Brad Weber is founder and President of InspiringApps in Boulder, CO. He and I sit down to discuss his transition from corporate consulting to being a founder, profitability, continuous learning and budgeting for product with service revenues.

Brad started InspiringApps in 2007, the same time the iPhone was introduced. He and his team quickly moved InspiringApps from desktop to mobile apps.

Highlights

  • What started Inspiring Apps 00:24
  • Corporate Job to Founder 00:57
  • “Having more people isn’t necessarily more profitable” 01:49
  • Fixed Bid vs Time & Materials 03:11
  • Technologies & Project Specs 05:32
  • Self taught 06:38
  • InspiringApps Culture 07:15
  • First employee to today 08:23
  • Product & Service 10:04
  • Daily Practices 11:37
  • Staff development 13:29
  • Advice for someone starting out 14:22
  • Trends 17:01
  • Whats next for Inspiring Apps 19:07

You can find more information about Brad Weber and InspiringApps by visiting their blog, and following them on Facebook and Twitter.

Video Transcript

Brent: I’m Brent Weaver, and you’re watching uGurus. The must-watch web series to become a more profitable and in-demand web professional. Today I’m in Boulder, Colorado at InspiringApps hanging out with their founder and president Brad Weber. Welcome to the program.

Brad: Thanks for having me.

Brent: So Brad, why did you start InspiringApps?

Brad: I graduated from CU with my MBA and took a job at one of the at then time I believe a big six consulting firm and over that tenure never saw a project successfully delivered, which was frustrating for me. I like to build things that people use. So I ventured out on my own and so, in 2007 I founded InspiringApps and it was the same time that the iPhone was introduced and so pretty quickly our work transitioned from desktop and web to mobile and web as it continues today.

Brent: So you decided to go from maybe a cushy corporate job to like your own thing.

Brad: Right.

Brent: What was that transition like?

Brad: It was a lot of time spent doing both. I needed to moonlight and freelance, work evenings and weekends until I had enough friends and family and small business work that would keep me going full time.

Brent: Now a lot of people, I think, are in that space and they’re like freaked out about like how far and how fast do I do that? Were you like totally self-sufficient with your clients before you made that jump or was there a little bit of a risk there?

Brad: It was pretty close and I found one of the things that helped me was to partner with some other agencies in town. So, they were responsible for finding business for themselves and so much that there was excess and enough left over for me to ramp up in the early days.

Brent: So five years into the InspiringApps business, you have a team I can see behind us here.

Brad: Right.

Brent: What’s your current size?

Brad: We have 15 currently, but that’s after an expansion and contraction to get to this right size.

Brent: Okay, so what did you guys get up to at one point?

Brad: Well, when we started, as I said, it was about the same time as the iPhone and so there was a fever around app development and desire for companies to have apps developed on their behalf. So, we had two offices and grew to a point where we were about 30 people, one in Fort Collins and one in Boulder and it was exciting, but terrible at the same time.

Brent: So one to 30 people like pretty quickly.

Brad: It was pretty quick. Within a couple of years.

Brad:having more people was not necessarily more profitable and that was a realization for me, a lesson that I had to learn that was painful back in the day. But, what led to our reduction in size and consolidation to a single office was a desire to get better at what we’re doing. We needed to be better at estimating, we needed to be better at executing and we’re able to do that now whereas at the time it was a bit hectic.

Brent: So, getting better at estimating and executing, was that just as simple as consolidating down to one office or were there certain things that you guys had to go out and learn how to do better in order to make that work?

Brad: No, there’s quite a bit of extra work to be done there. I’m sure that had we only had one office at the time with the same frenzy of activity we wouldn’t have been any better at it or not much better at than having two offices. So one of the things we spent a lot of time on recently is to improve our estimating, is to estimate as we always have. Do the work, try to stay as close to those estimates as we can, but then afterward review in detail where things may have gone awry. Then in the future the next time a project come along that is similar to something we’ve done in the past we can adjust those estimates or learn from that prior work and improve those.

