Paris app developer  

SM: We’re here with Pierre de Sola from L’Atelier du Mobile Good afternoon, Pierre.

PD: Good afternoon.

SM: Pierre, tell me a little bit about yourself and how you came to work in app development.

PD: Actually, I’m an engineer, an electronics engineer specialized in designing digital microchips. I used to work in more of the industry, and my first job, my main job, was for an Asian company designing 2Gs and 3Gs microchips. One day the iPhone came out and I and some of my colleagues decided to switch. We were designing microchips and software that were already in China as very poor products, so when the iPhone came out, we realized that for the first time in history an individual was able to design apps and services that could work on a great phone in the hand of the customer. Then, we thought, “Apps are going to be huge.” That’s when we left our company and created L’atelier.

SM: Was there any fear or any hesitation in leaving your company to go work in this new world of consumer apps or mobile apps?

PD: The great thing in France is that you negotiate well and lead a company with both the agreement of you and the boss, you get access to unemployment subsidies and the second great thing is that in France, I was entitled to 24 months of my unemployment subsidies because I’ve been working for a long time, and in France when you create a company, you can actually, when you declare yourself as a new company and you’ve been on a project list, you can actually get paid by the state for fifteen months while creating an app. You actually get the money from the state that you would get if you were unemployed, and you can still create your company while receiving it. It’s actually a great system and most of the companies in France use this system. There’s no fear. I mean, you know that you have a year and a half, paid, to create your project. No fear.

 

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SM: I can understand that. Once you decided to launch your company, in what direction did you want to go? Was there a specific type of customer you wanted to work with or a specific industry that you wanted to build apps for?

PD: The target was not in terms of types of clients or markets, it was more a field of work. All of us were engineers. Engineers that had experience in managing and customers and design and stuff, but still engineers, and we thought that in most companies outside of the industry the technical side of things was never taken seriously. Whatever was being sold, the developer would just manage and we don’t ask his opinion. To create a win/win company which will bring direct access and answers to technical questions to the client, and on the other side our developers will work on things that were checked by technical people before being sold to a client. We had the impression that there are a lot of people who actually make the apps and a lot of bad work is done in this middle ground because the people don’t know what they’re selling. They’re giving bad advice to the clients and then when they’re sold something which is actually not efficient and not good, it has to be developed by a developer, which is not working at all. It’s a lose/lose situation. We wanted to bypass those people and that’s why we decided to work with the class of people able to do design and technical work and with the broad view of things and only work with quite senior people to limit the number of interactions. We felt like, in many companies, there’s an army of interns that will just bring noise to any project, and so much information is lost, so little of it sticks around. We thought that we could do a great job with just a handful of people and that’s what we’re trying to do.

SM: Was the transition difficult, in terms of working with your products, working with your team, and not speaking with a customer or not communicating with a customer, to customer service or customer communication being a lot more important, in terms of your daily tasks?

PD: That’s the big thing. When you’re an entrepreneur, you’re aren’t the boss anymore. I actually enjoy that part because I feel like the relationship between the employee and the boss is not very clear, especially in France. I mean, there are a lot of rules. But every employee, every boss, has his own view of what he’s entitled to, what’s his job, what’s his limit. It’s not clear. Whereas when you’re working with contractors and clients, I feel like the relationship is a lot clearer and it’s actually a lot easier for me to do this stuff, to be a salary man, or to be the boss of someone. It’s clear and you have to make your client happy, everything is in the contract or the conditions, so I actually quite enjoy it.

SM: So what kind of apps does L’atelier du mobile create? What are your specialties? What is your style?

PD: We don’t have specialties, in terms of markets. A lot of work came to us naturally, actually, because of our network, and we decided to be small at the beginning, so we didn’t choose our first clients and the clients that came to us. We don’t have a clear market. We didn’t have a clear view of, “Let’s target this market or this kind of apps because there is a great idea behind it or a great market behind it.”  And by luck, some great people came to see us.

We mainly specialize in health apps, mobile health. Anything to help so it can be people designing medicines and they need to communicate, or it can be associations who want to have tools to help the sick, or start-ups who try to revolutionize the health market, and luxury brands, like Dior or Cartier—these kind of people. I think they both came to us because we set a high standard of quality of apps and the price equally, so both of those markets—they have high money and they have high standards. I think it just came to us naturally.

