An Augusta engineer who developed an automated voice messaging system for local clubs and organizations has started franchising the service in other cities.
The service, called Virtual Volunteer, is a computer-driven message board that lets one person relay telephone messages to as many as 500 people by making just one call.
Phil Alexander, founder and president of Virtual Volunteer, formerly known as the Coaches Board, has hired personnel to run the message service in Atlanta, Columbia, Birmingham, Ala., and Muscle Shoals, Ala. He's also setting up a system in Memphis, Tenn., he said.
"This system has been tested and fine-tuned in Augusta," said Mr. Alexander, who developed it in 1995. "The cities we are in now, those really are our final testing grounds before going national."
He plans to have electronic message boards, which are funded by corporate sponsorships, in as many as 50 cities by 2000.
Virtual Volunteer franchisees, who are paid a share of sponsorship revenue, are responsible for marketing the free service to clubs and organizations in their respective markets.
In Augusta, Virtual Volunteer is used by nearly 300 athletic clubs and nonprofit organizations to help them communicate information quickly to their large memberships.
The service is offered only to nonprofit organizations and community groups.
For sponsoring the program, businesses and corporations get five seconds of rotating advertising space on all calls made by the system.
Virtual Volunteer works like this: A user calls the system and, after the touch-tone menu directions, records the message for delivery to group members.
The computer then dials every person on the user's preprogrammed list and plays the recorded message, automatically redialing numbers hourly between 9 a.m. and 9 p.m. that are busy or go unanswered.
"The best part about it is I can quickly, easily, reliably get a message to all of the volunteers," said Will Rogers, project coordinator for the Augusta Optimist Club. "I don't have mailing costs associated with letting folks know who's coming to our meetings."
Mr. Alexander, whose credits include Plant Vogtle's automated attendant, developed Virtual Volunteer after spending more than an hour trying to call all the members of his youth soccer team to let them know their practice had been rescheduled.
"I really most definitely did not go into this to make a bunch of money," Mr. Alexander said, adding that many groups were initially hesitant to use the system. "People think if something is free, then there must be a catch to it. I'm just doing it to help the community."
The system was an immediate hit with Little League coaches and became known as the Coaches Board until mid-1998, when the name was changed to reflect its growing use by area civic clubs.
"It's just mushroomed out to encompass the entire community," said Paul Hockett, the company's Augusta director.
So far, the company has seen the most interest in Atlanta.
"Atlanta's growing like crazy," Mr. Alexander said.
Damon Cline covers business issues for The Augusta Chronicle. He can be reached at (706) 823-3486.