There was a time not so long ago when people in theaters and on airplanes didn't have to be advised to turn off their mobile phones, and the atmosphere at a nice bistro was rarely marred by a mechanical-sounding rendition of "Ring of Fire." The fact that mobile phones have gone from novelty to ubiquity in roughly a decade accounts for the meteoric rise of InPhonic. The company, which is based in Washington, D.C., is sometimes called the Expedia of mobile phones. It sells phones and service plans for all of the major carriers through its website, Wirefly.com, and private-label sites it creates for portals like AOL and Yahoo. Last November, InPhonic was at the forefront of companies in offering number portability to consumers who wanted to switch plans.
The five-year-old company grossed $119 million and change in 2003 -- an impressive sum, but "we could have grown faster," founder and CEO David Steinberg asserts. Even so, a top line like that tends to draw a crowd, and InPhonic has found it a breeze to raise $85 million from investors and to stock its board with luminaries such as would-be veep Jack Kemp and Jay Hoag, the hotshot venture capitalist. InPhonic's most notable champion is John Sculley, the former Apple and Pepsi CEO who famously clashed with Steve Jobs. Like Jobs, Steinberg, who is 35 years old, "has the ability to motivate people to believe in what he believes in," says Sculley, who has been InPhonic's vice chairman since 2000. "But he's more like Bill Gates," with an intuitive feel for the mechanics of business, Sculley continues. "He's one of the best deal creators, negotiators, and closers I've ever worked with."