Over the past 30 years, the number of phone numbers people have has shrunk down to one, explains Greg Cohn, cofounder of an app called Burner.
People used to have a separate work line and even an office-wide phone. For personal calls, there was always the home phone.
Now many people are down to just one: their cell phone.
And that’s increasingly become a problem in a world where you sell couches on Craigslist to strangers, give out your number to Tinder dates you’ve never met, let Airbnb guests staying in your home text you problems, or make a living selling crafts on Etsy.
“More and more stuff is just happening on one’s phone,” Cohn said. “You might have a work phone. You might have an office phone. You might have an Etsy. It’s all of these things.”
Los Angeles-based Burner is making it so you can have a phone number for each of your identities. But it’s not just a phone number like you use today. Cohn and his co-founder Will Carter want to turn the phone number into a tool for more than just receiving calls and texts.
Why a Burner phone isn’t a bad thing
It used to be that having a burner phone meant you were up to no good. The physical phones were bought to be discarded and used in all kinds of nefarious dealings (see HBO’s “The Wire”).
Burner, the app, wants to turn that idea of a discardable phone number into a positive business tool — and a way to safeguard yourself when dating.
Carter and Cohn first hit on the idea in 2012 when they were building a different app that could show when people were available to talk. Instead of posting a personal number to Twitter to show you could talk, the app had a burner feature where a fake number could be created and disappear right after the person used it.
The “talk when you’re available” app idea floundered, but Cohn’s friends latched onto the idea of being able to easily create a way to discard a phone number.
The first lesson they learned, though, was that people wanted a Burner phone number more than just once.
“We thought it was part of the fun, but you could almost hear the screams when people accidentally got rid of the number in the middle of a Craigslist deal,” Cohn said.
The team initially underestimated how many different ways people would use a Burner number. Many use it for quick tasks like selling a couch on Craigslist so they don’t have to give out their personal number. Airbnb hosts and Etsy sellers have created burner numbers to put on their profiles so customers can contact them, without ringing their personal cell all night long.
“The peer to peer economy is connecting us in a new way to strangers, and what’s been clear to us is that text is a new way people want to communicate inside and outside those peer-to-peer markets,” Cohn said.
Taking back the power in online dating
It’s also turned out to be a great tool for dating.
Instead of giving out a personal cell phone number that can be reversed traced back to the individual, more men and women are signing up to give themselves a layer of privacy. If the relationship ends badly, it’s easy to burn the phone number and move on. If the relationship flourishes, most people eventually move to the personal numbers, but it’s increasingly less awkward to have that conversation, Carter says.
“I think more people are comfortable with the idea that it’s not a personal thing [to be using a burner],” Carter said. “It’s to protect.”
Now, 44% of its users have created a burner number for online dating, the company told Business Insider although it declined to comment on just how many users it has (it was last rumoured to be in the millions).
An additional 43% have used it for buying and selling on sites like eBay and Craigslist. But some people are just using it as a second personal number — 20% of Burner users have created one because they moved and just wanted a local number without losing their old one.
More than just a telephone number
Having a Burner number through the app lets you text and call as normal, but it’s even more powerful than that thanks to a series of integrations.
“We think phone numbers in the future are important in the ecosystem,” Cohn said. “Phone numbers should behave more like software.”
As a result, they have turned it into a business tool beyond simple communication.
You can connect your Burner number with Dropbox to auto-save voicemails and picture messages. With Evernote, you can make an auto-reply bot so if an Airbnb guest texts “what’s the wi-fi” it can respond without you typing out the password.
There’s an option to route and reply text messages to Slack — the new way Burner is handling much of its customer service requests.
Starting Tuesday, there’s even the option to sync with Google and backup your texts and contacts to a spreadsheet so you don’t lose them even when you burn the phone number.
“The thing we’re talking about with connections to Slack, you’re not seeing that from the big carriers,” Cohn said. “You’re not seeing it from Sprint. You’re not seeing it from T-Mobile. Frankly, you’re not even seeing it from Apple.”