Josiah Humphrey & Appster: the startup that grew from $3000 to 350 employees

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Josiah Humphrey is the co-CEO and Founder of Appster, an app development agency that helps fellow tech entrepreneurs execute their ideas, and bring them to market.

Appster is no ordinary startup. In its four years of operation, it has grown from a two-man show – led by Josiah and co-founder Mark McDonald – to having over 350 employees across three continents. All done without any external investors.

Advance caught up with Josiah to find out what it takes to be a successful entrepreneur, and what elements of “Australianism” are alive and well in the company.

Interview by Molly O'Brien, Marketing and Communications Specialist, Advance

Appster was founded in Melbourne in 2011 with just AUD$3,000, and now the company has now grown to having over 350 staff worldwide. Was there any specific moment throughout your journey where you thought you had “made it”?

Mark and I tend to err on the side of extreme – even now, after years of doing what we’ve been doing, we still don’t think we’ve “made it” so to speak. In fact, I still very much think we’re just scratching the surface, it truly feels like we’ve barely even started.

Sure – and it’s that mentality that makes you the successful entrepreneurs you are – but was there ever a point where you recognised that what you were doing transcended a hobby?

If there was a pinnacle moment – it was when we decided to pay ourselves a decent salary. We always taken the bootstrap approach when it came to making our business successful, and that meant saving every dollar we could. We did the typical startup thing of paying ourselves about $350 a week just to get by – we slept in the office, did everything we could to save money for about three years, until we were in a good enough position to treat ourselves a good wage. We run a very modest business operation.

What does it take to be a successful entrepreneur?

I like to adopt the ethos of one of my favourite books, Great By Choice by Jim Collins, where they look for companies that have outperformed their industry 10 to 1. For example, SXSW airlines adopt this business method – they outperform their competitors 100 to 1 on profitability. Microsoft outperformed their profitability 160 to 1! The key, consistent characteristics of these companies were that they adopted the element of “productive paranoia”. They were constantly innovating and constantly not being comfortable with their own status quo. If you look at the greats – Bill Gates, Steve Jobs – they definitely embody this attitude.

Is there anything you wish you knew when you started, that you know now?

If there was one thing that I could have told younger me, it would have been to get a good understanding of hiring and retaining great people. It’s the biggest competitive advantage in an organisation.

Appster generates ideas to help other entrepreneurs realise their dreams. Do you ever get stuck with finding the right ideas to help people?

It’s not that we generate the ideas per se; we more help the entrepreneurs with practical application to their pitches – we help flesh the idea out. We receive about 2000 ideas a month, where we then take the successful ones to a rapid concept workshop, to then look at what we’re building and develop a strategy that makes the idea better.

What does your day-to-day look like?

My co-founder Mark and I split a lot of our responsibilities up. I’m in sales and marketing, and he’s in product and delivery. Every day-to-day is different; we don’t have a typical working schedule. We also don’t really believe in building a five year plan, because in this industry, everything moves so quickly. We review our strategy every 90 days in a year.

You have no outside investors – is that an anomaly in the startup/tech world?

It definitely is in the United States – it’s a rare story. In Australia, it’s different, as there’s not as much funding available as there as there is in the US. But we were smart with how we spent money, every time we spent a dollar; we’d calculate how quickly we got it back. In theory, our investors have been our customers. They have been who have enabled us to grow.

How did it feel to be labelled as “the next Apple”? Is it flattering or does it add pressure? 

There’s been a lot of hype around that – it’s definitely flattering but we’re on very different pages. They’re a legendary company whose revenue was US$20bil last year. We’re conscious of being compared to other companies, because we’re the first Appster. We want to ultimately build a billion dollar company and it’s vital that we stay humble in order to do so.

What elements of your “Australianism” did you bring to Appster?

Admittedly, we “borrowed” a lot of the Atlassian values – particularly their “no BS” attitude. It is so important to us to have an open company no with no BS. That’s an Aussie approach, telling the truth, and it’s ruminated throughout our culture. When you’re growing quickly you have to give feedback constantly, and it’s very Australian to be upfront. It's interesting to compare this approach to counties such as India, where companies are very hierarchical, there’s almost too much respect for leaders. We are a breath of fresh air the way that we run things – and that’s an Aussie flair!

Does having a global outlook/perception of the world contribute to having a successful business?

It depends what you are trying to do. If you were running a boutique in Collingwood in Melbourne, it wouldn’t be that important to have a global outlook. But if you’re growing a global company and want to be a billion dollar company, you need to be attuned to what’s going on in the world. You need to be keyed into what are the changes that are happening in tech, or in your industry. There’s something to be said for local companies to understand some sort of perspective of that.

Are you constantly thinking of “what’s next?” or is that mentality damaging to what’s happening in the present? 

We’re always talking about growth; it’s something we consider on a daily basis. We’re developing our strategy to hopefully build an innovation hub for the greatest ideas in the world. We’re continually asking ourselves the questions that will contribute to sustainable long-term growth. Are we making the right decisions? It’s our mission in life is to figure this out. I’m sure we’ll get there.