I’m delighted to bring you the second Mobile Developer Titan profile in our series supported by Telefonica’s BlueVia developer programme. You can the background to the series here.
This time we’re featuring the phenomenal team at Mubaloo. They’re the people behind some absolutely stonking applications for some of the country’s most recognisable brands. So, for example, they’ve delivered applications for the likes of RBS, AXA, NHS and Sky — to name but a few. It’s companies like Mubaloo who are performing a critical role within the marketplace, helping many of the country’s biggest companies get to grips with mobile applications.
Mark Mason is the company’s co-founder and chairman. He’s in the hot-seat today. Over to you, Mark:
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1. Who are you and what’s your background?
My name is Mark Mason. After gaining a degree in electronic engineering and a diploma in marketing I worked in the semiconductor industry with a marketing company and saw the opportunity to set up an agency that specialized in working with technology companies. In my late 20s I co-founded a digital marketing agency called Mason Zimbler which we grew to around 40 people. Following the dotcom burst in 2001, we shrunk the company to 10 and I bought my partner out. Following this I grew the company again to having a turnover of £6 million with 60 employees and clients such as Microsoft and Toshiba. In 2008, I sold Mason Zimbler to Harte Hanks and decided it was time to take a year off.
2. What is your job title and what are your general responsibilities?
I am the co-founder and chairman of Mubaloo. My responsibilities are to find good people and take away any obstacles that stop them being great. I also set the sails for the business and point everyone in the same direction.
3. When did your organisation begin trading?
Mubaloo began trading on 1st April 2009. We are based in Bristol’s thriving tech scene and started with just two employees. This remained the same until the early part of 2010 – we then very quickly went up to 48 employees and are continuing to expand. In the past few months alone we’ve won the 2011 Innovator of the Year in the Bristol Evening Post Business Awards and are just about to move to new offices to facilitate our growing team.
4. Why did you/your founder(s) start the company? To solve what problems?
Having taken some time out of work after the sale of Mason Zimbler I started looking for my next opportunity. I had an iPhone at the time and started to realise impact apps were starting to have on me. It was then that I spotted the potential for apps in the B2B and B2C markets. At the time the developers were mainly based from home and fairly geeky bunch. This made me think that the UK market had space and need for a professional approach.
I asked a recruitment agency if they knew of any experts in the app space. The first person they introduced me to was Ben Trewhella. He had an impressive background and had done a few apps. I had the money; he had the developer brain so we kicked it off.
5. How are you funded?
Mubaloo is a 100 percent self funded company. Following the sale of Mason Zimbler to US marketing services company Harte-Hanks I had some capital to invest in a new business.
6. How do you generate revenue? Who are your customers? Or do you sell directly via App Stores?
We sell our planning, creative and development skills. Our customers are large blue chip organizations so we work to deliver mobile solutions to them and help to advice on the right strategy. We offer a premium service as we deliver a premium product. We’ve encountered a number of instances where a company will go for a smaller developer to save on costs, only to come back to us to finish or re-do the job properly.
We have completed over 100 App development projects and our customers include RBS, Samsung, Global Radio, AXA, the NHS, Virgin Media, Sky, Met Office, William Hill, Allianz, Nike, the AA, Institute of Physics, Britain’s Finest, The Carphone Warehouse, Channel 4 and Experian (to name a few).
We don’t sell anything on the App Stores although some of our customers might.
7. Who are your principal directors/team members? Could you give us a few sentences about each of their responsibilities and backgrounds?
Mubaloo’s MD is Matt Hatch. Matt has a strong track record in managing technology businesses, from blue chip multi-nationals through to high growth start-ups in a range of sectors including consumer electronics, mobile, wireless and IT networking. Matt is responsible for the day to day running of the business.
Business development is in the safe hands of Chris Price. Chris has been working with technology companies for more than 15 years, helping them to implement and manage channel sales and marketing strategies on an international basis. He has worked with companies including Microsoft, IBM, Sun Microsystems and Samsung as well as smaller hi-tech fast growth companies. He is successful in creating and implementing business strategies and developing client relationships at the executive level. He sees huge growth and opportunities in developing mobile marketing strategies for brands big and small.
Ben Trewhella is the company’s CTO. Ben is an expert when it comes to knowing how to build and integrate IT systems. Over the last ten years Ben has built mainframe, desktop, web and mobile applications for consultancies, financial institutions, NFPs, social networks, technology start-ups and SMEs internationally. He is a Prince 2 qualified project manager and business analyst with a background in computer science and management, Ben is skilled in the process of delivering IT solutions. For the last 24 months Ben has been working primarily on mobile technology, developing apps and integrating mobile interfaces with web and server based databases.
Adam Fox is our Chief Architect and ensures Mubaloo designs and integrates software to the highest possible standard. He comes from an extensive background in mobile and brings with him a broad range of technical expertise; from commercial database design, game development, mission critical high-throughput system integrations to UNIX administration and hardware architecture. Adam is focused on keeping on top of the latest technologies to ensure he stays ahead of the curve and can spot the next big innovation.
8. Could you give us some key turning points or memorable moments from your perspective regarding the development of the mobile marketplace?
After we set up in our shed the business was relatively quiet for the first 9 months. That time allowed us to slowly build a portfolio of apps. It wasn’t until January 2010 that things really took off. That was when the iPhone was released on Vodafone and T-Mobile. Up to that point it had only been available on O2. The phone suddenly started ringing.
9. Can you remember back to some of the first applications that caught your attention? What were they? How do you remember responding to them?
