By Chris-Rachael O… / Jul 9, 2012
Rocksauce Studios is an employee-owned Austin app shop with experience making a variety of mobile applications and a focus on execution (“Not to sound harsh,” reads the Rocksauce website, “but in this industry, an idea is just the very beginning. What matters to the app market is how that idea is executed.”)
Chris-Rachael Oseland recently caught up with co-founder Q Manning.
Austin Post: How did Rocksauce get started?
Q Manning: I’ve been doing design for 16 years. I met some people at SCAD (Savannah College of Art and Design), came back to Austin, and got involved in films. I ended up at an advertising company where I thought the new world online seemed pretty interesting and exciting. I could tell the print industry was dying.
After ten months at that company, Peter Yoder, my COO, and I decided to start our own company. At first, it was just the two of us. Our concept was to create a design centered approach to apps. Every company I talked to at the time had this very developer centric approach, but the truth is, in the app store none of that really matters. What sells your app is the marketing, and being approachable. Successful companies have great branding that makes people excited.
The whole industry is so new. Apple’s app store has only been around about five years, and it was a good year and a half old before they opened it up to third-party developers.
Austin Post: How many apps have you produced since you opened shop in 2010?
Q Manning: We’re in various stages of production on about 40 apps. There are five or six live in the app store, but we have a significant number in the pipeline.
Austin Post: About how much does it cost for you to produce someone’s custom app?
Q Manning: We’ve done some for as little as $25,000 while others went as high as $250,000. It’s all a matter of how big a project you’re trying to accomplish.
Ultimately, my goal is to make sure people get their ROI. It’s much easier to get that on an app that’s $50-$100,000, so we try to help people figure out their monetization. We want to make sure they think about how they’re going to make money with the app.
Austin Post: I find it interesting that Austin is so much more mercantile than San Francisco. Here, tech companies are really obsessed with making money on day one instead of coming up with a concept before they come up with financing. What do you think inspires that?
Q Manning: Maybe the fact that we’re a red state is why we think about the bottom line all the time. If we make an app and it’s beautiful but you never get any downloads or don’t make any money then you’ll never come back to us and you won’t recommend us to others. All the time, we hear clients telling us they love our honesty about where they stand in the marketplace. In the short term it means we won’t get as many projects, but in the long run, we’ll get the right kind of projects, which means more to us at the company.
Austin Post: There’s a lot of talk these days about how three guys with a good idea can make money designing an app in a coffee shop instead of trying to found a traditional startup. What kind of details are they missing out on that you have learned from experience in the industry?
Q Manning: It all comes down to sweat equity. Clients will come to us and say their buddy made an app and it didn’t cost him anything. The truth is, if he spent 150 hours on it at $150 per hour, which is the typical cost of a good developer, then he actually put a lot of money into it.
If you have venture capital or angel funding, making it yourself is a great option. That’s how FourSquare and GoWalla were founded. For them, making the app was about passive content.
For people who have some money and want to create a business, but aren’t ready to turn their entire lives over to that business and spend every waking hour working on design, we can help. They can tap into our creative team. You come in, buy our time for the parts you need, and we’ll work with you as though the app was our own. Every app we make, we live and breathe and love it as much as if it’s something we came up with on our own.
But if you have the time and energy to do it yourself, I say go for it. It’ll take more time than you think, but you’ll learn a lot. A lot of the guys in the coffee shop don’t know about the guidelines apple has set up, what’s the competitive landscape out there, what price points people expect, and other things we’ve picked up through having a bigger team and more experience. It’s pretty rough on the guys who haven’t done their research and don’t know their competitors.
The worst thing to do is get in over your head and hire some guy off Craigslist who can’t do what he promises. Too many guys will say they know how to make an app when the reality is they’re learning iOS as they go along and you’re paying them to do it. We’ve had clients come to us with code so bad we had to tell them it was so messy and complicated it would be faster and cheaper for us to rebuild it from scratch.
Austin Post: According to your website, you only have one woman on staff. What’s the biggest challenge to finding female tech workers here in Austin?
Q Manning: If you include freelancers, we have about 20 people. That includes our blog editor and copywriters, who do work here and there. We actually have three female employees – one of our UX people, our marketing person, and our project manager.
The biggest issue isn’t finding women. It’s who applies for the job. When we hired salespeople, we had 12 men sign up and 1 woman. I’m not really sure why – maybe they already have good jobs at other places? When we’re looking for someone new, the really great people are already employed.
Austin Post: How has the need for custom apps changed in the last five years?
Q Manning: A lot of people think they want to make what someone else is doing, but make it “better” or “the right way.” Back when we started, people would come to you with an idea you’d never heard of before. Now, it’s different. It’s about creating a better mouse trap instead of creating a system for trapping mice.
Back then, we didn’t know what we’d be able to do with mobile. The way we’re able to connect with people now is amazing. The concept of being able to check into places was wholly original. When I first started, we thought everyone would create their own database of locations for checkins. Back then, if you wanted to learn the best sushi in town, you had to populate a whole sushi database. You couldn’t just tap into FourSquare.
Now that stuff already exists, and you have API’s we can tap into and put a layer on the database on top of that with additional information. The clients don’t have to create that data from scratch.
