January 9, 2011

Mutual Mobile Riding the Wave to Growth

John Arrow knew that his company, mobile app developer Mutual Mobile, had arrived when he was flown to New York in November for a launch party courtesy of Google.

The party was celebrating the debut of the iPad shopping app that Mutual Mobile designed for Google’s Boutiques.com. At the party, Arrow rubbed shoulders with the likes of actress Carey Mulligan and the Olsen twins.

Not bad for the CEO of a company that started just two years ago, with five Austin entrepreneurs pooling their money.

“Just being at that party, with some of the top Google engineers and talking to them and having demos of the application out, it was really almost an emotional experience,” said Arrow, who is Mutual Mobile’s president and CEO.

Barely out of its infancy, Mutual Mobile has grown to more than 80 employees, has opened a San Francisco office and has plans to hire 100 more people this year.

The company is growing on its own dime; it has not taken any venture capital or other outside investment.

Despite working with big tech companies like Google, Mutual Mobile has generally settled into a few specialized fields — health care, finance and education.

“We’ve kind of found what we’ve been good at, and doubled down on that,” Arrow said.

Some of the company’s recent work includes an app designed for automaker Audi, which gives a virtual tour of a new luxury car and shows off its features. Another allows firefighters to perform inspections and enter their findings directly onto the iPad.

While that kind of consulting work still represents about 80 percent of Mutual Mobile’s business, Arrow’s company is also rolling out its own products, based on trends they’ve seen in their own client work. He expects that side of the business to pull about even with consulting work in the next year.

“Having done several hundred applications and mobile solutions, we’ve seen a lot of patterns emerge,” Arrow said. That has led to “the ability to take something that worked for one person and figure out a way make it work for everybody.”

The company recently rolled out LaunchPad, which helps companies streamline their own app development process.

Mutual Mobile also licensed its own code for other companies to use. It’s similar, in a way, to a writer using the Microsoft Office suite of programs, Arrow said.“We don’t own what you make in Microsoft Office, but we own Word and PowerPoint and Excel,” he said.

By many accounts, it’s a good time to be in the mobile space — especially working with tablet PCs. (IPad work accounts for nearly half of Mutual Mobile’s business.)

Last week, market researcher Forrester Research released projections that tablet sales will more than double this year — from 10.3 million in 2010 to 24.1 million. By 2013, tablet PC sales are expected to hit nearly 40 million.

“When Apple’s iPad first debuted, we saw the device as a game-changer but were too conservative with our forecast,” analyst Sarah Rotman Epps wrote.

And at last week’s International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, tablets were everywhere — as electronics companies like Motorola, Toshiba and BlackBerry unveiled their responses to the iPad.

“It’s definitely going to be the year of the tablet,” said Andrew Eisner, director of community and content for consumer electronics site Retrevo. “Apple is paving the way, and we’ll see if some of these other tablet vendors can come in and offer something that’s competitively priced.”

Mutual Mobile’s biggest problem nowadays is finding good people to hire. That was the biggest reason for the new San Francisco office, as well as proximity to his West Coast business partners, Arrow said. And recently, the company signed a lease on a third office — a house off Rio Grande Street. (The company has already filled two houses on the block with employees.)

“Our No. 1 priority right now is definitely on the hiring front, more so than on the new client acquisitions,” Arrow said.

And while Mutual Mobile has made its mark in tablets, employees are already researching what the next generation of smart devices will look like.

Arrow believes those devices will be much more aware of their surroundings – and what their users want.

For instance, imagine you’re talking with a friend about going to Güero’s Taco Bar for lunch. Your phone might be able to listen in and take action.

“Why not create something that automatically schedules that (reservation)?” Arrow asked. “Here’s the time; it sends you an e-mail to confirm. So that’s going to be the next age — as we see it — is these awareness-type products.”

Or say you buy a lot of Red Bull. If your phone is monitoring your bank account, “it should know that, it should see that trend — so why not just start ordering it for me?” Arrow asked.

“There’s so many things that can be made better by awareness that haven’t even been thought of yet, and that’s where we’re focusing a lot of our R&D efforts right now,” he said.

“That’s what excites everyone here, is being on the forefront of that innovation – whether it’s helping clients with that, or just doing stuff because they’re cool.”