Steve Young, the founder of AppMasters.co, hosted Sanjay Malhotra, CTO and Co-Founder of Clearbridge Mobile as a guest on his podcast. From The New York Times, PayPal, Tim Horton’s, and more, Sanjay discusses how Clearbridge started working with these huge, iconic brands, the keys to a successful product strategy for enterprise apps, and how leveraging data and AI is the future of mobile app development. Full transcript below.
This podcast was originally published on AppMasters.co.
SY: Today I’ve got a phenomenal guest for you. His name is Sanjay Malhotra. He is the CTO and Co-founder at Clearbrige Mobile. They’re a mobile app development company and they’ve got some amazing clients including, Tim Horton’s, Paypal, Wallstreet Journal. You name it – they’ve worked with some amazing brands. I’m happy and excited to be talking to Sanjay. Sanjay welcome to the show.
SM: Thanks Steve, for having me.
SY: Sanjay, you have some phenomenal clients. Talk to me about how it all started.
SM: The genesis of the business goes back to 6 plus years. The goal of the business was to create great mobile apps. It was still very early in the App Store history and so our original focus was enterprise software companies that were building vertical software for healthcare, or in other areas, and we approached them to become their mobile experts. From an IT or implementation standpoint, we had lots of experience in building great desktop website experiences in our previous history. Prior to founding Clearbridge Mobile, I was a SharePoint expert. I traveled the world on the back of Microsoft SharePoint creating enterprise solutions for these very large clients and they were starting to ask about mobile and how they could use mobile to enhance their workforce, etc. They were still too early to be thinking about how to engage with customers but it was that early genesis.
We started off by building iOS and Android apps for vertical software companies in healthcare, and other industries, security for example. It’s now been 3 years but our big turning point in the business was starting to work with building Blackberry 10 applications for some customers. It was at that time we had the opportunity to be introduced to the large brands that you see today on our website and so initially, we built many of the Blackberry apps for these customers. As everyone saw the writing on the wall in terms of where Blackberry was headed, we went back to our roots which was building iOS and Android apps. When Blackberry came to the market, they asked us to become a partner and we said we’d invest in training our staff to become Blackberry developers and so when the Blackberry stuff sort of went away, we reverted back to what we knew best, which was iOS and Android but we had been introduced to these opportunities through the course of our work with Blackberry.
And so that’s sort of where that legacy comes from and that was over 3 years ago. We had a turning point in the business. Having been introduced to those opportunities, we were able to continue to deliver exceptional mobile applications for our customers and we were able to turn that back into the iOS and Android side and continue to grow the business from that perspective. That’s sort of how our business grew from the two founders, myself and Deepak Chopra, to the current size it is today and continues to grow. Leveraging those partnerships and those experiences from the early days and being able to grow those into the accounts that they are for us today.
SY: Was there not as much competition for the Blackberry apps? Did you think, “Hey there’s a hole here, let’s fill this and then we can expand to iOS and Android development”?
SM: There wasn’t so much less competition. The way it played out was Blackberry was spending money with the partners that we did work with. For example, I’ll use The New York Times. They would say, we’re going to spend 1-3 million dollars in advertising with you The New York Times. As part of that deal, you need to build a Blackberry 10 app. So what would happen, in that case, was Blackberry and everyone would say, we don’t know how to build a Blackberry 10 app; we do iOS and Android. And they would recommend three partners that will provide you with pricing, estimates, etc. In quick succession because of a little bit of luck, a little bit of timing, and of course our expertise in mobile, we were able to win those brands over the course of – I would say – 18 months or so. Then we leveraged those back into doing the iOS and Android development we do today for those same customers.
SY: I know you’re the CTO, but working with these brands, from a sales perspective, how do you talk to them? What is the best approach when talking to these big brands? I’m sure they have tons of people knocking on their door.
SM: For us, we’ve been fortunate enough that we were introduced early, and we have a great sales team and marketing team that continue to engage with those customers. The days of knocking on peoples door and asking them to buy a vacuum cleaner or mobile app are gone now. Everyone searches on Google or they listen to podcasts like this to talk to and find out who’s out there and who people would recommend, and so now it is about managing our current customers. We do very little, if any, knocking on doors, cold calling, and cold emailing. We are about managing the relationships that we have. We are fortunate enough to have an amazing team that continues to deliver value to our customers and we leverage that from our account management side and our marketing side to go out and to market, educate the marketplace about who we are. That’s sort of how we are growing our business today.
