Big-selling app team calls Timaru home

COMPUTER WHIZZES: Rohan Weston, James Sugrue and Chris Phillips from company SoftwareX which has sold 1.4 million apps.
COMPUTER WHIZZES: Rohan Weston, James Sugrue and Chris Phillips from company SoftwareX which has sold 1.4 million apps.

Six million people have downloaded smartphone apps that have been created in Timaru.

Business reporter Emma Bailey talks to SoftwareX creator James Sugrue about his company and why he chose South Canterbury as the location.

How did SoftwareX come about?

I was working at the CBS Bank in Ashburton as the senior software developer. I put out my first app out in September 2008; it was called 100 push-ups. Sales were good enough that I quit the bank in April 2009.

A guy in Australia contacted me out of the blue one day. He was a mad Tasmanian who had trouble sleeping and had created recordings like waves, rain and forest sounds. He had made all these recordings so I went in with him and we created the sleepmaker apps with a whole swag of sounds.

I set up the office in Timaru in 2010. I didn't want to get into a situation the business would stop if I got sick or was hit by a bus, so Chris [Phillips] started here two years ago and Rohan [Weston] a year ago.

What does SoftwareX do?

We develop and sell apps for iPhones and Android. We also do websites and build apps for people as well, we are trying to grow that side of business. They take about three months to develop. Everyone is always telling you their great ideas for apps, the hard part is making them work.

How many apps have you made and sold?

We have made around 50 apps and sold 1.4 million. We have developed some free apps which are ad-supported and all up we have had six million downloads of our apps. Ad-supported means there is a tiny ad up the top or the bottom and every time someone clicks on that we get a tiny percentage of the revenue. The app for sales range in price from free to US$1.99, we don't go above that price. Ten years ago you would pay $100 for a new piece of software, now you can buy it for US$1.99.

We sell the apps in the iPhone app store and the Google app store. It's hard to get noticed now with so many apps being developed.

Have you noticed a surge in the number of smart phones and iPhones people have?

My wife, daughter and I were living in England when the first iPhone was released and I started developing ideas then. When we came back no one knew what an iPhone was, only a few geeks in the closet, but now they are everywhere. The iPhone was released here in 2008.

How do you find operating out of Timaru?

We can do business in Timaru as we don't have any physical items, our stuff doesn't exist in physical space.

Geographically, it doesn't matter where this sort of business is based. The big advantage of being in Timaru is things are cheaper. All we need is a fast internet connection. We do work for companies in America, United Kingdom and Australia, and it can help with time zones being different but it can also be a hindrance.

We were doing work with a company on the east coast in the states and they ended up going with a local developer because the time zones made it too hard.

At the moment, we are doing some Android work in Dunedin. Initially, we drove down but now we just talk over Skype. The only potential issue is attracting good staff. I have been lucky to find Chris and Rohan in a small town.

I grew up in Temuka and have lived in Christchurch, Australia and England but we decided to come back to raise our family here. Timaru is a cool place to live when you have a young family.

How many app developers are there in New Zealand?

There are about 50 operators, once upon a time I knew them all. We have a conference every year and last year there were about 100 people there. They are all small companies, the most successful iPhone app developer in New Zealand works on his own out of his farm in the North Island.

How many programming languages do you know?

There are core languages each platform uses. I have to know about five, when I first started you tended just to know one language but now you need to know more.

What have been the high points?

We created the iPhone app for, which is a news aggregater, which sorts though online news. It took about six months. We have got a couple of cool things coming up but we can't talk about it at the moment.

What have been the low points?

A big issue for us is copyright infringements . A lot of Chinese and eastern European app developers are blatantly ripping our stuff off, to the point they even have the same spelling mistakes. We have to get them taken down, iPhone will investigate, whereas with Google it is lot more difficult. We have had a few taken down. The biggest challenge is getting noticed. But I am a firm believer that the cream will always rise to the top of the jug, the jug has just got bigger, that is all.

What is your best business tip?

Stay simple and give the customer what they want, not what you think they want. I have learned to accept criticism. When I first started I had quite a thin skin; it was like someone hassling your baby, but then realised they were taking the time to tell you how to make your app better.

How did you get into the industry?

I was eight when I started playing on computers. My brother who was five years older, worked all one summer holidays, picking fruit and getting sunstroke so he could buy an Amstrad computer. He played with it for a few weeks but decided he was more interested in girls, so I started playing with it and learning how to make programs.

When I was in my late teens the last thing I wanted to do was sit in an office and play with a computer but I eventually realised I wasn't very good at anything else. I studied at Aoraki Polytechnic, got a diploma in business computing and have gone from there.

Where to from here?

Just to keep on tracking on. There is a new release of Windows coming out and they are going to introduce an app store, and we see that is potentially a big avenue.

How do you unwind?

Fishing and cycling. I was going to make an app to mark where all the good fishing spots are but realised fisherman would hate me for it and probably would not tell me where they were.

The Timaru Herald