Today’s guest on the Successful Pitch is Sani Abdul-Jabbar and he runs a company that helps people have a painless mobile app development. His whole premise is he can take you from idea to the App store. But not only does he do that, if he really likes the idea, he can introduce the founders who have an idea for an app to investors he knows and trust him to see that this can come to fruition. So, he has great stories of examples where he has heard an idea, helped the founder create an app and then take it to market and get it funded. Enjoy the episode.
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Painless Mobile App Development with Sani Abdul-Jabbar
Hello and welcome to the Successful Pitch. Today, I’m very excited to have Sani Abdul Jabbar as my guest. He helps app startups and brands from idea to the App store. Everybody who is in the tech startup world is always interested in what’s the next hot app? How do I make mine successful? How do I get mine funded? He is the expert who knows how to do that. He has a career that spans from working at Warner Bros., we’re gonna ask him about what he did there. Now he sits on the board of several companies. We’re gonna get an inside look as to what a board member looks for. More importantly, his company Veztek really gives people the ability to not only develop an app but figure out a way of how to possibly get it funded.
So without any further ado, Sani, welcome to the show.
Thank you, John. Glad to be here.
I’m always interested to see people’s background. You know, I call it the story of origin. How did you get to where you were? Did you … you know you got your MBA from Eastern Illinois. I’m an Illinois guy myself. Then, you know … going to school there, did you go I’m gonna get to California and make my mark. How did you get to decide that that’s where you’re gonna come versus Silicon Valley, for example?
Well, coming to L.A. was purely for economic reasons. After graduation from the business school in Illinois, at that point … Before that, I had lived on the East Coast, the Midwest, and I was just, you know, looking for new pastures. I was a single guy, you know, I could move anywhere I wanted. L.A. just … I basically knew somebody here would help me with job search, so, nothing too deep.
Nice and then tell us what you did at Warner Bros. Entertainment, that’s how everybody always wants to come to L.A. and work in the entertainment industry and you actually did it.
So, actually Warner Bros. didn’t happen till many years later, after I moved to L.A. I started my career in corporate finance, after moving to L.A. I worked in corporate finance for some time and then moved on to working with the technology teams, first as a liaison between the technology and the business side, more as a subject matter expert on the business affairs. Then, I managed some projects and some products. Veztek was initially set up as a general IT consulting firm. And in 2006, when iTunes App Store opened up its doors for the first time … From very early on it was kinda clear that apps were gonna be the future.
So, that was the notion that helped us, and the second was just pure market demand. People started asking, markets starting presenting that demand, and we, Veztek, morphed into what it is today, an aid in a mobile app’s development and especially it’s unrelated subjects to mobile app’s development.
Now Warner Bros. happened along the way. Those were the days when they were working on Harry Potter.
It was a fun movie. I was a big fan of Harry Potter and when the person who introduced us at Warner Bros., when he mentioned that, “Oh, they’re working on Harry Potter and you’re gonna have some involvement with that.” I was like, “Wow, that’s so cool.” So I was sold right there.
The challenge with that movie, like any other movie, was, it was being worked on in many different countries, many different locations. Data was flying from a gazillion locations to gazillion locations. There were concerns over data security. So we came in as a subcontractor to help on the data security side. Remember I mentioned in the beginning that Veztek was initially set up as an IT consulting firm, IT enablement firm. So we came in as, from the data security perspective. Now that opened many other doors into using mobile applications and mobile technology as a promotional tool and many other things. But that was the first interaction we had with Warner Bros.
I love it. Now one of the things that VeztekUSA does is you offer a painless way for people to get their mobile apps developed. Can you describe to us how you do that? Because the process for so many people is overwhelming. They figure, “Oh my gosh. I’m not a CTO, do I have to go find someone to do this for me?” But, you’re saying not necessarily, right?
So the word ‘painless’ that you see on our website, it’s very intentional. The reason for that was before the app, in “pre-app era,” like we have “common era” … So, “pre-app era.” It was the techies who were dealing with the techies. It was the people who could speak a similar language on both sides, though not one hundred percent of the time. When the app era started, we had to face a situation where we were dealing with people who had never dealt with IT products before and never dealt with IT products, as an investor or as a project manager. These are average people, they have a high net worth individuals sometimes, sometimes a more professional investor.