SY: You talked about helping these bigger clients with some of their monetization channels and you said, it’s about reducing some of the costs. Give a specific example of how you helped one of these bigger brands. What do you think through when you work with a bigger brand and how do you approach the product strategy?
SM: I’ll start by saying what we realize about working with large enterprise customers is that mobile is probably the first time many of the people that we speak to have never actually spoken to each other even though they work at the same company. Mobile brings together IT, marketing, operations, and usually, these departments don’t work together – if ever – on anything. So what we find is that we are usually the hub that’s putting all of these pieces together.
I’ll speak specifically about an example with Tim Horton’s. We did the first tap and pay application for Tim Horton’s, which is an iconic Candian Coffee Brand. They sell coffee, they do lunches, bagels donuts, etc. We were, again, introduced to them through Blackberry and the goal was to create an application that will allow someone to pay with their gift card at the store. This is pre-Apple Pay. This is sort of in the timeframe of when Starbucks launched their mobile application. Our goal was to use NFC to do tap and pay. From a monetization standpoint with Tim’s, we were the ones to figure out how we would digitize a card and put it on there. The things that we needed to consider was that we didn’t want the lines to slow down, so traffic at the store, the QSRs are managed on how many seconds or milliseconds you can shave off of a transaction time so that you can pour more coffee and sell more pastries.
It was funny, the conversation wasn’t about the technology like tap and pay, but it was more about training staff, which would cost a lot of money for the 4000 stores, and does it actually take longer than someone paying with cash? Or someone taking our their credit card? In Canada, we’ve had tap credit cards for quite some time so you don’t have to sign or anything. But that was the measurement on that side. On the flip side, we’ve done work with a brand here in Canada called Enercare and the goal was to find a way to be self-service for their customers so that they don’t have to call the call centers to make appointments. This was about reducing costs and about monetizing the mobile application or the way you interact with customers so that you can reduce the internal costs. So, if you spend let’s say, half a million dollars on a mobile app, are you able to save 2 million dollars in operating costs over the course of two years because you get 10% fewer calls in your call center?
SY: So it’s just about goals with the client? I find that I work with a ton of clients that sometimes don’t understand their goals.
SM: Our first thing is to ask what is going to be success? Have you set a benchmark for how many downloads of the app you’re going to have, and sometimes customers haven’t thought about it that far. They just say we will build and it and they will come. They think, we are a large iconic brand so we don’t have to market the application. People will just find it. So then you need to educate your customers that yes, you are a large iconic brand but when I go to the Google Play store or the App Store, I’m not searching for you. I’m searching for what the cool next thing is. Even if I do search for you, and you get me to install your app on my phone, you need to make sure you remind me that you exist because I have one hundred other apps. You need to find ways to engage with your customers so that they are first of all, aware that you exist and the value that you offer through the mobile application being best used by your customers as well. So analytics, etc. all play into a successful app launch along with goals and metrics
SY: What’s the proper way to launch an app, especially for these iconic brands?
SM: Our business is about building a great mobile experience. We provide some consulting or advice on how to successfully launch a mobile application. We have some experience but it is not our main business to market or sell the application in-store. We want to make sure that marketing is aligned and aware that this exists. Simple things like when you go to the website from a mobile device, are you even telling them that there’s an app now? It’s funny that the larger customers haven’t fully gone through the cycle yet of mobile. Some of them do or do not have mobile responsive websites. They don’t think about a synchronized omnichannel experience between desktop, web, tablet web, a tablet application, mobile application, Apple TV, etc. It’s introducing a whole new paradigm to the marketing team about how you engage and create a truly unified experience for your customers.
SY: Have you ever felt like you should add marketing from a business perspective?
