Thursday, June 12, 2008
Interview with Rob Witman, RiffWare
Story by Benjamin F. Kuo
Pasadena-based Riffware (www.riffware.com), a developer of mobile applications, recently launched its first application on Verizon last month. We spoke with Rob Witman, CEO of the firm, to hear about the company's angle on the mobile market, the founder's background from Evolution Robotics--Rob told us he was the first outside employee for Evolution Robotics--and where it's hoping to take the company. We also thought it would be interesting to hear how some technical founders decided to go from developing robotics software to mobile cell phone software, and their experience bootstrapping the firm.
What's the story behind the company?
Rob Witman: We started informally in late 2004. A friend of mine I had known from school back at Purdue was working at the same company as I was, Evolution Robotics at Idealab. He was doing some mobile work for them, and had a chance to go overseas to Qualcomm in Korea and Japan. He came back feeling that the mobile industry was the place to be. We decided to start looking into it seriously, putting out feelers, playing with code, and officially incorporate the company in February of 2005. We went full time on it shortly thereafter. The company started doing professional services to establish our reputation and build up our technical know-how. We built some successful applications for external clients, including AWS Convergence Technologies, owner of the WeatherBug brand, and Neomedia, out of Florida, in bar code scanning. So we were doing some professional services, and then adjusted our focus to leverage our prior connections and to deploy our own applications. We recently launched our Miles To Go application on Verizon last month.
Talk a little bit about that application and what it is?
Rob Witman: The Miles To Go application came out of last summer, when we were talking to friends and neighbors and carriers, and recognizing that consumables in terms of energy consumption were becoming more and more of a big topic. People were increasingly interested in how good their fuel economy was, and how much they were spending on gas. Our software is a simple tool to see that, and also to save a little bit of money. It allows you to compare your mileage to that of other people with the same automobile, and can tell you if other people are doing better, maybe suggest that you need some service, or perhaps you're driving too aggressively. On the same front of saving money, we had the idea that lots of folks are being hit by lease penalties, and if you're racking up mileage we extrapolate that ahead of time, and let you know you're driving a little too much and to back off, so you don't owe money at the end of your lease. Unfortunately, or fortunately for us, gas prices continue to go up, so this has been a hotter topic than first anticipated.
Tell us a little bit about the background of the founders, and how you ended up going from robotics to mobile development?
Rob Witman: We're a group of engineers. My background is in robotics and embedded systems. I've got degrees in chemical engineering with a minor in electrical engineering. I did a lot of motion control, robotics algorithm development, and general low level electronics and layout for robotics. My partners have computer science and computer engineering backgrounds. We've all spent a lot of time in the embedded programming space. It turns out that is suited very well to cell phones. Cell phones are just a small embedded computer like a robot. It provides a great background for working in cell phones. There are lots of computer science folks from the Java side, but most of them haven't spent time with limited hardware. They're used to programming for a 2 Ghz PC, but don't know what it means to have only a couple of hundred K of stack, which is a limitation on a cell phone. (Editor's note: stack is the amount of memory available to software applications for executing software functions; in embedded systems it's very, very small--in PC's, it's very, very big, changing your programming style dramatically). On the business side, I also spent time at Evolution Robotics pitching products to customers at conferences like CES, I was one of the main presenters with the founder of Idealab, Bill Gross, in 2003 and 2004. I also did E3 and other conferences.
Is your application on deck or off deck?
Rob Witman: We're an on-deck application on Verizon Wireless and Midwest Wireless. We're also rolling out on other carriers in a couple of months--all of the carriers that support BREW in the U.S. We are also planning a port for the iPhone, and have plans to expand across to J2ME, though there's no timeline for that just yet.
We often hear it's difficult to actually get your application on-deck at the carriers. Can you share your experience?
Rob Whitman: It's insanely difficult. That's a pro, and a con, of being on-deck with the BREW system. The gatekeeper is the carrier, and they have the final say. If you can't get through them, you can't get through to your customers. On the flip side, we made it through, and now have access to a huge number of active customers who are purchasing and downloading our applications. It took a lot of work upfront, talking with people, networking, and pitching to the carriers, but if you're able to make it through the benefit is pretty large.
How long did that process take you?
Rob Witman: From the very first time I spoke to a person at Verizon, it was probably a year and a half before we launched our applications. The first person was in the government group, we started in one place and worked around and met more people, networking within the company to pitch our product. I honestly feel like we're one of the last people through the door in terms of developing and deploying on deck like that. That's especially true of the games area, which is why we don't do games, because they have a set of developers they feel very comfortable with. They are big brands, and big names, and are very hesitant to talk to new folks. There's more risk than reward for them there. So we feel the door is closing, and feel like we're one of the last--if not the last--new folks through that door. And we're not even that new, we've been in there since 2005, for the last three years.
Let's talk a little bit about your funding. It looks like you've been bootstrapped so far?
Rob Witman: Yes, absolutely. We put up some money up front, and have had the professional services to keep the ball rolling. We were offered some money from some people up front, but felt we really wanted ownership of this, and felt we could do this on our own. So that's what we've done. Obviously, we had to eat a lot of ramen for a few years, but it turned out quite nicely. It's been returning some profits to the owners in the last 18 months or so.
What's next for you guys?
Rob Witman: There are two, maybe three things on our short list. We're continuing to expand our deployment. Verizon is the 800 pound gorilla, but we also want to get into some other carriers in the space. We also want to crank up marketing and PR to make those successful launches as well. Then, we also have a couple of other apps int he works, with the goal in building Riffware, and building and deploying our application on phones. Our internal though is that mobile phones are becoming more and more powerful, and is going toward becoming a computer in your pocket. If you go over to asia, they're a couple of years ahead of us in technology. They're doing a lot more on their phones than talking. That's where the U.S. market is headed, as well as other markets. We didn't want to be just another game company, but wanted to build applications for every day life. We call it life management applications. Our jingle is -- your life to go. The idea is to take things you do, and are interested in week to week, and provide you with simple, easy to use helper applications that run on your phone to do that task.