Coverage for Rokk3r Labs: Miami Herald Business Monday cover

ROKK SOLID: Nabyl Charania, one of the founders of Rokk3r Labs, which partners with startups to develop apps, works in his bustling office in Miami Beach, which has about 45 employees who build mobile phone applications and other types of software products.

South Florida’s app economy emerging on many fronts

BY MIKE SEEMUTH

SPECIAL TO THE MIAMI HERALD

A Miami-based developer of online training programs called LearnerNation is improving its mobility while raising money to expand. The young company is easing access to its website with a smartphone, having decided against the alternative of creating a mobile app for a particular brand of handset, such as Apple’s iPhone or Google’s Android. “That could be extremely costly for a startup, and also you become more app-centric at that point,” said Michael Laas, co-founder and chief operating officer of LearnerNation. “Another way you can go is, we’re actually going to be designing our site to be browser-friendly for smartphones, so it doesn’t matter if you’re logging in from an iPhone or an Android phone.”

Welcome the rapidly changing app economy. While mobile apps are popular among consumers who own smartphones, many companies are achieving mobile connectivity through so-called cloud computing, or the use of software that resides on the Internet, not on a smartphone, tablet or laptop. These are the “two divergent paths when it comes to being used on mobile devices,” Laas said. “Are you based for the Web, or are you based for an app, for a smartphone?”

Both paths are providing unparalleled handheld access to information over the Internet, and the march toward nonstop connectivity has created unprecedented opportunities. The development of mobile apps, in particular, has become a dynamic force in the software sector of the economy. Building and distributing software for mobile phones has never been cheaper, so this slice of the software industry has attracted not only a swarm of inventive entrepreneurs but also a slew of advisors, financiers and technicians to help them. Big brand-name corporations are investing in mobile connectivity, too, along with social media exposure, transactional capabilities and other elements of their online presence.

By one measure, South Florida’s app economy appears to be growing faster than the overall economy. The number of payroll jobs in information services, a broad sector of the economy encompassing software development and publishing, has risen by 1,200 in Miami-Dade and Broward counties since 2010, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The 12-month average for the two counties increased to 35,800 last year from 35,000 in 2011, a 2.3 percent rise, about double the growth rate of total non-farm employment in the two counties. National employment in information services totaled 2,688,000 in June, virtually unchanged from a year ago, the U.S. Department of Labor reported Friday.

Payroll employment figures, however, undercount the impact of independent contractors who have created their own jobs in the app economy. Entrepreneurial activity may be greater in the software industry than in any other. One prominent piece of evidence in recent years has been the proliferation of local facilities known as incubators and accelerators with programs to help entrepreneurs turn software-based ideas into viable ventures. Other companies build software-based systems for entrepreneurial ventures and take equity positions in them. A fast-growing startup company called Rokk3r Labs in Miami Beach, for example, is building software that will improve mobile access to the website of LearnerNation.

Launched in January 2012, LearnerNation has sold online programs for employee training to commercial customers that include Riot Games, a leading publisher of computer games, and Hulu, an online video service provider.

Laas said Learner Nation is trying to raise $750,000 of fresh capital and would use some of the funding to hire a Miami-based chief technical officer. The company is seeking “a mid-level programmer that can come in and know our programming language,” he said. “I would say we are willing to pay anywhere from $60,000 to $80,000 a year.”
Despite good pay for full-time work, talented software designers and developers often prefer to work on their own, and many have gravitated toward app development for mobile phones. David Elgena, for example, is an entrepreneurial software designer in Miami whose professional claim to fame is a popular application for the iPhone. The 28-year-old initially doubted the viability of the iPhone when Apple introduced the handheld phone-inside-a-computer in 2007, launching a new era in mobile app development. “I just thought nobody wants this much stuff on their phone, but I was wrong.” Now Elgena has the right take on the mobile connectivity trend and the sales revenue to prove it.
In the first two weeks after Weather Dial, his iPhone app for real-time weather reports, appeared in the App Store, Apple’s online shopping site, more than 20,000 buyers paid 99 cents each to download it. He has updated Weather Dial and raised the price to $1.99 since its initial release last year. “It was kind of like disbelief,” Elgena said, describing his initial reaction to the surge in sales of his app. He once worked full-time for Senzari, a software firm that provides Internet radio service with offices in Miami, San Francisco and Berlin, Germany. But his solo success encouraged him to resist working full-time for others and pursue his own professional path.
“In the beginning, it was hard to establish the self discipline,” he said. “But now I think I’ve got the hang of it. Just waking every morning creating new products, which is what I love to do.”
Welcome to the independent wing of the app economy. Elgena, a recent graduate of Miami International University of Art and Design, is a sole proprietor out of choice, not necessity. He has had his share of full-time job opportunities “I interviewed at Yahoo! at one point to join their mobile team. That didn’t work out,” said Elgena, who operates at Pipeline, a shared work space in Miami’s Brickell financial district. “But there have a been a lot of inquiries.”
Successfully developing a mobile app is inexpensive because distribution costs are low. Downloadable mobile apps are just clicks away online at such shopping sites as the App Store that Apple operates. “The App Store has aided my success,” Elgena said. “It certainly has made it easier for me as an individual to distribute to a wide market.”
The worldwide number for mobile app downloads will reach 108 billion by 2017, compared to 60.1 billion last year and 29.5 billion in 2011, according to a new study by Sweden-based telecom consulting firm Berg Insight. The firm also forecast that Apple’s App Store will remain the No. 1 online source for mobile app downloads, followed by the No. 2 shopping site, Google Play, and Windows Phone Store in third place.