It would have been much better if we had a speech about a constructed strategy and I think we were quite lucky. Apart from that, we work for any kind of company: small start-ups, big companies. The only thing we don’t do is games, because it’s a very specific market, in terms of clients, in terms of on the technical side as well and I feel that most of the games are not outsourced to agencies. They’re mostly designed by game factories and gaming. I mean, for me, the market is divided in two parts: the part that actually makes money in mobile, which is apps, which is games, and we don’t do that, and the other side which is people who already have money and they need to be on mobile and sell their products on mobile. So we mainly work for companies like banks, like health insurance companies, start-ups, that need to be on mobile as a side thing to their main product, which will soon be their main product. I think that most of the apps actually make money by selling something in an app, just for the app—most of them are games.

SM: Now working with large designers or larger companies with big names, do you have any leeway or any control over the visuals in the app that they design, or are the companies pretty strict, in terms of you sticking with their formal designs?

PD: First of all, we are quite lucky because, unlike the web, mobile is very new and has a lot of constraints. When you come to a company, they’ve been doing websites and they have web experience for many years now, so it’s really difficult to employ them. But on mobile, people are lost. So when we started our company, I was actually very surprised how easily we could convince people of doing this or doing that, because they didn’t have a clue of what mobile was and suddenly, unlike the web, they were constricted, they can’t go against the restrictions.

On the web you can actually do whatever you want. You have to convince them that, “Oh you shouldn’t do it because this and that,” actually because they can, they will. They will force you to do it on the web. Whereas in mobile, “Oh you can’t do it, because the system will not allow you to do it and you don’t have a choice.”  I mean, it’s not lots of, “Shut up.” And they understand development and because of the app stores as well, because people rank the app and you can’t delete it.

This is killing, scaring the shit out of, big companies. I mean, suddenly they’re so alert of what you’re saying, in terms of user experience and this and that and so they’re a lot more motivated to compromise to something that has a better experience, better design, a better this and better that. And in general, the iPhone and Apple set a much higher standard to design and so on. One other point is the technical limitation of mobile. I’ve been always used to it, because I’ve been working on embedded systems all my life. For me, it was, “Wow, so much power,” but for most of the web developers, it was like, “Oh, so little power, so little memory, so little space on the screen.”

You can’t actually do everything you want and it has to be very well controlled and you have to be simple and efficient. So we’re lucky that the clients were quite receptive to this kind of speech and I think it was how we got through. I mean, that’s how we beat all the other web agencies, because we had a different speech about that. And because we’re small, because we’re self-funded, because we didn’t take many risks, we were able to provide all the little things. When you are a sales person, you’re presenting to your boss, going into a big company. I mean, you have to please the company and you can’t lose this contract, otherwise you’re screwed. When you’re selling something, you’re in front of the clients, you’re your own boss and you have the full responsibility of selling or not selling this thing and you have the full responsibility of actually developing the app afterwards. You don’t want to screw yourself and you actually have the power to say, “If you don’t do it that way, I’m sorry, we won’t do it with you.”

Since the beginning, we took a lot of risk by saying no our clients. And actually, it is so refreshing for so many clients that we were surprisingly very successful. After you say no to a client, with explanations and you’re strong on your feet and this and that and you have a clear view of things, the amount of trust they put in you for when you say yes for other things is great. And still now, this is the main thing that I’ve learned from this job and it scares me if one day if being a selling man again, is not being able to have full responsibility and full. Yes, the full responsibility and the full power to say no to this, yes to this, and pose strong conditions to my clients, and I think this, actually, is great for the client because you make the compromise on things that will make their projects so much better and the products so much better and they realize it afterwards. And I don’t remember how we started this passage.

SM: I asked about how much leeway you have, in terms of design, or how much control the clients want to exert over designs.

PD: To answer your question, we give them quite limited control of that. We manage to convince them to do things this way, that way, and we do the economy and the design of most apps ourselves and we filter what we show our clients and make our clients validate. The only issue is, with luxury clients, they are control freaks on everything that is linked to their image and their product, so we just need to be used to their style, their level of agency. We manage to have quite a bit of control of that and one of our specialties is to try and stay very close to the platform. To do things, netted apps that will respect, there’s no need to try to be very inventive and original, in terms of the way to navigate into an app, the way to do this. An app is to do a task. Already there are so many crappy apps. If you make something that gives you a great service and it’s simple and it works, it will be actually better than most of your competitors. In coming from companies that have been struggling with the web to do great things that move and shake and turns, and whatever, is actually quite difficult. But we manage to do it. It might change in the future when the phones will get more powerful and more powerful, but for now, we manage to get things controlled and have product development control and that’s nice.

