In classrooms across America, thousands of eighth, ninth and tenth grade students are using iPads. The tablet isn’t there to let them access games, or send text messages. They’re there to help the students boost their reading skills from a 5th grade level to that of their peer group through a personalized learning program – the first and only complete instructional solution built and delivered on the iPad.
It’s working. The program is already exceeding expectations, with early results indicating improvements of two or more grade levels in a single year of instruction.
That’s the kind of story John Arrow loves to tell. The CEO of Mutual Mobile in Austin lights up when he explains how his company worked with curriculum creators and school districts across the country (including two Austin Independent School District classrooms) to adapt literature to the iPad. The application allows for real-time communication between teacher and student devices, pushes content to student screens during instruction, and provides real-time alerts for teachers on student engagement and progress. Arrow thinks big. “It’s only 2,300 students so far,” he says. “It’s going to be going out to 25,000 students in the fall.”
The smiling, low-key Arrow is ideally poised to ride the crest of the mobile wave. He left the University of Texas in 2009 as a 21-year-old to start Mutual Mobile with two friends just as the field was starting to move. Now, at 25, he can point to Mutual Mobile’s explosive growth: revenues jumped 227.9 percent in 2010-11, and another 75.9 percent from 2011-12. Its clients include tech giants Google and Cisco, Zynga, the maker of Angry Birds and other mobile games, Jaguar Land Rover and Cigna.
His success has brought Arrow national recognition. In February, Forbes Magazine picked him as one of America’s Most Promising CEOs Under 35. Forbes also picked Mutual Mobile as one of America’s Most Promising Companies.
This happened while the mobile field was growing by leaps and bounds as well. Mobile ad revenues are expected to hit $11.4 billion this year worldwide, and will more than double to $24.5 billion in 2016. Much of that will come from big increases in the United States and Europe, which are predicted to close the gap with the Asia-Pacific countries that currently lead the way. According to Forrester Research, 106-million Americans will use mobile phones to access the Internet by 2014.
Amid such rapid growth, it might be tempting to push all manner of mobile applications onto the market. But Arrow takes a more cautious approach.
“There are many examples of brands that skip the strategy part of mobile and instead just dive into development and release apps to the store,” he said. “If you’re a financial services company or a big online store and you do that, the results are going to be horrible.”
Instead, Arrow recommends that clients begin with the end in mind. The point of mobile, he says, is to increase revenue or make employees more efficient. “Unless we can trace back the mobile solution to one of those two categories, we don’t start,” he said.
After talking to the client, it’s time to talk to the users – a step Arrow calls a “non-negotiable.”
“You can do online research or read white papers, but there is no substitute for real user research,” he said. “We won’t risk our clients’ reputation by trying to accomplish something without it.”
Arrow cited the example of an app for first responders. His mobile designers spent several weeks riding in the backs of ambulances. It was a chaotic environment. “We had someone who was on a gunshot wound call and we realized it’s very bumpy,” he said, “and if a paramedic made a mistake on a tablet, there was no way to go backwards once they put in the information. So, if you accidently put in a patient gender as male instead of female you have to be able to correct it because you risk errors.”
Companies can help that process by asking themselves important questions before jumping into mobile. Arrow recommends determining the friction points in an organization. They could be supply chain problems, or sales people not communicating clearly, or customer support.
A major telecom provider’s sales people had problems when making presentations to clients, because they were forced to flip through big three-ring binders to find the right information. That damaged their credibility, Arrow says. Mutual Mobile developed an app that lets sales people have more dynamic conversations with clients, do a better job of educating them, and sell more than they had anticipated. “The reason it worked is because we understood the incumbent workflow,” said Arrow. “You need to understand the faults in the incumbent to improve upon it.”
Once that mobile solution is in place, it’s time to publicize it. Arrow advises businesses not to concentrate on publicizing their mobile apps, but rather, fitting it seamlessly into an existing brand.
“You notice the customer is reading your newsletter every day on their computer,” he said. “Well, it might be more convenient for that customer to start reading it on the subway on the way to work, or on the bus. So sending that customer a very targeted email and saying, ‘Look, you can access this same content on the go,’ might be a way to engage the customer that’s more valuable to him or her. Because the last thing to want to do is alienate your customer by saying, ‘we have this new app – you should download it.’”
As a measure of the inroads mobile has made, Arrow notes it’s no longer considered a separate marketing budget item. A Gartner study says spending on mobile jumped from less than $10 million in 2009 to $500 million in 2010, and is projected to soar to $9.8 billion in 2014. “Mobile marketing is now part of traditional, interactive marketing,” Arrow said.
But the cautions companies not to concentrate solely on the app. “When you create an app, that’s a piece of software and ultimately it’s only as effective as its deployment,” he said. The mission, he continues, is less about the app and more about the whole eco-system.
A recent study by Forrester Research posits that companies must develop scalable approaches to mobile. It’s not just about phones anymore, but a mobile strategy must consider what’s beyond phones. For example, early mobile apps were developed separately for Android, iPhones, and Windows phones. But Arrow points out that those separate apps aren’t necessary anymore, because all that computational power is now parked in the cloud. Instead, he says, we have a “responsive web,” where the web acts like mobile and mobile acts like the web thanks to HTML 5, the fifth iteration of the markup language used to structure and present web content.
