It used to take a village of volunteers to do phone polling for a political campaign. But this election season, if you get an automated call from a Democratic campaign asking you to take a poll, it probably came from a small startup above Color Me Mine in Santa Monica.

CallFire Inc. runs an online virtual call center that moves mass calling away from giant phone banks and onto the Internet. The company’s clients range from political campaigns to small and medium businesses.

Last month, NGP Van Inc. in Washington, D.C., which makes database software for Democratic campaigns, chose CallFire as the exclusive provider of automated phone polls for the party. Campaigns use the polls to gauge voter sentiments on issues, then use that information to tailor their message. NGP also uses CallFire to send out prerecorded messages for many Democratic campaigns – from President Obama’s down to various city council races.

CallFire’s Internet-based approach marks a change from the physical call centers that campaigns and businesses once had to assemble in order to reach thousands of people. Setting up one of those meant renting out a good deal of office space, buying high-capacity lines from the phone companies and hiring the teams to man the phones.

Deborah Clavadetscher, a telecom adviser for Spiritel Solutions in Vista, said the traditional call centers worked best for companies that were using the service on a permanent basis; they can get phone lines at lower rates because they sign long-term contracts. But campaigns are short-term affairs.

“The phone bills for manning a call center used to be astronomical and the only way to bring that cost down was to sign a long-term contract,” Clavadetscher said. “But that doesn’t work for many campaigns, which run for a limited time. Online services are much better for them.”

Here’s how the software works: When a campaign wants to do a poll, workers will boot up NGP software. In that software, a button can send the numbers and the poll questions to CallFire, which will forward them to the voters. Those who answer the phone hear a recorded message or are asked questions that require them to respond, typically by pushing certain buttons.

Dinesh Ravishanker, chief executive at CallFire, said the company has more than 50,000 clients, which include political phone bank organizers such as NGP, and other businesses. For the latter category, CallFire does mass phone calls. For example, when an airline’s flight is canceled, the software can reach all the passengers to alert them before they leave for the airport.

Competitors in the online call center world include Twilio Inc. in San Francisco and EZ-Texting in New York.

CallFire’s deal with the Democratic campaigns links up its mass-calling service with NGP’s databases. NGP’s software stores mounds of information about voters, including age, income, voting trends and phone numbers. When the campaigns want to reach a certain audience, they piece together a call list from the database, which NGP can send to CallFire for the outreach.

NGP used CallFire in the 2008 election for some mass dialing and automated polls. At that time, NGP’s software wasn’t set up to communicate directly with CallFire; it took a few extra steps to get the information out of the database and into CallFire’s network.

But now campaigns can begin reaching the voters by clicking a button. NGP President Stuart Trevelyan said that cuts costs from about 3 cents to 1 cent a call. Considering the volume of calls the campaigns make, the savings add up. A campaign could contract for 1 million calls, Trevelyan said, so the cost under the old model would be $30,000, but with CallFire’s system would be $10,000.

“With online call centers, campaigns are able to do the same things they used to do but much faster and cheaper,” Trevelyan said.

Ravishanker said his company has also worked with many Republican campaigns around the country. But Republican campaigns don’t use a single piece of software to organize their data, so the company can’t do for the GOP what it does for the Democrats.

Ravishanker began CallFire in 2004, along with some former classmates at UC Irvine. Previously, he built software for the Navy and biotech giant Pfizer Inc. in New York. He turned to telephone software after he built a few online call centers for businesses and saw the potential for putting these services online.

The company, co-owned by Ravishanker and his executives, employs 26. That makes it a rarity in the current startup landscape, where most companies are funded by venture capital firms that take significant equity. Ravishanker said CallFire didn’t need the outside funding because it was able to get paying customers who wanted to reach a mass audience when he launched.

“We knew that if we could build something that could be scaled for big or small businesses, it would be a much easier way to make mass calling accessible to everyone,” he said.

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