Making a brave move pays off for technology entrepreneurs

X The Business Desk

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THE way we consume information has been changing for years, and Huddersfield business The Common Agency is capitalising on the increasing use of mobile applications.

The firm is set to reinvest £250,000 in its business over the next 18 months as demand and their reputation grows.

Entrepreneur Ben Childs launched the business 10 years ago, and a chance meeting pushed the business in an entirely different direction from the one it was heading in.

He met his business partner Simon Howship when he joined in another meeting at their media centre cafe, and as Mr Childs said: “As a general rule, the best things in life happen at lunch, or over a pint the next day.”

The firm had been focusing on web design, but the meeting with Mr Howship moved the firm into mobile application development.

The pair both invested in the firm, splitting it down the middle, and it was the birth of the Common Agency 2.0.

Leeds or Manchester were options for where the business was opened. Neither had ever run an agency like this before, but both had worked at big corporate entities such as Orange.

“Applications are not a new thing, but we didn’t want to be a ‘super-agency’ offering all things to all people.” Ben said.

When Simon entered the business, it was restructured to focus more on mobile, the duo said they “took a leap of faith” in investing in mobile app development over web design.

“We basically reset the business after if had wandered into website design territory,” Mr Howship said. Though web design was more lucrative at the time, the pair looked at what they thought was going to be the next big thing.

He continued: “Mobile still wasn’t a huge market back then and many retailers in particular were sceptical, or had had their fingers burned on their first foray into mobile and were unwilling to try again.”

“We restructured the skill sets we had in the office to focus on mobile tech. We firmly believed that we had to be wholehearted in our venture, despite the high risk at the time.”

One of their first major projects was the app for online greetings card company Moonpig (cue the jingle) due to the pair’s contacts at the firm.

Mr Childs said: “We saw this opportunity to work with this well-established brand, and that’s what we wanted. We didn’t want to build small apps, we wanted to work with the bigger companies”

The firm got a head start, and now the previously clunky and unusable mobile app is moving from a luxury asset for a business, to a must-have for retailers.

Mr Howship said: “We both had backgrounds in retail and so a consumer driven app could provide so much more. The Moonpig app won them a lot of new customers, and has only grown as phones double up as people’s main cameras. As a photo-centric business, this really hit the sweet spot for Moonpig.”

“Apps have grown so much as a consequence of bigger and better smartphones. Initially they were just used for PR, and a lot were iPhone only to start with.”

“One thing people get wrong is that they think that the number one thing they need first is a webpage. Websites are brilliant and companies have good intentions with them, but they think you can just get it built, then leave it. They, like apps, need regular updating to keep them fresh” and in sync with technological progression.”

Apps as we now know them were still in their infancy five years ago and that was why companies were so hesitant to fully commit, even recent research from Barclays found that 66% of businesses still don’t have a mobile strategy.

But the pair said: “big brands mean long term opportunities” and are more likely now than ever to invest in mobile strategy, which led to The Common Agency gaining Photobox to add to their portfolio of clients, for whom they rolled out an app across 16 countries and in 10 languages, all from their base in Huddersfield.

Mr Howship said: “There has been a really slow growth in retailers attitudes towards mobile, both sites and apps.” He also acknowledges that growing digital retail presence is impacting on the high street. The boarded up windows of shops across the country are testament to that. “But people can lose sight – you are carrying around the high street in your pocket effectively.

“An app can’t have the local knowledge that smaller retailers have. They should embrace mobile technology and interact with their customers on it, and that’s the way it will go. Once the big brands have embraced it, the smaller retailers will follow.”