Mobile smarts: How Jonathan Grant helped create $2 million app developer Gridstone

Mobile smarts: How Jonathan Grant helped create $2 million app developer Gridstone

Jonathan Grant lives and works by the mantra: “Challenge – Accept it!” It’s what led the now 47-year-old Melburnian to found app developer and mobile solutions provider Gridstone with business partner Lembit Pikkat in 2009. Today, that same phrase guides the culture of Gridstone, which has annual turnover of $2 million and 30 employees.

Gridstone has developed and marketed hundreds of apps in its six-year lifespan and counts the likes of New South Wales Police and Victoria’s State Emergency Services as major clients. One of Gridstone’s recent releases is the Emergency AUS app, which provides information about natural disasters to its 150,000 users.

I have been in the tech industry my entire life. I started creating software when I was 13 and I spent a dozen years in Europe during the dotcom boom, building trading and transactional engines.

Mobility started to come into play towards the end of 1999 and the early 2000s. There was strong interest in the money space to be able to trade on mobile, but devices were too slow, the networks were too slow and there was no concept of security on mobiles.

Lembit and I have always worked closely together; we’ve known each other for years. We both got involved in the mobility space and together we built a number of platforms that people today would never remember.

We knew there was something big about mobility; there was going to be someone changing in the mobile space in the future. But we needed three KPIs first: we needed the network capacity, high-performing phones and security for people to trade and transact over their mobile devices.

It took a number of years but then Apple released the iPhone 2 and the App Store. Things literally kicked off. We had intelligent smartphones, faster networks and mobile security was in play.

We went back to the books to decide what we wanted to achieve from a business perspective in the next one or two years. We knew Apple’s hardware trajectory and what the iPhone would open up.

Lembit is based in Sydney and I’m in Melbourne. His background is in marketing and my background is in consulting around technology. We were both in incredibly dull corporate jobs and we wanted the opportunity to get out there and start out own business.

We were the angel investors ourselves. It was very important for us to capitalise the business out of our own funds and not seek further capital from external parties.

We wanted to put our money where our mouth is. We knew what we wanted to achieve in a four-year timeframe.

In the future we may look at opportunities to raise capital but at the moment we want to continue to grow and manage the business ourselves and build a strong team.

2014 was an important year for us. It was our fourth year of operating and all the i’s are dotted and the t’s crossed. We went through a rapid period of growth.

One of the things we wanted to do from the start was create a culture of excellence in everything we did. We had been and worked with mediocrity, especially around technology, so we know how far we can push people. There are a lot of average players in the marketplace.

Our mantra is “Challenge – Accept it!” It’s very team based; I never talk about my staff, I talk about my team. I push everyone to be able to do amazing things.

There’s no ifs or buts or maybes. And that’s a reflection of the pedigree of the team we have. Our attitude from a creative perspective, from a development perspective, from a workflow perspective and from a strategic perspective is to focus on excellence.

Culture is a word that is often used flippantly but we take it very seriously. Because we spend so much time on training and education, the business is about the team, not singular people, pulling together to do incredible things.

Being in the tech space, we can create our own business tools. For me to be able sit down and look at a specific business problem like HR or cash flow and then look at our workflow and wrap a tech solution around it, that’s incredibly powerful.

At the start our focus was on corporate and government clients. That’s where my experience is so I understand the clients and what they are working on.

In the early days we spent a lot of time trying to convince people what apps were; it was a big education process. Now the market has turned enough. There is information out there and people are buying apps from companies like us.

We plan to grow Gridstone through a mix of new products and expanding to new markets. We do a lot of work for clients on a contract basis but the other side of the business is vertical products. In key verticals, our products definitely have international appeal.

We’ve thought about taking Gridstone public quite frequently but there are no specific plans on the horizon.

We keep a close eye on the NASDAQ and markets overseas but I’m not necessarily convinced at this time if the Australian market knows how to value a business like ours. That’s not to say there are not smart investors, but I don’t know if the market knows how to value a businesses that focuses on products and bespoke solutions and markets its own products as well.

We’ve seen this in the US and Europe. The ability to put a value on intellectual property and customers is very difficult.

In the app world, we’re the new breed of tech companies and we’re only at the early stages.

I have a discussion about whether Australia can do more to support tech companies about 10 times a week. In this country, we have some of the best R&D people, systems and businesses. You just have to go and look at the Atlassians of the world. I take my hat off to them; they have caused disruption and created phenomenal products.

But it’s a matter of size when you’re looking at a population of 22 million, compared to 340 million in the US.

I’d love our government to continue R&D support but from a commercial perspective, we won’t make it if we can’t do it on our own two feet.

The same questions are being asked overseas but in reverse. They are asking why isn’t London more like Silicon Valley. It’s like the mobility space, it’s still growing.

The hard pain points will come when the GDP from manufacturing has to be replaced with services. But it has to start at a grassroots level with education. That’s why we spend time at the universities and mentoring students.

We are committed to employing Australian-based engineers and developers rather than offshoring for the very simple reason that to do great work you need your team in one space under one roof.

We may take part of the company overseas in the next two to five years to train and recruit staff. Our challenge will be finding enough highly qualified engineers to hire in this country who have hybrid skills. Australia is a very small market, that small that we may have to start thinking outside it.

What keeps me awake at night is knowing there is so much more we can do. You just have to look at the market and where it’s going with robotics, artificial intelligence, even medical, to see we haven’t even begun to cover all that in any degree that is acceptable.

Lembit and I meet on a weekly basis to reassess where the business. We make necessary small but subtle changes in the business to keep it going in the direction we want. Sometimes outside forces make us take a right-hand turn instead of a left-hand turn, but you have to be proactive.

Change is good. You have to enjoy change.

I’m a serial entrepreneur so I can absolutely see myself starting another business. But we’re more likely to start businesses within Gridstone than externally.

It’s a fantastic time for startups because of the way businesses are operating and consumers are operating. And it’s all around mobility. 


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