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More Than Just Good Timing: A Q&A with Ben Kazez









Good food, cosmopolitan travel, and classical music. These are the keys to Ben Kazez's happiness. At least when the founder of Michigan's most prominent mobile app start-up, Mobiata, isn't cranking out code in his new office overlooking the window shoppers in Nickels Arcade.

The 20-something entrepreneur has developed a palate for some of the finer things early in his life. The son of a music professor and an amateur pianist, Kazez studies voice in his spare time with a University of Michigan doctoral student. His foodie roots trace back to high school where he first learned to cook fresh pasta. He traveled to Italy to see it made and then around the world for a more comprehensive point of view on international cuisine.
 
"I derive a lot of happiness from eating a good meal," Kazez says. "Food and music just have that impact on me in ways that not many other things can. Good food is kind of depressing to me and great food is really exciting. That's why I love to cook and when I do get to travel the most memorable thing is always what I am eating."
 
That statement makes a lot of sense when you consider where Kazez has chosen to live and aim the focus of his start-up. Literally a hop, skip and a jump from Kerrytown, he has those shops and the Farmer's Market to exploit. It's also a 15-minute walk to Mobiata's offices, creator of Flight Track, one of the first travel apps for the iPhone. Kazez parlayed the success of that app into a suite of travel-based apps for both Apple and Android.
 
Mobiata, acquired by Expedia last fall on its second birthday, now employs 18 people, including half a dozen in Ann Arbor. The rest are spread across the U.S., with a few regularly coming and going from the local office. Expedia is taking a hands off approach to Mobiata, letting it grow in  Ann Arbor (it's hiring mobile app engineers now) as a separate entity. Kazez, originally from southern Ohio, expects to continue to grow here, in the city where his friends live, his dad went to grad school, and where Mobiata started as a spare time project at TechArb.
 
"What I didn't know about Ann Arbor is that the University of Michigan is one of the five main places where Apple does its tech recruiting," Kazez says. "Microsoft and Google have a big recruiting presence here, too. I thought, this is a great source of talent. I could base myself in Boston or San Francisco and steal people from U-M or I could just go to Ann Arbor and work with them here."
 
Kazez recently sat down with Concentrate's Jon Zemke to talk mobile apps, food, and Ann Arbor over lattes from the Comet Coffee, right below Mobiata's office windows.
 
What are the necessary basics of starting a mobile app company?
 
You need a well-balanced team. I would say that's true to any start-up. It's really important to be frugal and have a lot of skills on the founding team.
 
How do you know whether you have a business vs a one-hit-wonder product?
 
Ultimately, it comes down to the financials and the money aspect. There is definitely a difference between having an app and having a business.
 
How do you leverage that initial success into a growing company?
 
It's really a matter of how you allocate those resources. One of the things we learned early on is we can do a lot with creating a suite of our own travel apps.
 
Is Mobiata a travel-app company or does its ethos go beyond that?
 
I see us as a mobile travel company. Anyone who uses one of our apps understands us as the company that makes their travel easier through iPhone and Android.
 
Leaving the safe confines of working for someone else to be your own boss is not an easy step. In fact, it's a leap of faith most people don't have the courage to make. What was that transition like for you?
 
It was kind of scary. At the time I was working for Ultralingua. It was founded by two professors at the college I attended, and I was the first engineer. I don't have a business degree, and early on I was wondering, 'Is the success I am seeing going to last a month?' After a few months it became really clear that it was doing really well, so I decided to take it up as a full-time thing.
 
Were there things you were afraid of then that make you scratch your head now?
 
I could have made the move sooner if I had wanted to.
 
Do you think slowly starting a business on the side is the best way to go or should people just dive in head first?
 
I have no experience diving in head first. There are some big benefits to taking it slowly. We didn't take any investor funding. We don't have any debt to worry about. That has been very freeing. We have been able to spend all of our time developing these products instead of putting together pitches or sorting through legal documents. That's a really time-consuming process. It really helped us move that much faster. It also meant that had Mobiata not worked out, it would have been a nice side project.
 
