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Interview with Alan Knitowski, Phunware

For our profile today, we talked with Austin-based Phunware (www.phunware.com), the mobile application developer behind such popular iPhone applications as the Discovery Channel's Mythbusters application. Alan Knitowski is CEO of the company, and a successful serial entrepreneur and investor. We spoke with Alan about the firm.

For folks who haven't heard of Phunware, tell us briefly about what you do?

Alan Knitowski: Phunware has positioned itself in enterprise, branded, infrastructure and experiences, specializing in the Fortune 1000, for the mobile distribution channel. We're very agnostic about platforms, and can support them all, though as you might suspect, the world first and foremost cares about Apple's iOS on the smart phone and tablet side. In close proximity, is Android on the smart phone side, and still to be determined on the tablet side. Most of our customers range from companies like Discovery Communications to companies across all areas of business and media. We're behind the Mythbuster application, and created Discovery Channel International's app in 139 countries outside of the U.S. We also support Discovery Education K-12, and handle applications for all of the parks in Orlando--Disney World, Universal, Epcot Center, Animal Kingdom, and so on. We've deployed more than 1.5 million mobile experiences for both large public and private customers-- to app stores like iTunes to corporate use in the enterprise. We're developed more than 50 titles, and have relationships with Apple, Amazon and Google to launch new platforms and products.

You've got lots of well known brands using your company--particularly Discovery Channel--how did that come about?

Alan Knitwoski: When we first started Phunware--the origin was fun with an "F"--we were developing applications which exhibited game-like mechanics. It was all about gamification of the user experience. We set up the whole business to focus on digitizing and gamifying digital assets. Much like Google has a goal of indexing the world's information, our goal was to gamify digital assets. Relative to how we won Discovery Channel, at the time, they wanted to create an app for the iPhone based on Mythbusters. They originally wanted to create a game, but we saw more opportunity. We approached it with the belief that you don't just create an application, you create an experience. At the time, that was against Apple's initial approach. Apple initially thought everything should be 99 cents for an application that performed a single task,very well. Our vision is that apps should provide engagement and entertainment, and that brands and companies should invest in a high-value touch point for the consumer, so that they would engage, spend time, and more importantly, spend money.

When we went to compete for the Discovery business, we competed against companies like Electronic Arts, JAMDAT and Digital Chocolate. They are very big companies, but we won because of what we gave them in our proposal—which was not what they asked for. We included three casual games based on Mythbusters episodes, but that was just one element of an entire branded experience we envisioned. Apple heard what Discovery was doing, and has since shifted their thinking about what a mobile experience encompasses. We were the only ones who pitched a proposal with an immersive experience, in a branded, mobile environment.

What do you think makes an engaging mobile application?

We start from a user perspective. You need to think about what the core value of that application is; it's utility, why a user would download it, and why they will come back, week over week, month over month, quarter over quarter, year over year. A lot of companies believed, with their first generation of mobile applications, that it was a box to check--that you need an application, and some brand extension. Usually, the budgets were very small. However, what we have found is, across all titles on iTunes, we are getting some of the highest rated applications from our portfolio. We've gotten to the top of categories like Travel, Entertainment, Lifestyle, and Education--from all different kinds of brands and sizes of companies; some free, some paid. We're using brandME, our proprietary framework which creates a mobile experience, rather than just an app or a feature. Creating that quality, especially for large brands, is critical. People understand what is good, and what is bad. Users are casting judgments about brands, and whether they are engaged appropriately, or if they are being insulted by the methodology of engagement.

Describe your framework?

Alan Knitowski: Our framework has five elements. One is a featured section: what's new, hot, and now about a brand. There's a community element, so users never have to leave the mobile app to interface with Facebook, Twitter, blogs, forums, and message boards. There's a media section which features more than short videos; we incorporate short and long form video, podcasts, photos, 24/7 radio broadcasting and more. We're supplying the apps for Fox 7 in Boston and Miami, and we have push- notices that go out with breaking news, so that users can click on a button and see a live, video telecast in real time. Users can also watch the 5 or 6 o'clock news live. There's a shipping element--so you can sell both digital and physical merchandise. We're also getting ready to add a daily deal offering. We're not trying to go up against Groupon or Living Social, but we have what most daily deal sites do not: absolutely millions of users who are tapped in. We can reach out and go to them with mobile applications for various brands. Finally, in the player engagement area--that core value and utility--we have things like wait times for Disney and Epcot center, dining information, tracking where users have parked and GPS locating for others in one's party. Leading companies must figure out what the core utility of their mobile application is. We believe that brands should not be going out on mobile without that vision. Companies must figure out their value set

Your personal background has most recently been as an investor, how did you find yourself back on the operations side?

Alan Knitowski: I suffer from serial entrepreneurships. I'm fortunate to have built and sold a bunch of companies with my CTO. One company went to Cisco, another to Level 3, and another to Internet Security Systems before IBM bought them. Those companies have been in everything from hard core, packet switching to Linux to security and antivirus. What mobile apps felt like, with all the time I've spent investing, and being an advisor and active investor, was back to the future. It's like when the narrowband to broadband migration took place or when packet switching took over from circuits. Whether it's in five years or 10 years, and emerging economies versus developed, mobile Internet is going to be bigger than the original Internet. I had the benefit of living in Silicon Valley from 1996 to 2001, and was in Southern California for seven years thereafter. It really is like the transition from circuit to packet based networks. We want to be the equivalent, getting a part of every dollar spent on branded, mobile experiences. That's what gets us out of bed in the morning, and why we wanted to approach this market. If you ask anyone who the leader in enterprise, branded mobile applications was, I don't think you'll find an answer;there isn't one. Our goal in life is to be that one.

Thanks, and good luck!