Brent: Are you guys currently billing under a time materials, like you throw an estimate out to the customer and then whatever you end up working into the project ends up being what you get paid?

Brad: That’s been a transition over the years as well. So, in the dozen years of working for myself I was almost entirely time and materials and never got hurt on a project and that was nice. But, when I came into this business and working for larger companies as I’d made the assumption that they’re going to want to work on a fixed bid basis. So, without really getting that request I was trying to be preemptive and we changed our practice, so we went from time and materials to bidding everything fixed for awhile. Since mobile was so new, our skills were new, our people were new, we were growing quickly. That was not the right thing to do and so there’s a time and a place for a fixed bid.

We have since gotten much better at our estimating as a result of the things that I just described. I’m more comfortable doing that now, working on that basis and in a way that can be fair to both our client and us. But that said, I was wrong about the assumption and most of our work has returned to be time and materials even for the large companies at this point. It makes more sense, I think, for a more agile like process to be able to work in small chunks, deliver, let the client know what they’ve paid for so far and make adjustments along the way.

Brent: So now you guys build some web stuff, some app stuff. Do you have any particular technologies that are kind of your forte?

Brad: That’s a mix as well. So on the server side we tend to be PHP and MySQL and then on the mobile side we have ObjectiveC and JavaTalent on our team, as well as Javascript. We do a fair amount of Appcelerator’s Titanium development for some of our cross platform projects.

Brent: So, what’s a typical project engagement for you guys look like in terms of revenue size for that project and how many team members and the length of time you guys put on it?

Brad: So, I would say the typical project these days are around $50,000 to $150,000, but that can range from as low as $25,000 to up to seven figures for an extra large project where we’re working across lots of platforms. In terms of people, we always have a project manager overseeing now. There’s always a designer involved and then the number of developers and the technologies depend on the demands of the project. So, anywhere from two to five or six.

Brent: So now with your background, you said MBA. So, have you always been on the business side or have you been in there coding and building and stuff like that?

Brad: Both. So, I have two business degrees, but my passion is really for technology and software development in particular. So, that’s something that I’ve taken upon myself to learn as much as possible. Sometimes formally, at CU I took elective classes out of the computer science department as I was working on my business degree because that was fun for me and then continuous learning now, watching iTunes U courses and reading books and whatever I can to keep my nose in the technology as well.

Brent: What would best describe the culture you guys have here at InspiringApps?

Brad: Oh boy, we went through an exercise of defining that recently. So, it should be fresh in my mind, but we took time as a team in our conference room with the white board and people were sharing adjectives and phrases that described their experience and the things that they thought were important here. It was fun for me because it had been six years with the company at that point and the kinds of things that were thrown out, as I said, were really gratifying to me that I felt like I’d built something that meant something to people.

So, we’re very interested in community service, continuing education for ourselves, and continuous improvement of our skills. It’s a very relaxed atmosphere in here. I have family myself. We have folks on the team who do as well and it’s a very family friendly place to work. We get our work done during business hours. We’re not pulling all night-ers working late into the evenings or weekends, things like that.

Brent: Was it like a leap of faith for you to go from like the one person and bring on that first employee or were you like I’m going in, I’m going fast?

Brad: The first employee is tough. It’s tough to go from one to two or two to three, but I’m pleased to say the first employee is still back there working today. Been with me six years.

Brent: That’s a good testament.

Brad: So, if you can hire the right one the first time, then the rest become a lot easier. I got really lucky in that regard.

Brent: Then in terms of retaining, so it sounds like you’re able to retain team members that want to participate in the business long term.

Brad: Right.

Brent: What kind of things do you do on an ongoing basis to make them feel like there’s a long term vision with the business?

