The Startup Interview: GearedApp
“We aren’t just an app company. We want to be an app company known for our views on accessibility, transparency and honesty,” says Josh Carson, the enthusiastic co-founder of one of Edinburgh’s app development companies, GearedApp. I’ve come to meet Josh — accompanied by his fellow co-founders, Lara Findlay and Andrzej Schmidt — at their offices within Edinburgh Napier University’s startup incubator — Bright Red Triangle — on an evening in early July. I’ve come to find out more about their company’s rapid growth, their commitment to accessibility, building business through trust and how they manage a team that’s split between their Edinburgh headquarters and a flat in Saudi Arabia. Here’s what I found out.
The idea behind GearedApp began back in 2013 when the team met through a group project while studying for their Masters degrees in Computing. Having heard that the Edinburgh Capitals ice hockey team were looking to increase their online presence, the group decided that they would produce a mobile app for the assignment. “We did really well in it [the module],” Josh says, sat on the sofa, “so we chose to take it a bit further.” Two meetings later, having secured interest from the client and some initial business training, the company was formed.
The company spent their first summer working alongside their project supervisor on a number of Innovation Vouchers, many of which were funded by the Scottish Funding Council. The vouchers, Lara tells me, are issued to small businesses to allow them to experiment with new pieces of software or to have minor research conducted on their behalf. “So we swanned in, saying, ‘we want to get loads of experience and build loads of stuff,’ and took on all these innovation vouchers and built apps from them,” Josh says. The company took on eleven of the vouchers in total — Josh, in his slightly outspoken manner, argues that it was foul play in that one should only take on one, although Lara, clearly concerned about the company’s PR, argues that it wasn’t — and today, many of them have become longer-term clients. “It became a bit of a sales pipeline,” Josh explains.
Today, the company source their own clients through networking and focus on larger-scale projects for the likes of Edinburgh Capitals, Life Pod, Dirt School and Good Food Talks, a company which Lara is particularly keen to discuss. “We’re really enjoying this project as we like the idea of technology being accessible,” she says. “Their app focusses on presenting menus in a way that people who are blind, visually impaired or dyslexic can access on their phone and have read to them through screen reader technology.” Accessibility has, the team claim, become one of their core values as a business. “It’s massively undervalued in technology,” Josh argues. “It’s often considered as unnecessary, an additional cost, etc.”
“We like the idea of technology being accessible in many different ways — making services as accessible as possible, making technology accessible, inclusion, etc.”
— Lara Findlay, Co-Founder of GearedApp
“So would you say that you’re primarily an app development agency or website developers?” I ask the team. Josh argues that the company focus primarily on app development and web design, producing brochure and basic e-commerce websites but not huge web platforms. But Lara notes that there is a trend towards web applications which is something the company cannot ignore. This trend is particularly apparent in the areas of work GearedApp deal with most. “We find that the majority of our work appears to be in hospitality, sport and…” Josh’s mind goes blank before Andrzej, the team’s quiet polish developer, steps in: “health.”
“A Team of many Personalities”
I feel like I already know a fair amount about the team and their respective personalities just by watching who’s doing the talking, but now seems like as good a time as ever to bring up the subject of teamwork and understand everyone’s responsibilities on a day-to-day basis. Lara kicks things off; “So Andrzej is the developer. He also does all of our accounting and bookkeeping.” “Anything that requires true process,” Josh quips. “I am the project manager and write all of the proposals and scope documents,” Lara continues. “I basically use Word.” Then there’s Josh. “He just talks a lot,” Lara says with a laugh. Just as well considering that his role, alongside being the team’s designer, is to attend a large number of networking events. “Um, yeah,” Josh starts, “I’m usually the person you’ll see out and about because I’m totally unskilled so they just keep me out of the office,” he jokes.
The team is completed by Abdullah, the company’s back-end developer now based in Saudi Arabia, and two non-executive directors based at the university, who the company identified early on as keen supporters of their business [although it should be noted that, since interviewing the team, they have also taken on a junior art director, Chris]. “So how do you keep your team on track despite geographical boundaries?” I ask the trio. Lara explains that communication is easy if one uses tools in a structured way. GearedApp use Asana for task management and HipChat for communication — even when the team are sat meters away from each other, — as well as the occasional Google Hangout. “Oh, he loves a Google Hangout,” Josh says, referring to Abdullah.
While things seem stable now, however, the company has not always found people management easy. Originally a team of five, the company lost two directors along the way as a result of the lifestyle choices imposed on entrepreneurs by running their own company. “I don’t think they were really prepared for getting stuck into the whole startup thing,” says Lara. “They realised that they needed money and it was clear to us that we’d have to put in a little bit more work and time before we actually started making proper money.” Josh explains how one often thinks startups will “be like Google,” but this is extremely rare in reality. While, for confidentiality, the transcribed conversation on such matters ends here, Lara is clearly concerned with what Josh has chosen to discuss and jumps in, saying, “I’m not sure how much of this you should be saying. I won’t take over, just don’t say anything else. I’m worried about how many holes we’re digging here.” There are laughs from around the table.
After the company’s first growth spurt, the team decided to take on eight summer interns. “Given that we’d been running the business for under a year and had no idea what we were doing, it was probably a bad idea,” Josh concedes. Given that none of the interns were specialists in the areas they’d been hired for, the team found that they sacrificed a lot of time they would normally spend on developing their business to work with and train their new hires. Josh chooses to blame this slight human resources error on the team’s collective lack of a business background until it becomes apparent that Andrzej’s undergraduate degree was in management. “You should have known,” I say, to which Josh responds, noting, “but he’s the quiet guy, so…” Andrjez sums things up nicely, saying, “we’re a team of many personalities.” Now that I can agree with.
