When Henry Balanon says, “Let’s step into my office,” that could be just about anywhere.
The founder of Bickbot, a mobile application firm, surfs his laptop, writing code and making business connections between home, co-working spaces and coffee shops across Metro Detroit. It has become such a lifestyle choice that the people at Urbane Apts co-working space notice when Balanon doesn’t stop by and Starbucks gave him a gold card bearing his name to buy lattes.
This is the life of a 20-something entrepreneur in Southeast Michigan’s emerging mobile app economy. Balanon turned a Michigan State University degree into an internship for Lockheed Martin in Washington, D.C., and then a job working from home in Metro Detroit for Cynergy Systems. Soon after Balanon got a call on New Year’s Eve, 2008, telling him his services were no longer needed. But rather than firing up his resume, he made the decision to be his own boss. Armed with his wife’s health insurance and a focus on developing iPhone apps, Balanon was off to the start-up races the next day.
“It’s tough to jump in that pool of cold water,” Balanon says. “You think, ‘I can do this. I can do this.’ But it really takes someone pushing you off to really do it. It was just the push I needed to do something I really wanted to do.”
He has since turned into one of Metro Detroit’s star mobile appletes, turning out iPhone apps for emerging businesses, big name corporations (Stryker), and its own sale (Strokes). The 2-year-old company is so successful that it’s moving into extra space in Billhighway’s offices in Troy on Big Beaver Road. Balanon expects to expand his staff to half a dozen people in six months and nearly a dozen by the end of the year.
Bickbot (the name comes from his old IM handle) will focus on creating iPhone, Android, and iPad apps for the big name firms, creating its own apps, and teaching others how to develop them. Balanon expects to accomplish this between speaking engagements, his work with The Hungry Dudes (a Metro Detroit food blog), organizing Metro Detroit’s Spartan faithful, and raising a young family.
He recently agreed to talk about all of this with Metromode’s Jon Zemke over lattes at Starbucks in downtown Birmingham.
The app economy is the flavor of the month when it comes to emerging sectors in Metro Detroit’s economy. Do you believe the hype?
Maybe. Well, no, actually. There are really good companies here. Because there aren’t a lot of mobile app developers. It might not be the best place to start an app company.
But U-M is one of the top recruiting sites for software engineers for Apple, Google, and Microsoft.
We’ll see a lot of things changing. I know Dan Gilbert [Quicken Loans CEO] and Josh Linkner [ePrize chairman] bought the Angelina’s Bistro building [in downtown Detroit] and plan to make that an incubator space. You need the herd mentality to succeed. You want to be around that to help drive you.
Does it have to be all mobile app people around each other or could it just be software people?
That’s the cool thing about software, because you can have guys jump the fence to mobile apps. There are a lot of things happening in the area to help grow mobile, such as Mobile Mondays and CocoaHeads Detroit. I wouldn’t put money on Metro Detroit becoming the hub of mobile development in the nation, but it has some things going for it.
I was a little bit surprised to see Mobiata as the latest start-up acquisition. Do you think we’ll see more local app companies cash in this year?
Yes, especially with the launch of Detroit Venture Partners. I have a hard time believing all the cool ideas come from Silicon Valley.
Which would you rather see come first, the iPhone 5 or the iPad 2?
Probably iPad 2. There are a lot of things I would love, love, love to see on the iPad, such as front camera and retina display. The iPad 2 is going to have a greater leap in technology.
Which would be better for your business?
Probably the iPad 2. It’s becoming more of a business tool than the iPhone. I love the iPad and it’s going to kick it up a notch for us in the upcoming years.
The iPhone has maintained its presence as the smartphone of smartphones since its debut, but the Android has become a credible rival. Could we see Android phones overtake the iPhone as the go-to smartphone in 2011?
It probably will. They’re really cheap, just like PCs. But for the higher-end consumers it’s going to be the iPhone.
So, do you think market share will break down the way PC/Apple market share breaks down today?
Maybe not quite as PC heavy. It will probably be 60-40 Android. But the Android isn’t a phone anyone will wait in line for for two days. People will do that for iPhone because it’s a premium brand.
