Almost every group of close friends has at least once in their life had the idea of opening a bar or a café together when they grow up. Christian Scherling and Martin Treiber (both 39) were no exception, but with their studies in Architecture and Computer Science it seemed that life had taken them on professional paths that couldn’t cross. Over 27 years after they became best friends, they have found a way to make good on their promise and cofounded IKANGAI together – a mobile app solutions company, whose flagship project – qonnect is beginning to redefine the communication between Austrian SMEs and their customers.
In short, qonnect allows customers to connect anonymously to places they like, decide what type of information they want to receive and keep all the details in one app, without cluttering their contact book. Business owners have the advantage of various forms of customer outreach in just three easy steps, without the cumbersome need to maintain CRM databases. Our product turns advertising a bit on its head, Martin says, “because now, you decide what you want to get and it isn’t as much advertisement anymore, it’s information you requested,” Christian elaborates.
A mobile blend of two worlds
Beyond the app, we wanted to have this wonderful idea and make it big.
Christian and Martin’s friendship is evident in the easy banter between them, the jokes they share and the way they jump in to finish the other’s sentence. But although seeing them work on a project together seems like the most natural thing now, it took them a while to find a path that blended their skills. Christian focused on Architecture in Graz, Paris, Vienna and Kyoto. He came back from Japan impressed with their work ethic, but burnt out by the constant strive for perfection and long work hours. In the meantime Martin had been focusing on Computer Science and an academic career, which, in Austria, according to Christian “doesn’t offer a great perspective, it’s horribly paid.” The time came when the two of them felt ready to do something independently but there was still the question of what could combine their skillset. “Then the mobile world came up – it connects the physical space and the digital space. It offered us the perfect place to work together,” Christian explains.
The two decided to start their company in 2009 and put a lot of thought in the name – IKANGAI is Japanese for “good idea” and Christian came up with it while looking for a good idea for a name starting with an i – to ride the Apple-set trend. They started off making an app that they offered for free on the App Store: “We started with the difficult stuff – data transfer and Bluetooth, so we don’t make our lives too easy,” Christian remembers. “We put some free apps on the App store, and suddenly some people started asking us to develop apps for them.” That first approach was a mistake, they now agree, mostly because they both wanted the apps to be perfect, and put in a lot of unpaid work to have it just so, while clients wanted them cheap and delivered as quickly aspossible. “At the end of the day, you need to pay your rent, so we decided that we wanted to have one big project rather than make apps for this and that person,” Christian says. “Beyond the app, we wanted to have this wonderful idea and make it big,” Martin explains.
The one big idea
Photo credit: Ikangai
Their initial idea was to do an ordering system, based on barcode scans, and they even presented it to McDonalds in Japan. They had investors lined up and then the big earthquake hit and priorities on the market shifted. “We had the program ready and actually it looks very similar to something McDonalds have running now, and when it came out a year ago, we thought, okay, wow this is interesting,” Christian says. They had filed for a patent in Japan which didn’t go through, but even if it had, protecting your patent is a costly and time-consuming process, Christian explains. “Another lesson learned,” Martin counts off, while Christian adds: “You have to be fast and grow fast, that’s the only way. Be the first one.”
Later, when they came up with the qonnect idea, they spend two years developing it, “running around trying to get the money and the financing,” as Christian puts it, before they launched in 2014. They have already secured financial support from aws and AplusB in Austria and were selected as one of 10 Austrian startups to travel to London for the Pitching Days initiative supported by the Wirtschaftskammer Österreich. Their latest success came at the end of 2014, when they were chosen as one of 18 companies, who won an Innovative Services Calls grant by aws – a serious financial push for the critical 2015. With business angels also on board, IKANGAI’s team has grown to 11 people, mostly freelancers. Comprised of experts on CRM, Text, Development, Motion Design and Robotics, the motley crew helps the two founders keep focused and on track. “Our two partners, Richard König and Nicholas Pöschl, have 20 years of background in CRM systems and they know how these things work,” Martin says. “They are the experts in that field. We had the idea, but you know, if they believe in it, it helps us believe in it too,” Christian adds. In addition, the two appreciate the mentorship they have received from the AplusB accent programme. With the support of everyone around them, including their families they managed to turn that one big idea into a finalized product now running as a public beta for iPhone users and soon to be available for Android.
“Actually, the basic idea is about the connection – the connection is the means and based on that, you can build everything. Loyalty is just an idea that is easy to sell to people,” Martin explains. “Like in architecture – good design is about how elements are connected,” Christian gives his two cents.
Presently, a connection is established through a QR code that is scanned with the qonnect app. It generates a virtual business card of a venue, such as a café, hairdresser, or restaurant, and keeps it in the qonnect app. Later on, the team is planning of rolling out other connection capabilities and introducing QR codes for people, brands and even specific products.
The user can decide exactly what information they want to receive from that venue – ranging from discount offers, through news, last minute vacancies and deals, or even the menu of the day. What sets it apart is the privacy of the connection. Data is decrypted and the only thing the venue learns is that they have one new happy customer who wants to receive certain types of information. Gender, age and name are all unknown, removing the need for maintaining personal data according to the strict Austrian laws. For the end user, there is the added convenience of having all the information from all the venues in one place rather than in separate apps. And, of course, the privacy: “Sometimes, it is quite convenient not to tell everyone on this planet through Facebook what you like. Sometimes it’s good to keep things private and personal,” Martin says.
Photo credit: Ikangai
But that hasn’t limited them significantly, because they see potential customers popping up in the most unexpected places – like a talk with a doctor on a plane. “Businesses are reacting better than we expected. For several reasons they like the idea of having anonymous customers,” Martin says, “What they care about is that they know 100 people like this and want to receive it. Your age is not so important, if you are willing to purchase their product,” Christian jumps in excitedly. “It is a permission mark, the business gets permission to talk to the client directly, it is the most valuable thing for them.” They already have over 50 commercial clients around Austria and more than 100,000 downloads, the latter being partly a result of their rebranding their initial QR scanner app to qonnect. Their public beta clients have even shown some initiative and came up with new ways to use the app for market research or as a ticketing platform. With a payment-per-interaction system in mind, the duo don’t mind any “hacks” users may come up with and are even spreading the news on the company blog.
Curiously enough, working together hasn’t driven the two apart and although being a CEO is a 15-hour-day job, they both love every bit of it and still take vacations together. And it looks like they are in for the long haul: “Beyond qonnect, which will keep us busy for the next couple of years we have enough ideas to keep us occupied for a while,” Martin says. “For the rest of our lives, probably,” Christian adds.
This story is brought to you in partnership with AplusB, a programme funded by FFG.