What goes on inside one of the most successful app developing companies in the Netherlands? What separates the company from the rest and why are they so successful? Ron Vrijmoet and Nick Mueller talk about MOBGEN and about developing mobile applications that stick around. 

This article was originally published on fd.nl (in Dutch)
MOBGEN:LAB opens its doors for the first time on January 26, 2017.

MOBGEN, part of Accenture Digital, is one of the most successful app developing companies in the Netherlands. Its founders recently decided to sell the company to Accenture, with the hope of targeting and attracting bigger clients, which is largely due to experiments carried out in their own lab. ‘Your mobile phone is basically an extra set of genes that contain super powers.’

Sensor on a Boxing Glove

Walking into MOBGEN’s courtyard is an interesting experience: instead of hearing birds chirping merrily, you are confronted with loud banging noises. It’s definitely not a bird; it’s a student named Lisa Vork who is letting off steam on a so-called “Slam Man” - a rubber dummy that has received a fair share of punches. Lisa isn’t just punching away for the fun of it; she is collecting data. Her boxing glove’s wristband is equipped with a compact sensor that measures the pace, accuracy and intensity of her blows. It doesn’t seem to bother other people in the lab – they continue to work unperturbed. Experiments like these are common in MOBGEN’s lab.  

Ron Vrijmoet answers the question before it is even asked. ‘This lab is all about testing new concepts and helping us understand technology.’ Vrijmoet is co-founder of MOBGEN, the app developer that was recently bought by consultancy company Accenture. MOBGEN developed successful mobile applications for clients like Plus Supermarkets, ABN Amro and Bouwfonds.

But what exactly will this tricked out boxing glove be used for? Well, Vrijmoet is confident that this particular technology can be applied to any situation where pace, measuring and accuracy play crucial roles. 

Intern Lisa Vork (22) is doing her Masters in Industrial Design at the Technical University Delft. She started with a sensor on a hockey stick, but moved to a boxing glove. ‘I chose boxing because it is a fairly easy beginner sport.’ A smartphone’s screen tells us exactly what happens when the glove hits the “Slam Man” through a series of continuously changing color patterns that appear in different places on the dummy and, ultimately, teaches the boxer how to improve his/her punches.

‘By collaborating with institutions like TU Delft, Stanford University and the University of Groningen (RuG), we’ve learned how to manage data more effectively,’ Vrijmoet explains. All projects are short-term: we deliver a working prototype within a few months. In Vork’s case, it is “KickBob”, an app that enables boxers to train more efficiently.’

Mobile Phone - An Extra Set of Genes

The mobile phone is at the core of MOBGEN, since it seems to have become the lifeblood of society and the economy. According to recent findings by eMarketer, Americans spend over three hours a day on their mobile phones. Of those three hours, 86% of that time is spent on apps, and only 14% surfing the web. ‘Your phone knows everything about you: what you like on Facebook, where you are and the time you spend traveling. Your mobile phone is basically an extra set of genes that contain super powers,’ says Nick Mueller, MOBGEN’s Creative Director. ‘Unknowingly, we have become cyborgs’.

"Getting someone to download your app is a tough task, but to make sure people keep using it is the real challenge."

Many companies often don’t know how to deal with being so accessible (via apps) to customers. Getting someone to download your app is a tough task, but to make sure people keep using it is the real challenge. A digital call center can only work if companies let go of traditional means of promotion. It’s not the brand, but the customer’s satisfaction that is important. ‘The idea is not to replicate traditional marketing campaigns for smartphones,’ Mueller emphasizes.

Only the apps that solve consumers’ problems find their way to mobiles. Uber is a perfect example: the fact that the company has built its entire business model around an application is the sole reason for the cab service’s success. Not only is the application relevant for the customer, it also helps Uber understand how to best deal with the one-on-one client contact.

The importance of having a smooth-running app reflects in the Riverbed Global Application Survey of 2015. The report states that a staggering 89% of the 900 interviewed top managers feel that poorly functioning applications have an adverse impact on a company’s performance; 41% believe it leads to miscommunication with customers; 33% are convinced that it can result in losing clients; and 32% maintain that it can have a lasting negative impact on the brand.

‘Companies need devotees - people going the extra mile to make a project successful,’ says Mueller. Simply updating a website is about passive contact with customers; that’s the easy part. Mobile has the power to change entire corporate operations.

"During meetings in which everybody stares non-stop at their devices, we still need to explain why mobile is essential for reaching and keeping customers."

Generally, that process starts in the boardroom. Despite having clients with names such as Shell, NIBC and Van Lanschot, MOBGEN still has to do basic groundwork. Mueller: ‘During meetings in which everybody stares non-stop at their devices, we still need to explain why mobile is essential for reaching and keeping customers.’

Back in 2009, Mueller had the honor of being MOBGEN’s first employee. ‘We were three men and a mouse in an upper-level room on the Van Baerlestraat in Amsterdam. What was initially an eight-month project turned into a seven-year venture. The Australian-born has no desire to move back to his hometown, Perth. ‘I just love Amsterdam.’

