The Story of APE Mobile

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APE Mobile (Applied Project Experience) have occupied the same corner of Sync Labs since forever, quietly building something to do with project management. Then they pitched at OzApps and we were amazed at what they’d built. So we interviewed Matt Edwards to find out more.

//SN: So what’s the story of APE Mobile?

Well it starts back in 2009 when I was working as a project consultant in Melbourne. My wife, who’s a Perth girl, wanted to come back to Perth, and I was finding Melbourne a little cold and damp for my liking, so we ended up here.

My background’s in construction management, which I’d been doing all over the world, and the paperwork involved in construction projects has been the bane of my life for as long as l’ve been working in the industry. So for a while I’ve had the idea of doing that better, and the timing seemed right after the move, so back in 2011 I woke up at 4am one night and just decided to go for it and build the app.

Of course, now I know what’s involved and how hard it’s been, I’d love to go back and punch myself in the face.

//SN: Haha, why would you do that?

I compare it to the Lego movie song, “Everything is Awesome”, I was so naive when I started. For the first year I refused to believe I was a startup. I already had a business, all I was doing was building some software to sell with the business, and maybe there were some other people who would buy the software too. It took a year for the penny to drop that actually this is a real startup and I need to follow the rules. There is a set of rules for startups to follow, and you can either follow them or you can muck about pretending that they don’t apply to you because somehow you’re special or different. It took me a year to get past that and start doing this seriously.

//SN: So using the Lean philosophy and testing hypotheses?

I come from a waterfall world; construction projects are all waterfall projects, so I hadn’t really applied that kind of thinking. When I started I approached various app development companies with my spec for the app and they quoted me numbers around $30K to develop it. I doubled that in my head to allow for surprises, and figured $60K was reasonable. If I’d carried on paying those rates the current cost of developing APE Mobile would be somewhere near $3million, we’ve put that much work into the app.

At the end of 2011, I was over the moon. I had an external developer who was motoring along building a production-ready system, and I’d got a customer who was willing to play along while we finished it off, it was all going swimmingly well. Then the worst thing happened: we found out that the production system was barely a prototype, there were major areas of the app that just didn’t work for the job we were trying to get it to do.mobile first

//SN: So the spec and design needed to change?

Both that, and the actual app wasn’t a quality piece of software. One of the core principles I’d had from the start is that the app must not lose a single piece of customer data. Things could go wrong, but the data the customer had entered had to be safe. The system we’d deployed kept losing customer data. At that point I’d just brought David, my tech co-founder, on board, and he’d looked at it and just said “this isn’t software, this is sh*t”, and we took the incredibly hard decision to ditch the whole lot and start again.

//SN: But you’ve got a customer at this point, so how do you rewrite with a customer on board?

Luckily they had some problems and bailed out of the project, which gave us the freedom to ditch the whole thing and start again. It was a blessing in disguise, but it didn’t feel like it at the time. From the high point a few months earlier where we had a product and a customer, we now had no product and no customers. It felt like a huge step backward, but we needed to do it, so we just had to knuckle down and get on with it.

The product we’ve got now is an Enterprise-scale piece of software pretending to be an app. It does serious things, like replicating the database live to the clients, transactional processing to the server, stuff that takes time to implement properly but that will do the job properly. That takes a lot of time with only a small team, and trying to fund that team while that they spend that time is hard.

I’m not an affluent person, so I’ve been trying to raise funding while we’re developing this. In the early days we approached investors and they basically said “yeah, nice idea, but we need to see customers and traction to invest”. We got to January 2014, the product’s getting there, we’ve got two major clients, including Rio Tinto, and we go back to the investors and they’re still “hmm, no we still don’t quite see it”. Raising capital was hard, and it’s one the key things I’ve learned over the journey is how to get an investor to the point of saying yes.

shoes
running lean – stretching the operational value of your assets (gluing your shoes back together)

When we started, in the “Everything is Awesome” phase, we had a truck, the APE Mobile, which was my pride and joy. By 2014 the APE Mobile was a bicycle. During this couple of years of hard graft I had a single pair of trainers, and all the money I was earning from consultancy during this time was going straight back into the business for payroll, so I couldn’t replace them. I ended up gluing them back together over three times to keep them lasting through until I could replace them. Now the business is going well and I’m drawing a salary I can buy myself a new pair of trainers, it’s great.

//SN: yeah, so the business is ticking over now, do you still need the investment?

Well, yes and no. The business is paying salaries and going well, and we could keep going like this, but we need to grow in order to achieve our potential, to be the global software product we know it can be. And to do that we need the sales and marketing team to really push it out there, so we need some investment to get them on board. But it’s a very different conversation now to what it was a year ago when we’d just launched. We’d just picked up customers then, and we didn’t really have the stats to back us up. Now after a year of 18% month-on-month growth we can demonstrate some real scalability to investors, and have the customer data and metrics to back us up.

