."

DiVitas did not respond to repeated requests for comment. The company has identified Roybal as a customer and suggests he completed full-scale deployment in a case study on its site. Roybal said the write-up misrepresents his experience.

"That [case study] was premature," he said. "I think the status of our project was exaggerated for them to get more sales, and I fell for that more than I should have."

Although his experience with Agito (also a startup) "seems to be a lot better," Roybal said what happened -- or didn't happen -- with DiVitas has turned him off considering startups in any future unified communications vendor selection process.

In retrospect, Roybal knew he should have "coordinated the timeline of the implementation a little bit more carefully with some of the co-requisites or prerequisites of the implementation." He also cautions other UC pros not to be dazzled by startups that cannot assure reliable support services.

"Of course, you do your due diligence and make sure that they're financially stable," he said. "It just seems that a lot of startup companies focus on closing the deal, and it's your post-sales support that is really the gotcha."

Don't rush the unified communications vendor selection process

When Horn Group, a San Francisco-based public relations firm, was about to open a New York City office with no local IT presence a few years ago, IT director Ed Garcia believed that managed voice over IP (VoIP) services were the easiest and quickest way to deliver telephony to the employees there.

Under pressure to complete the unified communications vendor selection process quickly so that the firm could open shop as soon as possible, Garcia settled on a startup managed VoIP provider, which he declined to name.

"At that point, there weren't many established vendors for managed VoIP services," he said. "I did my research and it all sounded good, but once they implemented our VoIP system in New York, it was terrible. The sound quality was not good and the connection was not reliable."

The service was so poor that Garcia terminated the contract early and scrambled to find a new provider on the fly. In the fallout that followed, tempers flared internally over the incident, and users had to be reassigned new phone numbers.

"It was a really bad experience," Garcia said. "I learned my lesson. So, next time around, I spent a lot more effort [on] research and reference calls. I actually went with the most established [provider] at that time, and [the decision] paid good dividends."

Although Garcia said he remains open-minded about startup unified communications vendors, he said he would never again choose a startup for as critical an application as VoIP.

"I should've known the impact would be so high if it didn't work that we wouldn't be able to do business," he said. "But instead, we were really gung-ho and speed was of the essence. We were going, going, going. I wouldn't do that again. I would stop the process and really think."

Even if biased, vendors' customer references can be "really good sources," as long as you ask the right questions, Garcia said. He also kicks off his vendor selection process by talking to peers about their experiences, scouring online review sites for positive and negative feedback, and reading analysts' opinions.

"I want to get the dirt," he said. "I didn't really dig for dirt the first time around and I should have -- especially with new technologies out there, because there's a lot that's unknown."

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Jessica Scarpati, News Writer

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