Interview: Contrast – the guys behind Qwitter who have global ambitions

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You may not have heard of Contrast, but if you are on Twitter – and a lot of people are these days – you may well have heard of Qwitter, the little app that ignited controversy when it allowed you to see when someone unfollowed you on Twitter. Queue a heated debate on its contribution to the collapse of civilisation as we know it.

But there is a lot more up the sleeve of the company that created Qwitter. This Dublin-based startup developing Web apps both for companies and directly for users launched last year. The brainchild of Paul Campbell, David Rice and Eoghan McCabe – who were all freelance developers – now stretches to nine people spread between Dublin and Belfast in Northern Ireland – a fact which almost seems unremarkable these days, but which also just goes to show how times have changed.

So what’s their schtick? “In a sentence, we do anything related to web apps that is fun and/or profitable,” says ‘head dude’ Eoghan McCabe while we chatted at the Future of Web Apps Dublin conference today.

Why did they decide to create Contrast ?

“Because there was space for a company like ours. There needed to be a bit more going on in Ireland in the Web apps scene and we – among the other companies here – wanted to help give it a kick start. We also wanted to play amongst those companies that think globally, not just aiming at our home market” he says. That was one of the reasons they did Qwitter – to play at that ‘global web app’ level where it really doesn’t matter where you actually are, you can still use the app.

To that end McCabe doesn’t mince his words: “I’m not judging companies that want to aim at their home market – there’s a proven space there. But we want to be bloody successful on a global basis.”

The first projects they did were with Dot Mobi (Dublin based), Western Union and Vodafone. But lately they have been working with Comhaltas, a traditional Irish music organisation on their rich, digital archive of Irish music and cultural history. It’s handy then that David Rice had previously worked with a Silicon Valley company called HowCast which specialised in online video.

But, as I say, it was Qwitter which got them widespread attention.

As McCabe explains: “It’s a super simple app. It does very little but it had a big impact in the Twitter community. We’re admittedly not super comfortable with helping to make people a bit unloved when people unfollow them! But we made it for fun and because people wanted it. And it now as over 60,000 users and continues to grow. Qwitter was an opportunity for fun and a test of our skills. And basically, the buzz and kudos that Qwitter produced is what is responsible for our consulting busines now. Thanks to Qwitter we now have projections of cashflow going well into 2010.”

However, it’s not Qwitter which will be at the core of Contrast. It’s ‘money making’ application will be Exceptional (at GetExceptional.com). This SAAS tool for Rails developers now has 1,300 active users and is growing rapidly and has, after a fashion, helped put Ireland on the Rails ‘map’.

Says McCabe – who gave a well-received talk at FOWA Dublin about thinking unconventionally about web apps – “We’re spending the rest of the year rolling out a new interface and making contacts in other communities like .Net and PHP.”

So what does he foresee over the next couple of years? “It’s not going to be about the industries that have propped us up till now, like music, construction and media. Businesses will thrive in niches which deliver a clear value to customers. We believe in building businesses then building the app. Qwitter is ok because it was fun, but we knew before we built it that it wasn’t a business as such.”

And he’s realistic about the early-stage startup scene in Ireland: “Ireland is just like many European countries. Seed capital is often hard to come by. However, in the Web scene, it’s not that necessary. Startup costs will be small if you have a laptop and some mates to build something with. It worked with us and it can work for anyone – if they stay focused.”

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