SM: That’s really encouraging. In terms of working with, maybe, some of your health clients—the clients that work in the health field or the banking field, or even, for that matter, the clients who sell products through their apps—you’re dealing with not only information, but personal information, very sensitive information and as serious as protecting this information is in the United States, we all know that Europe takes even greater care and pays even greater attention to this. Do you provide guidance for your clients, in terms of protecting this information or securing this information? Or do clients normally approach you with a plan for security? How does that work?

PD: Most of our clients in that field are very well informed of their legal and regulatory constraints and they actually add an extra top layer of safety around it that doesn’t allow them to innovate. That’s the main issue. I mean, there’s a lot of rules, but actually you can do quite many things with these rules. But the health companies are really scared and that’s why we’re struggling. That’s actually one of our biggest struggles with them is we’re pulling one way and they’re pulling the other and to find a product that, at the end, will have at least be a little bit of use, it’s moving, very slowly, but I think the fact that so many start-ups, actually have been, so many products, with no care for the laws and whatever will push them to innovate a bit more. My aim is not to push to not respect these laws, but I feel like most of the big health companies are doing than more than respecting those laws and constraints and if they were just respecting the law and trying to innovate, we would all have success. But that’s one of our biggest struggles. In some of banking, I mean, health and reason aside, banking and other markets, it’s just a question of security. It’s just technical details and doing stuff right, but the biggest debate is in health.

SM: A potential client or a new client has an idea to have a service they want to provide through an app. They don’t know how to get that done, so of course they want to contact a developer, a great developer, who can deliver and make a great app for them. Can you provide, maybe, common questions that new clients may ask, or can you provide questions that people would do well to ask when first meeting or interviewing a developer?

PD: That’s a tough one.

SM: We can pass if you want.

PD: I provide a lot during my client meetings, because I never know the level of knowledge, what level their product is already at. Mainly, we ask questions about their targets, to know if, for example, we need to focus on iOS, Android—that would be one of the first questions. Actually the main problem working with companies, and especially big companies, is the most obvious one: why do you need this project? They will come to you and say, “We want an app that does that.” But it would be actually so difficult to find out why, in terms of business, they want an app that does that. Sometimes you can, if you manage to get this information, then you can show them, like, much better ways to attain their main goal, which was not doing the app, which was a business goal at first.

You know what to prioritize what you need to do with the app, depending on the business goal, and most of the companies actually hand in their business goal. They’re just coming to you too late, they’re coming to you after they made the decision in the company that, “We need an app that does this, this, that,” and they will not give all the elements to the developers to think in a broader way. Otherwise, there are like legal constraints, in terms of time to market, in terms of avenues for communication and for are they trying to sell something through the app or is it just communication? The main thing would be trying to get the real goal of why they have this project.

SM: Now if a generic client approaches and says, or asks you the question, “Which platform should we build on? Should we build on iOS first or should we build on Android first?” How do you try to provide an answer for that question?

PD: Usually the question would be, “Why don’t you just do a web app or something that works magically on all the platforms?” and all that. Just for example, if you have a news app, we will just use html to get your articles, the layout together. Nothing interactive HTML, just something else. Then after that, the main question is iOS or Android, they’re not talking about Windows. 90% of the time we will go for iOS first, and we try to convince our client to never do both platforms at the same time because we feel that it’s so much easier to go on the second platform with all the experience we had and use the feedback on the first one, instead of doing both at the same time and then trying to change both of the them at the same time. We find an echo in feedback and you’re all set by iOS because usually, especially if you want to sell anything, iOS will be the first one. And then you will have iOS in many countries—this is country-specific—more than leading apps and actually using the apps.

As soon as you’re doing something which is not selling anything, which has to be distributed in Asia, for example, or some countries, then we go for Android. It depends on what are you selling; what kind of people you are targeting, in terms of social class, which country; are you going to do one platform and then post for 6 months and a year and then another one, of is it the one after another? All this will be in consideration to the client.. I mean, most of the people, they either only do an app that sells something, they want to do an app that targets someone who has money, and usually it’s in Europe or in the U.S. Most of the time the answer would be iOS first and then Android. And just for the people listening, I am an Android fan and I own an Android and I wouldn’t be able to use an iPhone.

SM: Alright. Are your clients usually appreciative once they understand that your suggestion to go with one platform before the other as not only more efficient in terms of time to launch, but will also save them headaches in terms of having to fix bugs or change layouts or change app functionality on both platforms; change money, in terms of paying for your time; also, really limit headaches from dealing with customer service from bad user experience? Does that usually come across pretty clearly, or is there a lot of appreciation once that message gets across?