“If you look at the Mutual Mobile website,” he said, “it appears the same on an iPad, an Android, a desktop computer or any smart phone because it automatically morphs, in real time, based on the screen size. What we’ll see over the next year is every popular website redone with responsive technologies – it’s a no-brainer to go responsive.”
That leads to an environment where the user can choose what works best in a given situation – perhaps text messaging in one instance, or a Siri-like voice response in another. Arrow says it’s up to the consumer to decide what is needed.
History can provide a basis for what might happen if a company balks at getting into the mobile scene. Companies like Best Buy didn’t act quickly enough, Arrow says, and they’re suffering now as a result. The digital camera industry is hurting now from mobile, because the cameras in most cell phones are almost as good as stand alone digital cameras.
“It’s difficult to prophesize exactly what the costs of not playing are, but it looks like it’s going to be much more severe than what happened to companies that didn’t adopt the Internet,” Arrow said.
But once a company is established in the mobile space, it must work to maintain a level of trust with the customer. And that, says Arrow, is all about providing value. “People’s iPhones, Blackberries, Androids, are full of applications they’ve downloaded and used once,” he says.
“One way to keep up that connection is give the user a reason to open it.” The biggest problem, he maintains, is that a lot of apps are developed for a marketing campaign. “Campaigns have a shelf life, but real mobile solutions shouldn’t. They should keep providing value,” Arrow said.
One program Arrow hopes will keep providing value is the education initiative mentioned earlier. When students fall behind in reading, they’re in danger of dropping out of school. Text alone on an iPad screen is not engaging, Arrow says. Mutual Mobile worked
to develop a program that engages students.
“Before we did it we didn’t start coding and developing, we went to classrooms,” Arrow said. “We even created our own classroom of the future. It was a great experience bringing in students and instructors to show us what the learning experience looked like and what the limitations were to the learning process.”
From that experience, the designers realized how easy it is for students not to pay attention, and the teacher not to be aware of that. As part of the app, the teacher now has a master screen with a tab for each student in the class. The tabs show which students haven’t asked or answered a question, and which students aren’t turning the pages to follow along. The app is adaptive as well, meaning that it can see which students are struggling with their homework and can choose easier lessons. Arrow says that helps build their confidence.
It’s the right “ecosystem” that will deliver results, he adds. “By itself, the iPad isn’t going to do that much.” Reading was the first subject to be tackled, because it’s the most important, but Arrow hopes to move into math and science as well.
As might be expected for someone on the cutting edge of mobile communications, Arrow spends a lot of time on his smart phone. One of his favorite apps is one Mutual Mobile did not have a hand in creating, but plays an important role in his hobby, flying. It’s called ForeFlight Mobile, and it puts thousands of charts from around the world on his iPad. It has eliminated struggling with paper charts in the cockpit, and shows him in real time where he is, and delivers current weather conditions. “To me, this is indispensible and I don’t go flying without this now,” he said. “Even with all the advanced avionics in the plane, this is much easier.”
His favorite app Mutual Mobile created does something he didn’t expect to ever do – blend with a brick and mortar store. J. Hilburn, a custom clothing company, was concerned customers were put off by sales reps using clipboards and pencils. “Now, Arrow said, “it all happens on the iPad. You can browse the fabrics, take the measurements, and submit the order all at the same time, making a real world experience all that much better.”
But as he looks ahead, he sees things getting even more consumer-friendly. Instead of smart phones, think smart refrigerators. “They’re going to know when you put something into the refrigerator,” Arrow said. “There’s an NFC or QR code and as you use a product, it counts your depletion, so the next time you’re at the grocery store you get a little message that says, ‘Hey! You’re almost out of milk! Time to buy milk!’”
Or think about cars. We’ll be shocked at how soon we’ll be able to use a tablet to drive our cars, he said. “If you think about your car now, you sync your iPhone or you sync your Android when you get in via Bluetooth to listen to your music. It’s the next natural step to sync your navigation device and then your phone contacts.” On top of that, he predicts that sync-up will enable cars to drive better than humans.
The potential for mobile to disrupt the enterprise is even greater than the effect it’s had on the consumer, says Arrow. Employees, he says, don’t want to be tied to their desks. They want to be out meeting with customers, vendors. Mobile applications can move the computer off a person’s desk and onto their smart phone or tablet.
“Sales enablement is probably the easiest low-hanging fruit for the enterprise to really evolve,” Arrow said. “If I have a computer right there I’m not looking at the client, I’m looking at the computer. But if I have a tablet, I can show in real time this information that I couldn’t show previously.” The office, he adds, is going away.
And without meaning to get too “sci-fi” about it, Arrow says soon we’ll see mobile sync up with our world. We won’t need keys to enter buildings anymore. We won’t need to bring our wallets with us. Mobile will facilitate those transactions.
“It seems silly to me that we still need credit cards,” Arrow said, “and we still need cash and identification when we have way more information on our iPads and our iPhones.”
What will 2020 bring for your business? Join #TexasCEO Magazine on 2/20 for a lunch with internationally recognized geopolitical forecaster and strategist Dr. George Friedman. Tickets available now! eventbrite.com/e/global-forec…
Are you interested in being a #CEO? Join us for a two-day seminar in February on how to achieve—and excel in—the #CEO role. Early bird pricing is in effect, so register today! eventbrite.com/e/aspiring-ceo…