Follow-up: August 2009 feature, "Kickin' apps"
Raven Zachary, founder of Small Society, which develops applications for the iPhone.
PHOTO BY ANTHONY PIDGEON
Remember reading about the casual coder who wrote an app for the iPhone in his spare time and ended up making a killing? Well, the early days of the App Store gold rush are over, according to Raven Zachary, founder of Portland-based iPhone development shop Small Society. “The idealism of quitting your day job and making a million dollars, that was not grounded in reality,” he says.
Except that’s basically what happened to him. Out of love for the iPhone, Zachary quit his job as a tech analyst to consult on app development. But after collaborating on the highly visible Obama campaign app, he found himself with more work than he could handle. He realized that the money was not in writing your own killer app and reaping profits from the App Store, but in building apps for other people who want to get in on the action.
So far Small Society, born just over one year ago, has built apps for Starbucks, Zipcar, Whole Foods Market and other big- name companies. Small Society has had two apps featured on stage at official Apple events and three apps featured in Apple commercials. Zachary says Small Society was the first iPhone development company in Oregon to hit a million dollars in revenue. All Zachary’s clients approach him first; Small Society gets enough referrals that they have to turn many down.
Zachary attributes Small Society’s success to its early advantage and commitment to quality work. But now the “absurdly hot iPhone dev shop,” as it was dubbed by the leading tech blog ReadWriteWeb, is faced with the challenge of controlling its own growth. The dangers of being absurdly hot are one, you could cool down; and two, you could explode. Small Society has done neither, opting for “slow growth” — which in the rapidly moving mobile industry means it has doubled its size in a year to eight employees and is hiring for two more positions.
“There are two long-term models. Stay small, be high-profile with a waiting list, take clients at the rate we want to take things, and be the masters of balancing our work and our personal lives. That’s the Portland model of doing things,” Zachary says. “Or, you sprint like mad and build an empire.”
Small Society seems on track to stay small, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t sprinting like mad. With the unveiling of Apple’s new tablet computer, the iPad, Small Society’s momentum seems unlikely to slow. The iPad opens up the opportunity to tweak iPhone apps for past clients for the new device, as well as develop for new clients who have iPad-specific ideas. “We’re a little bit hitched to Apple’s innovation wagon, which is a beautifully fun place to be,” says James Keller, one of Small Society’s founding members.
This is an office of Mac and iPhone geeks, which means there are no plans to start developing for non-Apple mobile devices. Once the iPad clamor dies down, the next wave of demand will come from companies that want to redesign apps they did cheaply and quickly when iPhone apps first got trendy, just as website redesigns were popular in the ’90s. Zachary hopes to continue working with clients to update their apps as Apple comes out with new upgrades, such as the new iPhone that’s coming this summer.
But eventually, the Small Society crew hopes to start building their own ideas for killer apps.