PD: The main objection of our clients about this way of doing things is communication. Many of them are seeing iOS as a premium platform and Android as a secondary platform and a lot of companies which are very particular about their communication, they feel like they are, whatever brand, targeting only our rich clients and they don’t care about poor Android people. The only thing that they consider in terms of strategy, is mainly not a question of acquisition or a question of real condition, or whatever, it’s a question of how is it going to look in my PR when I’m going to say, “Oh it’s on the iOS platform.” If it’s their priority, I mean, if it’s a PR app, which about 50% of the time, it’s actually a PR app, then you have to do both at the same time. I mean, you can’t go around it. Otherwise, if your PR is not that important at the beginning for the first 6 months, for all the reasons you said, you should do one first and the other first afterwards, instead of choosing.

SM: Let’s stay with this same scenario-- a client approaches you, a client knows why he or she or it wants to go forward with a certain project, and they’re open to articulating their business goal. What do you want from them? Do you want the client to have a certain amount of artwork done? Do you want the client to have the app laid out to a certain extent? Are you helping with these wire frames? How do you feel about that?

PD: We prefer to have the client as early as possible. It would be a red flag for us, when a client comes with their layout. This is a tough question, because ideas are a great thing. Certainly you find out, “Oh gosh, a client really thought this thing through and it’s great,” and then it’s great because some of the work is done and you come in to make sure that your project and you can find out the level of knowledge and reflection the client had on this project. If the result of what he did is good, it’s great. But most of the time it’s not and that’s normal.

It’s a specialty for us to design a great app. Most of the time, they decided that what they did is already great. They like two or three in the company that actually worked for a month on this. When you come in and say, “OK, we’re going to redo everything,” it actually pollutes the whole design process, because when we go into a meeting, we want to go back to the main goal of, not even the app, but, “Why are you doing this app?” And it’s very difficult when they already have an idea of points of what they want in the app.

It’s already very difficult to get at what is actually the business goals. But if you have someone that really only comes with the designs, it’s sort of more difficult to go back to the basics of, “What are your business goals?” And you want to not just develop an app, we want to give them the best advice with the good technical insights and the good mobile user insights from the beginning to the end. Some clients are open to reconsider their designs or whatever, but the more they’ve done, if it’s not well done, the more difficult it is, because obviously they managed to produce something and many people in their company agree with it, they had a train of thought that brought to this. I mean, so you have to contradict and you have to work on it. It’s just so hard. We’d rather have someone that comes with nothing than have a 10% chance of someone coming with a design that will not be good.

SM: Do you have any feedback or any suggestions for clients that they have an app that they just want to provide for information for PR, or that maybe want to sell a product but need help marketing?

PD: We’re engineers. We are engineers that have quite a lot of experience in other fields, to design to a lot of other things, we’re really open-minded. But we know we’re not marketing people in the sense that most people think of marketing people. We’re not a marketing agency. We define ourselves more as a product agency, which means that we will focus on one part of your product, which is making your product great; making it fit demand; making it in a way that will, by many means, be seen.

We do app ratios, basic stuff; trying to think of your project in terms of how people are going to share stuff, how is your interaction with social networks, and this and that; how is it going to be seen and used and any valuable cycles that are taking place; we think about monetization—monetization is very, very specific to mobile. We have many things to know, I’m sure you know. It’s a headache to follow and understand the conditions of Apple and Google and whatever. We try to focus on this, which is specific to mobile.

We know a bit about acquisition, we know a bit about client base, and this and that, but we tell our clients that we’re not specialists—we can’t do everything—and we’re not specialized in organizing the launch. If you give me 100K to do an acquisition, I think I would be lost. We usually ask the clients to ask with someone else on this very specific side of communication, of the marketing side of the launch of the app, so we can advise the client on how to design a good product and to design it so that it’s core, in its architecture, there is something that will give some viral effects to it.

But I don’t give insights on how to organize a great launch with a lot of PR. We don’t take care of PR, we don’t take care of ads, buying Twitter ads, buying Facebook ads, and all that. We have knowledge about it, because I think we need to have a broad view of everything, but we’re clear with our clients on what we won’t do and they will have a better fit with someone else. So back to your question, which was the, “What can we tell?”  First of all, just make a good product, and we can help you make a good product, then we will talk with someone else on how to market it. We don’t specialize in marketing.

SM: Perfect. I mean, that sums it up. Like you said, as many apps as comes out each week, I mean, how few of them provide any value to any segment?

PD: I’m not saying that marketing’s not needed. I mean, the fact that so many apps have a lot of marketing, but a crappy product, but the other way around is also very true. It’s not because we are not going to do this part of the job, that we are not going to push and force our client to actually budget, a real budget, for marketing, because there are so many great apps that will never be seen by anyone because you actually need a big marketing budget to be seen, and a big strategy to be seen.

