If you love them, set them free

Mobile applications company adopts novel way to retain skilled staff

Like many other directors at New Zealand technology companies, Rod Macfarlane is worried about retaining his skilled developers in an increasingly competitive hiring market.

Earlier this year Computerworld spoke to several New Zealand IT recruitment firms about salary trends in the sector. The forecasts for the year were generally similar: rising salaries for non-telco IT workers, particularly for project managers and developers.

But Macfarlane has a strange method for combating attrition at his company: letting his workers go to create their own businesses.

Macfarlane is the co-founder of Macfarlane Engel & Associates, a development and investment company focused on producing mobile applications.

MEA’s first foray into the app scene was in 2007 well before the word ‘app’ had entered into popular vocabulary, and before Apple embraced native apps. Working on the then new iPod Touch, Macfarlane and his team created an HTML5 point-of-sale system used by restaurateurs.

The product did not do well.

“The market was just completely different to what it is now. We weren’t really resourced well enough to keep it going,” says Macfarlane.

It did however signal the direction the company was to take, and MEA now has a portfolio of over 50 mobile apps - mostly sold through the Apple App Store. The iSupr8 film app at one point sold 40 copies every minute, and was on the iTunes top app charts in several countries.

The team of 17 work from home or MEA’s offices in Auckland, Connecticut in the US, or the main development office in Hamilton.

In addition to developing its own IP, MEA microinvests in smaller development teams or companies in return for a stake in the company. In the past MEA developers have moved on to create their own startups, Macfarlane says this is approved of and almost encouraged at his organisation.

“At some point your devs are going to want more. Usually it’s not about the money but about opportunities. They want to work on a special project, or get more time with their family, or in some cases they want to start their own business,” says Macfarlane.

“Then you have to make the decision, do you want to completely lose them or still have their ideas and influence in the business?”

Two years ago two members of MEA’s internal dev team left to work on a photo management and geotagging tool called Snapr. Macfarlane say MEA now has an approximate 10 percent stake in the new company, with developers from both teams working closely together on related projects.

“One of our guiding principles is you have to let these developers work on the things they love,” says Macfarlane.

“When a developer is passionate about what they’re working on not only will they be more successful at it, but they’ll bring all sorts of crazy and innovative ideas that you may never have thought of.”

It is a matter of aligning personal and business interests, he adds.

“We have a great team of developers, but I guess most companies say that. What’s quite unique about ours is they are in essence self taught, especially with Objective-C. We want to keep them on board and helping us to create new exciting things, even if it means we lose them for a bit,” says Macfarlane.

Macfarlane says there are plenty of IT candidates in New Zealand, but what is lacking for the app development industry in particular are skilled mobile developers with Java and Objective-C skills.

MEA has a technology transfer arrangement with Waikato Univeristy to take on development interns over summer in order to pass on those skills to young developers whether they choose to work at MEA or not.

Macfarlane says more of this collaborative open training and employment is required in an industry better known for trying to keep things locked down.

Putting his money where his mouth is, Macfarlane has extended an invitation to any New Zealand startup looking to get their foot in the door in the US to use its base in New Haven free of charge.

“It’s good business Karma, and who knows maybe we’ll find some more great developers and investments from it,” says Macfarlane.

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