Recently Speaking Email has been published in NZBusiness magazine.
Click here for the full article as a pdf.
Mike Nelson: Geek on a mission
Beweb CEO Mike Nelson has built up an impressive client list over 16 years in the website business. He talks to NZBusiness about his Speaking Email app that’s caught the eye of one of the world’s biggest brands.
NZB: What is your background prior to establishing beweb?
MIKE: As a graduate I wanted to work in the up and coming ‘multimedia’ space, because in those days it sounded cool. So I picked Terabyte, the leader in the space, and went to the Computerworld conference in Wellington where they were presenting.
Turns out they were looking for people, so they brought me to Auckland for an interview and I got a job.
After a couple of years I left for my OE. In London my visa only allowed temporary work, which meant contracting and getting paid three times as much.
Many ex-Terabyters went on to other jobs within the industry, which meant I had contacts and was able to start freelancing when I returned. Most good freelancers are hard to book, but I was always ready to fit things in and soon had enough work to take on another person.
I asked former Terabyte colleague Jeremy Nicholls to join me. That’s how beweb started.
NZB: What have been the main contributing factors to your business’s success?
MIKE: I enjoy getting an understanding of where a client is coming from, what they want and why, and how we can help their business.
We’ve built a culture that values technical excellence, the sharing of code and helping each other, but not at the expense of customer service. Providing what customers want and need is kind of ingrained.
NZB: What have been the most significant changes in the web development marketplace since you started?
MIKE: It seems like technology moves so fast that it’s impossible to keep up. But, in fact, the fundamentals of the web don’t change much, and having a long-term view helps us focus on which new technologies are valuable for incorporating into our process.
User expectations have changed significantly – now people expect a lot of functionality to be built-in and want even complex requirements to be simple. User experience design is critical, and understanding what makes good user experience is one of those fundamentals.
We are no longer doing simple websites, as these can be done using DIY tools. But there are still many more complex requirements that need our skills and experience.
However, the problem with services businesses is they don’t tend to be very scalable. So instead of keeping on adding bodies, we’re creating a product with global potential in the form of Speaking Email. Many say incubating a product development within a services company is a formula for success, as it avoids the problems associated with taking on outside investment.
NZB: How did the Speaking Email app come about? And what’s the story behind the Bosch deal?
MIKE: I wanted an app that would read out my email to me while driving to work. It seemed like a good way to make productive use of commuting time.
I tried every app available, including Siri, but wasn’t satisfied – so I thought maybe this is a gap waiting to be filled.
We made Speaking Email work with all email platforms, and published iPhone and Android versions on the app stores.
After a year refining and improving it, I received an email out of the blue from Bosch. They were looking for apps to integrate with their connected car system.
The Bosch partnership is a huge deal for us. It means our app may be installed in up to a million cars a year. We have to go through a few more approval stages yet but we are on track.
NZB: What is the global potential for Speaking Email? And what are your plans for it?
MIKE: Our market is both small and big. Everyone has email. A lot of people drive, or can’t see very well or prefer to have things read to them. So the market could be billions.
On the other hand, this market is tiny as it has very small mindshare – people aren’t thinking about it, don’t realise it exists or don’t realise it would be useful. It’s not an established market, so estimates of its potential are pretty useless.
I was in LA for the Consumer Electronics Show (CES). Bosch had Speaking Email running on a BMW motorbike. The car manufacturers were all showing off their technology and I chatted to them about third party apps. They’re scrambling to get their platforms right for the connected car of the future.
Right now there’s no consistency in the approach to third party apps – what restrictions they have in driving mode, where they are installed (phone or car), or what operating system they run off – let alone standards for how an app interacts within the car environment. But all this will come eventually. Like the PC and mobile phone, the apps will become a key platform.
NZB: What inspiration can other young web developers take from your example? Do you have any advice?
MIKE: You have to enjoy what you do and see the value in it. Building a business also takes time and requires stickability.
I’ve heard people say start-ups are hard. This is true. You need a very good idea that you want to stick with for several years. If you enjoy building the product and can see the potential, then you’re off to a good start.
Building Speaking Email within our existing business has made it a lot easier to sustain, but also harder in some ways with the two very different business models.
I’m proud of having bootstrapped beweb without any financing. Raising funds can sap a lot of energy from a start-up. Funding is not the end goal, but some people seem to treat it as such.
NZB: What’s next for Beweb? How do you maintain that passion and enthusiasm?
MIKE: We plan to continue our services business alongside Speaking Email and see where it takes us. We’re focusing our growth on the app and taking opportunities as they come.
One of the things I like most about programming is seeing how old technology still works and is continually built on. Speaking Email is an email client that connects with almost every mail server, which has meant learning about all kinds of email technologies. It’s a bit like archaeology, poring over historic systems documentation, and then integrating it with some of the newest features in mobile operating systems, and cars.
Visiting Silicon Valley was exciting. As a geek from way back I love all that computer history.
I get a kick out of seeing what our team has built, whether it is an app, website or a business system. It’s always exciting to see people enjoy using something you’ve helped build.