We’re not tech people that are saying, “Oh, marketing is rubbish and you don’t need it if you have a great product.” That’s not what I’m saying. I’m just saying that we will not do it for them because that’s not our specialty. Let’s just start by doing something great and then, at the same time of someone else, or with their service, we organize something and have a good budget. But I think at least, we say you need the same budget or half of the budget in marketing and then development.

SM: That’s strong advice. Pierre, are there any mistakes that you see, generally in the market, that you would like to point out or is there any misinformation about app development or working with strong development firms that you would like to clear up?

PD: The main subject is netted apps, as opposed to web apps, as opposed to magical solutions that seems to appear that will solve everybody’s problem quick, magically. It’s very difficult to explain when you talk to clients that don’t have any technical knowledge why we should do the app three times, instead of using the magical product that someone else is giving them, or not doing it at all. All the projects that we’ve seen that were using fun gap or a lot of new techniques to do multi-platform apps have had a really bad experience, and that’s just one side of the story. We don’t get by on fireworks. We don’t know how they’ve been maintained, depending sometimes on the companies that will sell you the product and you’ll be forever linked to them.

The main thing at DDT is the evolution of the app is much more difficult. I mean, it’s much safer to follow the track of Apple, because they know what they’re doing. We can see in the native codes where they want to go in the next one year, two years, and they will always take care of the apps. It’s a safer thing. It’s more expensive—it’s not double the price, right on point, because when you develop web apps or different platforms, you have to do some specific stuff for each of them, so it’s not something that’s multiplied by the number of platforms. Another thing is that all the platforms are actually quite different in terms of design, habits, capabilities, so you always want to stick to it. If you develop—this was the big mistake in the beginning, it’s still done a bit—you design an app for iOS, and then you say, “OK, just copy it for Android.”  There’s nothing more intimate and nothing more constrained than iOS mobile.

People only use iOS or only use Android, so they think that all mobile phones are the same. They think that what they’re using is the norm, and that’s why if you give an iOS phone to an Android geek, they go, “I don’t know how to use it, it’s really badly done,” and vice versa when you give an Android phone to an iOS guy, they say, “I can’t use it.” You don’t realize they actually have so many habits embedded into you and if an app doesn’t respect the habits, then you feel that it’s a badly done app.

Netted app is not only about doing something that’s technologically smarter and stronger, it’s something else, in terms of usability, user experience, and the best usage you can do of the iOS or Android and consistent Apple pay, touch ID, interaction, calendars, everything. That’s what make an app very strong with the connection with the system. I have no doubt that in the future there will be technologies that will allow to do multi-platform apps, we just feel that it’s not mature yet.

One of the big mistakes is to try to compromise with this. We advise so many clients to just do one platform, instead of trying to do two or multi-platform. It’s the same for us of showing all those-- so many of our clients decided that we were 25% too expensive for this and that and decided to go and work with off-shore companies and they all came back. Developing any software, hardware, of course, is a huge investment, but most of the people don’t check what they actually buy, they just check the visual results of it. To be documented, maintained, and valued at the time, evolved, and it’s very difficult to make clients understand that you have to look inside and actually one of our big business goals now is to try and develop more of the consulting part of the company.

We are limited in terms of the number of projects we can actually develop and realize. One of our aims is to say, “OK, for this project, we won’t be able to do it for you, but we will be your agency that will be with you for all your mobile projects and we’ll check when your sub-contractor or what your other tech agency does. We can advise you on how to develop the app and then someone else will do it. We can check what they do, what framework they use, fight for you that it’s going to be strong and good.”  I used to develop the consulting part. We will definitely continue it to have more business in developing and actually designing all the apps, because we need to be precisely in this thing to understand how it’s evolving, but half of our new business is just consulting. We audit, we hire people, we build teams, we just do the design and they organize the bid, yeah. We actually organize that by checking what they did, we audit the code, and we do things like that. Because we can’t grow too much and we don’t want to grow too much, we thought of how can we give the best value to our clients, in terms of time? We decided that this subpar part of our service could be given as a side service, just checking for you that the work is good, is well-done.

SM: Great. I’ve been asking all the questions, so many questions; is there anything that you’d like to share or discuss that we haven’t already addressed?

PD: I don’t think so.

SM: OK

PD: We talked about all things.

SM: Okay, well thank you, Pierre, for your time today.

PD: You’re welcome. Thank you for coming to us.