By Tom Ballard, Director of Innovation and Entrepreneurial Initiatives, Pershing Yoakley & Associates, P.C.
He’s neither a programmer nor a designer, yet this Knoxvillian, who has an M.A. in English from the University of Tennessee’s Knoxville campus, has managed to find a significant niche in the app development sector.
The ways in which Austin Church has done it and the philosophical basis that he brings to his work provided for a fascinating interview over lunch at a local entrepreneurial gathering place – Panera Bread at Mercedes Place.
“You don’t have to be smartest guy in the room,” the owner of Bright Newt told us. “You can still make a difference if you can become great at calling greatness out of other people. I’m an idea and encouragement guy.”
Church is a Nashville native who moved to Knoxville for his graduate education. After graduating in 2008, he says “practical concerns kicked in.” He joined Morris Creative, only to face a layoff the next year during the economic downturn.
“By default, I started my own business,” Church said. “Why would I go out and look for another salaried position like mine if those jobs were disappearing?”
The obviously well-read entrepreneur talked about the “New Professionalism” and the fact that the world is not going back to the way it was.
“There is more stability long-term in creating your own livelihood,” Church believes. His work today includes marketing and creative services, as well as mobile app development – for others as well as himself.
“We do create apps for our clients, but I will also have 20 of my own apps in the App Store by the end of the year,” he says, adding that all but one are for Apple devices. They fall into a range of categories, from games and entertainment to reference and utility apps. Church currently has five apps in development.
“Apps that fail don’t have a hungry crowd and don’t tell a good story,” he explained, using the hungry crowd term as a euphemism for an unmet need.
His first app – Mustache Bash – offers, according to one reviewer, “A simple way to transform yours or someone else’s face into something more glorious: a face with a mustache.” It has been downloaded more than 665,000 times and recently released its fourth version.
As far as custom development for clients, Church cited “Gluten Free Shopping Scanner,” an app Bright Newt created for Lacy Wright, a registered dietitian, to help those shopping for gluten-free items in grocery stories.
Midway through our conversation, Church again displayed his philosophical side, using gold prospecting to make a point, and talking about ways to disrupt the live music industry.
Church compared the mobile app business to gold prospecting. “Who makes the most money in a gold rush?” he asked, before going on to say that it was the people who sold the tools that the prospectors used. To that end, Bright Newt is now licensing source code to other developers.
Another area of interest for Bright Newt is Closeup, a tech start-up that aims “to democratize live music.”
Church described the current challenge that many musicians, particularly those who are not international stars, face when trying to book tours.
“They may have a huge following on social media, but barely break even when they play live shows,” Church says. “The music industry is broken.”
He shared a story from his business partner and Closeup co-founder, Nathan Fray, whose band, United Pursuit, sold 400 tickets to a show at $25 per ticket. Unfortunately, after the promoters took their cut, the members of United Pursuit walked away empty-handed.
The Closeup web app will remove these middlemen and gatekeepers – that is, promoters and booking agents – and enable fans to promote and host artists they love. It will also allow artists to schedule their own tours, working directly with fans in various cities.
“They (the artists) will even know how many t-shirts to bring and what sizes,” Church says.
He believes Closeup could be a game-changer for musicians, because it will turn smaller live venues, even the homes of individuals, into viable moneymaking options.
Church describes the app development business today as equivalent to “the wild, wild West.” The well-read and philosophical founder of Bright Newt clearly understands the historical comparison he is making and the opportunities that the untamed frontier offers focused entrepreneurial pioneers.