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gong showI’m frequently amused and bewildered by the naivety and arrogance displayed by the folks who, early in their careers, find themselves in mid-level positions nestled within the comfortable fold of a large Telecom company, and begin to, as they say, believe their own press. I know what of I speak, since if you check my LinkedIN profile you’ll realize that I too was once sucked into the vortex of Big Telecom. I recall, with the occasional chuckle, the paternalistic sins of arrogance that one commits when one represents the channel-to-market for a region containing millions of customers, sitting upon a literal monopoly casting pearls before the swine that are your users. When you’re young and you don’t have the benefit of perspective, or when you’re old and haven’t worked anywhere else, the power can be intoxicating. You can get lost in yourself, and as a result the fruits of your labour are all-too-easily misguided and out-of-touch with the petty meanderings of reality.

Last year I represented an innovative wireless application called EQO, and having spent and raised millions of dollars we were zipping around the globe talking to carriers, handset manufacturers, and partners developing channels and friends to help us market our applications. We approached Cingular and were dutifully routed into their FastPitch program, which we endured at CTIA in Las Vegas in the Spring of 2006.

I can say this now, since I no longer work at EQO and have no vested interest in partnering with Cingular, and have been waiting for a long time to do so:

I have never been so professionally insulted, so humbled, and so totally and completely discouraged by any interaction with a telecommunications company, as I have been by Cingular’s misguided, counterproductive, and inane FastPitch program. If you are a software, service, or application developer I would encourage you to boycott this program, and if you are considering a partnership with Cingular (now, comically, marketing itself as AT&T) my advice is: Don’t.

The FastPitch program is ostensibly supposed to provide a vetting mechanism for the hundreds of ideas which cross the paths of wireless carriers every year, and is somehow supposed to encourage developers to bring those ideas into Cingular’s service development organization. It’s an interesting idea, that has been absolutely ruined by inexperienced, arrogant personnel, and should IMHO be the laughing stock of the mobile industry.

Most carriers employ Service Development Managers, Business Deveopment Managers, and Channel Managers to entertain partnerships with 3rd party developers in order to bring new and innovative products and services to their customer base. These people actively pursue and field new ideas from all over the place, and are mandated to come up with new ideas and bring the good ones to market.

Not so with Cingular, it would appear. Instead, they’ve attempted to create a formalized process which subjects potential partners to a “Gong Show” style 3-minute panel pitch, in order to separate the wheat from the chaff of third-party applications in an efficient manner. But the effect is rather the opposite. Here’s Cingular’s boilerplate (and believe me, the whole program is boilerplate) spiel:

The FastPitch session at CTIA is an opportunity for the Cingular Developer Program and Business Development teams to gather preliminary information about ISV applications. These events are not designed to be lengthy go-to-market discussions with prospective partners.

ISVs registered for the Cingular FastPitch sessions at CTIA are asked to bring a 3 minute demonstration and pitch to present to our team. You will have 12-15 minutes total with our group, which will encompass 3 minutes for you to present your application and 9 to 12 minutes of survey about your solution.

This sounds like a compromise to the usual method of business development in Telecom: find an authorized representative, build a rapport, create an internal advocate, and work together to understand each company’s motivations and market drivers, and hopefully end up as partners bringing a new service to market.

But in practice, even the somewhat plausibly workable structure of the boilerplate was corrupted. First, when you arrived for your FastPitch appointment you were given nametags, filled in and signed a form which effectively nullified your rights to ownership of your own intellectual property, and were asked to queue in a lineup of other hapless courtiers. I stood behind one gentleman whose idea had something to do with birdhouses, and in front of a couple from a major software vendor.

When you got to the front of the line, there before you sat four Cingular employees, each in their Mid-20s (I’m guessing they weren’t VPs) who would only tell you their first name and would not, for love nor money, give you their business cards. Instead of pitching all four of these people together, who for all I know were junior sales reps from the local mall, and engaging in a quality 15-minute discussion, you instead pitched each one individually, for three minutes. Todd and I attempted to do this, but our 9-slide PowerPoint and product demo overflowed every time. During our session, just before we were to start in on the third intern, he got up and left, leaving us cooling our heels for three minutes… and we couldn’t help but chuckle at the insanity of the process. A woman surveying the whole scene held a stopwatch and literally yanked the birdhouse guy out of the way to ensure that we advanced to each successive intern in a timely fashion.

The whole process was comical. The interns asked no questions. They could not have possibly discussed our company or services with each other. Instead, they graded us on forms, wrote occasional notes (which they carefully concealed) and generally looked disinterested and weary (apparently they were subjected to these 3-minute pitches all day — accounting for lunch and time slippage, that’s 105 pitches per day for three days).

With that process and volume, I’m not sure who could pass through the filter and make it into Cingular’s developer program, but even when we did it really did little to further our objectives to work with Cingular. There were still no real points-of-contact, no internal advocates, not steps forward to advance the conversation. Instead, we were now being marketed to with the same disdain as Cingular’s victims customers.

Other carriers have indeed taken a more enlightened approach. Vodafone has a team in Walnut Creek that I’ve gotten to know quite well, and their role is to search for new ideas and applications, reaching out to partners where possible. And most ascribe to the traditional method of building personal relationships with companies who have interesting applications.

For Cingular/AT&T, though, I can think of no more appropriate fate than to be out-innovated by competitors and outsmarted by third parties who figure out a way to relegate them to the dumb-pipe providers that they are ultimately destined to become. And for the employees who represented their company so well during our FastPitch settings, I’m reminded of the myriad job postings from 2001 which were subtitled “Telecom workers need not apply.” … these may experience a renaissance during the next great Telecom purge which will inevitably arise.