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The Rise Of Fueled Collective: Fine Clothes, Killer Apps and an Office That's Cooler Than Yours

Feb 20 2014, 1:07pm CST | by

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The Rise Of Fueled Collective: Fine Clothes, Killer Apps and an Office That's Cooler Than Yours
 
 

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The Rise Of Fueled Collective: Fine Clothes, Killer Apps and an Office That's Cooler Than Yours

App developer, Fueled, rose along with the trend toward mobile , now the New York-based digital collective is looking ahead to growth at home and overseas. (video below)

Rameet Chawla doesn’t look the part of a traditional banker—not from this century anyway: long, shiny black hair beneath a brown-banded fedora; his face covered in a wooly beard; a pinstriped blazer and coarse, baggy wool pants that don’t reach past his calves. Yet before he ventured out in 2007 to create what would ultimately become Fueled – his New York-based app development firm – Chawla worked as a risk assessor with Oppenheimer. It was his last stop in a finance career that had included stints at Merrill Lynch and Goldman Sachs.

“I finally realized finance in general is not my speed,” said Chawla, 31, reclining in one of Fueled’s nine conference rooms. Good thing he did. Today the company is forecasting $7 million in gross revenue this year – up from $5 million in 2013 – building sites and applications for companies like Porsche, Ducati, P&G, Discovery, Barney’s and Urban Daddy, plus a slew of startups . Fueled has offices in Chicago, London and Newcastle; with another possibly on the way in Asia. Its uber-swanky headquarters – a grand, top-level space in Manhattan’s SoHo district that mixes equal parts Victorian London and New York hep with a dash of Silicon Valley geek – is a coworking space, home to the majority of its 85 employees plus about 35 startups that pay $700 a month for a desk. As the company says, “it’s not an office, it’s a collective.”

But back in 2007, the Long Island-born, Florida-raised Chawla only knew that he loved tech, could write code, build websites and had a strange obsession with marketing. Taking a step toward advertising, he scored a client – the Miami International Wine Fair – becoming the event’s “tech guy” and marketing utility man, using designers and outside talent to help him. “I learned the technique of getting a client, finding the resources and being the person in the middle.”

Bored by the chore of searching for clients in the marketing game, Chawla traveled to Paris where he hoped to execute an idea for a technology-enabled concept retail store. “While I was there, about to launch – had my architect, had my lawyer, had my accountant, everything was set up, found the space, about to start – the recession hit.” His funding dwindled along with the economy as most of his capital was tied up in investments from his finance days. He left his retail dreams smoldering by the wayside and returned to the U.S. where he worked as a small-time web developer.

Searching for website-building talent to help him, Chawla noticed that anyone with any chops was insanely expensive. The pain point hit home. “I was on a journey to figure out a way to build custom, really cool websites at an economical price,” he says.

He began getting developer jobs from Craigslist, accruing connections among other developers and creating a team of five. Fueled’s executive creative director and founding partner, Tony Christos –  then a Chicago-based developer the company later enticed to join – brought the burgeoning firm its first job to create a mobile application in 2008. With the proliferation of the smartphone and the expected move away from Flash-powered websites, it became obvious to the team that mobile would be the next platform of note. It was also more interesting to work on.

But it was a space Chawla had no experience with. “I told my lead developer at the time, ‘listen, I want you to get as much experience on mobile as possible – I won’t have the time to do it – and then I want you to take all that experience and I want you to teach your team mobile.”

Trolling Craigslist for mobile development jobs in the early days yielded few hits so Flash still paid the bills, but the team gave preference to any they could find.  At the same time Chawla and Co. let it be known among their website clients that their focus was on the new platform and they should be first in mind for any work that needed to be done in that space.

“Being there in the right place at the right time—I think it’s always a culmination of chance plus either skill or some sort of passion,” says company director and chief strategist Ryan Matzner, who left Blue Fountain Media to join Fueled in late 2010. As Chawla was shifting his company over to mobile, Matzner was contemplating the new medium’s possibilities, discouraged by early hardware constraints like lack of GPS. “We saw all of these potential applications that we wanted to exist that couldn’t and didn’t because of those limitations and so that frustration, and that desire for these devices to be able to do more, turned out to be really spot on with where those capabilities actually went and then where businesses and startups and tech on mobile ended up going.”

Hiring is a constant mission, says Matzner, who is 29. The company has been able to grab developer talent through poaching from other firms and contacting the recipients of developer awards, but it’s not unheard of for personnel reach out to them. Many are attracted to the work and Fueled’s client base. “Developers like to solve puzzles and problems, that’s part of why they enjoy development.” The company’s New York base is a boon as well, for hiring and simple strategic access as the city is central in various fields. “New York is a hub for finance, fashion, for advertising.”

Developers also have a desire to work in the startup realm but that’s a risky field. Fueled, says Chawla, is a happy medium. “We have a stable company but you get to work with all of these different startups so you get to be exposed to the startup space and – even better than that – not just one, so you’re not working on just one project for two years, you actually get to work on multiple projects.”

Fueled has never taken capital and Chawla is the sole owner of the business. Ever the risk assessor, he’s made a point of avoiding the startup-strategy of assuming debt in order to grow, executing a traditional service business model. “I looked at the numbers and the chances of success were just so slim.” That said, about 70% of Fueled’s development business comes from startups. It recently began working in part for equity with some of them, generally about 15% of fees or 20% of costs—an experiment the team is hoping will soon fruit. “If something happens with a startup, we get some upside,” says Chawla.

Fueled’s expansion plans are ambitious and its growth strategy is aimed at Europe and south Asia. Confident that London could be the next big tech hub, the company wants to bring its “collective” concept there. Its Asian presence, so far, consists of one operative in Delhi, India, but in the future the company intends to build products for overseas clients there. Using the Berlin-based Rocket Internet as a rough model, the idea is to understand the south Asian market so other stateside companies don’t necessarily have to. “We want to be the guys that work with the startups here and potentially help them go into an international market and we see that international market being India,” says Chawla. “That’s one of our future plays—a year or two from now we want to be able to have the playbook on launching in India.”

Follow me on Twitter @KarstenStrauss

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