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Monday, January 28, 2019

Bright Idea Grant Launches

At Creative Intersection, we're hitting 2019 at a million miles an hour, and next on the hit-list is a Passion Project that I have personally been looking forward to launching for a very long time.

We're calling it our "Bright Idea Grant" and it's all about giving back to wannabe entrepreneurs and more traditional businesses with clever ideas who want to have a go at creating a mobile app or web application.

As a business, starting with seed funding of exactly $0.00 and no employees, we have been extremely fortunate and blessed over the years to have repeatedly had clients take a punt on us and trust in our passion without a proven track record in each of the new fields we've pivoted into as we evolve.

Innovation is part of our business DNA, and as such I get genuinely excited when I see new ideas come across my desk ... and, having worked with just about every type of client imaginable, from individuals to local small business, government, and national brands, I can tell you two things for sure:  The best ideas come from the most unlikely of sources, and it often just takes a small tweak to make a good idea into a potentially great business.

The Bright Idea Grant is open to all Australian businesses and residents

As we're just around the corner of 20 years of operations and growth in our own business, we want to give back to the community that has helped us grow and employ scores of local developers and application experts over the years.

One of the best ways we think we can do that is to provide our services for free as a prize to the best idea submitted to us.

I'd like to encourage anyone who thinks they have a great idea for a mobile app or web application to check out our BIG information page, download the app to your own mobile, sign the Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA), and submit your idea. There's no cost, and your ideas will be kept confidential.

Ian Exaudi
Managing Director
Creative Intersection Pty Ltd

Friday, January 11, 2019

The Problem with Appster and Buzinga

Mobile apps (and the provision of mobile app development services) are a licence to print money, right ?! ... so why have these two massive Australian app development companies entered into Administration in the past 18 months ?

July 2017:  App development company Buzinga collapses into liquidation after expanding

December 2018:  Young Rich Listers tech start-up Appster collapses after tough four months

As others have noted before, there are a handful of reasons why these app development businesses might fail.

To me, the reasons all centre around a basic premise:  The "Business" around a Tech business is like every other business.

For Appster and Buzinga (among others), basing an aggressive "plant your flag on the mountain top" expansion ethos around managing your costs by using a workforce half way around the world because they cost 1/10th of the salary you would have to pay for local talent might seem like a stroke of brilliance when you first think of it, but the reality is always (ALWAYS!) different.

Sure, as a burgeoning win-at-all-costs startup app development business you can tell yourself that your business is an expert in process management and managing the minutia of projects is what you do - and theoretically there is no reason why you couldn't easily manage projects being worked on by remote teams in Sri Lanka, India, Philippines, Russia, or anywhere else for that matter.

Of course, the old adage is true here:  "In theory there is no difference between theory and practice, while in practice there is".

And what of the clients themselves ?

Every single time, it's heartbreaking when we speak with a disillusioned app investor who has spent a large chunk of their savings (or hard-earned Startup Runway funding) to try to grab the proverbial brass ring to only ever be tantalisingly close-but-not-quite-there to being ready to launch their idea to the world.

More often than not, it's because their choice of development partner has a "local" office but it turns out that the actual work is being farmed off to teams far away from the marketplace in which the solution will ultimately be deployed.

Timelines blow out. Project costs triple. The quality of work drops as the initial team disintegrates and reintegrates into other projects over time. And disillusionment sets in for the investor when the honeymoon period is over and they still don't have a working app that performs as they had dreamed. 

The risks of outsourcing development hits from both sides and if we delve a little deeper, we can see some of the bigger problems that this can cause to the sustainability and reputation of a business.

"... any experienced business person will smell a rat ..."

If we take at face value the statement to AFR Weekend in December 2018, where Appster's co-founders, Josiah Humphrey and Mark McDonald said that 4 months of sales forecasts missed by about 50% meant they were unable to pay their bills and therefore had to fold the business we could be excused for thinking that this was purely a Sales Department-induced business heart attack.

But any experienced business person will smell a rat in that statement. What business hasn't had a handful of lean months and has had to trade out of that over a period of time? There's got to be something else at play here.

Clearly what they're not owning up to is a business that had far deeper issues than just poor sales figures across 4 consecutive months. Did the co-founders take their eyes off the ball or just not realise that they had built a business that was unsustainable both financially and in its ability to deliver on its promises of service quality until it hit a tipping point and fell in a giant heap ?

Did they actually experience many months of dissatisfied customers demanding refunds due to poor quality work and missed deadlines, and the straw that broke the camel's back was the last 4 months of poor new sales ?

That would make a lot more sense.

And then being hit with the reality (and a retrospective tax bill) over dealings between their Indian and Australian operations (based on the Tech Mahindra ruling by the Full Federal Court) will have made them have to think long and hard about the wisdom of relying on squeezing profitability out of cheap labour through their overseas subsidiaries.