We used to see a lot of apps for driving. There was a lot of stopping you from texting if you’re moving too fast, so if you were driving 40 miles an hour it would shut down the texting. Those were android apps, the iPhone won’t let you do that.
As people start to create things, a market leader hits. You don’t have people trying to be a new checkin – FourSquare has that nailed down now. Then you had your coupon apps. A lot of people wanted to be the next Groupon long after Groupon already had their IPO and I had to ask them why they were going to be different and how they would compete with Groupon.
Austin Post: What sort of apps do you see coming in the next three to five years?
Q Manning: We’re going to see a lot of small databases connecting. Right now, you have a lot of silos. the information on your iPhone is different from what’s on your android tablet is different from what’s on your home home computer. I think there’ll be more merging of that.
We’re also going to see more cross-platform approaches. We have different developers for iPhone and Android right now. There are a few nascent technologies trying to do some cross platform things but I see those technologies becoming more mature and robust and giving us something we can develop once then use on all devices.
Web apps are a weird thing. They’re sort of the bastard child of the industry, but they can do a lot of good things. They’re just a website that is made to look like an app on your phone. I think a lot of people who would’ve had a website before, like a real estate company, will want a Web app in the future. They’ll want something responsive so that it’ll know how to scale with the same information whether you’re on a computer or on a phone. For a client that’ll be great. It’s one site, you don’t need to tap into a phone’s contacts, you don’t need to tap into things socially – you just need a responsive website with information tailored to the interface.
Austin Post: Do you see the app ecosystem as similar to other individual entrepreneur movements these days such as the Kindle marketplace for books or Etsy for crafters?
Q Manning: I think that’s exactly right. You see a lot of that on the Android marketplace. I don’t want to disparage any of the self taught Android coders, but the guidelines are very different from the iPhone store. I love that the X-Box Live, PS3 and Nintendo all have stores for homebrew games. There’s a lot of sweat equity. It has to be a labor of love and you have to be ready to dedicate your life to it, but you can make some really great things if you have good coding proficiency. You still need great graphics and art, but a lot of guys out there can make some really amazing things. It’s a viable option for them and there’s a whole ecosystem that pops up around it.
In the next 10 years, we’re going to see a huge growth in this kind of application as the technology becomes easier to use.
It’s like the film industry. There’s been a great democratization of film, so anybody can make a movie, but just because you can do it doesn’t mean it’s going to be good. If you make a really ugly pair of shoes on Etsy, you can put it out there but that doesn’t mean anyone is going to buy it. People need to make sure they know what people are looking for and how to make a real quality product.
For some people it’s cathartic. For some, it might be the realization that this isn’t the industry for them. They try to make an app, realize how tough it is, and realize that maybe they’d be happier working for a big company. You can’t just release something and expect it to be a success overnight. There’s too much competition. When it was new, people would spend $500 on a picture of a diamond ring on the iPhone to show how wealthy they were. There wasn’t much worth buying in the app store. Now, people want good quality products.
Austin Post: Rocksauce is employee owned. How does that impact your corporate culture?
Q Manning: The truth is that it’s probably exactly what you’d expect from our name. We’re really laid back. We don’t do a lot of micromanagement here. If people want to work from home, that’s fine. We have a lot of dogs in our office, we have shared food. We have a lot of fun. We like to have people here around 10:30 in the morning for meetings, but after that, it doesn’t matter if they want to stay in the office or work from somewhere else.
I’ve had designers tell me that they can’t beat the environment we’ve created here at Rocksauce and for me, that’s great. I’ve worked for corporations in the past where one boss would come to me and tell me to do this, then another one tell me to do the opposite, and they’re in opposition but won’t talk to one another, sticking me, a lowly creative director, in the middle with no idea which way to go. Here, we have a clear chain of command, and a lot of autonomy. Every one of my guys knows what they’re going to be doing, they know what they’re expected to do, and they don’t have to worry about being pulled in three different directions.
If you’re working on a project, we want you focused on that project. If someone pulls you off it, you have put all the breaks on the creative thing you’re working on then do something totally different. It’s stressful. I want them focused and creative so they have the freedom to make the projects great instead of pulling them here and there and leaving them scatterbrained.
I’ve always tried to delegate authority. A good manager finds people who are better than they are, then empowers them to do what they need to do.
Everybody here is working for the company. They’re working for themselves to make money because they own a piece of the company, not just working for a paycheck because they need to pay the rent. We’re proud of that.
Austin Post: What are you looking forward to for the future of Rocksauce?
Q Manning: One of the exciting things we’re doing is starting to make our own software, which makes us all pretty proud. We’re making some of our own applications instead of just working for clients. We have a huge piece of filmmaking software we’re working on which we hope will be an industry changer.
We don’t want to just do straight up enterprise work. I want to keep a healthy mix of enterprise and entrepreneur so it’ll keep my guys creative and excited. We have ideas for our own software that are so phenomenal, it makes us wish we had more hours in the day. We have so many ideas floating and so many apps we want to make. It’s exciting.
We can show our clients the things that we’ve made and tell them this is the kind of software we want to help you make. We want them as excited by their products as we are by ours.