But they have no experience in working with technology. Some of our early clients, actually, they came from the real estate background, developing real estate, a restaurant owner from Chicago, a 9-1-1 expert from, an emergency response expert from Florida. People of that type. So, when we started dealing with them like many other IT companies were doing and as we had done in the past. We had them talk to our developers directly and we thought, “Oh, this is an open line of communication.” I’m just giving you one example of the challenges.
An open line of communication, no bottlenecks, we can have excellent products. Turned out this was not a good idea for multiple reasons. One, as you know it’s not a secret that the U.S. IT industry is built on the shoulders of developers from many countries around the world and they’re not necessarily located in the U.S. So at that time, some of our developers were located outside the U.S. So, there were time zone issues, there were cultural issues, there were language issues, and when I started at doing extra interviews without clients, one thing that kept coming up was this was a nightmare. This was horrible, this was the worst experience in my life.
Their projects did alright. Some of those apps went on to become award-winning apps and some of them were sold and helped the initial founders retire on that money and it’s all good things happen, but the experience itself was a nightmare, as for these people.
So from that point forward, we actively worked on creating a process that takes that pain out of the equation. If I can’t give you a good experience in working with me, you’re never gonna work with me again. So, the simple question was, “How can we take that discomfort, that pain, out of the process?” Very simple example: time zones was an issue at that time. We didn’t have any U.S. teams at that point.
So, what can we do about that? Well, we could change our working hours in other countries we were working with and have them work on the U.S. schedule, Pacific time. That’s just one example that we did. Then, for language, we had some people here, we had project managers liaison based in L.A. Then over time, we brought more development stateside, more client facing relationships on the stateside. By doing that, we made the process increasingly easier.
Nice. So what do you see is the biggest challenge that people have getting investors to invest in their app? Is there a big thing that the investor’s go, “Well, this is just an idea. We need to see some kind of minimal viable product.” Or, “We need to see this being used.” What’s the big challenge for people who have an idea for an app and how do you help them get investors to see that this could actually work?
Some of our most successful projects, when the clients came to us, it was usually more often than not it was a one-liner or half a paragraph. “I have this great idea,” and that one-liner usually was, “I have the next billion dollar idea.”
Little one-liner. One of our most successful app in the real estate world, first one-liner was, “Need a real estate app.” So to answer your question, the biggest challenge is people come to us with an idea, more often than not. Not even a very well defined idea. They’re just too emotionally invested, or too focused, too narrowly focused on the idea itself. Now the idea is the greatest thing in the world. Human civilization has survived for millennia, because of ideas. But ideas are a dime a dozen, that’s a challenge. Ideas are useful only when talked through and implemented in a systematic and a proper way. By people who have done it over and over.
When new plans come to us and they mention ideas, we tell them, “Okay, it’s a great idea. We know how to build it. But what does this idea gonna do? Why are you doing it?” So, in other words, my focus has always been on the value side of it.
And from an investor’s perspective, the value is obviously economic value. But then there are other values, too. We have done some work with nonprofit organizations and they don’t look at value as an investor would do and 9-1-1 emergency response system, they don’t look at value as an investor would do. But you have to understand what the value is. So my very first question is, “What value is this idea is gonna produce?”
Then work backward from there, how do we get to that point? Once we understand what value we are gonna deliver to a product. And take that value to stakeholders, to investors, to whomever we need to bring into the picture and present that value. Now technical details, we have people who are specialists and we have developers who’ve spent half of their adult lives learning to code. I could never be better than them. An investor could never be better than them.
Because they’re specialized in it. So, many times when new clients come to us, I tell them, “Don’t talk to me about technology. Don’t talk to me about anything else. Tell me what value are your ideas gonna create.” Then start backwards from there.
So an example would be one of your clients FanFlex, right? The value they’re providing for their fans is they can have their favorite band play in their town and the bands themselves minimize their financial risk by playing live by crowdfunding their next show. Right? Is that what you’re talking about when you’re talking about what’s the value?
Okay, so currently as of the end of February, I believe there are about 2.2 million apps in the Play store.
The Play store. 2.7 million in the iOS Play store, about over 50 billion downloads worldwide. In a situation like this if we were to build just another app, what value is that gonna produce? Or how we gonna even have this app noticed? So, an approach that I have used lately, for the last few years is can I say with confidence that this is the first time ever ‘x’ is done. This app does ‘x’ for the first time ever. Or, “What if?” concept. What if we can do things in a different way. Now, FanFlex, is another first-time ever, “What if?” type of application.
