It is no news that the app development industry is blowing up, with the releases of smartphones such as blackberry, iphone, ipad etc. This year promises to be another year of breakthrough apps with more companies looking to profit in millions. One company currently making news with app development is Mubaloo.
Mark, an experienced entrepreneur who started his business during the dotcom bubble, although burnt but the company survived, he eventually sold the comapany Mason Zimbler Digital Marketing to a large US marketing services company called Harte-Hanks in 2008.
This is my interview with Mark Mason, CEO and founder of Mubaloo.
Can you give you some background information about yourself, were you the entrepreneurial type growing up?
I wish I could say that I sold lemonade on the street or cut the neighbourhood lawns but that wasn’t the case. I think my entrepreneurial spirit came from a realisation that I was never going to be a Corporate player and therefore needed to blaze my own trail.
You ran a business during the dotcom bubble, that must have been a very tough time, how did you manage to survive during that period?
Perseverance. I think one of my strengths is to stick to doing something where others fall by the wayside. It certainly was a dreadful time. We were focused on the IT market and overnight we went from retainers of around £150k per month to zero. But because it was so dramatic we were forced to make drastic decisions so we shrank the business to about as small as we could go and then trod water for about two years whilst the economy picked itself up again.
Tell me how the idea for Mubaloo came about?
I sold Mason Zimbler Digital Marketing to a large US marketing services company called Harte-Hanks in 2008. I wasn’t tied in to them but stayed for 9 months to handover the business. I was going to have a year off with grand plans to travel the World! However I owned an iPhone and realised what this device was going to mean to the business world. It was an opportunity too good to miss.
It's always a tricky one getting a co-founder, how did you manage to convince Ben Trewhella to come onboard? What should startups look for in a co-founder?
I was introduced to Ben through a recruitment agency. He had created a few apps which used live data to drive useful applications. These were the sort of apps I wanted to create. Ben wanted to develop a business but had no money. I had money but no app development capability. So it really was the perfect match for both of us.
What is Mubaloo?
Mubaloo is an app development company that serves Enterprise organisations. Our aim is to become the mobile development partner for large companies who recognise how important mobile will be to their businesses in the future.
Why start a mobile app development company? What do you like most about app development?
Mobile is a fascinating industry. It moves incredibly fast and changes happen almost daily. I love this speed of change and having a business which can quickly adapt to the opportunities. Companies have to remain nimble to change and actually build this into their business DNA.
I enjoy app development because Mubaloo brings a professional approach to a business which was more associated with Freds in sheds and Bobs in bedrooms. Large corporates like us because our approach is similar to the way they approach business. Methodical, business like and professional.
What platform do you prefer?
I have to say Apple iOS but that’s probably because that’s how I became interested in apps. However we’re seeing some amazing developments in Google’s Android platform and Microsoft is now growing as well. Also about a third of our development is HTML 5 apps which can be viewed on any smartphone browser.
Talk me through the first few months of running the business? What would you say was the hardest part of starting the business?
Mubaloo was started about 9 months before the app industry really took hold. We used that time to build a number of great case studies, learn some of the pit falls and generally build the brand of the business. Money, fortunately, wasn’t so much of an issue at that time. However I believe a business should be standing on it’s own feet financially by the end of its first year. In other words it should at least be breaking even, month to month, by month 12.
The hardest part of setting up Mubaloo has been developing the business processes to manage the efficient development of our apps through the business. The apps we develop for clients are becoming more and more complex and require a number of different technical skills. Managing and scheduling this has been a challenge.
Would you say the initial idea for the company, or that your business model has changed since 2009?
I wouldn’t say the business model has changed but I would say what we now offer clients has changed dramatically. Our apps started out being relatively simple which probably cost the client £5k - £10k. We are now working on mobile projects which are £250k+.
How big is your team now?
We currently employ 45 people and probably use about 5 contractors on and off.
What would you say has been some of the most crucial that you've done to build the company to this level now?
Having access to finance has been critical in building the business at the speed we have. Whilst Mubaloo has been profitable for the last 2 years, that speed of growth requires a cash flow buffer because clients don’t always pay as fast as you would like.
Is the business profitable?
Yes. Our speed of growth has had some impact on profitability, for example we have moved offices twice to accommodate the growing number of staff but my goal is always to be profitable. That’s fundamental to my business ethos.
You've managed to get some huge clients onboard such as AXA Insurance, Argos, Allianz, Channel 4, Virgin Media, SAGE, RBS, SKY, Samsung, Carphone Warehouse, Nike, M&G, William Hill, LoveFilm, Unite, Experian, McDonalds etc.. How do you convince big companies like this that you want them onboard as a client?
The aim was always to develop a business that large corporates would want to work with. That means building in certain business processes and developing a professional approach to our work. We understand that when someone sets out to develop an app their neck is often on the line. We want them to appreciate that Mubaloo is the safe, reliable and professional choice, similar to the ‘no one got fired for choosing IBM’ analogy.
What can we be expecting or look out for in the app development industry in 2012?
Well the phones and tablets are improving all the time. Google’s Android platform will inevitably become the most popular platform and Blackberry will fade away into a particular corporate niche. Windows Phone will start to find it’s feet and we’ll see more suppliers adopt it as a platform. More and more companies will recognise that smartphones and tablets are the new channel to market and we’ll see them being used more and more in communicating with target audiences. We’ll also see corporates start to use the phone throughout their entire organisations to improve many of their business processes.
What pieces of advice could you give to aspiring entrepreneurs out there?
Persevere, never give up. Many companies take time to develop the right proposition but the most important thing to do is get out there and test your idea. Then hone it, again and again, until you find what works. Many businesses start out in one direction and find their businesses ends up being somewhat different.
What can we be expecting from you and Mubaloo in 2012?
Mubaloo will continue to grow. We would prefer to have fewer large clients than too many small ones. Our apps will increase in their functionality and back end integration and we will continue to improve the creativity and usability in every app we produce. It’s an exciting future.