Not many of the upstarts we feature in the Startup Spotlight have hit profitability.
But Rob Frederick’s Gripwire — a developer of mobile games and apps — is an exception. Bootstrapping his way to success, Frederick has built a profitable startup from almost day one, creating its own mobile games like Doodle Trivia and helping organization’s like Bob Marley’s “One Love Foundation” with mobile apps.
We caught up with the former Amazon.com employee for this installment of Startup Spotlight to learn how he built Gripwire, and what he’s got in store for 2013. Enjoy!
Explain what you do so our parents can understand it: “Gripwire builds highly social, mobile, location-based applications and games that allow users to play, create, and engage with one another in real-time, regardless of device type.”
Inspiration hit us when: “Mobile has always been my passion. I managed Amazon’s first mobile offerings in 1999, Amazon Anywhere, which led to the launch of AWS in 2002. I left Amazon in 2006 with a vision for figuring out how to enable brands, celebrities, and content owners to grow their awareness, engagement, and influence via social applications and games in a clearly measurable way. The startup that I went to was founded by a friend of mine from MIT and we grew the number of registered users from less than 100 to several million at a rate faster than Skype and Hotmail in 2006. The key influencers were those content owners, bloggers, and personalities that interacted with their followers, created reasons to keep returning, and encouraged feedback that would be integrated into future posts. This was amazing to me and made sense, in retrospect. After working with agencies, brands, and some of those influencers on their campaigns, I felt that I had learned enough to create my own company focused on providing services to paying customers that wanted to have the same level of success. It was at that instant that I determined that a small team of like-minded technologists could create something truly disruptive and impactful, without having to be focus on the interests of VC’s that didn’t understand the vision at that time….
Jim Harkins was our company’s first advisor. He was actually my first boss out of MIT and he sold that company to Amazon.com in 1999. He had moved from technology to real-estate and had numerous connections to brand owners, decison makers, and companies that could help out the original four members of the team. Our office was in my garage in Greenlake and together we built an infrastrasture on top of AWS that caught the attention of one of the largest brand agencies in the world, but it was 2008, too early and too risky for businesses that were just understanding Google, SEO, print, and television ads. We were promising rich engagement solutions on Facebook and mobile devices to an audience that didn’t understand what the impact of the iPhone, Facebook’s API, or companies like Zynga would be.
Now, everyone is basically on the bandwagon, from companies promising rich analytics and dashboards to embedded SDKs that enhance the features found in custom mobile applications. By focusing on building these tools for our clients and partners early, we were able to prove out our platform, refine our vision, and create solutions that continue to drive engagment, virality, and awareness. Our clients have been visionary individuals and companies that were willing to bet on the success of mobile devices and understood how important integration of social networks into the overall user experiences would become as proliferation of GPS enabled smartphones increased worldwide.”
VC, Angel or Bootstrap: “Bootstrap. I’m originally not from Seattle and I still find it interesting that startups here typically do not flesh out their ideas, prove out their models, and then request help from Angels and VC’s when it is time to go big. My mother had her own Atanta-based startup in the 80’s that she bootstrapped, I was mentored by others who did the same thing in Boston, and I saw what happened when you didn’t prove out a revenue model after taking money from a VC here in Seattle. I’m proud to be able to say that our company has been in existence for four years now, has been profitable the entire time, and has grown to over 13 people, all without taking a dime from investors. The main reason is our work speaks for itself and we’ve built up a loyal following of clients. Now that we are looking to release a series of products on our enterprise platform, we may be open to getting some marketing help as we grow awareness of the capabilities of our platform and APIs.”
Our ‘secret sauce’ is: “I’ve surrounded myself with people who are passionate, have loosely overlapping skill sets, and have developed various types of engagement based applications in the past, in various mediums. We have people on the team that know what worked on mobile devices in the 90’s, what worked well on social networks when the whole API (graph, open social, etc) craze took off, how to build solutions developers find essential, and, especially, how to create things that are fun and addicting to use. When you combine those together with the ability to turn out featured apps and solutions in a fraction of the time and cost that others spend, it’s definitely a “secret sauce” that has helped us succeed and be positioned for our big release.”
The smartest move we’ve made so far: “We didn’t grow too big, too fast. We chose our projects and clients carefully. We developed various solutions for ourselves and for others, but we never lost sight of the end goal. Now that the end goal is here, after seeing similar company appear and disappear over the years, I believe sticking to our business model and plan, even when it would have been so easy to chase other opportunities, was the best move we’ve made so far.”
The biggest mistake we’ve made so far: “We hired a few people that did great during interviews, joined the team, were given assignments, but either were not good fits for our small company or just didn’t understand how fast we moved. Right now hiring is super important to the success of our team, but one bad hire can slow down our progress. Therefore, we bring on people that we have worked with before or we know would be a good fit so that we can focus on our deliverables vs. all of the little things that can occur when you have passionate people working together for an extended period of time.”
Would you rather have Gates, Jobs, Zuckerberg or Bezos in your corner: “Bezos. Easy question. I learned so much from my time at Amazon and Jeff was one of those people that believed in several ideas that would later become disruptive, adopted virally, and set the standard for how a service should be operated and perceived by consumers. Also, his ability to find, discover, and surround himself with innovators and a strong team of people that get things done with limited resources is something that has inspired me and the rest of the team. Fun Fact: Our office in Belltown is in the same building where he used to live when he moved to Seattle and was building his future home on the Eastside. So I feel connected still, though I don’t see him as I did for the first five years that I worked at Amazon, on the 6th floor of Pac Med.”
Our world domination strategy starts when: “We quietly released our first product on our new platform back at the end of August. The platform is called Sirqul, pronounced “Circle” and it is has been adopted and licensed to several companies since then. Sirqul is a series of SDKs, Web Services endpoints, and example applications that aid brands, startups, and established companies to quickly embed social, gamification, mobile, location-based services, and analytic visualization tools into their existing product concepts and releases. It’s all about creating viral experiences that lead to engagement, awareness, and drive commerce transactions online and offline.”
Rivals should fear us because: “Instead of guessing about what will make this product/project successful, we’ve had time to refine our approach, test it out with brands, services, and developers over the years. We believe we will succeed and want to make sure that we provide the tools necessary for our rivals to adopt our platform and focus on what they do best, treating our solution as a must have, off-the-shelf part of their own strategy for success.”
We are truly unique because: “We have been profitable since 2008, have never taken any VC or Angel money, and have never really advertised our services beyond word-of-mouth recommendations from existing and former clients. Our team has built embedded software solutions, social network solutions, location-based augmented reality-based solutions, and converted board games into real-time multiplayer mobile applications that work across different device types. Our code is licensed and embedded into apps in multiple application stores, as well as waiting to be released by our most popular clients. We are in a unique position because we have touched a plethora of projects, worked with numerous clients in various industries, and have built up a knowledge base of proven tactics to turn ideas into compelling marketing and money making vehicles.”
The biggest hurdle we’ve overcome is: “Funding our vision, while also developing solutions for others. It means it took us longer than it would have if we focused on building the original idea, but now, years later, the concept has evolved and has been shaped by our experiences. I don’t think we would have built the product that we are releasing correctly back in 2009 or 2010. It was too ahead of its time and we would have had to reinvest time and resources digging ourselves out of a design and development holes to get to where we are today.”
What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to other entrepreneurs just starting out: “Stay focused and balanced in your approach to achieving your business goals and success. Be open to change, grow along with your model, and provide an environment for your employees to not only succeed at the tasks you give them, but in the future roles that they will take on after they move on to another company.”