In my opinion they had, ostensibly, built a business entirely on outsourcing labour from cheap markets. And that's an incredibly risky thing to do for any service business including one in the tech industry.

Buzinga, by all accounts, suffered the exact same fate a year earlier but - puzzlingly - were not seen as a cautionary tale by their brethren at Appster (or any of the dozen or so rapid-growth app development shops operating under the same paradigm in Australia right now). Buzinga is now a division of The Butterfly Group and seem to be aiming their aspirations at more reasonable, sustainable targets.

Appster's WIP (Work In Progress) and client roster will likely be snapped up by another large app company with pockets deep enough to make money from doing so and who will have to try to churn through a terrifying list of incomplete work (and disappointed/angry clients) in a timely manner to get those client projects to market before they lose their edge. We know that are already a couple of large outsourcing app development outfits sniffing around for this.

But how does this all relate back to your own business ?

I previously wrote a quick reminder of the Simplest Principles of a Service Business - at least as I see them. These basic principles work whether you're selling consultancy services face-to-face or providing an app solution to users who you will never meet.

In short, if you provide a poor quality of service and have consistently low customer satisfaction your business will eventually fail.

How do you pick up the pieces if your app project is unfinished or locked away about to be auctioned off by an insolvency administrator ?

Start by getting your hands on your source code and every other piece of work product for which you have paid (if you have paid something for work, you should be entitled to at least that portion of work performed) and go and see a couple of reputable development companies to get their opinion.

Look for established businesses with a solid track record and a focus on delivering good work. You'll recognise them because they aren't busy telling you how many awards they have won and how many million dollars their clients' app businesses have raised in venture capital funding. They won't be aloof and will actually see that helping you realise your vision is rewarding for everyone involved.

With any luck, they can leverage what has already been done ... and if not, it often is a more straight-forward shot to build a solution if the owner of the Intellectual Property (IP) - that's you - have had some experience with shaping the business already.

And just maybe you can turn that terrible experience into something positive, and have a stronger app business because of it.

(EDIT 14/3/19:  It seems that my theory of Appster actually having financial troubles a lot longer than they stated is being validated by the liquidator, Paul Vartelas. Our friends at SmartCompany have an interesting article about this).

Ian Exaudi
Managing Director
Creative Intersection Pty Ltd

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Tech Businesses are just Businesses after all

I have a basic premise that I like to share whenever potential clients with little experience in the tech industry come in to talk to us:

The "Business" around a Tech business is like every other business.

Let me explain ...

In a tech business, like every other business, you have to manage growth, cashflow, changing markets, and shifting opportunities & risks every single day, month, year, and decade throughout your existence.

Without that deliberate and fairly conservative management strategy, your venture is likely to be a flash-in-the-pan or at best a very long lucky streak before it will falter and need more capital investment just to keep feeding the cash that it's burning.

If you build a business to service only one type of client or a customer base that all have the same motivations for buying your services as each other (land grabbing on new technology for example), when those motivations shift (as society does constantly), you damned well better be ahead of the curve and try to predict how you can service the next iteration of your customer base ... or risk trying to sell a dream to someone who is no longer willing to just dream.

The inverse can be said, too. Especially within the ever-so-cool, startup-centric-tech-entrepreneur-set.

If you are only ever trying to place yourself at the cutting edge to leverage greenfields opportunities before they happen, it's all too easy to forget that a truly sustainable business needs stability at its base.

Having more than a few grey hairs myself, and the experience that comes along with successfully navigating and iterating our own tech business (Creative Intersection) through ups and downs over the past 18 years, I can tell you that a conservative mindset to nurturing this base can help more safely take advantage of cutting-edge opportunities as they approach.

If you forget that you have a full range of things to keep an eye on in your business, the neglected ones will eventually come back and bite you.

Ian Exaudi
Managing Director
Creative Intersection Pty Ltd

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Reminder: The Simplest Principles of a Service Business

Many of you run service businesses - and some would argue that especially in the era of social media even product-based businesses need to think of themselves as a service business ... so to help us all get a good start to the new year, let's remind ourselves of the simplest principles of a service business:
  1. Always deliver a great product (on time and at a reasonable cost)
  2. Never compromise on that product (be careful not to lose control of your supply chain by outsourcing operationally)
  3. Never be in a hurry to sign up customers (panicked and aggressive sales tactics might work well on a subset of the population and for a period of time, but you'll earn a reputation and eventually run out of fresh meat that hasn't yet heard of your dodgy behaviour)
  4. Always treasure your customers (and don't expect that there will always be an infinite pool of new customers who blindly believe your marketing materials and media releases)
  5. Don't let your ego get in the way (remember that your customers have come to you because they are not experts in your field. Help educate them to make informed decisions and don't lecture them or speak to them like they're idiots just because they don't know the terminology)

As you're reading this, if you are one of the dreamers considering building (or extending) a business based on an app solution, I would suggest that the exact same things apply to you too. If you're in that boat, try reading the list again and imagine what your app users (customers) might like to experience from your app offering. Makes sense, doesn't it ?

