An Interview with Shape- The Nordics #1 App Development Agency

by Emma Arfelt

This was originally published earlier this year and has been repackaged and republished for our new home on Medium.

‘Honesty’ seems to be the word that Christian uses the most, when describing his adventures with Shape. I’m meeting him at the company’s new office in the emerging Start-up Village in Njalsgade, Copenhagen and when I enter the room a rather young developer is laying lounging in the lobby sofa. He is wearing a casual outfit with a well fitted cap and sneakers. He matches the rest of the offices atmosphere with it’s open spaces, industrial planks in the ceiling and the fainted painting on the walls. The only indication that this is not an abandoned industrial building is the many (many) Cinema Displays standing on every desk. I am, after all, at an app development agency, and in my opinion, one of the best this side of the globe.

And even before I’ve exchanged emails with Christian to arrange this interview, I’m impressed with their work. Companies like Fitness World, Mofibo, Songkick, Novo Nordisk and newly funded Fitbay are in their portfolio and almost every app they’ve done has received an average rating well above 4.0 in App Store. I’m meeting one of the coolest guys in tech and the first question that comes to mind is how it all started, to which Christian replies:

“I met Ole, who is one of the partners, at one of Nova 100’s networking sessions back in 2010. It was just three years after the release of the iPhone and at the time transportation apps were the hottest thing and possibly accounting for 75% of danish app store. We started talking and when I learned that Ole had actually programmed the app that I used the most, we spent all evening discussing what you could make of this new technology. Ole knew Philip Bruce, who became our third partner. Philip and Ole were originally competitors since they were the only two making transportation apps in Denmark at that moment, but Ole knew Phillip and knew that they both were very passionate about app development and had been from the very beginning when Apple first released it SDK. It was also Ole who knew our last partner Nicholas, whom he knew because Nicholas had insisting on creating a new icon for Oles first app. Nicholas was the most creative of the four of us, Ole and Philip the technical officers and I was in charge of sales.”

They soon realized that they had a great idea and a really good team and only a week after their first meeting Shape was founded. They were fast-movers and were among the first in the Nordics to form an app development agency, and with both Ole and Phillip’s inboxes filled with request and leads, Christian started chasing them. “

I’m puzzled by their apparent instant success. The first app received almost 80,000 downloads, which at the time was astonishing. But with only 40,000 apps in App Store (which is now the amount uploaded to App store every year) all you needed was a great product that solved a problem whereas today it requires much more marketing and PR to make a successful app.

Being a type of consultancy firm, many in the startup community would ask: How is your business scalable? But before I get to ask this, Christian unprovoked states:

“I’ve been at countless entrepreneurship events and every time I discuss what a scalable business is, because I don’t necessary agree with the common definition. Many would argue that our business isn’t scalable, but for me scalability isn’t about the product but the people behind it. In my opinion scalability is when you can hire new people that is capable of taking the same decisions as you would take. If you have people that believe in your ideas and share your values then they will take the right decisions on behalf of the company. They will know right away what the “Shape”-answer will be to any question they might face. Our business is growing steady and we’ve come this far without outside funding, mortgages or debt. We grew with our revenue and weren’t dependant on outside money. I’m fascinated by user-dependant businesses such as Facebook or Everplaces, but for me it was more about growing based on our revenue. I wanted to have a product that I could sell.”

Christian lights up when speaking of his staff, and it’s clear that he has invested a lot of time and effort in getting the right people. I immediately think of the developer greeting me at the door. The laid back attitude, his apparel and the macbook is nothing out of the ordinary at Shape and nothing eye catching (although it was an awfully nice t-shirt). He matches the Shape spirit, and when I ask Christian about the single most important quality his employees posses the answer comes instantly:

“Honesty and integrity are our most important values and the people who work for Shape share those values. We must be able to trust each other and look each other in the eyes. The people I’ve hired are all the best in their particular field and I trust them 100%. If mistakes happen then everybody will come together to help resolve it. Our mantra is “Integrity is doing the right thing even when no one is watching” which both applies to our mindset, but also our code. We only do native. Other agencies are focused on delivering fast and are therefore sometimes forced to make solutions that aren’t the best, but get the job done. But for us there are no shortcuts. We only want solid code and that has been a selling point for us the whole way. We would never release something that wasn’t working properly. That isn’t Shape. We’re a development agency and 80% of our staff are developers and designers and not salesmen.

And when asked about what app he is the most proud of, the answer stands for every Shape value: The Distortion app. Solid code, thorough work and an incredibly well designed interface. It was the developer boys who spent their evenings and nights hacking and coding the app out of just pure joy.

“It was so inspirational to see them launch it and be proud of the final product. It got great reviews and people really loved the app. It was theirs entirely and not something that a client had asked for. It made me so proud that Shape wasn’t just a business, but also a place where people would spent the night and work extra hours, because they enjoyed it so much. To work with people smarter than oneself is fantastic, and the fact that when I ask them a question, I can be 100% sure to get a competent answer is what makes my workday incredible.“
“Another thing that is “hip” is pivot or persevere and in my opinion the only companies that can survive such constant changes are companies with clear values behind them and a team who understands those values”,

And while Christian offers his view on the latest startup trends, I cannot help but agree a little bit. Maybe business and startup isn’t all about scalability and “to pivot or persevere”, but maybe more about steady growth and revenue. It becomes clearer and clearer to me that Shape is about something else then great exits and incredible Series A, B or C rounds.

