These days, there are so many app development companies selling their own brands of web, mobile and native apps that they’re hard to tell apart. Where most developers stay within the limits of their app specialties, however, Portland-based DevelopmentNow explores – and often breaks – the boundaries of the industry itself. They have an app for just about everything: their portfolio ranges from 1Dispatch, a mobile app that helps truck drivers manage their freights, to a responsive site for Girlrising, a global campaign dedicated to giving girls worldwide the chance for a better education. DevelopmentNow combines clean, innovative code, entrepreneurial savvy and an eagerness to break the rules. From their office space in Southeast Portland, they design apps for clients including Microsoft, Time Warner Cable and AT&T.
Their appeal is summed up by the tagline on their website: “Speed. Flexibility. Expertise. Vision.”
IT developer Ben Strackany founded DevelopmentNow in 2005, and manages the data architecture for the various apps. The DevelopmentNow team also features the talents of creative developer James Cliburn, Android developer James Rich and Director of Business Development Adam Lorts. Lorts is the most public face of DevelopmentNow; he not only handles clients and manages campaigns, he sells the company’s brand and makes it stand out in a saturated market. I spoke with Lorts about the future of mobile app development, standing out in the crowd of app developers, and the art of being “fast and good”.
What does DevelopmentNow offer that no one else does?
We can be someone who can fit into a lot of different spots regardless of the technology or even the hardware that we’re working with. We’re able to build out things that seem nearly science fiction. Systems that other people stay away from, projects that other people refuse to play with or bid on, are our wheelhouse.
Can you give me an example?
We’re working on an app that’s an aggregation of multiple different social networks that could be kept on your phone. We pull from different Twitter APIs, and suggested hashtags that are relevant. If I want to talk about the New York Yankees or the Portland Trailblazers, I can type in that hashtag and set it there. We did a large project in Kuwait where we tried to create an Arabic experience where not only is the text and script different, but, since the whole experience is right to left, it changes the buttons and user interaction while still having the information contained within the same app.
What do you think is the future of mobile app marketing? How can DevelopmentNow and other developers better sell their apps and their brand?
I think that the process of marketing apps doesn’t stray too far from the classic marketing of a website, brand or product. There are specific things that exist in mobile (advertising your app in a similar or complementary app, for instance) that don’t exist elsewhere, but that’s only part of the puzzle. The most successful apps came from the groups that had the most resources and a solid vision and direction, and stuck with it. What separates the winners from the losers? Having a concise value that the app offers and an audience who wants that value, and then ramping up marketing where you’re seeing the most growth. It takes a lot of work and a lot of luck, but building a successful, profitable app can create a low cost income source in a market that is continually growing.
What is DevelopmetNow’s marketing model? How do you sell the brand?
We’re really technologists at heart and build a lot of really cool things. A disadvantage of that is that we don’t always have a product like other companies would have. What I’m really selling is the brain power of the people behind us. A lot of that is exemplified by us looking at a project at the very beginning, before we’ve made a sale. It’s also exemplified by being able to show how we work, what our process is.
Tell me about the process for campaigns. How do you work with clients?
We usually build mobile solutions. Say I want to amplify my e-commerce offering, and I’ve got a couple stores and a website. Maybe the next step is an app so I can send marketing messages to people’s phones. If I’m a large company and I see that a quarter or even half of my traffic is on mobile phones, I need someone to build a mobile version of my website. If, later on, you want to do something with geolocations or push locations, then you look into doing an app.
What is your role within projects?
Once a project has been contracted, I’m a little less hands-on. For some of our larger accounts, I would probably play the role of account manager. While other people are focusing on hitting the deliverables of a project and getting things done on time, I focus on whether the specific deliverable goals I sold the client on are still being achieved, whether we’re still working for the right goal, whether it’s making money for clients.
What was your role in the Girlrising campaign? How did you facilitate that?
An agency we’d worked with for quite some time had partnered with the initial company that helped put on the project. The agency thought it would make sense to pass off our development services to that team. That team managed the people who were doing social media for Girlrising and the people who were doing design. We did mobile development for Girlrising’s website and mobile website. With a project like that, it’s more important that things are on time than it is that things are absolutely perfect, even though we had a great project. When you’re showing film on CNN, it’s more important that you have something out there live that can take all the extra traffic that happens when you present it out.
You deal in both native and Web apps. What are some of the challenges and opportunities in native vs. Web?
A lot of times people make mobile apps that just basically wrap the website, for example the Linkedin app. One advantage of this kind of app is that if someone posts an article, you can tap on that, and you’re not being sent out to another browser. The disadvantage is that you’re pretty much trying to fit a Web page into an app, as opposed to building an app that has a native face to it. Little things can happen: If I’m moving to a side menu or a keyboard pops up, on a native app your screen is going to adjust to something like that, where on a native Web app you’re stuck with what you’ve got, and anything you want, like a scroll or a swipe, is much more difficult to achieve.
How do you interact with your users?
Before we get started with anything, it involves focus group testing, where we use basic questionnaires to get feedback. After something is out there, the users will let you know if this is an important app for them. It’s about dealing with the issues that are prevalent, and continually adding value to the product while being responsive to users’ needs.
In this industry, there are moments of unqualified success, “this is why I do this” moments. Tell me about a moment like that you’ve had at DevelopmentNow.
There was one large telecommunications company for whom we built a mobile website for paying cable and phone bills. We knew it was possible to lose this deal, so we locked the doors and had everyone working as fast and as hard as they could for the next 48 hours on that project. We got a functional alpha out there in about two days and delivered it to the VP of the company, who then told his technical lead, “These guys did in a couple of days what you thought would take six months.” It’s cool to be part of a team that gets things done so much faster and so much better than these larger enterprises.
How do you do that?
I think it’s just talent. We’re smart and efficient about the way that we build things. With that particular situation, it was about breakneck speed, not worrying too much about the structures that cause overdevelopment. You can be fast and good. If I’m taking three times as long to build something as someone else, that doesn’t necessarily mean I’m doing it better.
Where do you want to go, and how do you want to get there?
I want to see us continually growing. We’ve nearly doubled in size in the last three years. Doubling from 20 to 40 is a whole different kind of hurdle from going from 10 to 20 or from 5 to 10. Seeing that growth means that we probably have to get closer to working in a commodity process, meaning that we won’t be doing the same things over and over again. We’ll be continually innovative and have that consultant role, but we’ll also do things like create tools internally so we can have our own tool belt to work with, or create products that we can resell.