Max van Paasschen, Isaac Kasevich and Michael Hazard of Stanford, the renowned university in Silicon Valley, also work in the lab. They focus on an application called Amble, which is meant to direct students around campus. Elsewhere, Manuel Bejarano works on a 3D-model of a T-Rex in the same space where robots are assembled. Spanish-born Bejarano was transferred from the MOBGEN office in Malaga. As he points his phone in the direction of a piece of paper, a dinosaur comes to life on the screen. As a true dinosaur expert, four years ago, Bejarano recreated a part of the opening scene of Jurassic Park with just software – for fun. He was snapped by Universal, and was asked to do some 3D work on the trailer for Jurrasic World.

The lab, situated in the Amsterdam’s ‘Jordaan’ area, is MOBGEN’s playground. Many of the innovations that come out of the Jordaan started out as an experiment sans commercial angle. Yet, it’s not uncommon for some of the applications to end up in MOBGEN’s portfolio.

Mueller, who runs the space with Sebastian Veldman, singles out Smartify as example. The app, which was designed to make the process of scanning art easy, has already attracted attention from the Rijksmuseum and the London Tate Modern museum because of its testing technology. 

‘We originally started the lab in order to keep people inspired,’ says Vrijmoet. All employees spend 10 percent of their time in the lab, working on entrepreneurial, innovative ideas.’

’16 000 downloads!’ exclaims an excited Mueller. Flux:FX was made available for download in the app store earlier today. The app, which replaces effects pedals for electric guitars, was developed for master guitar player Adrian Belew, who worked with artists like David Bowie and Frank Zappa. The app immediately caught the attention of guitar players from all over the world.

‘We employ a rather holistic approach for these kinds of projects,’ states Vrijmoet. ‘One side deals with attracting customers and the other solidifies the learning process, all while keeping the bigger picture of the whole experience in mind. Just like with the connected car (editor’s note: the vehicle that is connected to the Internet).’ Over the last few years, MOBGEN designed several applications to enhance and improve “smart driving”. Because of strict regulations, the software used in the current generation BMWs and Mercedes-Benz models usually date back to - at the very least - four to eight years. For instance, BMW still uses Blackberry to program its cars: the smart phone does not need to comply with vehicle regulations. According to Vrijmoet, that will be the on-board computer of the future. Furthermore, MOBGEN developed a driving assistant for Shell, enabling drivers to analyze their driving behavior. Everything from how a driver pumps the brakes and takes turns is monitored, as well as measures that can help them travel more cost-effectively.

"Pace is the make-or-break factor."

 ‘Nobody knows exactly how we will implement new technologies like virtual reality, artificial intelligence or connected cars in the future. We use the lab to experiment so as to help us prepare for what’s to come. A whole new market is about to burst open, and we are determined to have a competitive advantage.

Pace is the make-or-break factor. ‘Big tech companies (editor’s note: like Google, Facebook and Apple) might have the manpower, but they lack the pace. That’s what defines MOBGEN’s success: the pace at which we develop new concepts.’

Spreading Wings Internationally

MOBGEN’s meteoric rise over the past seven years is somewhat “un-Dutch”. The company combines all areas of design (everything from technology to creativity) and guides other organizations in implementing innovations. However, a few months back MOBGEN decided that its yearly growth of 60-70% wasn’t fast enough. Instead of bringing in investors to stimulate growth, the company instead accepted Accenture’s offer.

‘I want to work for companies like BMW, KLM and Audi,’ says MOBGEN founder Ron Vrijmoet. ‘There’s no way a small Dutch company can get a foot in the door at those organizations. Accenture is our gateway into new markets’. 

Even before Accenture, big market players were eyeing MOBGEN. Several consultants, publishers and marketing companies approached MOBGEN. Banking insurance company Aegon obtained shares in MOBGEN last April. ‘That worked like an accelerator,’ states Vrijmoet. Accenture had procured all shares in the company in July.’

Accenture plans to let MOBGEN spread its wings internationally, since the company has, until now, mostly operated within the Netherlands. ‘Big consulting companies often excel in technology and consultancy, but fall short on the creative side of things. Accenture’s resources will certainly help MOBGEN reach the next level. ‘Acquiring a multinational as a client is an arduous process. Accenture can accelerate this process significantly. If we want to work for a company like KLM, we definitely need the right support.’

No one at MOBGEN worries about being overwhelmed by Accenture’s culture. Vrijmoet refers to Fjord; an American creative design company that was taken under Accenture’s wings and grew from 220 to 900 staff members.

The pros certainly outweigh the cons. The new parent company has strong ties with big software developers. ‘Now we can experiment with systems like Google Tangoeditor’s note: Google’s new generation software – before the rest of the world can.’

Vrijmoet doesn’t want to disclose how much Accenture paid for the company, but he does reveal just a simple calculation of a few times the ebitda of the company’s turnover is too narrow-minded. ‘You have to factor in Halo, our operating system for mobile phone applications, which we sell worldwide. This company has far more value than just its people.’ During a conversation earlier this year, Vrijmoet mentioned he was expecting a €16 million turnover in 2016.

© Het Financieele Dagblad, September 24, 2016