Brad: One, is just make this a nice place for them to want to be and we do that in a lot of ways. One is through a benefits package. We’ve got a health plan and 401k, as well as the ability to set your own schedule more or less. Some people choose to work remotely from time to time which allows them to get away and have somewhat of a working vacation. Just convenient for folks.

This year we’re trying for the first time unlimited or perhaps un-tracked, however you want to label it, PTO policy where folks need time off whether they just need to blow off steam or have something important coming up with their family then they take it. They don’t have to worry about how much is in the bank.

Brent: I think we’re seeing that with kind of the knowledge worker economy. The people that are up in their head space the whole day and they’re kind of just chained to a desk so to speak, that people are trying to give them more freedom to make it seem like a more dynamic profession. So, in terms of the makeup of your business, a lot of agencies like yours have the whole like service business and then they start experimenting with some products. We were actually talking to a company just earlier today, it seemed like they were in the depths of this decision of all of the sudden they have a product that’s getting some success and now they have to have some customer service for that product and do they want to actually pursue that. Have you guys done this? Have you experimented with any kind of products?

Brad: We have. We have two of our own products in the app store now with one to come. It’s tough to find the right balance there, I’ve chosen not to take on funding for the business. So, we need to either sell products or bill for projects in order to keep the lights on and so on a weekly basis I work with the project managers to make sure that there’s the right mix so the lights do stay on and we can continue to keep our clients satisfied and advance our products as well.

Brad: I would like to see us stay involved with client projects because there’s so much variety and I think people enjoy that in terms of the technology that they get to work on as well as the business challenges that they get to address. But at the same time, there’s something special about working on your own products and knowing that that’s something that you’re going to have around for a long time and has been around for a long time that you get to continue to improve and really set the direction for. So, that’s fun for a team.

Brent: So you’ve been at this for awhile. What practices, either daily, weekly or monthly have really helped you get you to where you are today?

Brad: On the personal side, I have to be physically active to maintain my sanity and so I swim a few times a week. I play water polo when I can, but that’s been a little more rare lately. But, it helps me to have a routine and have that time to myself where I’m just staring at the black line on the bottom of the pool and either don’t think about anything or that’s a time when I can really focus and think about something whether it be a personnel issue or a technical challenge that I’ve been thinking about for awhile.

Then on the professional side, I think I’ve heard many in your series talk about the importance of networking and being involved in your community and talking to other people who are facing the same kind of challenges. I try to stay involved and talk to other folks, get feedback, advice, mentor-ship, things like that along the way. That really helps.

Brent: So, what are you best at in the business?

Brad: I think I’m adept at applying technology, appropriate technology solutions to meet business challenges. So, I have a passion for learning and staying involved in the technology and as I mentioned, I read and take courses online and attend meet-up groups to try and keep those skills current because I like to know what’s possible. I want to know what other people have done with the technology and then I can take bits and pieces from what I’ve seen and try to assemble them in unique ways to meet business challenges. I like to think that in order to keep a team together for six years that I have some soft skills and ability to listen to what’s important to them and take their feedback seriously and take that into account as we’re making decision for the business.

Brent: That can be difficult. You’ve got a bunch of different voices coming at you like, I want this, I want this. What’s your process for kind of consolidating that information and saying, okay, we’re going to attack the red hill now versus the blue hill.

Brad: Right. Sure. We have a few things. So, there’s a group process that happens every week. We have a team lunch in our conference room and all 15 of us sitting around the table and we do that every Wednesday. We’ll talk about something that’s either a challenge for the team or it could be a process discussion, something that we want to improve. So, that’s a venue for the whole team to get together and talk about things like that. Then maybe a year or so ago, I instituted a Lunch With Brad program where we’ll get together one on one and just go somewhere nearby. That’s a great opportunity for me to hear more personal requests about whether it be professional development or something that’s challenging at the office that we need to address.

Brent: So, 12 years on your own. Five, six years with this team. Over that period of time of 17 years . . .

Brad: It’s a long time.

