By Robert Neveu, CEO, Certify, Portland, Maine
My tech start-up, Certify, offers streamlined online expense reporting for business travelers. Our main product is Web-based, so developing a mobile app seemed like a perfect fit for our business. And it has been a perfect fit -- but building those apps has been a real challenge.
Here's how we did it.
The difficulties of building for BlackBerry
Apple has really brought the mobile app store concept to life in the last two years. But the traditional business user -- and about 95 percent of our customers -- has adopted the Blackberry as a primary device. We knew we needed to focus on building for that platform, but we weren't aware of how much more difficult it would be than developing software for the iPhone.
Blackberry involves five different versions of its operating system -- as of right now -- and is highly dependent on the type of phone, and its availability for all networks, while the iPhone has one current version of its operating system and is only available for AT&T. The general business industry doesn't recognize that as a challenge, but it took us 10 times the effort to make the application work across all Blackberry devices as it did for the iPhone.
We built the first iteration in-house. But as we started to experience the challenges of dealing with multiple versions of operating systems and making the product scalable, we realized we'd bit off more than we could chew. So we hired a third-party consultant who could do software development and testing across all Blackberry devices. It didn't save much money, but we were able to release the Blackberry apps much more quickly than we would have been able to do on our own.
A work in progress
We do all the ongoing maintenance for our mobile apps ourselves. We have a team of developers who are experienced with both web and mobile development, so it makes sense for us to keep it in-house. If you don't have the technological know-how, though, there are plenty of firms out there that will build a mobile app for you. It can cost somewhere between $5,000 and $25,000, so it's not completely out of reach for most businesses.
It took us between three and four months to get our Certify Wallet mobile app released on all four mobile phone platforms -- iPhone, Blackberry, Windows Mobile and Android -- but it's an ongoing process. Operating systems are constantly changing, and you need to stay on top of it to keep your app functioning properly.
Our developers go to some seminars to stay on top of the latest technology, but a lot of it is self-taught. They spend a lot of time testing the software for bugs, and ensuring that new features are compatible with the latest updates. I'm always in awe of how much information a good technical development team will consume. Any time a new operating system comes out, our developers will jump online to forums and start sharing answers with one another. It's more about online collaboration with other development communities than formal training.
Standing out in a crowded marketplace
Making your app available online is just the beginning. Once you get in the App Store, so what? You're one of 200,000 applications -- people who are already using Certify will download it, but it's a big challenge to market to new customers. You're in a very crowded marketplace.
One method we use is an online keyword ad tool called Admob, which allows you to advertise your app in other people's applications. We also participate in cost-per-click keyword advertising to promote the mobile app, and that's been a top provider for us.
To get more people in the door, we offer our app as a free service for the first 90 days, and it's been very popular: In the month after we launched the app, it received over 20,000 downloads across all the mobile platforms, and it's one of the top 10 apps in Apple's Finance App Store. When the 90-day free trial expires, users can pay $4.95 a month to keep their access to the app. Between 40 and 50 percent of our free accounts turn into paid accounts, and the mobile apps account for a large portion of our new business: In June, 48 percent of all new business came as a result of our Certify Wallet apps.
The global reach we've gotten as a result of our mobile app has been amazing. We're based in Portland, Maine, but we have users around the globe, everywhere from England to South Africa, Germany to Japan. We launched the product in January of 2009 and now have more than 200 corporate customers, and just under 10,000 active paying users. We expect to more than double that in the next 12 months.
Building a mobile app is kind of like building a house. Getting the framework up and running is the biggest investment and the biggest risk, but then staying on top of the updates is more like putting in new carpet or painting the walls -- it's not too difficult if you have a capable team behind you.
Robert Neveu founded his first startup, Recruiternet, in 1998, and sold it in 2005 after the business had grown to more than 100 employees.
-- As told to Kathryn Hawkins