Mobile software startup 52apps has an ambitious goal: create a new application for the iPhone or iPad every week. Just as ambitious: Do it with college students in South Carolina, far from the engineering hotbeds of Silicon Valley, New York or Austin, Texas.
The company, based at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, can create an app in five days with “premade programming Lego blocks,” said Chief Executive Officer Steve Leicht, one of three non-students at the company who work for free. That means a chunk of code can quickly add GPS features or the ability to share content on Facebook or Twitter, helping the small team compete with experienced developers.
“What they are doing is very cool,” said Vivek Wadhwa, an entrepreneurship and public-policy lecturer who has academic roles at Stanford, Duke and Emory universities. “The startup scene in South Carolina is very small, but there are sparks of light, and this is one of them.”
The company highlights how the app era has allowed innovation to thrive in new and unexpected locales. With simplified development tools, just about anyone with mid-level programming skills can build mobile applications.
About one in three apps are made by individuals or companies with fewer than five employees, according to App Annie, a company that helps publishers track their own app store metrics.
Colleges and universities, with their legions of smartphone-toting students, offer particularly fertile ground. Student efforts are often spurred by school policies that encourage professors and students to create companies. At least 36 colleges across the U.S. have business incubators that make mobile apps, according to the National Business Incubator Association.
“App development has become very much popular among college students,” said Agata Chydzinski, Director of Operations at the USC/Columbia Technology Incubator, who has worked with business incubators for 10 years. “It starts in high schools.”
“When you find a student who has ideas, or skills, or who can design, and other students who are in business school, it could make a hugely successful company,” Chydzinski said.
The technology incubator offers workspace and mentorship opportunities to dozens of companies, including 52apps. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has offered to fund the development of a mobile application that uses university research.
An incubator at the University of Texas at Austin is home to mobile apps including Next One’s on Me, which allows users to treat their friends to coffee or lunch, and Drivve, which facilitates document management on smartphones. And at Northwestern University near Chicago, a startup incubator is currently home to 18 companies, including mobile app maker SweetPerk, which developed an app that enables merchants to advertise more effectively.
Of course, colleges have long been fountains of Internet innovation. Mark Zuckerberg started Facebook out of his dorm at Harvard. Aaron Levie founded Box, a cloud storage company, at the University of Southern California. Silicon Valley investor Peter Thiel even pays student entrepreneurs as much as $100,000 to drop out of college and pursue their ventures full-time.
Today’s crop of students have it easier than ever, especially when it comes to mobile apps. Tutorials for learning how to code and make applications are readily accessible online and you need little more than a computer and an Internet connection to get started.
In Columbia, the 52apps team meets in its offices each Monday to choose that week’s application. Programmers start coding before lunchtime, and by Thursday, a beta version is tested. On Friday, the software is sent to Apple Inc.’s App Store.
“Every Friday when an app goes out, the whole group hangs out and celebrates,” said Christopher Thibault, who co-founded the company with former high-school classmate Brendan Lee. Both will be seniors this fall.
The 21-year-olds introduced six apps on Apple’s store before the company was started. Since 52apps opened its offices on June 1, the team has submitted six apps to Apple. Two of those are available now: TapNotes, which lets users easily play back selected segments of recorded lectures or interviews, and PDF Recombinator, for making PDFs from images, documents or photos. The others are awaiting approval by Apple.
The pair’s most successful app is a note-taking package called SmartNote, which has been downloaded more than a half million times. The $3.99 program consistently ranks in Apple’s top-50 list for productivity tools, and about 250,000 people use it on a daily basis, according to Leicht. The profits have helped Lee and Thibault pay their tuition.
52apps is looking beyond the college campus for inspiration. The company’s website includes a link where visitors can offer ideas for new applications. Last month, the group held a forum called App Idea Day, where outsiders were invited to pitch ideas–no programming skills required.
52apps plans to hold about one App Idea Day per month. People who pitch an idea that gets developed into an app receive royalties of 5 percent to 10 percent of sales, Leicht says. So far, the company has received more than 100 ideas, and expects to use at least 10 of them.
Caroline Boineau, 25, came to the first Idea Day from Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, to pitch an app that could schedule the delivery of text messages in advance, such as a happy-birthday text. She heard about 52apps from a friend on Facebook.
“I would describe myself as a lazy texter, and if I had this app, it would be a lot easier for me,” Boineau said. “They positioned it as, make a good idea, and they’ll make the app for you.”
The company plans to make apps for all the major platforms, including Google Inc.’s Android and Microsoft Corp.’s new Surface tablet.
The team also is building a content-management system to sell to universities to simplify distance learning and administrative tasks. Three universities, including the University of South Carolina, will test it next year.
52apps is focusing on software that can be used to help people be more efficient, either in academics or the workplace.
“I see them doing things that make the iPad much less of a plaything and much more of a real tool we can use,” said Anthony Ambler, dean of the University of South Carolina’s engineering college, which helps support 52apps.
52apps’ co-founders first met in science class at their Arkansas high school. After teaching themselves to code on TI-83 calculators, they started collaborating on iPhone apps. Their first app was designed to help them solve math homework problems and reduce the number of books they needed to bring to class.
Leicht, 36, said he expects the company to be profitable this month, though he declined to provide financial details. All of the students on staff at 52apps are paid, and there’s enough revenue already to fund the company for three years, he said.
And while South Carolina’s technology culture doesn’t share the same willingness for risk taking as Silicon Valley, there are other advantages to having a startup company here, Lee said.
“You get a lot of attention,” he said. “On the West Coast, everyone has a company.”