On a corner of Chris Bennett’s desk is a framed 8×10 illustration. It’s Bennett himself, in this very office and standing in front of this very desk, re-imagined as a character from The Simpsons. The cartoon Bennett – holding a coffee mug with his company’s logo – is yellow-skinned, bug-eyed and smiling a big, toothy, Simpsons-style grin.
The picture – a recent birthday gift, Bennett explains – is the 800-pound gorilla in the room, the one little nod to levity in a place where the work that’s done is about as serious as it gets.
Bennett is the founder and president of Callyo, a St. Petersburg-based SaaS (Software as a Service) firm that creates communications technology for law enforcement – a cloud-based phone network for obtaining and storing evidence, and more.
“Thanks to your product, operations can be conducted more quickly and efficiently than before. In using your product, I’ve arrested a school teacher, a registered sex offender and several others for soliciting sex from a minor child.” – Sgt. Jeff Keller, Minnesota ICAC Task Force.
“We have a mantra,” the 37-year-old Bennett explains, “that you shouldn’t need special equipment to do something special.” Procuring, managing and maintaining a dozen or more separate pieces of equipment gets to be cumbersome, time-consuming and expensive for officers and detectives.
Because Callyo’s technology is so sensitive, its creator can’t talk specifics, except to say that “you’ve got a lot of investigators out there – human trafficking, child crimes, sexual assault, domestic violence, you name it – that are severely lacking the technology they need to capture the evidence that puts these people away.”
Since Bennett introduced Callyo technology in 2011, its use has spread all over the country, on local, state and even federal levels (the company has an office in Washington, D.C., not far from the White House). At last count, more than 9,000 agencies were using the service.
Callyo was named to the 2018 GovTech list, as one of the Top 100 companies focused on and making a difference for state and local government.
Bennett recently invited Clearwater’s International Association of Human Trafficking Investigators, lauded for its thorough law enforcement training services and close work with prosecutors, to move its offices next to the Callyo headquarters, in a 5,500-square-foot building in St. Pete’s Central Arts District. The IAHTI crew works alongside Callyo’s 18 local employees.
“I wanted to help them out – they’re a not-for-profit – and get their activity, and what they’re doing, closer to our own staff,” says Bennett. “To help share education – and kind of remind everybody why we do the work we do every day.”
A Philadelphia native, Bennett was born into a family of businessmen, problem-solvers and entrepreneurs – his grandfather invented the automobile trailer hitch in 1946 – and had already set his sights on a career in computer engineering as a teenager. Before he finished high school, he was offered a job building websites for a local company, at an annual salary of $85,000.
His father wisely put the kibosh on that, and insisted Chris finish school and go to college.
He graduated from the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Technology Innovation Education program in 2005, and accepted an engineering job in St. Petersburg. After one too many Boston winters, he explains, it was an easy decision.
Bennett created onestorm.org, an interactive site that helped Floridians understand what they could do to best weather hurricane season; it brought him into daily contact with local EMS personnel and staff. It’s no longer operational, but the version he designed for the State of Texas – texasprepares.org – is still being used today.
Those experiences sewed the first seeds for Callyo. “It’s really great designing and making things for an audience that is sincerely appreciative of having that technology,” Bennett declares, “and having you as somebody working alongside them.”
Bennett’s first St. Pete residence, “an alley apartment that had a drive-through dope dealer,” made him start thinking about crime. “They’ve cleaned up that area a lot over the last seven or eight years, but then, policing was always on my mind,” he says.
He was also watching a lot of TV cop shows like To Catch a Predator, and noticed that investigators were going through boxes of burner phones, every time they needed a new identity.
At the same, a friend from his undergrad days was starting Venmo, the mobile payment app, a technology which allowed you to start using programming to interact with phone lines.
Which gave Chris Bennett another idea.
“I thought ‘I bet we could create basically a virtual phone network for law enforcement, where they could conduct their child crimes investigations and not have to go out and purchase new equipment – digital recorders, pre-paid cell phones, any of that. We can make their job easier. There’s got to be a better way to do this.”
He didn’t know law enforcement any better than he knew EMS and hurricane preparedness. But for Chris Bennett, offering to put his considerable skills to work was a no-brainer.
“You’ve got a bunch of people out there trying to help the public that are generally lacking funding, technology, tools to get the job done,” he says. “I’ve never claimed to be an expert on any of that stuff, but it was ‘I can see the problem you’re experiencing. I can make a tool to help solve it.’”
He launched Callyo in 2011, and hasn’t had the first regret. “I feel that solving problems that can benefit society is really the best way to apply my talents,” he says.
“When I see those success stories that say ‘Because of your technology, we were able to put these people away,’ and then you go home and you see it that night on TV, it’s like hey, if you can just make an OK living, and go home knowing that’s what your work accomplished for that day, that’s success for me.”
Not everyone on the St. Pete staff has his or her own Simpsons caricature, but humor – or maybe just a little steam-venting fun – is part of the package at Callyo. Bennett often sponsors wacky office events; there was a Callyo Olympics competition, and a colorful Pride banner, and a Fourth of July potluck dinner is in the works.
And, Bennett adds, there’s always room for more.
“The number one reason people come to work for Callyo is they’re looking for a mission-based career move. They’re good at what they’re doing, but they’re saying ‘I’m coding accounting software all day, but I’d love to be coding where I know that I’m putting a trafficker behind bars.’”
Learn about the latest Callyo innovation: The 10-21 Video App: