Small Business: App creators - John Ballinger

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John Ballinger, owner of Bluespark, a software development company that builds websites and mobile apps for devices like the Apple iPhone and iPad

App designer John Ballinger. Photo / NZH
App designer John Ballinger. Photo / NZH

What are your business clients wanting from their apps?

I find that businesses have widely different ideas or needs for their apps. Some businesses just want to build an app because they see people using apps on their phone and they think this is a great place to be.

A number of my clients actually build custom electronics and my role has been to get the information off these devices via bluetooth or WiFi and display that to a customer on their iPhone or iPad.

What have you seen apps do for a company's business?

The right app can do some great stuff. I have seen businesses build a simple app that they will use to gauge demand of what their customers want. If they get the feedback they are looking for, then they will invest more heavily in a full-featured app. This was the case for BNZ with one of their first apps. Westpac did the same with "Cash Tank" which only showed you the balance of a single account. Very quickly, this proved so popular they have now built a fully fledged app and now want to be the bank with the best apps for mobile devices.

With other companies their app is essential to their core business, and their whole business model revolves around building that successful app.

What would you advise companies to think about when they are developing an app?

The conversations I have normally go like this: "Hi, we want to make our website or service into an iPhone app." After some discussion, I find out they would also like to have an Android app because their boss has an Android phone. Then finally, we reach the conclusion that they must also work on their desktop computers because not everyone has a smart phone.

This is when the client will realise they actually need a better website that will work on a mobile device.

For a number of clients, we end up going down the path of building a website that works great on a mobile device first, then works well on any computer. This way the cost is far lower than building an app for the Apple devices, Android devices and/or Windows devices, which would be highly prohibitive in cost.

Are there many app developers in New Zealand? Where are they training?

The Auckland iOS meetup has 500 members not all of whom are developers. But there are only a handful of companies that are offering custom iOS development and even fewer offering Android.

Apple developers can be hard to find. To build an iPhone app you really do need to know Objective-C. In 2007 Objective-C was the 38th most popular programming language in the world, which makes it very unpopular. Today Objective-C has exploded into popularity due to the iPhone's "world domination" and now ranks third behind C and Java.

For most technical institutions, Objective-C and iPhone development is only just appearing on their radar. Let alone finding a teacher for a course like this.

How international are NZ-made apps?

Many of the international apps are made by solo developers or small companies. The app store allows individual developers access to one of the biggest software marketplaces in the world for a USD $99 fee. For this small price there are a number of individual developers making a very good living from app development.

For many NZ companies, apps are used to exploit their existing sales or marketing channel and would generally focus only on their NZ customers. Examples of this are local banks, Air NZ, Localist and Telecom. Xero and Vend would be a good example of an app that works well locally and internationally.

How expensive is an app to develop for a small business?

Approximately the cost of a small car. For small businesses I would recommend starting out simple with an app that only solves your core problem. To do this you need to say no to the: "Wouldn't it be great if the app also did this?" questions.

If you develop an app for your business which you think might be useful for other businesses, how do you make it available to others and maybe make some money out of it?

Fantastic question. This has happened to a few clients. They are in the business of doing "x", but they want to bring their business online and capture and process all their business rules or ideas within an app. Soon they notice they have a great app and others want to buy it.

The switch occurs when they start selling the app and stop doing "x" which is what they are great at and now they become a business that sells software.

Software is "y" and running a software company is really hard because you need to manage clients' expectations, software development, testing and delivery.

The result can be that companies revert back to doing "x".

Anything else you want to add?

Right now the software industry in New Zealand is flying. We have the high profile companies like Xero, Vend and Orion Health hiring talent like crazy locally. Great software development cannot be "off-shored" and these companies know it. The demand for IT solutions is growing and even fewer people are available to fill the gaps. If you are a high school or university student, male or female - this industry needs more women - consider a career in software because there are and will be massive opportunities to make some real change.


Next week: New Zealand has a vast number of one man/woman bands - people happiest working on their own, doing what they do best - piano tuners, software developers, electricians, plumbers, artists. They don't have staff to hand over to during the year so they tend to soldier on for the greater part of it without a break. Most of them at this time are counting down the days to the summer holiday when they get to relax for a change. Tell me your stories, how do you cope with up to a month of no invoices coming in?

- NZ Herald

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