Following the launch of Windows Phone 7 in late 2010, Keith Patton found himself itching to play Words With Friends on Microsoft's new mobile operating system. Unable to find the software he wanted he did what all good developers do and built his own, a game called Alphajax.
At the time Patton was working as the technical director of Marker Studio, a New Zealand digital agency. Seeing the buzz his game had created (Microsoft eventually bought the publishing rights to Alphajax) and the business potential of the new OS, Patton launched the Marker Metro offshoot within Marker in 2011 – the world's first Windows app only agency. Patton is now the chief executive and majority shareholder of Metro, responsible for nine staff.
I talk to Patton about working inside of niches and his plans to expand the Metro to the US, Australia and beyond.
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(Keith Patton, chief executive of Marker Metro)
Is building Windows 8 / Windows Phone 8 apps a profitable venture?
There's no debt in the business. Jon [Beattie, the managing director of Marker Studio and shareholder in Metro] and I haven't had to put a single bit of money into the business, it's been profitable from since when it started.
Being niche for Windows apps has given us a very good reputation around the world, which brings us a lot of business.
Where are you seeing the biggest demand for Metro's services?
We're an export business with about three quarters of our clients from America, UK and Australia. Because we specialise so heavily we wouldn't be able to survive just doing Windows apps for New Zealand customers.
Are you then looking to expand the company beyond New Zealand?
We're definitely looking to replicate the success we've had here elsewhere ... definitely Australia and the US.
How far along are you with this plan?
A lot of the groundwork has already been done to establish the costs and logistics of setting up in the West Coast [US], that's where a lot of our customers already are. We want to have the American expansion running by the end of the year.
To start with it will be mostly be sales and technical advice, with the development work still being done from Auckland. Our goal isn't to be a Datacom or the like, churning out lots of things. The max size for [Metro] in New Zealand will be between 15 and 20, focusing on doing high quality work ... It will be the same overseas.
What are you looking for in the perfect team?
The most important thing is we don't say we're looking for just .NET developers [a Microsoft programming framework]. We want people with a history of loving Microsoft and Windows products who align their careers with a passion for development.
This is relatively rare in New Zealand. The cool hipster thing is Apple and shiny things, which isn't exactly reflective of Microsoft.
Generally we go for developers who have some proven app experience, even if that's just building apps on the side during their weekends. If we get a CV from a student who builds apps for fun versus a senior developer who doesn't have an interest in the area, we'd be much more excited about the student.
If all the hipsters are developing Apple apps, is it difficult to find Windows app developers in New Zealand?
There's definitely less people with the skills we need in New Zealand, but we hold a monthly or six-weekly Windows app meet up which has been a great way to find people in the community. We've found two of our team there in fact.
Is there a risk that by just looking for people with passions and skills for Microsoft products you're missing out on others with different (and valuable) ways of thinking?
They don't need to just love Microsoft. We focus on it but it's definitely not excluding others. We all love technology and it would be foolish of us not to keep an eye on the ecosystem of competition.
A lot of our work involves porting existing Android and iPhone apps and games to the Windows platform, we're often looking for people with Objective-C (iOS) and Java (Android) skills which cross over.
Similarly, is there a risk you're putting all your eggs in Microsoft's Windows 8 basket?
There's definitely a risk that the Windows ecosystem fails and if it does Marker Metro will not exist. But we don't see that as likely at all.
I believe in the strategy from Microsoft. Regardless of where we are at with [version one] of the ecosystem it will continue to grow and evolve. I think the converged and seamless mobile / desktop experience Microsoft brings to the table is what consumers want.
Finally, what advice would you give other app developers looking to take their work to the world?
The app store, as a distribution model, is a great way to get your name out there. If I made Alphajax as a web game or distributed it in another way, I wouldn't have had all these opportunities – and I may not have started Marker Metro.
The real story for me is you don't need to move to Australia or the US to do great things in technology. If you want you can do it from right here in New Zealand, you just need laser focus to become really good at one thing – at your niche.