Challenge of the concert planning and band management industry is the way it works is first you plan, then you advertise, then you hope that you’re gonna get enough fans to buy the tickets and then you deliver the service that is playing a concert and then you hope that you made some money.
There is very high-risk involved. We turned this model upside-down, working with FanFlex founders. We said, “Why don’t we ask the ‘n’ user, the fan, the ‘n’ customer. Why don’t we ask them first, what do you want? Who do you want to play in your town? Are you willing to pay for it?” In some cases even how are you willing to pay for it? Then asking the local venues, “Well, we are selling this many tickets. Are you willing to have this band play at your place?” So, we took it from that side, turning the model upside-down, for the first time ever. We said, “what if we turn the model upside down?” and we did and then for the first time ever, FanFlex creates value by taking the risk out of the equation.
Nice. Now one of the things, you keep talking about, which is so important is “Are you the right team to execute this idea? How are you gonna break through the clutter?” Do you have any services that you help people do that? Get discovered on the different platforms?
How to get discovered on different platforms?
Right, so whether you’re on the Apple store or the other Android version. There are so many other apps out there. Do you help people figure out ways to break through the clutter? So that people would download the app?
Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. So, one of the services that we offer is digital marketing. Specifically from mobile applications. There are many different ways to market your product. Starting from good old online marketing and SEO on social media all the way to event marketing. We just completed a product for the social networking type usage and there is a first time component in it. And a first time component is that every social media or dating type application starts from the app.
It is first in your app. You say, “Well, you know who is open to connect with an ‘x’ miles radius for me. We say, “no, first time ever turn the model upside-down. Address a problem and the problem is that we hiding behind our screens.” So, to address that problem, first time ever, we said, “what if we, in our physical environment, we look for people first? Then we look in the app, is this person open to connect? Is this even the kind of person that I want to connect with based on our common likes, dislikes, etc. We have an algorithm that connects people and matches people in different, based on different factors.
Well, this is not a dating application, this is a social networking application that has a dating component in it, but I won’t call it a dating app. Now to promote this application, we said, “Why don’t we bring people in close proximity, just based on hyper-local marketing, or event marketing type environment, or seminar type places where people are already present there and then see who matches with whom based on their likes and dislikes.” Then using that mathematical algorithm, then we try to connect.
The question, how to discover an app. Yes, you can do good old marketing, then there are app-discovery platforms that we leverage, then there are event marketing and several other channels that can be used based on the nature of the app and the nature of the targeted market.
So clearly, there’s a lot to think about and know when you have an idea for an app, besides just the idea. You’ve given us two great examples of, “how are you gonna breaking through the clutter and be discovered?” “What’s the value you’re providing that makes anybody want to pay or download this in the first place?” I think the other is, “You’re probably gonna need some funding.” So, let’s talk about your expertise. You know, you’re really unique that I haven’t found anybody else who has all the experience and connections like you do.
What’s it like when you sit on the board of some companies. What do you look for as a board member in the founder that people should keep in mind?
So, in my day job, I get about half a dozen pitches. Half a dozen to a dozen pitches a day.
Now are people … let’s just, can you clarify that are people pitching you to hire you to help them make their app come to life? Or are they pitching you for something else?
So our tagline has been we help tech startups and brands take their mobile apps from idea to app store. So that’s the tagline that they respond to.
Okay, so they’re pitching you to “help me do this.” Right?
They’re pitching you to see if you’re gonna let them become a client or not, right? Which is unusual in and of itself because most people, you’re the one having to pitch to get clients, but in this case, because you’re the established credibility authority, they’re pitching you to say, “Help me make this reality.” Right?
Right, right. Now, it helps that we have been through over seven hundred projects and we have made our mistakes and some mistakes I mentioned in the beginning, but experience is the value that mistakes are basically what we call experience and our experience is the fact that you have made your mistakes. So that kind of the added value that we bring to the table. Now, so when founders approach us first and present their ideas. Like I mentioned, I receive multiple pitches a day. My focus has always been, in the recent years, on the founder’s ability to run an application as a business. You’re thinking of it as a tech startup, not just saying that I’m building an app.
Building an app is the easy part. Most of the time, most of the clients, when they come to us and they mention app, I tell them, “let’s not talk about technology. We know technology. Let’s talk about how you’re gonna run it as a business.”