Have a great year, everyone!

Ian Exaudi
Managing Director
Creative Intersection Pty Ltd

Friday, September 8, 2017

iPhone 8 Rumours - touchID and a Boring Name

The rumour-mill is yet again running hot in anticipation of the latest refresh of Apple's flagship iPhone device.

It's been 10 years since the iPhone first hit the streets and revved up the mobile app marketplace revolution that has been responsible for keeping many businesses - including our very own Creative Intersection - busy engineering and deploying mobile apps.

Our insiders (and lots of leaked reports) tell us that there are some interesting things happening with this milestone release .... tipped to be called the "iPhone Pro".

Aside from sporting an AMOLED screen, which is brighter, crisper, more vivid and less power-hungry than the current crop of iPhone screens, there are rumours about touchID being removed from the device and replaced by facial recognition.

From left to right:  iPhone 7, iPhone Pro, and iPhone 7 Plus  (pic via 9to5mac.com)

Whilst facial recognition is likely to appear on the new iPhone Pro, touchID is likely to stay despite the all-glass front (with a screen that spans the entire area of the phone, there is no room for the traditional "home" button).

Apple rarely do leaps-and-bounds innovation these days, so their iterative approach would have the touchID sensor still being available in some way - if only to not scare existing users into thinking that they're being watched and probed every second of the day by the nefarious creatures that inhabit their digital security blanket.

Ultrasonic fingerprint sensors developed by Qualcomm, for example, are not quite ready for prime time, so how could Apple still include a touchID sensor without having to resort to a rather pedestrian placement like the back of the phone (where the logo sits, for example) ?


The touchID sensor in a standard iPhone and iPad is in the form of a circle (the metal bit around the home button) that can sense ridges along that edge boundary. Do some maths on the ridges being detected (in the form of an algorithm, described in Apple's "Efficient Texture Comparison" patent) and you can work out with a fairly high degree of certainty that the finger touching it is a match.

Now straighten the circle into a line and you still have a decent sensing area (a high number of ridges) ... then apply the same algorithm (modified slightly) and you still know that the finger touching it is a match.

So - why wouldn't you just put the touchID sensor along the side edge of the phone ?  It only needs to extend along a part of the edge, and if one is placed on either side then the sensors can work in tandem to provide faster sensing with high accuracy (two half fingerprints are as good as a whole one). Maybe it'll need to be renamed to "gripID" but would still work the same way.

Cases would need to be modified to include access to the sensor, but every new iteration of any mobile phone needs some modification to cases anyway - so it's just a good opportunity to sell more cases.

.... or ... we're full of crap and have no idea what the iPhone 8 will be like or what it'll be called. Only time will tell.  😀

Tune in to Apple's live stream from their shiny new Spaceship Headquarters on 13th September at 3am (AEST).

And if your business needs a mobile app, check out "Business Apps Powered by ciSUITE:".

Update 13/9/17 ... YEP! We got it wrong for the new OLED iPhone (officially released today as "iPhone X" - pronounced "iPhone Ten"). There is no touchID but the name is still pretty boring.

The iPhone 8 and 8 Plus have also been released and they are just a refresh of the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus - including retaining their touchID hardware.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Short URLs and Click Tracking on a Budget

We often have a need to provide a URL to someone and want to see if it gets used ... and if it's a public link then it'd be nice to see how often (and when) it has been used.

Sure, there are ways to do that but they can be a bit difficult and especially so if the URL doesn't belong to us (i.e. we can't access analytics / site statistics for the target URL).

There are URL shorteners out there that either work automatically (YouTube, Twitter etc use their own when you create content), or that you can use yourself (bit.ly, for example). In bit.ly's case you can also access some basic click-through information to see how popular your link has been at any given moment.

Google Analytics from our Link Shortener service (back-end reporting)

But, we all know and love Google Analytics because it's free and the analytical/graphing side of things are quite mature so you can create a complex set of analysis tools without the need to move to something like Google Analytics 360 (the insanely expensive, but equally insanely powerful Enterprise version of Google Analytics).

So we thought we'd fix the problem of bridging the gap between a URL shortener and Google Analytics.

And a couple of hours of internal "code challenge" later we have a brand new service that we are already using ourselves to create and track link usage throughout our own network of web properties.

