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An $800,000 student-run business taps into the movement toward digital media
For ASU student Michael Moon and his business partner Quoc Bui, the idea was simple: make something useful and then give it away.
What started as a casual discussion last summer over the amount of revenue developers were generating through the Apple iTunes App store turned into a starting point that would lead the two self-described "tech-geeks" to become digital entrepreneur rock stars.
A little over a year removed from their first discussion, the pair have launched 22 free applications with over 20 million combined downloads, wrote a book about creating and selling apps, and grew their humble idea into an $800,000 business.
"The thought of creating an application and making it available for the world to use was enough to get us started," Bui said. "Making a few bucks off it was merely an afterthought, let alone creating a real life-changing business out of it."
After scouring the world of mobile applications, Moon and Bui were struck by a common denominator among all the choices users had to download.
"When the app store first started we noticed there weren't a lot of useful free applications out there," Bui said. "We saw this and knew that there would be a market."
Moon and Bui decided to fill the niche but would have to act fast. Recognizing the fast-paced nature of the industry, and acknowledging that neither one of them had any Apple programming experience, they hired developers to take their ideas and blueprints for useful applications and make them functional.
"Instead of spending months learning Objective C (programming code) we did what any efficient entrepreneur would do. We hired someone to build it for us," Bui said, calling it the single smartest decision they made.
Their most widely downloaded application is Convert Units for Free, a simple conversion calculator for units of measurement and more. Last December it was rated No. 3 out of all free iPhones apps available through iTunes, reaching over 100,000 users in a single day at its peak.
Other applications the team has put out include Crop for Free, a photo cropping tool, Record Video for Free and Find Sex Offenders Free, all available through their website Freetheapps.com.
The rapid addition of apps is indicative of the growth of the digital media field. Retha Hill, director of the New Media Innovation Lab at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, manages a program for students to explore that growth.
The lab is an interdisciplinary research and development program that brings together journalism, business, computer science and design students to create multimedia products for companies. The students work all semester on learning the newest technology and developing content for businesses.
“I think the biggest change (in the industry) is that it is moving toward mobile,” Hill said. “Almost everything we do now is a mobile application. What that has done is raise the stakes for the lab,” adding that the pursuit of innovative and entrepreneurial ideas remain key in staying ahead of the curve.
Moon echoed these remarks. "I think entrepreneurs are realizing it doesn't take millions in funding or a huge team to execute a good idea, and seeing this type of success is what drives people like us to make things happen."
After a year of pouring themselves into their business, the pair now only meet once a week for a couple hours to discuss future projects and spend a few more hours reviewing work and answering e-mails from their developers.
With all the knowledge they have collected and success they've found in their creativity and ingenuity, the team did something rare in the business world. They wrote a book on how to do exactly what they did, leaving nothing out and adding in every trick and tip that worked for them in hopes of inspiring more young entrepreneurs to give it a shot.
"In retrospect, we have barely dipped into the huge potential there is out there," Moon said.
Hill agreed. “There has been a push to be more innovative,” Hill said. “We just started to scratch the surface of what mobile can do.”
For over a year the lab has switched gears from normal web development to mobile application, an evolution that Hill said makes for an exciting time.
“Cronkite students are researching and gather any content that might be available, graphic design students are designing it, and then students are going back out and doing small focus group testing,” Hill said. “Once we think we have everything together, the computer science students are doing the back-end development of it.”
Students interested in engaging in digital media can take the lab for credit or seek part-time employment through various positions. Or, as Moon and Bui have done, reach out to form connections outside of the classroom to make their ideas happen.
Moon received his Bachelor's Degree in Computer Science Engineering from UC Davis in 2005. He is currently an MBA candidate at the W.P. Carey School of Business.
Bui graduated from the University of California, San Diego in 2005 with a Bachelor's Degree in Computer Science Engineering, along with one in Electrical Engineering.
Submitted by Kyle Patton, writer, Office of University Initiatives