One of the most dynamic areas in the technology industry in recent years has been the mobile market. One of the firms which has ridden the wave of smart phones and platforms such as Android and the iPhone, is Austin-based Mutual Mobile. Mutual Mobile has powered a number of mobile apps, including the recently released StumbleUpon iPad app and others. We spoke with John Arrow, the firm’s CEO, to talk about the firm and its rapid growth.
What is Mutual Mobile?
John Arrow: Basically, Mutual Mobile was founded on the premise that the mobile is going to have a huge, lasting impact. We weren’t really sure how it was going to pan out, but we saw that it would be as big as the web. About two years ago, with some of the people I knew in college, who had come from the startup community and had a background in CS, we saw the Apple keynote. From that point, we started talking with people with experience programming on the iPhone, who had experience on mobile, and getting them together. We released the first applications ourselves. One of our early applications was Finger Twister, which we developed even before we had an iPhone. We weren’t sure it would run on a real iPhone, and had built it entirely on a simulator, tested it out, but were not sure it would work because it used multi-touch. We released the app, and amazingly, it worked, and saw a review that the multitouch worked great.
At that point, in 2008, we all got iPhones, downloaded Finger Twister, and started to make a few more apps. We ended up making about $100 a day, which was not much, but we put out another application, Hangtime, which was a very controversial application. It took over seven months for Apple to approve it, because it was an app which had you toss your iPhone in the air, and it recorded how long the phone was aloft. Apple was a little reluctant to approve that app, and we could understand why. Ironically, it was approved just before the 3GS came out, maybe because they wanted more people to break their phones. Some interesting feedback from that, was that all the scores from that game were uploaded to a central server, so people could see who was around to throw the highest and longest. Strangely enough, we started seeing scores of around 30 or 40 seconds, and finally realized that people had started taking their phones skydiving, which was a fun thing to see.
That was the last consumer app we did for ourselves, because about this time, near the end of 2008, we realized our biggest opportunity was in helping others to get their ideas out there. There’s a big inequity in supply and demand of who can program iPhone apps, or even Blackberry apps. As we started seeing what was out there, and through referrals, we started talking to companies who needed to be on a mobile device. So we began to migrate over, and slowly grew doing consulting and building on that.
We’ve now just crossed the 45 person mark by incrementally adding people. That’s really given us an interesting perspective on everything going on with mobile. I think, more than any other business, and even doing great apps like Hangtime and Fingertwister, we get to see everyone’s app ideas, and what people are doing with the platform is really insightful. We recently launched the StumbleUpon iPad app, which was fun to do. We did that app in just over nine days, getting ready for the iPad launch. It’s also been really exciting to look at different verticals. There’s a lot coming on the medical front, where companies are looking to use the iPad to replace the clipboard at hospitals, which will allow them to aggregate patient information, which would be really, really cool.
It looks like you’ve scaled up pretty quickly, how is that you’ve managed to grow?_**
John Arrow: I think it’s because we really have an innate understanding of mobile, and why it is big. It’s almost a cargo cult mentality. It’s the fact that the founders really understood what was involved in mobile, and we brought on additional developers who understood the intricacies and what was really at stake there. The other half of it was the economics of the situation–we’ve been riding this great wave, with everyone needing to be on the iPhone, and needing to be on Android, which really allowed us to grow really quickly.
What drove you in the direction of developing apps for other people, rather than continuing to develop your own application?
John Arrow: The biggest motivation, was that everyone at this company wanted to have a really, really huge impact on the space. We wanted to make things used by hundreds of thousands of people, if not millions of people. Releasing our own applications, you maybe will or maybe won’t. But, with a big client, you’re guaranteed to have a big exposure, which is really exciting. Beyond that, working with big clients, you begin to see patterns emerge, and a common repository of code you can reuse. We started seeing where there were platforms emerge, for example, we made a Guns and Ammo mobile magazine for the iPad, which was built on an application we created over four months to allow any magazine to turn content into an iPad app, in about two weeks. It has basic foundational elements which allows magazines to take something in PDF format, plop them in, and add widgets such as audio, video, a table of contents, and sharing features. That something that wouldn’t have emerged, if we had started making applications for ourselves. It only occurred because we had that perspective. That’s what motivates us, seeing the trends and patterns in the industry, and having the biggest impact we can.
How has the iPad affected what you’re doing, and what do you see is the trend with the iPad?
John Arrow: There’s a very clear trend we’re seeing. We’re seeing lots of applications that aren’t intended to be in the App store, enterprise-level plays. Businesses with anyone in the field can instantly see how it can help their organization. It may not replace their laptop, but it can replace paper, and do so in an amazing way. We’ve been working with a medical device company, where it’s been a no brainer for them. They are able to offer it to hospitals to keep track of patient data in electronic form, to reduce medical errors. It’s so much better than paper.
We’ve also seen a lot of interest in education on the iPad. We’re talking with several textbook publishers trying to bring content to the iPad. It’s such a natural device for education, you can put all of your books on one device, and can also use it for collaboration–it’s so much better than paper. Ultimately, that what we see the iPad being big for–for people in the field, students, doctors, and even insurance agents. We’ve even been working with an insurance company, to create a system to give quotes very quickly. They can sit back, and get a quote in ten minutes, which they couldn’t get with paper. And, while they could do that with a laptop, it’s a much more difficult experience and is lots less social in front of a client, versus the iPad.