When I first met Ben he had been working on developing a low cost fuel app. He wanted to integrate an Experian database of fuel stations into the app. It was a great example of an app using data to add real value to the user. An app that would save them money every time they filled up their car. This made me aware of how apps were going to change the way businesses functioned.
10. What was your first application launch? How was the development process? What was the biggest learning experience you derived from your first application build?
The app I’ve just mentioned was our first launch. Ben developed it over about 3 months. It took us a long time to negotiate access to the data so the app probably took about 5 months to develop. The biggest learning experience was that whilst we thought the app was brilliant, some people didn’t understand how it worked. The app offered the 5 cheapest fuel stations around you and that might have not included the station next to your home. For that reason some people rated it 3 stars and less. You can’t also just build an app and hope people will buy it. It needs traditional marketing as well as social marketing to raise its profile. We managed to sell ours to The AA which helped raise its profile.
11. At what point did you think ‘this mobile thing has legs’? Did you know from the inception of the business? Or did it take a little while before you felt confident with the marketplace?
I think it was when our first blue chip client came knocking, that was AXA Insurance. They saw the savings they could make in their business processes by using apps. They got it. But that was probably 6 months in.
12. Do you ever work directly with mobile operators?
In our experience, the mobile operators seem strangely uninterested in the B2B markets when it comes to mobile apps. They just want to make sure consumers are buying their products and services on their networks, obviously having devices that play Angry Birds has become increasingly important to them. We find it odd that operators seem to be overlooking B2B apps. We believe it could make a real difference to selling their networks into Enterprise organisations. Maybe BlueVia will change that.
13. What current or existing mobile operator capabilities would you like to see made accessible to app developers?
The operators have a huge amount of social demographic information about their customers. They know their mobile habits, their locations, their social activities. It would be great if they could share this. I think this is what BlueVia is all about.
14. What application platforms are you focusing your efforts upon? And why?
At Mubaloo, we feel there will be four main platforms moving forward. iPhone, Android, Windows 7 and web apps. BlackBerry will die a death unless it radically changes, but I don’t think it can or will. It’s increasingly difficult to find developers who focus on the platform. It’s not easy to develop for and doesn’t deliver the level of user experience of the other platforms. We see web apps as right for some applications but not all. Native apps will become more sophisticated as HTML5 capabilities continue to be understood and technology in smartphones continues to push the boundaries of what we can do with mobile devices.
15. Over the next few years, where do you think your focus will lie?
We think smartphones will become essential to improving the processes and collaboration within all businesses. As well as becoming a new sales channel for many companies, apps will start to be used by all employees to run their day-to-day agendas and facilitate the way they do business. Mobility is vital in this day and age.
16. What innovations are you most looking forward to in the mobile marketplace?
I think the one thing holding the mobile marketplace back is network bandwidth. LTE (4G) will usher in ever more exciting services on mobile devices. There is also Near Field Communications (NFC) and Augmented Reality (AR) which we are experimenting with. There is huge potential in those markets.
17. What handset(s) do you use currently? What’s your primary mobile network of choice and why?
I have used an iPhone and the O2 network ever since the iPhone came out. It seems to work as well as any of the others.
18. Can you remember your first handset and network?
My first handset was a Nokia on the Orange network. Nokia was the obvious choice at the time for ease of use and the fact that it had my favourite game, Snakes!
19. Could you highlight 3 mobile applications (and/or developers) that you seriously admire and explain why?
One of the apps that set the bar when it first came out was Jamie Oliver’s app developed by Zolmo. They focus on the user experience which leads users to return over and over again. It is a masterclass in user-experience. From my understanding they’ve only developed one other app for Phaidon – it would be good to see what else they come out with.
I think the Train Time’s app is a great example of a really useful app. Apps that integrate into back office systems to offer real value to the user. This is what we do with our apps. It gets you coming back and delivers real value. I love them.
The third, and the one I probably use more than any other, is the BBC News app. It’s well put together, runs well and does what it says on the tin.
20. And now let’s talk BlueVia: Have you had a play with the API? What did you come up with?
Yes some of Mubaloo’s developers have had a play with BlueVia. They have been particularly interested in the User Context API and how they can integrate that into some of our current apps.
21. What features of BlueVia are you most excited by?
I think the ability to send, review and manage SMS and MMS will be hugely valuable to many developers, as well as the opportunity to build new SMS based services with mobile frontends. As we specialise in the B2B and B2C markets the User Context API is most relevant to us – we think this could be an exciting area to explore further.
22. How do you react to the revenue possibilities presented by BlueVia?
We can see how the revenue possibilities presented by BlueVia could be a huge benefit to some of our clients.
23. What’s missing from the BlueVia offering at the moment? What would you like to see?
That’s a difficult one as some of the social demographic data we would like to see may not be possible. We think this is a great start and look forward to seeing how BlueVia develops further.
24. Would you like to see more operators adopt a more open framework similar to Telefonica and BlueVia?
We think this is the way forward for operators. This adds real, tangible value to their networks and moves them away from just being bandwidth providers.
25. Finally, let’s talk predictions. What trends do you think are going to define the next few years of mobile application development?
I think we’re going to see an exposition of multiple-media experiences which combine your TV with your tablet and smartphone. NFC and Augmented Reality will also be at the corner stone of the next wave of innovation. There are some clever examples out there now, but when it gets to being truly useful we will see the explosion. Finally, companies will start using smartphones and apps to run and manage their entire organization. We know that IBM and many other multi-nationals have started doing this; it’s just a matter of time before it really kicks off. We are already helping companies to do this, helping to make us the experts in the game.
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Mark, thank you for taking the time to answer the questions. Every success for the future — I look forward to finding out about your next projects!