So, I like to see board members and founders with business background, marketing background, discovery, client, user relationship, user acquisition, investment, fundraising. So, more business skills than technical skills. Even having one technical mind in the boardroom, that can sort of serve as a bridge between the board and the technical team, I feel that’s more than sufficient. Having business minds in the room I feel that’s more important to have. To produce that value.
Right. What do investors look for? What’s the minimum viable product that your company Veztek USA is able to create for someone to show a potential investor?
So, before you go to a potential investor, like any other venture, like any other investment model, the earlier in the game you go to investors, the more you have to give away. It’s simple as that. There is a step actually before minimum viable product and that’s visual prototype. The step before that is SRS, that’s a write up on what’s included in the app that usually doesn’t work for investors because they don’t have time to read a hundred pages, right? That doesn’t work.
So, now to get ready to present your idea in front of investors, your first option, the lowest, the cheapest option is to start with a visual prototype. A visual prototype is based on the idea, “a picture is worth a thousand words,” and it’s basically pictures. You’re able to go to different screens, click on different places, and see how the app is gonna flow through and present your idea.
You can communicate your idea like that. It is the least expensive model, but your ability to present or your ability to convey your idea in a compelling manner is also limited. Then, the next level, is what you mentioned, minimum viable product. Not too much focus on the fancy bells and whistles, but more focus on the feature side. The core features of the product, the minimum viable product.
So we can create that and take to investors, potential investors.
And just to paint a picture a little bit for the listeners. What that looks like is, it’s not in the App store, but it is something someone can play around with and click a few things. Correct?
So the difference between visual prototype and an MVP. The visual prototype is basically just user interface of screens. You can flow through screens, we can take some actions, the data is all basically just for display purpose. In a minimum viable product, the features are actually functional. There is actually code in the back. The core features are functional, the data is actually being pulled from databases and what-not. So, that app is actually deployable in the market with core feature, minimum features you can actually put it in the App stores if you wanted.
Got it. But what makes that so compelling is you’re engaging the investors. They don’t have to imagine what it would be like to click and be taken to another screen. They can actually have the experience of it and from my observation, the more you give someone an experience the more likely they are to emotionally engage and get excited to invest. Would you agree with that?
I completely agree. The more you take and invest, you’re closer to the real deal, the more they’re likely to invest and the less they are likely to expect lesser in return. Lesser equity, lesser control, lesser whatever. Because now you are further along the product life cycle, product curve.
Right. You reduce the risk because you have more credibility within the minimum viable product versus just the visual prototype.
Also not only an idea, not just a thought, it’s an actual physical thing in my hand, that I can play with.
And you’re sure you’re committed enough to hire someone like you to create that so they can say … and having someone like you advising the founder gives a lot of credibility to the investor. You could say, “Well, we hired Veztek USA to create this and they’ve done this for a lot of other companies and they know what they’re doing and we’re following that path to expansion across multiple platforms and multiple versions of it. Right?
Absolutely. So, we take the position of in-house IT team for many of our clients. Sometimes we even attend meetings with them, when they meet with the potential investors. In case any technical questions come up. Now my personal background is all business. I have two MBAs, one in business, the other in technology. I studied marketing at Master’s level, project management at Ivy League schools. All that knowledge, when it comes to the table, investors usually don’t talk about coding, they talk about the value, they talk about, “how are you gonna implement your wonderful idea?”
So we take the position where we actually go as a partner, almost, in front of the potential investors and we present the idea. We help our clients, client partners. We help them present their idea in a compelling way.
Also, I’m guessing, that because you’ve been doing this for so long, you probably know investors who like to fund things that are pre-revenue but are involved in mobile. You could possibly make some introductions if people have engaged your company at a certain level. Would that be something that you offer as well?
Absolutely. So we work with small group of investors, high net worth individuals mostly, some VC’s. And when we see a promising idea that idea has to be promising, it has to be something that I can probably present. We have long-term relationships with these investors. I can’t burn those bridges.
No, of course. It’s your own social capital. I’m in the same situation, I completely understand. So, tell us a story of an idea, when you heard it and then you loved it and you loved the founder’s background, in having a business background and they’ve got you, you’ve got them. Take us on a journey of one of your favorite examples of a great idea that got executed.