One of Apple’s biggest claims to fame is its ability to avoid viruses, partly because it’s such a small segment of the market. As Apple continues to grow and mobile platforms meld more and more with personal computers, i.e. the iPad, should Apple users start fearing viruses?
They have the iPad sand-boxed so well that people won’t have to worry. I don’t know how virus writers think, but I don’t think they ignore Mac because it’s only 10 percent of the market. I think it was because it was inherently easier to exploit things on Windows.
You’re one of the entrepreneurs who utilizes Urbane Apts’ relatively new co-working space in Birmingham. How is this space different than, say, a coffee shop or library?
You don’t have to buy anything, there is a refrigerator, you get to see the same people so you can build relationships. Its that herd mentality. If people are working around you, you will get that urge to do that as well.
How important has this option been to you and your business?
It has been pivotal for me. When you’re at home working by yourself, you might not have the energy to work. On those days I go to Urbane’s space. Everyone there is working, so I am just going to work.
So it’s easy to focus there.
And it’s easy to bounce ideas off people there. Even though you might not receive relevant feedback, it’s good to talk things out and escape from work a little bit, even if it’s just for five minutes. The idea sharing, fast Internet and the ability to focus are all very important.
Is building one of those spaces as simple as having a few desks, a good Internet connection, and a meeting room or kitchen?
What is hard to build is the community. When Urbane’s co-working space first started not a lot of people went there. Getting a community to consistently go there, that is the key to making it work.
Can we expect to see more of these spaces, say 10 years from now?
I think so. Not everyone who starts a company will want to sign a seven-year lease for an office. But we still want the desk and the Internet and the water cooler talk. We’ll see more of these spaces because there are not many around here. Even when I get my office space I am going to stop by Urbane every so often. As humans we want change. Even when we set up our home office to be perfect you can only get so much work done because you’ll get bored of it. We’re going to lose a lot of energy if we don’t keep changing the environment around us. You can’t be creative eight hours a day straight. You have to do it in bursts.
I recently heard a claim that Michigan State has more alumni living in Chicago than any other major metropolitan area. What would you do to make sure Metro Detroit has this honor?
I run an alumni group called DetroitSpartans.com. There are a lot of alumni in the area but they suffer from the same challenges that mobile developers do because there isn’t a central place for them to meet.
Is that type of hub a game-changing way of helping to attract more new grads to stay here?
Yes. The more people who connect in the community, the stronger the community becomes as a whole. The reason Harvard or Stanford grads are really successful is because their alumni network goes really deep into a lot of leadership roles. They have a really tight-knit community. I am trying to bring enough Spartans together so more people want to be a part of it.
You’re about to become a new father. Many people shelve the idea of starting a business when they’re starting a family, saying it isn’t the safe, responsible route. You apparently don’t subscribe to that idea.
Actually, I do. I started the company two years ago and I wanted to do it before I had my first kid. I knew the older I got the less likely it would be that I would start a business.
But it seems like Bickbot is still in start-up mode even though it’s two years old.
It is, but I am big believer of having your cake and eating it, too. You can have a family, start a business, travel and have all of these experiences. You can experience it with them. I would be selling myself and my family short if we didn’t try this.
How has being an entrepreneur impacted your marriage?
The fights are definitely different. I have been fortunate to make money at it so the fights 99 percent of the time are great. But the 1 percent of the time they’re just awful. It hasn’t taken a strain that much, but I still spend a lot of time with my wife and my family.
You’re a Michigan State grad. How much have you been enjoying the last three years of college football in the state of Michigan?
It’s been unreal. In the past three years we have been winning all the time. Now I feel like we have a chance to win every single game. It’s exciting and very motivating.
Jon Zemke is the News Editor for Metromode and its sister publication, Concentrate. He is also the Managing Editor of SEMichiganStartup.com, which is mapping out Metro Detroit’s entrepreneurial economy. He conducted and condensed this interview. His last feature was Beer Is Fun! Q&A with entrepreneur Mike Plesz.