//SN: wow, that’s a high growth rate considering this is enterprise sales, usually there’s a lengthy sales cycle for these sorts of sales.

We’ve got the sales process down to a really light-touch thing. We’re getting sales over east where I’ve never even met them. So we’re marketing to them online, we demonstrate online, we train them online. We’ve got our training time down to 4 hours now; we only need 4 hours to get someone familiar enough with the product to use it properly.

existing templatesWe’re finding that the online sales works well for some people, but others need the personal touch and someone in the room with them. We’re partnering with some people who can do this where we can’t, and indeed one of our partners has sold the product into Iluka recently, and we can reach the big top-of-town customers with this, where we’d really struggle at the moment because we’re not Enterprise Software Sales kind of people, which is what you need to reach those customers. It’s working, though, we are reaching them with these partnerships.

So the cost of acquisition is really low, we reckon we can acquire a customer for about $350, and the lifetime value of that customer is about 30 times that. Being able to put those kind of numbers in front of investors suddenly changes the conversation and they’re taking the whole thing more seriously. So we’re close to getting this sorted out and being able to scale up to the next level. We’ve even had some customers ask about investing, which is great because they really understand the business and the product, so if they like it enough to invest, that’s a great sign.

//SN: so this is getting towards the end of a 4-year hard slog for you, where you’re finally getting to the rewards of the whole process

It’s been a long four years. I mean look at the state of me, I looked 21 when I started! If someone had told me back then what was involved in doing this, I probably wouldn’t have had the balls to go and do it. There’s a real benefit to being stupid sometimes. I’ve talked to a few investors and successful entrepreneurs and they’ve all said the same, that you’ve got to be slightly stupid to get started, that if we all knew the risks involved and how hard it was going to be, we’d all be scared off. But now we’re nearly out of the woods, it’s the most worthwhile thing I’ve ever done.

//SN: indeed, everyone tells you it’s hard, but bootstrapping a startup from nothing to this point is really ridiculously hard, so well done! So next is investment, growth, global conquest…

Absolutely, I’ve worked in construction all over the world, and one thing we’ve done in the app is make sure that it’s applicable all over the world. There’s nothing that’s specific to Australia. Every country and every company likes to think that they’re special and unique, but there’s a lot of common ground. We’ve tried really hard in the product to allow each customer to have enough uniqueness to make the product feel like theirs, but also enough workflow to add some real value to their processes. I always had the question in my head during development: “if I was in my old job of construction manager in the UK, would I buy this product?”. existing templatesYou’ve got to be careful when doing this, though, because you don’t want to make it so well-fitted to your tastes that no-one else likes it. I tended to phrase the question as “if someone came into my office with this product, would I kick them out?”, so the difference is subtle, but important. I didn’t want to make it so specific that no-one else would like it, but it had to have enough value so the construction manager me wouldn’t immediately reject it.

//SN: So how are your customers finding this?

The mid-tier customers, where we actually get to talk to the owner of the business, love us. They really appreciate that we’re providing a solution that really fits for them, and that we really understand their business. Most of our sales in the last year have come from referral. In fact, one of our (now) customers phoned me up one morning out of the blue and said “what the f* is APE Mobile?”. Apparently he’d interviewed a guy for a job and the interviewee had said he wasn’t interested in the job unless they had APE Mobile, and it was the best thing his ex-employer had done, everyone loved it, and he wasn’t going to work on another site where they didn’t have it.

//SN: wow, that’s an incredible story! That’s real demonstration of product-market fit there.

Yeah, when I put the phone down on the guy I didn’t really understand the power of it, but then it dawned on me and I was amazed. That’s the motivation, the reason why I did this in the first place. You get good days and bad days, but days like that are what keep you going. We’re in a fairly unique position where our product benefits the guys in the field as well as management, so both sides love it. No-one likes the paperwork and handling endless bits of paper, so being able to not do that is great for everyone. We’ve always made the interface as “app-y” as possible, as little like filling in paperwork as possible. So some of these electronic documents duplicate the paper experience; you’re filling in forms in a pdf or something, and everyone hates it. We wanted people to feel like they’re playing with an app, something fun and interesting to use. We take the data from that interface and put it onto the same form they’ve always used, so the resulting documentation looks the same, but it’s really important to us that the interface gets away from that.data capture

//SN: I can imagine, builders don’t strike me as people who love their paperwork.

