The Chelsea Apps Factory (CAF), based in an old factory building in Fulham, is a hive of industry. Whiteboards that cover the walls are filled with multi-coloured diagrams of the processes that produce the ‘enterprise apps’ (apps for businesses) that are designed here.
Mike Anderson, an ex-newspaper man, is the man behind it. From starting with just three people in 2010, Mike now employs 70 people, with plans to increase that to 100 by this summer, and is the number one business apps company in the UK.
It creates apps for large corporates including Ladbrokes, KPMG and Waitrose, and is in discussion with a number of clients to build apps for them on a global basis.
A tech start-up may not have been an obvious move for Mike, having had a career in print publishing of more than 20 years. He started the Metro newspaper in 1999, had a spell running the Evening Standard, and worked for Rupert Murdoch at Wapping.
He was MD of The Sun and the last MD of the News of the World, and the man behind The Sun’s move into online gambling with Sun Bingo,
But when he saw people queuing round to block to buy a smartphone, he became intrigued by mobile. Despite being surrounded by colleagues who were going into a spin about what mobile would mean for their business, he became convinced that mobile technology was the future.
He also had a more emotional motivation to take on a new challenge: he had lost his wife and has three children, and wanted to be able to tell them “we are not going backwards, we are going forwards”.
He says: “If you can cope with that type of tragedy and loss in your life then you can go forward and there is nothing to fear in life.”
Soon after starting, CNBC TV commissioned CAF to build an app that could play a news feed of its content to people attending the World Economic Forum in Davos.
Later that year, an American came knocking on the door needing help developing an app to be used by the 2,000 sales reps in his pharmaceutical business. It was a £250,000 deal for CAF and a crucial moment for the business.
These two deals made Anderson realise that this was where the real money in apps must be: apps for businesses to engage their staff and run their business, rather than apps to engage customers. He decided then that CAF should concentrate on selling business solutions or ‘enterprise apps’ rather than merely apps to play with.
Like the iPad, CAF will be five years old in June. In that time, Anderson has been through a steep learning curve about how to be successful in this business.
“Most of my staff are young and I always say, ‘Don’t be intimidated by the grey hairs as you can look them in the eye and tell them you know as much as anyone can know about this business, since you’ve been doing it as long as you possibly could.’
“When you start a business at 50 you probably have some kind of exit plan: you need to build something that someone can acquire.
“We have been working hard at scaling the business and now have plans to grow from 70 people to 100 people by the summer.”
1. It was difficult to find anyone with any experience in a business that is only five minutes old. We hired some of the wrong people, but we also had success in hiring some of the right people.
2. It took me some time to realise that I was not the managing director of The Sun any more. I was just a bloke with an idea in the start-up community.
3. I wish I had recalibrated faster. I spent money as if I was on a large salary and it took time to remember that I wasn’t.
1. The key to learning is that nothing lasts forever, good or bad. When it’s bad it will get better and when it’s good, suck it up and enjoy it.
2. Metro was a success and Sun bingo was a success. I think I can see things other people don’t see.
3. In my 30s I would never have said I can see things other people can’t, but now in my 50s I feel confident enough to say it and believe it.
1. Don’t do anything unless you are 100 per cent committed. Somebody told me to look for the hundred: anyone that is 99 per cent fails; anyone that is 100 per cent wins.
2. Take the nice things you have and learn how to make them genuinely competitive. For me it’s a network of friends and business people that I can call on and that’s why CAF has risen above its competitors. The benefit of being older is you have a bigger network, so make them something of value.
3. Keep it brutally simple. In the end, we’ve built clever processes that we have got very good at.
4. Life is series of things you know fuck-all about and that never stops.
Chelsea Apps Factory has developed an app called iCukoo, to support a number of charities. With the app, every time you hit the snooze button on your mobile phone alarm, you donate a small amount to one of five charities: Maggie’s, National Literacy Trust, Parkinson’s UK, Prostate Cancer UK or Starlight. iCukoo is available on iTunes, and an Android version will follow.
Filmed by Tom Byfield for High50