OpenChannel provides everything you need to create and manage your own app store, partner directory or plugin marketplace. Emma Bullen spoke to Head of Marketing, Michael Kovacs about how a change in career led him to co-founding a Toronto-based startup.
Emma Bullen: Tell me about your background. Where did you start out?
Michael Kovacs: I guess you could say my background is a bit unusual. I was a professional musician. As a kid, I started off playing with friends in our parent’s basements, and it went from there. We won a few battle of the bands, and we got some free studio time. There’d be someone in the studio who would say, “I like what you guys are doing, why don’t you come back and I’ll give you some more free time.” We needed a manager, the manager had contacts at a record label and we ended up signing a deal with Universal Music. We did that for a while. The part of the label that we worked with was based in Germany, but we recorded in Canada. Lots of our touring was done in Germany as well as the US and China. It was a super fun experience.
EB: How did you change your career path?
MK: As my time in the band came to an end, I went into finance, which was something that I’d always been interested in. So I did that for about four years, did a bunch of courses, wrote the exams and got a job. Part of why I was able to adapt is because I love to learn and since everything was new, the learning curve was straight up. At the beginning I was only paid hourly and by the time I drove to work, paid to park and grabbed lunch, I was probably losing money. The learning helped me stick around and after a while I was offered a better position helping one of the partners. Persistence really paid off.
EB: How did that change lead you to starting OpenChannel?
MK: About four years in, I was looking for a different job in finance, and I got together with a friend of mine, who is OpenChannel’s other founder. I had an idea at the time, which was a horrible idea for a startup and we didn’t go anywhere near it whatsoever. But he had an idea, which was the early beginnings of what we do now.
Because we were friends, we could get together for a drink and talk about it and I think that made it easy. It was an organic start. From there, we wanted to find a company to pay for it, so that there would be at least a market of one. At least then we could see if it works. And that’s how it started and one company led to another and then another… So that was how it started. I feel very fortunate, it didn’t feel like it was forced.
Part of why I was able to adapt is because I love to learn and since everything was new, the learning curve was straight up.
EB: Tell me about OpenChannel, how does it work?
MK: It’s a really easy way for a company to create their own app marketplace. There are companies who have that today and they’ve gone to the trouble of building their own, but it can take a lot of time and effort on the company’s part. So we provide a way for companies to get up and running quickly. What we’re able to do is help them create a good experience for their end users, while maintaining full control over what it looks like and how the users are able to use it..
Originally, it was a little bit more templated (we still offer this), but we found that companies wanted to have control so they can decide exactly what it looks like and exactly how it works. Design teams can use it and have full control, and they’re not constrained in any way, they’re able to use it totally how they want and inside whatever product or website they might have and we support it behind the scenes. Design teams like it because we don’t get in the way, engineering teams like it because they still have full control and we support them with the right tools. It was something we learned over time was really important.
EB: What are the advantages to me building my own market place as a product owner?
MK: An obvious advantage is revenue, a company can sell these different services. A company can choose to take a portion of this revenue for themselves; most people do. Another advantage is that you get all these cool things that add on to your product that you didn’t have to spend all this time building. So, for example, Shopify has an app store, SalesForce has an app store, so a customer will get a cool add on that fits their specific business, but the company didn’t have to build that. A company can offer a solution, the customer get something that fits their needs, and the third party developer gets to sell what they’ve built. It’s a situation where ‘everybody wins.’
EB: What are the benefits to doing it yourself v.s. publishing content in the App Store or Google Play?
MK: They’re not mutually exclusive. We have some customers that will list a lot of different things. Some are mobile apps that will send you to the App Store for you to download it, but some are web based that wouldn’t use the App store. So it’s not that it’s one or the other. It’s what suits the business best.
EB: What companies are seeing success using OpenChannel?
MK: Desire to Learn is a Canadian EdTechcompany. They have a great product being used all over the world, and they also have a great technology partner ecosystem. What support their “App Finder”, that helps a student or a teacher find the right solution that fits their need. making it easier to find all in one place. For us, it’s great to help any company that’s making a real difference in meaningful areas like educational, You’re helping people to build things that actually make a difference.
EB: What does the next year at OpenChannel look like for you?
MK: We just opened up a free online sign up and we’re really excited about it We’re building out a lot of support around this, so anyone can do it. We want small companies to be able to test it out. We want it to be easy, self-serve, wherever you are in the world.
EB: What’s it like working for a Canadian Tech Startup?
MK: We spent some time in California, which was great, but I love living in Toronto and I have no desire to be in any other city. Obviously the Valley is the centre for tech startups, but I feel like you can get some of the value by visiting, and not having to live there full time. I’m super proud that we’re a Canadian company and I have no intent to ever leave.
EB: How would you describe your company culture?
MK: It sounds simple, but reliability is really important for us. Doing what you say you’re going to do. If you say, “I’ll send you this,” or “I’ll be there at three,” send the thing, turn up when you say you’re going to. A lot of people are kinda flaky. We’re not fans of people who don’t follow through.
Another thing for us is focusing on progress not products. Sometimes that’s not using us, sometimes we say you’re not big enough for a market place, you should focus on something else. And you get better outcomes that way. A company will be more likely to succeed if they do choose to use us, it’s a better relationship because you’re given them honest advice.
When you ask for advice, everyone’s going to give you their opinion. It’s up to you to sift through and find your own.
EB: Are you currently hiring?
MK: We’re not looking at the moment, but when we do hire, we put a lot of effort into it. There’s no magic bullet for finding good people, you have to put a lot of focus on it. We’re through with references and we like to get to know someone well and find out what their base traits are before we hire. There are some things you can’t learn and that can’t be fixed and it’s important to spot any potential issues with a candidate early on.
EB: What’s the most useful piece of career advice you’ve ever been given?
MK: When you ask for advice, everyone’s going to give you their opinion. It’s up to you to sift through and find your own. It’s hard, but you have to weed out the signal from noise and find what’s valuable and what’s not. One thing I’ve always been told is “Don’t take advice from someone you wouldn’t trade places with.” I think that’s a great filter, but of course there are exceptions to that. People genuinely mean really well, but ultimately the responsibility is on you.
EB: What book do you most often recommend to friends?
MK: I find it’s less one book that I recommend to everybody, I’ll read a book and it’ll make me think of one person. I recently read Modern Monopolies by Alex Moazed and Nicholas L. Johnson, which is relevant to what we do and is a great business book in general. Another I’d recommend it Setting the Table by Danny Meyer, who is a successful restauranteur in New York. It’s about how hospitality in restaurants can translate to other business.