CS Interview: Alistair Crane

CS went to have a chat with Alistair Crane, the 26 year old CEO at Grapple. They are one of the UK’s leading Mobile app development agencies, described as ‘the public face of mobile’ following hosting ‘the app task’ in BBC’s The Apprentice 2011. The agency opened its doors in Soho in 2010 with just 5 employees, and in the space of just two years expanded to 85 globally with three offices.

Can you give us a quick introduction to Grapple?

Weʼre a business dedicated to commercially viable innovation. We team up with the Worlds largest brands and businesses to deliver commercial results using mobile technology. Our whole proposition is about building bigger business objectives for our clients, which can range from making more money to driving additional customer bases. For example; weʼre working with IBM at the moment. They print a number of different internal guides every year which are distributed globally. They want to start appealing to the younger demographic who are coming up through the ranks, therefore weʼve created a tablet version which automatically lowers the print and distribution bill, and also broadens their audience to a younger, more tech savvy community.

 

How did you get where you are today?

I left school at sixteen and managed to land a job at the Daily Express and OK Magazine. It gave me a first class education in sales and working in such a huge business machine that got an entire newspaper out everyday, I developed a fascination for process. After a few more jobs in press I accidently ended up being the third employee at a start-up called Blyk. They went on to do very well becoming one of the hottest mobile start-ups and were eventually folded into Orange. It was a simple proposition; a mobile network that was ad funded. Being in the demographic I thought it was a cool idea to get your calls paid for by receiving targeted adverts. I worked with agency sales, the interesting bit for me was that nine times out of ten the agencies didnʼt know much of the tech side and didnʼt care too much for the detail. This was my first insight that there was a gap in this space for technical detail, and for delivering based on objectives rather than just advertising space. After a short stint at Nokia I met my business partner Jamie True and the rest is history. We raised a small round of funding from family and friends, just enough to set up a website, get a couple of heads on board and start talking to clients. From month four the business started paying its own way and its been getting bigger ever since.

 

What has been the most difficult part of such rapid growth?

At the moment there are lots of fantastic digital agencies that we respect, but theyʼre not doing what we do in terms of being completely focused on the mobile space. Therefore there isnʼt a natural pool of talent that we can borrow and steal from. You have to get creative around the kinds of people that youʼre looking to attract. We use a selection of niche areas of expertise that we then amass together and coach through the mobile sector. Itʼs much easier than trying to find the very few suitable mobile people that are currently out there.

 

What do you think are the biggest challenges facing the mobile industry today?

Mass confusion around what return on investment really is. Thereʼs way to much talk about number of downloads, star ratings and reviews. They are important, any traceable PR for your brand is crucial, but its only one side of the story. Ultimately, I want to know what difference itʼs making on a financial basis, does it happen through sales? is it saving you money? are you being more efficient? Then what the interim points are; we donʼt just build consumer facing applications, we also build enterprise applications. That means it
could be helping you move your workforce around more efficiently, or helping you find new opportunities and new vacancies to fill for a lower cost and in a faster time. Unfortunately people just arenʼt thinking like that at the moment, theyʼre more interested in getting their star rating up in the App store. I guess itʼs a bit like web in the early days when everybody wanted more traffic to go through their sites. Now we know that the really successful players were the ones who leant themselves towards conversion of sale.

 

What has been your biggest learning throughout your career?

Itʼs way more dangerous to sit and do nothing than it is to try something, even if its wrong. Nothing in life is totally wrong, there is always a good you can take from it and apply to something else.

 

What’s the best piece of advice you have ever been given?

My father bought me a book by someone I idolise massively; Felix Dennis, it was called ʻHow to get richʼ and it is fantastic. Just above the forward my Dad wrote “Never regret the things youʼve done, only the things youʼve never done”. Thereʼs always a reason not to do something; start your own business, peruse an idea, whatever. There is only ever one reason why you will succeeded, and that is because you really want to. If you want it badly enough youʼll get it, and if you donʼt then somebody else will probably come along and do it better.

 

What is the most interesting thing you have seen recently?

It was a blog discussion about how you could take the wild success and credible concept of the Nike Fuel band, which is essentially digitising excerise, and apply it in a commercial environment. For example, what if everybody in Fedex wore a Fedex fuel band? what could you do with that data? It might be a little far fetched for where weʼre at now, but why not, it could be the future of efficiency and satisfaction. I thought that was a great question to pose. Another one was ʻwhatʼs the digital version of the happy meal toy?ʼ, next time youʼre in MacDonalds look around and see how many kids are playing with their parents phones. Someone needs to take the initiative and figure out what the mobile version of children’s entertainment is in restaurants.

 

If you could collaborate with anybody alive today on any project, who would it be?

Iʼd love to hang out with one of the Olympic gold medalists and talk about success. Iʼd ask them what it took to beat everyone else, I think you can could apply a lot of those learnings to business, they just manifest themselves in a different way. I really like Michael Johnson, the commentator. He was an incredible athlete and also a gentleman. Iʼd love to spend the day with him and ask questions about what it took to get him to where he is. Iʼd like to know about his dark moments, when everything looks like its going great and youʼre favorite to take the gold, how did he overcome any doubts and train his mind to stay positive? I think I could apply those learnings to what I do day to day.

 

What keeps you awake at night?

Talent acquisition, finding the right people.

 

If you could be somebody else, who would it be?

Sebastian Vettel. I love F1 and I have a huge amount of respect for him.

 

Who’s your favorite villain?
Magneto.

 

Who do you suspect of being an alien?

My business partner, because heʼs just not on this planet. Thereʼs something about him, it might be his incredibly manicured presence or the randomness that tumbles out his mouth, Iʼd defiantly start by screening him.

 

Where do you do your best thinking?
In the bath.

 

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