Many successful entrepreneurs would relish the opportunity to show you an expensive set of wheels in the car park, but not Gospelware’s Michael Dunn.
The 30 year-old frequently commutes to the mobile developers’ Gateshead offices on a skateboard - and when it’s raining - there’s always the 10 year-old Fiesta his nan gave him.
Michael, along with co-founder Ryan Davies, has steadily built Gospelware into one of the most prominent names in digital mobile development across the North East - with more than a few awards in the bag to boot.
Michael, like many technology industry operators, developed a taste for the stuff through the Atari games revolution of the 1980s.
He explained: “I was an avid computer game player as a kid and it wasn’t until I was about 14 that I suddenly realised people make these things for a living - and they were doing it in my area.
“I was fortunate to know someone who worked for Mere Mortals (former Tyneside games firm) where I got some work experience. In amongst making tea and putting up shelves I got the chance to test playstation games and get to grips with a bit of coding.”
A set of A-Levels almost demolished by a few too many nights out were just enough to land Michael on the very first computer games engineering course at Northumbria University - where he was lectured by now Google innovation expert, Joe Faith.
Armed with specific coding skills he found a job with international games developers Kuju, in Sheffield, but quickly discovered this dream gig wasn’t all he thought it might be.
He said: “I immediately found out about the culture in the games industry at the time - and that’s one where you’re expected to put in 80 to 90 hours a week for no extra pay.
“Working with guys who hadn’t gone home for three days was odd. I wouldn’t say it was unenjoyable, but there are limits.”
Keeping his head down, Michael developed a specialism in user interface design. It served him well when redundancy came in 2009 during a period of consolidation in the games industry.
“At that point I didn’t know how much more of a life in games I could take. Churning and burning through games before being discarded seemed like no fun,” he said.
Fortunately, a shared connection at another North East games company led to Michael meeting user interface designer Ryan Davies. It was while the pair worked on freelance projects together that they hit upon the idea of smartphone games.
Michael explained: “Me and Ryan both had early smartphones, and realised there was scope to create games for these things. So we messed around without coming up with anything really serious. We needed a product to demonstrate our skills if we were going to tout ourselves as app developers - so we set about it.”
The result was an App called ‘Skiver’. The tongue-in-cheek tool was designed to raise a smile - catering for lazy workers by serving them up with an illness relevant to the number of days they wished to take off.
Michael and Ryan put together the quirky database using Wikipedia entries and an old nursing book. It quickly hit the headlines for its distinct lack of political correctness - prompting angry emails from business organisations and duped online news audiences.
It got them noticed.
The requests for app work began to filter in from regional businesses and larger corporates. The team grew to accommodate contracts with Channel 4, the BBC and the NHS. In addition to their own work Gospelware positioned themselves as the mobile app ‘arm’ of London agencies.
These days Gospelware are stationed at the top of Gateshead International Business Centre, in what must be one of the Tyneside’s very best offices for views. An inward flow of expertise to the team has broadened the firm’s scope to include a whole lot more besides the mobile development work.
Michael explained: “The expertise in the industry has changed significantly. Now universities are beginning to teach mobile development modules, so there’s graduates coming out with experience, which is great.
“At the same time our team has grown and we’ve got the expertise to do some really complex web applications. We’ve got a bit of a strap line now, which is ‘digital products with purpose’.”
With the quirky, throw-away app days behind him, Michael is now occupied by their functional benefit. Some agencies openly admit their sexy showcase products don’t make any money, and it’s the more run-of-the-mill work that pays the bills. Not Gospelware, Michael said.
“Everything we make has to benefit a human in some way. I’m not a fan of things sitting on shelves, so we’ve always got one eye on bits of tech that could potentially spin out of the company.
“I listened to the Leighton Group’s Paul Callaghan at Venturefest recently, and I really admire the way he has retained Leighton as a central point from which to develop other businesses. That said, we can’t be like Google and write-off 20% of our time, as that would hit our profits. Often the solution for us is working with the universities to bring in talent for specific projects.”
Michael talks enthusiastically about the North East technology scene and doesn’t pretend all the answers are to be found inside his own business.
Though his ear plugs and skateboard aren’t typical of the model business networker, you get the sense Michael really values his connections. Trips to the industry’s Mecca - South By Southwest (SXSW) festival - and Dublin’s ‘Web Summit’ - are key to building useful links in a world where agencies need to be agile.
“We have a well thought out and perfectly crafted sales strategy, which just doesn’t get used. All of our work comes through referrals. You go to events and never quite know who you meet. For instance, at SXSW I met a guy in a bar who ran a London marketing agency. That turned into a £30,000 project, which in turn led to work with Wonga,” Michael added.
A recent six-figure project with Newcastle University researchers MoveLab, in the preventative medicine sector, has been Gospelware’s biggest to contract date. Michael explained a potential move for the firm to Newcastle is not just about a change of scene, but a change in strategy aimed at winning more of this kind of work.
“It will be Gospelware 2.0. We’ve honed our areas of expertise down to health, life sciences and big data, and with those strengths, the plan is to win more of the sizeable work.
“These days I spend less and less of my time coding - in fact I’ve only written about two or three lines of code this year - but this direction for the business gives me a new opportunity to get stuck into that technical problem solving. That’s the stuff that satisfies a logical programming brain,” he smiled.
It is the emerging space between digital services and hardware - and the potential that holds - that continues to drive Michael’s fascination with technology. He points enthusiastically to a black, watch-like device on his wrist which has been recording his activity levels, including daily distance walked and quality of sleep. He reels off an idea - what if the data could be linked to the office vending machine? Without sufficient activity the wearer would be denied their afternoon Mars bar.
Such thinking is clearly only the tip of the creative iceberg for Gospelware, where they ambition is big, but clearly measured. Michael and Ryan spent much of the last year courting potential investors. No deals have transpired yet, but it has helped the pair reinforce their sense of place in the market.
Michael explained: “You see a lot of entrepreneurs who are after the ‘next big thing’ at all costs. That works for some, but we’ve developed Gospelware and we know where we want to take it.
“I’m really proud of where we’ve got to so far. What you see is a business that me and Ryan built from a bedroom, with a computer I bought with money borrowed from my grandma. We had zero connections but managed to cultivate a good reputation and win work that way.”