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A Former Banker on Helping Small Businesses Go Mobile

paulA year ago, Paul Choi wasn’t having fun anymore as an investment banker covering heavy equipment, metals, and mining companies. What did excite him, however, was mobile technology services. “Everything is moving to mobile,” Choi says, and he wanted to too. So he searched for a promising business in need of a boost.

He found Worry Free Labs, an 8-year-old boutique digital design and development firm in New York that counted American Express, Disney, Expedia, and MailChimp among its clients, but wanted to accelerate its growth. Choi told founders Jason and Kristy Curry he would invest in the company if he could lead it. “I wanted to have some kind of control to dictate how my investment would turn out,” he says.

Since stepping in as CEO in September 2012 (the Currys remain lead digital strategists), Choi has mastered the language of cross-platform app design and refocused the company on customers and the bleeding edge of technology and innovation. “Worry Free Labs was doing really well before I got involved, but in 9 months we’ve made key hires, expanded our team, and increased our average project size,” he says. As a result, the 20-person firm has new business from NRDC, Houlihan Lokey, Internet Brands, KeyMe, and Lane Bryant.

Techonomy encountered Choi while he was manning a booth at the giant NY Tech Day exhibition in April, drumming up business for a new fixed-price “StartupKit,” designed to bring in small-business clients. Techonomy later spoke with Choi about the industry and what startups and small businesses can do with mobile.

Why are you so hot for mobile tech services?

There are a lot of ways businesses can use mobile apps to generate revenue and brand recognition. There are many innovative things that apps can do. Some are things that a website could do, but a mobile app can do it better. People always have their mobile phones on them.

You already had big-brand customers like Disney. Why did Worry Free Labs create the StartupKit for small businesses?

New creative businesses are disrupting old-line businesses. A business that’s doing well today could be ancient tomorrow because someone has found a way to do it better or reach a broader audience. But a lot of small businesses don’t even format their website so it can be viewed on a mobile device. If it’s not correctly rendered, your customer will go on to the next one.

Traditionally, people have created separate designs for web and mobile, but the recent trend is to have a responsive design that allows businesses to create one website optimized for the phone, the tablet, and the desktop. A responsive design detects what kind of device the user is on and renders the site accordingly. It’s some additional work from the outset, but it can save you a lot of money from a long-term perspective; you’re maintaining one source code instead of several. And you maximize your branding when you offer a similar experience on each device.

How are you seeing businesses use apps to disrupt traditional industries?

We have lots of clients who are making things more efficient through technology or using apps to engage audience.

We’re working with one startup, for instance, that is disrupting the traditional locksmith industry with a digital-key app. Another example is our partner Olapic, which enables customers to create branding experiences by aggregating photos of their products that are shared through different forms of social media. It lets companies show everyday people using their products by grabbing photos that are shared publicly on the Web through Facebook, Twitter, or other social media. Pepsi, Abercrombie & Fitch, New Balance, Saucony, Sony, and Design Within Reach all use it.

How do you see mom-and-pop small businesses using mobile websites or mobile apps effectively?

There’s a big trend toward engaging customers outside of when they’re just purchasing goods. One way small local businesses can use apps is by creating loyalty programs. In addition to bringing the customer back, the app helps the business track and analyze users’ behaviors—such as how often they’re purchasing which goods—and allows them to better understand their own business.

Generic apps already exist for replacing paper hole-punch loyalty cards. But the benefit of having a custom app is that you own the data and you own the branding. Given where mobile is going, there are e-commerce growth opportunities for traditional retailers.

We also have small business customers who want to increase their marketing and branding efforts. We can put a product catalog on a mobile app quickly, for instance.

And we’re helping individual entrepreneurs who have ideas for an app. We can help them take a concept, formulate a product strategy, and execute the design and development of that product. That’s a big portion of our business.

Amazon is putting a lot of small retailers out of business. Can apps save any of them?

An app can help you compete with Amazon, and you can get it done based on your budget. But it’s not something you can throw out there and hope it gets adopted. Businesses need to let their customers know the benefits of their app. They need to tell them, for instance, if there are discounts available through the app, or subscription programs where they can save money if they sign up to, say, get diapers delivered every month.

As an industry watcher, what do you see beyond apps?

Apps are still in phase one. There will be a phase two. I think there’s still going to be a ton of innovation for websites and apps. With iOS 7 being launched in the fall, that’s also going to change things. We’ll also have to see how smart watches and Google Glass do. And there’s a lot of technology being built into cars. Putting iOS devices in cars is going to happen quickly. Technology is moving really quickly.

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