“Warren Buffett used to say that you have to stay inside your Circle of Competence, which later became our rule of focus”. We started with a utility app and this has been our core focus ever since. People are so pleased with the apps we develop and I’ll gladly admit that it just isn’t a focus for us. Our developers sometimes make games in their spare time, and it’s good fun, but we would never make it our primary market. I respect the gaming sector of the app store greatly, it is really a tough market. It can easily become a lottery unless you are out of this world talented”.

Even the most successful app game developer Rovio (Angry Birds) had 51 failed attempts before hitting the jackpot. It’s a whole other game, so to speak. In the gaming section of app store, you’re not only competing with huge gaming companies as EA or Zynga, you’re competing with any other app that would take away time from the customer leaving less time to playing games.

“Back in october 2010 we got an email from the people behind SongKick, who were looking for a partner to help them build their iPhone app. We got to work with some amazing people from the SongKick team and even though the development process was complex and demanded a lot of time, we persevered and manage to take all the functionality of their website into a app. It took 8 months from first contact to finish the project, but once the app hit the App store in the summer of 2011, it hit more than 100,000 downloads in just two weeks. It gained 5 stars reviews and won several awards. When I could stand in the subway of London and see that people around me were actually using our app, I felt like “I made that”. That was incredible. That is the feeling that I want my developers to feel with every product we made. I want them to be proud of their work and show it off. That is why we sometimes have to say no to projects even though they come with a lot of money. Our good reputation doesn’t come from saying yes to everything, but to say yes to the right things.”

I’m almost speechless at this point. Not only did SongKick approach them with a tough task that required a lot of things that had not been done in an app before, but they exceeded all expectations and SongKick’s number of monthly users on mobile devices just reached 6 million. Shape is actually making a difference in people’s lives, right in their pocket, and maybe thats the reason why the development of apps has become such a profitable business. You’re capable of solving problems by making a solution that people can just carry around in their pocket along with many other tools and solutions.

“Apps isn’t just about making one version “toe dibs” anymore. Companies are focused on creating value for their users and creating long term revenue drivers.” That was the case with “Fitness World” for example. They wanted to make a booking app, where their customers could easily book classes through their phone, but once we sat down we began to think about what other problems we could solve with this app. We always try to exceed expectations and build apps with our knowledge of what successful apps contain. Some clients know exactly what they want and others have a idea of some sort. We’ve worked with all types of clients — from small startups to big corporate firm, and we’ve learned to adapt to any client. The biggest learning is that you need to work with people capable of taking decisions, so you don’t end up building something that the end client will reject. That is not a profitable business.”

I cannot help but wonder, if apps are just another hip technology with a short lifespan. So I ask Christian how certain he feels about the technology — especially regarding the emerging market for wearable tech, where you shouldn’t bother opening an app, because saying or thinking about the tool would simply be enough to provoke your tech to solve the problem — but once again Christian’s passion for apps and especially native development throw my question out of the window.

“There is too much momentum behind smartphones and tablets. And with more and more people getting used to the flexibility of apps, more demand will arise from big corporate companies who want to make it easier for their employees to work from their smartphone and not in an ancient Cisco system.”

Shape is approaching it’s 4 year anniversary and while for some it seems almost impossible to have come this far in just 4 short years with their incredible portfolio, it seems natural to the rest of the Shape team and they have their feet planted solid on the ground. But that doesn’t mean that they lack ambition and with their new office in Zurich, Shape is planning to move up and out into the world. But wait, isn’t every other startup with ambition and a world take-over plan moving to Silicon Valley?

We discussed Silicon Valley, but it’s so hard to manage a project with 9 hours in time difference and it was important to me that our partner in Zurich, Rasmus and I could speak in every waking hour. We are a year in now and Zurich is showing black numbers on the bottom line, a great portfolio of new clients and is really taking off. Suddenly people recognise “Shape” as a name, and Rasmus was recently at Princeton University to give a speech about technology.”
“As an entrepreneur it’s been great to have funding through my entire education. I mean, in Denmark the government pays for your education and on top of that gives you extra money to buy your spaghetti and ketchup. That is basically funding. You get free knowledge and an incredible network — which in most cases happens to be the most important thing. Unfortunately a lot of great talent goes into corporate management instead and never really get to release their full potential. It’s such a shame to watch bright young people disappear into big corporations as McKinsey or PWC, just because they want to “get two years there and get a good resumé”.
“It’s just like sex. Don’t save it until you’re old”. It’s now you got the time to get those learnings from doing and life is too short to spent three years in corporate misery. It’s great to get some inside knowledge of a industry and a lot of great startups have been created by people with year long experience within a specific industry, but don’t spend your time in management consulting. Don’t let 0,5% increase in beer sales in Indonesia be your goal.

When I ask my final question to Christian, he doesn’t think twice about his answer. His biggest inspiration and most valuable support? His wife.

“The most important thing for me as an entrepreneur is to have a solid base. To have someone who knows you and loves you for who you are, and who is there when everything else is burning. I know that if I should ever go out of business or make huge mistakes at work, my family will support me 100%. A lot of the things I do, I’ve never tried before. Everyday provides new challenges to overcome and it’s certain that without my wife I wouldn’t be where I am today. I know that no matter how many times I fail, she will always help me learn and become better at my job”

There is something refreshing about Christian and the entire Shape team. Here’s someone who has a business without funding and which isn’t depending on user growth. Is it just me, or is that actually invigorating in the current startup scene? In over two hours Christian and I discussed almost every aspect of Shape and app development, but I somehow feel hungry for more. There is so much depth to this company and it is clear that even though Christian said that there was no magic to app development, this place somehow does feel magical and if you ask me these guys certainly are magicians.

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