Great idea. Base Match. So, Base Match is one of those products. The way this idea happened, I was actually speaking with this friend of mine, a business fellow. We have known each other for a long time and when we were talking on the phone, the guy was standing at a Walgreen’s. He told me over the phone, he’s like “I’m in the makeup aisle.” And I’m like, “What are you doing in the makeup aisle at Walgreen’s?” Turned out that his wife had asked him to bring foundation. She had told him it’s this specific brand and a specific type within that brand. Specific shade, that is.
So he goes to Walgreen’s and he’s looking for that brand and then he asks Walgreen’s employees, turns out Walgreen’s does not carry that brand. Walgreen’s does carry other brands and the employees told him, well there’s this other shade in this other brand that is comparable to the one that your wife asked you to buy.
So he buys that shade and later he tells me that he went home, he gave that product to his wife was like, “Can’t you see the difference in the shade?” And he was like, “No, I only see the basic three colors.”
Turned out that there are all these shades across brands that have different names. Blue is not blue, it’s something else. They have things in exotic names, so there’s no way for you to compare these colors across brands and people, the users of makeup, they would agree that they’re very committed to their ready type, to the brand. Not just for shade, but also the way it interacts with their skin and god knows what other factors.
So that’s where the conversation started and this person came to me later, my friend, and he said, “Well, this is the problem: this sounds like a data-based problem.” So, he had done research online, he didn’t find anything, he came to me and we talked about it. That sound like a database problem. Now, my business mind and my project manager mind, that kicked into high-gear. I brought in people from the makeup industry, from the user side, and from the investment side and within the next few weeks we were able to come up with a model that would help us create a tool that can be used to find matching shades across brands globally and this would grow as the user base grows.
Well, sounds very similar to what happens at a Home Depot, when you’re trying to match paint color for your wall, except this is makeup for women’s faces, right?
Because it’s not just the shade issue. There’s also how that makeup impacts your skin. So, there are health-related concerns there. So, we brought in some chemists who could actually compare colors on chemical levels and we brought in some skin specialists and from the healthcare industry. And this idea created a prototype very quickly and the minimum viable product, I think within the first four weeks, four to six. Then from that point forward, presenting it to investors that was easy. They got it, everybody got it. It was amazing.
Every potential investor in the room, when we presented it for the first time, wasn’t bad. Then they started talking about it, I was like, “Now these people aren’t gonna get it.” But they got it. Probably they had been in similar situations.
Yes, that’s funny.
They built the product. It later turned out it wasn’t a consumer product. It was deployed as a business product, which is now being used at commercial scale at retail stores.
Interesting. Wow, I love that story. Well, you’re a great storyteller, Sani. That’s just fantastic. Clearly, if anybody has any need to get their app developed to a minimum viable product and then actually be on that and as well as get their app funded. If you create the app for them, you are the best place to go and where people can go is VeztekUSA.com. And how can people follow you, you create these wonderful blogs on LinkedIn, but what is your Twitter handle?
Great. Any final thoughts that you want to leave the listeners on whether it’s a book you want to recommend or just an idea to inspire people to keep going with their idea for an app.
So, I can share with you my process and I come across all these ideas. I think of my own ideas and the first thing that I do is I do a quick search and you know, Google knows everything, right? So, do a quick search, find out what’s in the market, is your idea worth pursuing? Now, having something available in the market, having competition isn’t necessarily a bad thing. One of our best products, one of the most innovative products that we created in our minds, it got four patents on it, it didn’t work very well because the market wasn’t ready for it. Which means if there is some competition available in the market, it may be actually a good thing.
You can always learn from others and create something. So start there and then find somebody who understands it. What are the pieces of the puzzle? The pieces of the puzzle are the idea, technology, the business side, the money. Not many people are expert in all these four pieces of the puzzle. So find those people, talk to somebody like me, talk to somebody like John who can help you on the investment side. Technology is the easy part, business is the more complicated part.
Find sources, TechCrunch, Veztek blog, MMA Smart Brief, these are good sources. You can learn a lot by launching mobile app space business from there.
Well, I think we all learned a lot listening to you talk and I can’t thank you enough for being on this show today, Sani.
It’s my pleasure, John. Thank you.
- Website: www.veztekusa.com
- Twitter: @VeztekUSA
- Facebook: www.facebook.com/veztekusa
- Google Plus: www.facebook.com/veztekusa
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