It's called CI Link Us (https://cilnk.us) and you'll see that each of the URL's we have linked to in this blog post already run through the service - so we can see when someone has clicked a link.

Currently, we are only sending basic metrics to Google Analytics ... the shortened URL and the target URL ... and that's mostly all we need because Google Analytics will add the location info by way of the referring IP address and we can create drill-down reports based on time-of-day etc.

How did we do it ?

We actually used a server-side PHP script class to do the work for us ... so instead of Javascript in a user's browser talking to Google Analytics (which would be impossible because the shortener site immediately redirects to the target URL), we do that talking in the background (server to server) and flick the user to their desired URL.


Want to try it ?

What's stopping you ?  .... Go for it.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Are you running away from the cloud too ?

The last handful of years has seen an en-masse migration away from dedicated servers for businesses and government into virtual servers (sometimes called Virtual Machines, or VMs) that are generally hosted within large data centres.

Providers such as Amazon Web Services (AWS) or Microsoft Azure are well known to many of us as "cloud providers" that can help take the worry out of hardware purchasing and maintenance by providing a slice of a machine's computing power and storage instead of the entire thing.

The size of the slice can change with your needs, and so a scalable solution can be found for many things.

In this way, "cloud" providers were seen as generally being able to provide a more cost-effective way of hosting your online services (public or private) and could increase the computing power very quickly if the need arose.

That's a great theory ... but you know what they say about theory and practice ... "In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice - but in practice, there is".

The reality of cloud providers is that they are there to make money like any business - and so even though they have a very wide scope to spread the cost of their hardware across many customers per physical server (or the equivalent thereof, depending on how they have built their cloud), they will always tend towards a less-than-fair model for pricing because the whole question of server resources is rather opaque to most users.

So whilst the trend for the past few years has been to migrate to the cloud, there is an increasing trend in the last 6 months or so for some business bean counters to have done what they do best (counted their beans) and worked out that - in actual fact - they are worse off economically for being in the cloud than before when they had some of their dedicated servers located within their own premises or co-located within data centres.
Some of our own dedicated servers

This is giving rise to a new trend of migrating quite a lot of services away from the cloud and back into on-premise, private cloud, or co-located dedicated servers - creating hybrid service offerings that can take advantage of the best that cloud offers but keeping others away from the cloud and remaining more economical for doing so.

As an exercise, we recently priced up the computing power, storage and data traffic for just a single one of our dedicated servers to work out the equivalent cost of an Amazon AWS instance.

This was for a fairly basic dedicated server that we originally provisioned in 2011 (8 cores, 2.5TB storage, 16GB RAM). We priced it based on its past 30-day utilisation, running at about 20% average CPU. It's a fairly busy server, but nothing extraordinarily flat-chat and frankly it's getting a little old and slow compared to our newer resources.

Our dedicated server costs, for hardware (upgraded every 36 months), the rack space with power and 200GB of traffic came to just shy of $800.00 per month (including amortising the hardware costs over 3 years).

Amazon's equivalent was an i2.8xlarge EC2 instance which would cost $3,300.00 per month (as a reserved resource) or $6,900.00 per month as "On-Demand"

That's a massive difference between cloud and dedicated hardware and can prove unbelievably uneconomical if you're not managing the instances well and - as many businesses tend to do - forget to regularly check that you're getting good value for money along the way.

The news is better if you compare one of our newer servers that currently has only a handful of shared-tenancy clients sitting on it and isn't terribly busy by most measures. This dedicated server would cost close to the same for us as the busy one in the example above (in this case about $700.00 per month) because we have to amortise the hardware costs, but from AWS would only cost about $120.00 per month.

Our solution, obviously, is to put more customers on this server over time so it becomes more profitable.

What would Amazon EC2 cloud cost us for one fairly busy server per month (USD) ?  Yikes!

We're obviously a little different to most businesses because we provide hosting ourselves and therefore keep a close eye on our resources, maintenance costs, etc - and in most cases we share the hardware resources across several customers at a time by providing shared tenancy hosting (one server, many websites) ... so our monthly charge--out rate for a small business website hosting (100MB storage and up to 5GB of traffic per month) is only $10.00 (+GST).

But you could imagine if we were, for instance, a mid-tier accounting firm who had moved our busy email server into the cloud a couple of years ago because our IT consultant said it would be a good idea - before we then doubled in size. With a cloud provider like AWS or Azure, we could be paying the equivalent of a brand new server every 3 months over-and-above the cost of the service itself - and would never actually have a server we could call our own.

Give us a shout if you need hosting for any size of business and if you're a bit of a greenie, check out our environmentally-friendly "GreenServe" solution that offsets the power used to run and cool the server (try doing that with your giant data centres, Amazon!).