Paperwork on a construction site is a real pain. Often you’ll have the piece of paper you’ve got to fill in, then you’ll have a register which lists all the pieces of paper you’ve got to fill in, and then you may have a register of registers which lists all the registers you’ve got to complete. I was constantly in trouble for not doing the paperwork properly, and so were my team, because I just found all of that stuff mind-numbingly boring. But it’s extraordinarily important too, so it’s a real quandary. So we make sure all the paperwork is automatically registered and taken care of, and they love that, and not only because it means they have less paperwork to do. Because we put all the data into a database that they can query, some of our customers are using our API to start integrating the data into the rest of their processes. But we don’t emphasise that from the start. We focus on the immediate value for the people involved, to get people focussed on the immediate value, and then they discover the rest of the benefits as they go.

//SN: That’s excellent. So, changing the subject: how has it been to build this here in Perth?

Building an app here adds extra challenges that doing the same in, say, Sydney. Particularly around investment. I’ve had a number of meetings with angels and the phrase I’ve heard repeatedly is “I don’t like to be too far away from my money”, so that’s been hard where the angel is over east. There are some awesomely talented people in Perth. From the development point of view it really hasn’t been a problem, all the challenges have been from the investment side.

//SN: You’d think that Perth investors would be more comfortable with a construction-based product?

annotateIt’s all about the risk profile. The guys who run construction businesses take enormous risks, but they understand those risks. Most of them could operate any machine on site and run the project themselves if they needed to, they understand the business so well. But they don’t understand tech at all, and to be honest there’s quite a lot of bullshit around the tech startup world, so they’re just not interested. And the guys who understand tech don’t necessarily understand construction, so they don’t understand the business problem that we’re solving and so don’t understand the risks. Because Perth is such a small community, there simply aren’t enough people who understand both construction and software enough while also being willing to take a punt on such an early-stage investment.

Of course, now we’ve got solid metrics and growth numbers to show them, it’s different and they can quantify the risks and rewards, and so the conversation has changed from understanding the industry to understanding the business.

//SN: Bullshit?

Well, there’s always a certain amount of bullshit around the development process. I think it’s incumbent on both sides of that process to realise that they’re either bullshitting or delusional. Techies always think any project is simpler than it is, and underestimate accordingly

//SN: I am so absolutely guilty of that.

I think everyone is. David estimates something, and he knows he’s underestimated, so he times it by three, and then I hear that and know he’s underestimating, so I multiple by three, and then we multiply by three again to make sure. And often that’s actually near where it comes out. So this really doesn’t come across well. But if your investor understands software then they understand that, and they’re OK with it. It’s why I think so many startups address problems that startups have, so there’s no problem explaining the problem to the investors.Action Item2

//SN: So what’s your advice for any new startups in Perth?

I actually have a list:

  • Don’t do it alone – it’s impossible to get this done on your own. Find a co-founder, someone you trust and can get on with.
  • Be creative – try new things, don’t stick with the same solutions, go experiment & discover new ways.
  • Work really hard – you can’t cruise this, you need to put real effort into it
  • Live once – do it! It’s hard, but you’ll never regret it. It’s the most exciting, emotional, frustrating adventure you can go on.
  • The rules do apply to you – don’t fall into the trap of thinking that you’re somehow special, that you can ignore things that others can’t.
  • Don’t pay cash for advice – the community will share anything for the price of a cup of coffee, so reach out and find someone who knows what you need to know and ask them
  • Use all the government assistance – the government programs are there for you to use, so use them
  • Set up your processes early – just before you need to use them. So get your CRM system sorted out before you get customers, not when you have a problem managing your customers.
  • Get your product out there – just get it in front of people sooner rather than later so you can see how people respond to it
  • Monitor your metrics – your metrics are important, so pay attention to them. If they’re not important then find the important ones.

I didn’t appreciate the value of the startup community when I started out, in fact I didn’t consider myself a startup back then. But I really appreciate the value of the community now, of being able to share stories, ideas, knowledge and experience with others. The tip about not paying for advice is not meant to criticise the consultants who provide paid advice, it’s more about that there is a strong community out there who are willing to share knowledge with you. There’s not been a single startup founder I’ve met yet who wasn’t happy to have a coffee and share what they’d learned with me. And what other founders have learned also applies to me, though clearly because of human nature I’m not going to believe that. We never learn properly until we’ve made the mistake ourselves, obviously. But that’s what the “the rules do apply to you” tip is about. I’ve heard some really good advice in the past and just dismissed it because I didn’t think it applied to me, and now I really want to slap myself for ignoring it. I really want to go back to the me in 2011 who was happily humming “everything is awesome!” and slap him, tell him to start paying attention to the community.

//SN: Well, on behalf of the community, thank you for sharing your story so far. It’s inspiring to see someone come through with such honesty and humour about their journey so far. We wish you the best of luck with the next few years of global conquest, and if there’s any way we can help, buy us a coffee!

Many thanks to Matt Edwards for taking the time to share with us, and we look forward to reporting on his massive global success story in the future.