Brent: . . . what would you tell somebody that’s just starting out? That’s just on that first year as a web pro or an app developer or they’re on this journey that you’ve already been on for 17 years. What should they know?

Brad: I’m still on it, for one. But, I’d say first, I talked about learning. My personal journey in that regard and I think that’s critical for success in this industry. Things change so quickly more so than some others, for sure. For the folks who are starting out, one of the things that helped me in the early days, well, what was also a challenge was to be willing to invest in building something that you may not get paid for. It maybe more than one something, but we finish our company meetings that we have quarterly here and I remind folks that there’s a three step process to our success. It’s to build great products, tell people about them, and profit. It starts with the building. It doesn’t start with the profiting.

So, for me, it meant that I had to build some things for small business and friends so that I could have a portfolio that I could then take to eventually paying clients. I think that’s critical, but it’s hard and I think that some people don’t leave enough time to do that. If I left my big consulting job without any other work and said okay I’m going to start day one and hang up my shingle, then there’s a surprising amount of time that it may take to build up that portfolio and trust from your first client. So, I recommend trying to invest that. Perhaps overlapping some other opportunity that you might be involved in.

Brent: I think going from a full-time gig to your own thing, I mean that can be a rude awakening if that’s going from first gear to sixth gear like you’re being told what to do and now you have to go and earn your own business. I think you’re spot on there with it takes some time just to get kind of a reputation or like . . .

Brad: Right.

Brent: . . . here’s three projects I’ve worked on and you can talk to the clients and they will tell you I’m not insane.

Brad: Right.

Brent: Just that little bit can be so huge to get your next ten clients.

Brad: Yes and our clients want to know that they’re not taking a big risk with you. They want to have some confidence that you’re going to deliver what you say you can deliver and so the more closely you can match their requirements with something that you’ve already done, the more comfortable they’re going to feel saying yes.

Brent: So, you’re a fan of technology. What trends are you following right now?

Brad: I tend not to be too trendy in my selection of technologies. We always keep our eyes open, for sure. For instance, we’re…

Brent: But I mean, you know you guys jumped on apps in 2007.

Brad: We kind of fell into apps in 2007. We thought we were starting a desktop and web business then.

Brent: We can frame that as like visionary [inaudible 00:23:36] moving mobile.

Brad: Absolutely. Absolutely, I was way ahead of that announcement. We used node, for instance, but are very comfortable with PHP on the server side. So, we’re not looking to displace that, but would like to keep an eye on it and see how that might help us. I would say a theme of things we look for is technology that will help us grow and scale solutions that we’ve either built or aim to build in the future where we can support more users, more traffic, things like that. So, engine acts as an initiative on the server side that would help PHP in terms of it’s performance. We, as I mentioned, build a fair number of cross platform apps and have had good luck with Appcelerator’s Titanium in that space and look for continued improvements there. I’ve always been attracted to cross platform technologies even on the desktop to build Mac and Windows applications from the same source. So, that’s something that served us well, as well.

Brent: Any trends in the business side in terms of how you’re managing the team? Obviously, the unlimited PTO is definitely maybe something new.

Brad: True.

Brent: But, any other trends you’re following on the business side?

Brad: I don’t know about trends. I would say for us, more slow measured growth for the company is something that’s going to be important to me to know that with each new person we bring on, we know how to manage that person as effectively as the team was without them and that we don’t get into a crazed expansion that leaves us a little hairy as we were before.

Brent: What’s next for InspiringApps?

Brad: I expect to spend more time and emphasize our product work. I think we’ll see that become more and more of a percentage of our business over the years. We’ll have a new product to introduce. And on the technology side we’ll continue to pursue things that the team finds interesting and further our business along the way.

Brent: Very cool. Well, hope to touch base with you some time again, some time soon in the future and get an update on InspiringApps.

Brad: Great. Thanks.

Brent: Very cool. Well Brad, we appreciate you taking the time for us today and stay tuned for more great content from uGurus.com.