“We call ourselves the ‘adventure family’”
Our conversation moves on, turning to Scotland’s developing entrepreneurial society and the support GearedApp have received, in particular from the university and an entrepreneurial network focused on value-driven businesses, Power of Youth.
“As soon as we came into contact with Bright Red Triangle [Napier University’s entrepreneurial incubator] we’ve been doing loads,” Josh says enthusiastically. “We’ve done teaching, spoken to the dean and the principal, given our opinions on certain subjects, spoken to the funding board…” The list goes on before he concludes, “They’ve really tried to integrate us and it’s all quite transparent.” Lara, thinking more practically about their business, continues in the trio’s praise for Napier, saying, “they’ve been really great. They’ve given us space to work in for free, they’ve bought new computers for us to use, they’ll arrange to sit down and talk you through things, and recently, they’ve started getting Business Gateway in for the day, Interactive Scotland, Scottish Enterprise, etc, and we’ve had one-to-one session with them which has been really helpful.” Nevertheless, she notes that the university deploy a ‘laissez-fair’ attitude of startup support; “they are quite happy for you to come in and do your own thing. But if you want support, you can have it,” she says.
A quick glimpse at GearedApp’s twitter account — which, not surprisingly, is managed by Josh — highlights the importance of another group, Power of Youth, to the company and its team members. “We call ourselves the ‘adventure family’,” Josh says, referring to him and his cohort of twenty-five other entrepreneurs who attend his favourite networking group. “It sounds very arty-farty and airy, but it’s not at all. It’s all about personal development, developing interpersonal skills and building relationships with people which, in turn, lead to trust.” Josh is very quick to stress that the group is not about looking for business, rather, it is about offering peer-to-peer support and learning from others’ experiences. Nevertheless, the group often leads to business referrals — “one of the people we signed last week was someone we met off the back of Power of Youth,” Josh notes.
Startups are Whimsical
“So would you call yourselves entrepreneurs?” I ask the trio. “We thought you’d ask this,” Lara says. “We thought about this one over dinner and had different opinions.” Josh goes first, explaining that, although he knows his opinion to be incorrect [I’m not so sure about this], entrepreneurs go beyond just running a business. “Somebody could open a shop and not engage with the rest of the startup community. That, for me, is just a business owner,” he says. “An entrepreneur, for me, is somebody who wants to go beyond just running a business and takes an interest in engaging with other people running businesses — even direct competitors — and wants to help them grow together. There’s more of a community aspect.” Lara takes a similar stance, brushing aside those who participate in Dragon’s Den or The Apprentice, saying, “entrepreneurs don’t just run businesses, they want to take things to the next level.” As a result, the pair see themselves as entrepreneurs, especially given their focus on accessibility, transparency and honesty as a company. On the other hand, Andrzej has taken a different approach. “I checked the definition, and yes we are. End of story,” he says in a deadpan tone. “An entrepreneur is someone who starts a business.”
“An entrepreneur, for me, is somebody who wants to go beyond just running a business and takes an interest in engaging with other people running businesses — even direct competitors — and wants to help them grow together. There’s more of a community aspect.”
— Josh Carson, Co-Founder of GearedApp
Nevertheless, Josh, Lara and Andrzej do not see GearedApp as a startup. “We did call ourselves a startup for a while because we thought it would be good for business,” Josh explains. “But around six months ago, we said, ‘look, we’re an early stage company.’” After a pause, he asks himself whether he’d even consider the company to be ‘early-stage’ anymore. Their viewpoint appears to be guided by their clients’ views on startups and the potential for risk in their investment. “A few of our clients and prospective clients have asked because they want to know that they’re investing in someone who’ll be around for a while to ensure that their project is supported,” Josh tells me. Lara, in a brief change of personality, notes that “there are so many startups that are kind of whimsical. It’s a short-term label and ultimately, a startup has got to go somewhere.”
With this in mind, I ask the team as to where they see GearedApp going in the future. Will the company continue to call the university home? Are they hoping to be acquired by a larger app development agency? The answer to both of these questions appears to be ‘no’. “On Christmas Day, we’re going to be sitting in our very own office,” Lara enthuses. Although sitting in an office on Christmas Day sounds a little depressing and giving up their free space and equipment makes little financial sense, the company have decided that it is time to get their own space and develop their own personality if they are to continue growing. Interestingly, it isn’t the first time the company has considered moving; “Andrzej found a sheet of paper the other day which were board minutes from this time last year which said that we would move into TechCube. It was one of those ‘wow, look how far ahead of ourselves we were’ moments,” Josh says with a laugh. While they won’t be moving into TechCube this year — Josh claims it’s too political an environment — the company are eyeing up other spaces including CodeBase and the Biscuit Factory in Leith. “It’s about pushing ourselves,” Lara says.
“What will GearedApp look like in five years time?” I push them. “I’ve got aspirations to be like Whitespace, Realise or another of the Big Four agencies in Edinburgh,” Josh says, “but, at the same time, I wouldn’t mind having an office in London and, at the same time, I’m quite content.” “Are you really an entrepreneur?” Lara asks him, jokingly. From our conversation, however, it becomes apparent that, for the trio, the most important factor is continuing to have a ‘cool team of people to work with’ and ‘enjoying going to work.’ The company also have plans to release some of their own products, including a sports engagement platform for fans — do I see another FanDuel emerging from the Edinburgh scene? — which can only be spurred on by Josh and Andrzej’s enjoyment of American sports.
Lara sums things up, saying that, for her, most important is that they continue to work with “people who are really passionate about what they want to do.” Oh, and she wants an office dog — take note, Andrzej!