Appetiser’s co-founders discuss building client relationships and getting to MVP

Appetiser‘s site lists three factors for app success: Technology, marketing and design. And while the Australian agency was recommended to TechCrunch via our our survey to identify software development partners for startups, it could just have well have come through our survey to recommend growth marketers, which you can answer here.

With a focus on designing, building and growing mobile and web apps, Appetiser’s co-founders Jamie Shostak and Michael MacRae were endorsed by several clients who worked with them from the earliest days of their projects. “Every startup has to start with an idea. And some of the best startups can come from people who experience the problem firsthand, even if they are not the most technical,” Shostak noted.

TradeNow, an Australian pay-later financing option for trade businesses and their customers, is one such customer. “The Appetiser team has developed great leading applications and also believed in the vision of TradeNow from the very start,” its founder Matt Brennan wrote. “We were able to develop a great working relationship early on and continue this along the journey.”

Fellow entrepreneur Andre Eikmeier praised the flexibility of Appetiser’s model. “We were able to use our CTO to lead a team of six devs from the Appetiser team, with occasional UX/UI, product management and project management as needed. It was properly collaborative, not a blackbox agency arrangement. So we were able to build capability in-house at the same time, rather than dependency.”

To find out more, we interviewed both Shostak and MacRae, in a discussion that went from prototyping to growth, and from MVP to design excellence.

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What’s Appetiser’s origin story?

Jamie Shostak: Back in 2017, I ran into a tall German guy at the coffee machine of a co-working space in Melbourne: Michael. He had apps with millions of users, and I was running a growth marketing agency. After getting to know each other, we discovered a mutual passion for building and growing tech products. We had some healthy debates and identified how we could help others with their own product’s success: Speed to market, data-driven insights, top-level quality and strong teams. And that’s how Appetiser was born.

What size is your team now, and how is it structured?

Michael MacRae: We have a team of 150 in Asia and 30 people in Australia. Our teams are built around efficiency: Small, client-embedded production squads comprising iOS, Android and back-end developers, as well as UX designers, product managers and QA/PM specialists. These squads work together in an agile environment and scale up or down based on the needs of the project. Appetiser itself is relatively flat, with a huge focus on data-driven decision-making via iterative testing.

One of your clients told TechCrunch that Appetiser is “the opposite of a blackbox.” What does that mean?

MacRae: The “Telephone Game” is a popular children’s game to teach us the consequences of messages traveling from person to person. Sadly, agencies love “shielding” their team of developers, testers and designers from clients by introducing layers. Simply put, we do the opposite. When we build your team at Appetiser, it will be your team! Join standups, ideate with your team, discuss challenges or even have one-on-ones. We replicated the structure of successful startups with in-house teams, and then we rebuilt it in an agency form.

Help TechCrunch find the best software consultants for startups.

Provide a recommendation in this quick survey and we’ll share the results with everybody.

Your site mentions that beyond designing and building apps, you are your clients’ “growth machine.” Can you explain?

MacRae: The vision for Appetiser was never to be an app development company. Instead, we think of ourselves as a product success agency. Simply put, we try to maximize the chances of a product becoming a success story. We measure how many of our apps become successful, how many users they’ve got, how much revenue they generate and how much money they raise.

Our entire team is held accountable to these success metrics, which means we do whatever it takes to help our clients get there. This may include design, development and growth, but often it’s also strategy, help with fundraising and more.

Why does your strategy require defining a minimum viable product (MVP)?

Shostak: We’ve spent years refining internal IP based on data to rapidly deliver reliable, high-quality products. We use this to help entrepreneurs get to market fast with an MVP.

MacRae: Defining that MVP comes down to creating real-world value but also emotionally detaching ourselves from nice-to-haves. They can always be added later! As a result, we reduce the amount of time and iteration cycles to find product-market fit. Our clients save time and money, which will be invested into growing their products. Our client Move With Us used this approach to cut development timelines in half, resulting in them gaining huge traction in both Australia and the U.S.

But before that, you do prototyping. Why?

Shostak: Whether you’re someone with an idea or a big business, we always start with a standalone design stage and interactive prototype. It allows us to visually scope out the project whilst building an industry leading front-end experience. In Steve Jobs’ words, we like to start with the user experience and [work backward to the technology].

This also acts as a great starting point to raise capital, get stakeholder buy-in or validate their idea before taking steps into full development. We’re extremely proud of clients like Good Empire and Vello that have been able to raise [funding] even before development.

Why do you value design quality?

MacRae: On the App Store, you’ve got seconds to convince a user to download your app. On the web, if you don’t convert a visitor within seconds, they’re gone forever. So at first, design excellence is a matter of understanding what users desire. This accelerates user acquisition. And once you’ve signed up your user, a strong user experience retains them.

We also believe that product design is not just a creative field; it’s a matter of performance: One design will always outperform the other. We try to centralize the learnings from all of our projects to design based on proven tactics to minimize risky assumptions.

How do you share knowledge internally?

MacRae: Appetiser has created more internal IP than a majority of agencies. This includes our baseplate; our gold standards to unify the team based on best practices, which a large portion of our team ongoingly investigates, tests and iterates upon; and our educational materials and courses.

For the latter, we established the Appetiser University. It has a growing curriculum of production-relevant topics such as standards, best practices and guidelines, and also covers topics like economics, CRO and data analysis. Appetiser employees even have weekly exams that ask them to apply their learnings.

What are some of your plans for the next year?

Shostak: With a remote-first culture, our plan was always to hire the best talent in the world. This started with a focus first on Asia Pacific. So far we’re in Davao, Cebu, Manila, Melbourne and Sydney. In 2022, we are looking to expand this across a few more continents [ … ] and you can expect to see us in the U.S. within the next 12 months.

In addition, starting in 2022 and beyond, we want to build our own startup community and platform, and expand that globally. From partnering with investors, crowdfunding platforms, lawyers and accountants to creating our own educational content. We want to enable startups to conquer international markets. And we’re also currently building an incubator called Appetiser Ventures, where we will help accelerate clients’ startups further and even potentially build some internally.