‘Inbox’ founders discuss app startups, struggles
The public commonly perceives startup founders as people who work all night for months on end with ideas burning in their brains, putting together all the pieces of the puzzle before emerging from their basements with products good enough to expose to the world.
The founding team of “Inbox,” an enterprise-messaging app, is a real example of this notion. The team is comprised of Rutgers alumnus Maher Janajri, Emerson McIntyre and Hani Shabsigh.
The team met in March at the Startup Weekend competition in Madison, N.J. Startup Weekend is a global network that brings together entrepreneurs to empower local communities to launch startups in 54 hours, according to its website.
Shabsigh, the founder and chief technology officer of “Inbox,” left his secure job at Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu Limited more than three years ago to start a mobile game development company. He said entrepreneurship fascinates him.
When he pitched his idea for the mobile chat software to the Startup Weekend participants, he could not have expected what would happen next. Janajri, along with graphic designer McIntyre, joined forces with Shabsigh after being intrigued by the business idea.
“We won [Startup Weekend] on Sunday and pitched to the TechLaunch accelerator on Wednesday. By the following Saturday we found out that we got in the program and were receiving a $25,000 investment,” Janajri said.
TechLaunch is a business accelerator that provides seed-stage technology companies funding, mentorship, key services and exposure to qualified investors, according to its website.
Travis Kahn, the executive director of TechLaunch, did not expect the winning team to be as qualified as they were.
“TechLaunch originally got involved with Madison Startup Weekend as a marketing concept, offering the first place team at the competition an interview,” he said. “We thought the idea was innovative, but it was more that the team complimented one another and had the energy, despite being a five-day-old team at the time.”
The circumstances that led to the meeting make the story even richer, McIntyre said.
“I narrowly missed the New York Startup Weekend when it got sold out, so my girlfriend convinced me to apply for the Madison one,” he said. “I got a hotel room, but before the event began, I was already thinking about leaving. I even called my mom, but she told me to stay.”
Many teams sought after McIntyre, since he was one of the few designers at the Startup Weekend. His resume includes designing rapper Childish Gambino’s website.
“I had an idea, but it didn’t get picked,” McIntyre said. “I was reluctant to join Hani’s group, but obviously it ended up great.”
Janajri, a mentor at Startup Weekend, joined the team because he liked the initial concept and thought he could provide a unique perspective given his background.
He took a leave of absence from his position as a strategic consultant at Accenture to focus on “Inbox” and Startup Weekend.
“Inbox” began as chat software focused on privacy concerns, he said. While at Accenture, he recalled working on a project where the client bought the consulting team privacy screens for their computers.
The original plan was for the app to offer features such as the option to delete messages even after they have been received. That, along with the ability to hide messages in a conversation just by shaking the phone, is ideal for enterprise professionals handling sensitive information, he said.
Kahn believes the strength of the app’s team has enabled them to pivot their product to meet changing industry conditions.
After speaking with potential enterprise clients, Janajri realized the app would have to mature before it can become a viable enterprise tool.
“We needed to gain credibility in the consumer market first,” he said.
“Inbox” is now focused on consumers, retaining many of the privacy-centric features that Janajri wanted to add to an enterprise version. Despite that, “Inbox” does not yet offer group messaging, although it is a feature the team intends to add.
“We’ve focused on one-to-one conversations, but group conversation is something we’ve been asked about,” he said. “We want to fine-tune what we’re doing first, but then we’ll expand.”
Janajri said he is excited about the future of the industry.
“Last year, the growth of SMS, or text messaging, peaked, and that’s indicative of where the world of mobile messaging is heading,” he said. “You can gleamnthat SMS is tapering off and data messaging is booming. … There’s a huge opportunity for disruption.”
Kahn said “Inbox” has a bright future because the team focuses on the right goals. The team looks at week-to-week growth to see how their efforts make an impact.
While “Inbox” has not received any individual investments yet, he thinks they are not too far away.
“They could go viral at any point — the buzz is growing faster than they can even code, and that’s without the basic features existing yet,” he said. “People just love them.”