Ditching university for Appster stardom

With a new US office opening this month, the young app development start-up is making a mint off the business of commercialising great ideas.

Melbourne-based app development company Appster’s co-founder Mark McDonald is in the business of delivering a dose of reality to aspiring start-ups, and business has never been better for the 22-year old.

McDonald and his partner Josiah Humphrey are among the youngest, most successful entrepreneurs in Australia. Starting life as an online marketing outfit in 2011, with just $3000 to their names, McDonald and Humphrey have managed to turn Appster into a company on track to post almost $100 million in revenue by 2018.

With offices in Australia and India, Appster has now turned its attention to the US, with a New York office opening this month.

It’s an impressive effort for a couple of friends who decided to give university a miss -- Humphrey didn't even finish high school -- and dive straight into the hurly burly of the business world. So what’s Appster’s secret sauce, and can the company maintain its breakneck momentum?

McDonald says Appster is just getting started, and while his confidence may seem like the brash by-product of a world inhabited by Silicon Valley wunderkinds, he just might be onto something.

Appster is hoping to cash in on the next big wave of innovation, one that won’t be spawned by corporate-sponsored hackathons and government-funded R&D initiatives but from everyday people.

While Appster brands itself as an app development company, McDonald says it is a lot more than that.

“We are an ideas and execution company,” he says. “Building an app isn’t just about putting it on the App Store, it’s about solving a very real issue.”

McDonald and his team are hoping to latch onto that dynamic to help people with sound ideas develop their platform and get them to a stage where they are ready to make their pitch to investors.

Turning ideas into reality has nice ring to it but the aspirational bonhomie doesn’t last long, and McDonald says getting budding entrepreneurs to keep their eye on the ball isn’t easy.

“Start-ups are about ideas, but there’s also a lot of anxiety and lot of them get cold feet,” he says.

For many start-ups it’s not simply the gravity of the development task at hand that can prove daunting. Giving good ideas form is often an iterative process, requiring an willingness to adapt the model as new factors or information come into play.

McDonald says that many of his clients lose heart when things don’t go to plan -- and that’s where the real work is done.

“This stuff is hard,” he says, but adds that acknowledging one’s weaknesses can actually be a boon.

One factor working in Appster’s favour is the fact that McDonald and his team can draw inspiration from the company’s journey.

“When we started we didn’t know anything about hiring or finances or how we run an app developer,” McDonald says.

Appster’s secret sauce has a lot to do with selling that experience to an aspiring entrepreneur and creating a collaborative platform within which they can get their idea to a proof of concept stage as quickly as possible.

It’s a model that was worked internally for Appster as well. McDonald and Humphrey have managed to recruit a solid executive team, including Computershare veteran Martin Halford as CTO and former finance lead at iSelect Paul Cullinan as CFO.

“We crowdsource great ideas, put great people together,” says McDonald, who’s aiming to have a hand in developing a legion of innovative companies.

Doing that will of course require sitting through a lot of pitch meetings -- and that's something he’s still young enough to bear.

“The craziest idea we ever had was someone pitching to shoot lasers from an iPhone,” McDonald says.

It’s all part of a day’s work at Appster, and McDonald and his team are gearing up to hear a lot more ideas -- crazy or not.