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Burner phone? There's an app for that, and it's earning millions of dollars

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It turns out there is a big market for a smarter, more adaptable approach to identity on your phone

Back in the spring of 2012, Greg Cohn and his co-founder Will Carter were working on a product that would let others know when they were available for a phone call. One of the features generated a temporary number that you could share on social media so anyone could reach you. They jokingly called it the Burner feature, an homage to the throwaway phones made famous by drug dealers on HBO’s The Wire. But they quickly realized that this feature was far and away the most popular part of their service, so they focused on that. They created an app called Burner that allows users to quickly and easily create new numbers, which they can use to send and receive calls and text messages, then destroy them at any time.

"It’s not a one time, one and done thing."

While the initial thesis was that people would want to create and quickly dispose of these numbers, over the last two years Burner’s internal data has told a very different story. "It’s not a one time, one and done thing," says Cohn. Instead of drug dealers looking to hide their activity, many of their customers were lawyers, cops, teachers, and taxi drivers looking to create some separation between their personal and professional lives without the hassle or expense of having a second phone. Solving that problem has become a big business for Burner. Over the last year the startup has been among the top grossing apps in the utility category for for both Android and iOS, bringing in a solid six figures in monthly revenue and millions on an annual basis.

Jeremy, a sheriff’s deputy in West Virginia, started using Burner to get around budget shortfalls. "I currently work patrol division so I come in contact with different civilians every day," he explained. "My department does not issue cellular phones to patrol deputies so I use the app to be able to give people a direct contact without compromising the privacy of my personal number."

The rise of the contract economy, with people renting their apartment on Airbnb and driving their personal car for Lyft or Uber, has also driven demand for a personal and professional phone number. "Users are seeing the need for more than one phone number: one personal and one public," says Cohn. "We see a lot of people who are using Burner as a substitute for carrying two devices, because it’s cheaper and more flexible."

"A substitute for carrying two devices, because it’s cheaper and more flexible."

The idea of a software service that lets callers mask their identity isn’t new. Starting in 2005, web apps like Jangl and Jaxtr appeared, allowing consumers to exchange text messages and phone calls without sharing their real numbers. The best known attempt was probably Grand Central, which let users create a single number that rang multiple phones. It was eventually acquired and turned into Google Voice. But in an age of ubiquitous mobile internet and increasing privacy concerns, Burner feels like a service whose time has come.

"Most of the ‘version one virtual number companies’ were part of an era of web apps that were dying, right on the cusp of the mobile revolution," says Cohn. The Burner experience is quite different. Unlike the multistep process of creating a Gmail account and then a Google voice number, or logging onto a web app to augment a phone number, Burner users can create and delete new phone numbers almost instantly from within a mobile app. The company has a stockpile of unused numbers, which they can assign and activate to users on demand. Calls are routed through their servers and connect with the telephone network thanks to APIs from companies like Bandwith.com and Twilio.

The explosion of mobile devices has also altered people’s needs. When Grand Central and Google Voice were formed, most people had a cell phone, work phone, and landline at home. The pain point was connecting all those phones to a single number. Today, many people have a single smartphone for those three uses. "What people are trying to solve for now is, how can I have one device, but multiple numbers," argues Cohn.

Multiple numbers, but a unified inbox

Last month the company released a major update, Burner 3.0, adding photo messaging and bringing its design in line with the way its customers have actually been using it. Early version of Burner were built around making each new number an in-depth experience separate from all other numbers. "What we realized was that people want multiple numbers, multiple ways to manage identity and privacy, but that they want to do it through a single, unified inbox," says Cohn.

The inspiration behind Burner was to make identity on your phone as flexible as it is on the web. "With the internet, people have become accustomed to having multiple names, pseudonymous characters, and multiple points of contact they can distribute and eliminate as needed," says Cohn. "But with phones most people are still stuck with this monolithic number they need to use for work, family, and recreation. It doesn’t make any sense."

"To be honest, I was in an off-again-on-again relationship with a somewhat crazy girl."

Jeffrey, a teacher and self-professed gadget head, always looks for high tech solutions to his problems. "To be honest, I was in an off-again-on-again relationship with a somewhat crazy girl," he explains. "We decided we would keep in touch, but I didn’t really want her to have my personal line." He considered buying two separate phones and checked out some wacky Japanese models with dual sim card slots. "Then I came across Burner."

"It worked really well," says Jeffrey. "I actually started using it for other things, like giving my students a way to stay in touch without having to worry about them crank calling me or there being some idea of us having a personal relationship that was inappropriate."

Not everyone thinks Burner's approach makes sense

Not everyone agrees that Burner’s approach makes sense. "We did a ton of testing before launching Google Voice, and what we found is that most people don’t want the hassle of handling multiple numbers," says Grand Central founder Craig Walker. "Imagine you create one number for your online dating and another for your students. Not something you want to mix up." Walker says a more sensible approach would be to create a single Google Voice number and then simply screen your calls. "You can set up your account to have some people ring you directly, some go straight to voicemail, and some get a message saying the number is no longer in service."

This requires, of course, that you know the inbound number, something which might not always be the case. If you’re making a spur of the moment decision to give your number to a stranger at a bar or a salesman you just met, creating a unique Burner number will let you know for sure who is calling. In a bit of aggressive marketing, Burner created this infographic, laying out exactly how complex it is to send a single picture message using Google Voice.

Burner is available on iOS and Android, and comes with a free trial that lasts seven days, 20 minutes, or 60 messages. You can get unlimited voice minutes and texts in the area code of the user's choice for 8 credits, which costs from about $4 to $4.99, depending on whether you buy credits in bulk. If you want to pay as you go, the standard Burner is 30 days / 50 minutes / 150 texts for 5 credits.). In our testing, it took between 10 and 15 seconds to set up a new number.

"What consenting adults do with our service is not for me to judge."

While the app’s name conjures images of drug dealers trying to evade detection, Cohn feels confident they can build a trusted brand without changing. "Certainly people always ask us about the potential for illicit uses. To the degree that someone might have an affair and use Burner, what consenting adults do with our service is not for me to judge. We think the majority of use cases are wholesome and in fact users protecting themselves and their privacy."

Anonymous and ephemeral chat apps have been garnering a lot of press and some massive valuations, while Burner has largely flown under the radar. Cohn, commenting on the hype surrounding services like Snapchat, YikYak, and Whisper, believes Burner fits into the same evolution. But while consumers have a bevy of options for messaging, however, almost all have just one number they regularly use. "The phone number as most people know it today is fundamentally broken," says Cohn. "It’s not smart enough, social enough, and it’s definitely not privacy-aware enough."