NEW YORK -- The numbers that fill Warner Johnson's head shake him from sleep most nights.
There are phone numbers and area codes and long-distance calling rates to far-flung places like India, Slovenia and Hong Kong. Phantom phone calls to Mexico or Martinique ring in his dreams.
"I just can't help it," Johnson said. "It's my passion."
Johnson, 48, is a Harlem-based Internet entrepreneur whose model relies less on high-tech gadgetry and more on old-school simplicity and ingenuity.
His most recent creation is FreePhone2Phone, a telephone service that offers free 10-minute phone calls to any city in the United States and to more than 50 countries around the world on the condition that the user listens to a short advertisement.
Here's how it works: You dial a local access number that you can locate at FreePhone2Phone.com, you listen to a couple 10- or 12-second advertisements, and then you dial the number you'd like to call.
At a time when unlimited cell phone calling plans can easily eclipse the $125 mark, and smartphones and the latest tablets require costly data plans for optimized use, FreePhone2Phone is somewhat of a technological throwback. Its use and appeal harkens back to the days when a few quarters and a phonebook were all you needed to reach out and touch someone. And with the cost of gas prices, airline tickets and perishable goods rising for any number of reasons, millions of Americans concerned with everyday expenses can save anywhere from 10 cents to a $1 a minute off their long-distance charges.
Johnson said the target audience for his service is broader than those with family or friends abroad, and includes anyone who wants to save money in these tough economic times.
"Imagine you could save money at the gas pump by simply watching a few advertisements. Who wouldn't do that?" he asked. "This is no different."
While the service is free, there are a few catches. Most overseas calls are limited to landline numbers. Each call is limited to 10 minutes, and if you try to call the same number a second time in the same day, the call is limited to five minutes.
But the number of free calls you can make in a single day is unrestricted.
Since the launch of FreePhone2Phone seven months ago, Johnson said users have made "millions" of calls and saved "hundreds of thousands of dollars." (He admits to using the service himself at least three to four times a day to call business partners in Latin America.)
His story is the stuff of pure Americana: boy with humble, middle-class roots follows his dreams, takes a few risks and finds himself along the way.
And that journey has led Johnson to where he is today -- a man on a mission. That singular mission has been to spread the word about FreePhone2Phone. Think an African American Billy Mays, Tony Little or Ron Popeil in a pair of perfectly pressed slacks and a sport coat.
He tells the delivery guys schlepping packages up and down his block in Harlem about it. He tells the Indian and Greek waiters at his favorite restaurants. And he can't take a bag of peanuts from a flight attendant or tip a skycap without at least a mention of FreePhone2Phone.
"In the middle of the night, I'll check the iPad to see how many people on the west coast are making calls to Asia or Europe," Johnson admitted. "India is really big. Mexico is huge, and people are calling Europe like crazy."
FreePhone2Phone is just the latest venture for Johnson, who spent much of the mid-1980s and early '90s working on Wall Street as an investment banker with Payne Webber. He is also the creator of the website fabsearch.com, which aggregates travel articles from luxury fashion and travel magazines to help people plan where to eat, stay and play while on vacation.
His entrepreneurial impulses were nurtured at an early age, when he said his schoolteacher mother, keen to her son's motivations, offered some sage advice.
"Don't become a doctor," he recalled her saying. "You care too much about money to be a doctor."
So began his journey from a middle-class black neighborhood in Raleigh, N.C., where he was bused to integrated schools, to summer classes at the prestigious Phillips Academy, the elite prep school in Andover, Mass., and then to the ivy halls of Brown University, where he studied history.
While at Brown, a friend introduced him to a program designed to give minority students access to Wall Street. Johnson said he took to that world naturally, and after graduating from Brown with a degree in history, went on to work as an investment banker. But after years of the stress and grind of working in finance, he felt stymied.
"I realized that working on Wall Street just wasn't for me," Johnson said. "I was following the book and I could imagine my life with success, but I just said, 'Why do it if my heart's not into it?'"
He recalled wanting to experience life beyond the tacky wood-paneled offices that he so often found himself in, where he consulted for many deep-pocketed businessmen with even deeper financial troubles.
"I looked at Ted Turner and he was a rock star to me," Johnson said. "Guys like that go out there and risk it." So he quit his job and moved to France.
"I learned French and partied my butt off," he said, with a bit of boyish mischief in his voice. "I decided to eat pizza and be an entrepreneur."
After living in France for a year and a half, Johnson decided to move back to the States, first to New York City's West Village neighborhood and then to Harlem. It was 1993 and Harlem had yet to gentrify.
"Police helicopters were still flying outside of my window," he recalled.
But he said moving to Harlem, the "mecca of black America," fueled his social and entrepreneurial juices. He was awed by the architecture and cultural richness of the place.
"It has made me so proud to be a black American. And you realize the strength, the commitment, the dignity and the patience of my people," he said. "But it also energized me to go out there and do things. I felt Harlem provided an open canvas for me to be able to pursue my dreams and I knew that I wouldn't be judged one way or the other."
There were ups and down along the way, Johnson said. Companies he founded have both flourished and floundered. But the last few years with fabsearch.com have been profitable and full of successes, he said.
And word of FreePhone2Phone has been spreading quickly, he said, mostly by word of mouth. (Surely, much of it his own.) There are plans to extend the service to more countries and investors, and advertisers have been extremely supportive given the tough lending and investing environment, he said.
Meanwhile, Johnson remains his company's best pitchman.
"Your grandmother doesn't know how to use Skype or Google Voice," he said. "But this is simple, easy as using a prepaid calling card."
And he allowed that he is consumed by the need to spread the word about what he believes his product can offer money-conscious callers.
"This is my passion and joy," Johnson said. "I can barely go to sleep without telling people about this service."
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