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Keeping Internet Phone Service Simple

By Andrea Caumont
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 8, 2004; Page E05

Two former MCI executives, Joyce Dorris and Paul Erickson, want to bring Internet phone service to mainstream America. "We're in the beginning of a wholesale transformation to have communications run over Internet technology," said Erickson, chief executive of SunRocket, a start-up in Vienna. "If you have broadband, you'd be silly not to put your phone service on the Internet."

SunRocket Inc. began providing Voice over Internet Protocol service in the Washington and Baltimore areas in September, and in Boston last month. Dorris and Erickson said company plans to expand nationwide by year-end.

SunRocket's Paul Erickson and Joyce Dorris honed their marketing skills at MCI by developing 1-800-COLLECT and the Neighborhood. (Preston Keres -- The Washington Post)

In Profile

Name: SunRocket Inc.

Location: Vienna

Big idea: Provides Internet phone service for $24.95 a month.

Founded: February 2004

Web site: www.sunrocket.com

Who's in charge: Paul Erickson, chief executive; Joyce Dorris, chief marketing officer; Robert Mainor, chief operating officer. The three were co-founders.

Funding: Nokia Venture Partners led the first funding round and contributed the seed money for the company; SunRocket declined to reveal how much.

Employees: 35

Origin of company name: "We wanted to find a name that was distinctive and memorable. We like the imagery of rocket, the high-speed power taking you to the future. We wanted to add to that a friendly warmth, something that signals it's for everyone, and we like the way the sun is optimistic and connotes a dawning of a new era," Dorris said. Erickson said: "You have to think the way eBay and Gap did. It's about being simple. You can spell it, pronounce it, and it carries a mental image."

"We're passionate about starting with a blank sheet of paper and saying: 'What's the way [a phone company] should work? How can we make it as simple as possible?'," Erickson said.

SunRocket charges $24.95 a month for almost all of its phone services, with no added fees. The package includes unlimited domestic calls, features such as voice mail and caller ID, an allowance for international calls, two directory assistance calls and an extra phone number with a distinctive ring and voice mail. A customer needs a phone and a broadband connection that connects to a device SunRocket calls "the gizmo."

The company has hundreds of customers already and Dorris and Erickson hope to see that number in the hundreds of thousands by this time next year.

At MCI, the two executives were behind some of the marketing tactics that revitalized its long-distance telephone business in the 1990s. Erickson said he invented 1-800-COLLECT, which became more expensive. "You come up with something successful, and then the big-company attitude takes over," he said. "Right now, there's a $4.99 surcharge and calls cost $1.15 per minute. Initially, it was $1.25 per call and 25 cents per minute. . . . I feel bad because I started it."

Dorris said she helped create the Neighborhood Built by MCI, which provided unlimited local and long-distance calls to customers for a fixed rate. "We've built our careers on looking at the market and taking a different approach," Dorris said.

But Internet phone service is looking less different as time goes on. Independent operators such as Vonage of New Jersey are already established, and giant phone and cable companies are moving into the field, too. But Dorris and Erickson do not regard the large communications companies as stiff competition.

"In new categories, it's independent brands who have the vision of the way it should be that get embraced by consumers because they stand for one thing. Customers want specialists," Dorris said. "As new categories are born, it's typically not the big, old companies that pave the way."

Technophobia, however, is probably their biggest challenge in weaning potential customers from copper-wire phones. "Sometimes it takes a friend, neighbor or colleague to say this works, it's great," Erickson said. "It's those people that are going to carry the message."

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