SM: We want to stay very core to our knitting. We know what we do really well and while we have great ideas, execution on marketing that the resourcing and the talent that you need to do that is a different ballgame and a different approach. We’ve always thought and always considered that if you confuse your customers by saying I do everything, then you end up doing nothing for your customer. So our goal is always that we build really great mobile applications. We do all of the work here in Toronto. That’s one of the factors of our team. Everyone sits within the same four walls. It’s always hard to turn down someone who wants to give you money to do something. Over the course of time, we’ve learned that those are distractions to our core business. While the money is great in the short term, they end up being distractions and sometimes detrimental to the overall vision and purpose of the business.
SY: What I want to get into next is some of the maturity growing pains. How you might have grown the team too dramatically and talk about the struggles of running the business.
SM: We are fortunate today to have a good pedigree of history behind us, but also to have stable long-term customers who turn to us when they need expertise on building, maintaining, and enhancing their mobile experiences. Large brands mature over the course of time. We first started in this business when mobile was a build it and forget it type of approach. You build the application, you put it in the store, you did your best to get people to use it, and then maybe once every 6 months when Apple introduces something new, we go in and enhance the application and do the same cycle over and over.
Today, we have customers that are aware that they need to be constantly working to enhance the mobile experience either on a monthly basis or a quarterly basis so that they can stay relevant and top of mind in the very quick and ever-changing world of mobile today. Our business grew on the backs of projects that we would staff the team up. One of our realizations, I would say about three years ago, was that sometimes we weren’t able to sustain that level of business. It’s always been profitable and when we started noticing that we are creating work for employees, we were investing in building products and realized that we have some good ideas here, but if we ever wanted to do that we shouldn’t use the funds that are coming out of the services business to fund that product business. It should have a separate team to deliver those things. We needed to have more focus in terms of what we wanted to do and we need to realign our team size and staffing with what we currently had in the pipeline. That was probably the hardest lesson and making sure we remained profitable at all times and that the business was a healthy one and not a business we were running or the sake of running.
SY: Do you ever think, because you have the capability of developing anything you want, doing a products business, how do you balance between having a profitable services business but always wanting to build products of your own?
The team has some great ideas that we could turn into products, but our focus is to build a really strong services business. The best analogy I have is that we run the business for profit and if at the end of the year there is some extra money, if we were to take that money and hire more marketing and more engineers, would that be money better spent instead of taking that money and then going and starting a whole new company, for example? That’s how we think about it. Early on in our days we always thought that you know the grass is greener on the other side and a product company has reoccurring revenue and as all of these things but when you think about it, it is very different to run a product company rather than a service company and so because we’re focused on providing value to our customers our services business is our foremost priority.
It is a challenge, but once a business is running, minor variations are a great thing, but a completely different business should be left as another venture and a separate business that needs to be managed and maintained in its own box.
SY: What are some new technologies that you think are coming up in the near future?
SM: I think the biggest one is leveraging Big Data AI in mobile. It’s not really a huge change from what I used to think before. Mobile experience has to be personalized and customized and what I see today is that it is getting easier and easier to create those truly personalized experiences with leveraging AI and big data. What options I should present to the user all the way down to what products I should present based on past experiences, based on a user’s profile. That’s where I see the best experiences and where I see mobile going. I don’t think mobile will go away anytime soon. I think mobile and voice control like Google Home and Amazon Echo – all of those will merge into a great user experience that will reduce the number of pain points users have. These are first world pains that I experience and I am trying to solve but also, in other areas and in other countries, reducing the amount of, I would say, distraction. Things we take for granted will make mobile and the next set of applications more intuitive and more interactive in our lives. Smart home devices that do what they’re supposed to do as opposed to asking me what they should do.
SY: What’s the one takeaway you want the audience to leave with?
SM: Building mobile applications is a very sexy thing in the marketplace and I think people should appreciate the level of effort to create mobile applications and great user experiences takes a lot of time and expertise in many different areas. It’s not just a bunch of developers that sit around and create these experiences. There’s Design, UI/UX, QA that are validating the application, there are Project Managers and Architects, so it takes a village to build a great mobile app. It’s not just a couple of people working in silos. Building great mobile apps takes expertise in many different areas from partners that do the marketing, to partners that build a great mobile app. It is a really good community to be a part of and there is a lot of opportunity going forward for all of us involved.