Mobiata had the good fortune of having both a great idea and great timing. If you could choose only one, which would it be?
 
(Answers authoritatively) I would pick the great idea. We're continuing to release applications that are totally new and they're doing well. In the world of apps, there are benefits to being the first app in a store of 500 apps as opposed to one of many in a store of 500,000 apps. Nonetheless, if any company is going to continue beyond those first couple of months at the app store you have to be successful at making a splash among half a million apps.
 
So is it safe to say that timing will get your foot in the door, but a great idea is what really takes you the distance?
 
Yeah. I would say that timing makes it easier but a great idea is what takes you the distance.
 
The app economy is being labeled as the latest new economy-based sector that will play a key role in reinventing Michigan's economy. Do you believe the hype?

 
I don't know. Only time will tell for sure. There has been a ton of movement around mobile, like Mobile Mondays and what's going on at the university. One of the great things about being here is that Elliot Soloway teaches mobile app development classes. Students love to take them.
 
How do we leverage those things so we can compete with other locales around the country?
 
It's a combination of a couple of things, like helping get new businesses off the ground with things like Ann Arbor SPARK and Tech Brewery. It's also a matter of connecting the people with these skills. Everyone is asking, 'How do you find the talent?' In this market it's harder to find the people.
 
People get nervous when they hear words like "acquisition" used when discussing the region's most promising start-ups, such as Mobiata. To many, "relocation" is the word that soon follows. Where does Michigan need to be as a state for those fears to be unfounded?
 
Those are common fears for any state. We are definitely not relocating.
 
But the people in states like California or Massachusetts don't get scared by an acquisition because there are always more start-ups and more jobs. They have a richer entrepreneurial ecosystem. Here in the Midwest, that's a frame of mind you have to deal with.
 
(Pauses) I would guess that people there are more used to the start-up lifecycle. It's just a fact of life. When people ask me, 'Are you relocating?' That's a valid question. I really like it here and I don't want to relocate.
 
You're not from here and you once held a job working for one of the most beloved brands in the world, Apple. And yet you ended up in Ann Arbor. How can we exploit the assets that attracted you to attract more talented young people?
 
I would ask the question, how can Ann Arbor be on the list of places for me to consider? To me that is almost a classic branding question. I didn't know TechArb was here until I got here. It's a matter of getting the word out about the resources that are here and how our entrepreneurial ecosystem is developing.
 
You're now on the other side of the table, trying to attract top talent in Ann Arbor for your business. What's one thing you wish this town would do that would make it more welcoming to your people?
 
It actually does a fairly good job. A lot of young people look for cultural aspects that are interesting. For me the classical music scene has been great here. It's more about getting the word out than the things that need to change.
 
You were one of the early presenters at A2 New Tech Meet-up (watch his original pitch here) and recently returned to tell the Mobiata story. How important are entrepreneurial events like this to building up Ann Arbor's tech and entrepreneurial ecosystems?
 
They are very important. It's a great way for new start-ups to find talent and new investors. It's a great way for start-up founders to gain presentation experience. Doing a start-up can be a bit of an isolationist sort of thing. When you get a bunch of entrepreneurs in a room it's like, 'Well, at least I am not alone.'
 
Sort of like an AA for entrepreneurs?
 
It is. I have been to these events and people are comparing them to AA, where they have the start-up addiction.
 
IPhones changed the cell phone game a few years ago, but today the growth rate for Android phones has eclipsed it. Could this trend spell the end of the iPhone's dominance in the smart phone market?
 
It doesn't spell the end quite yet. What iPhone has going for it is a really incredible user experience. Apple has gotten so many things right that its tough to beat.
 
Name at least one app that you can't live without?
 
Yelp! It provides excellent reviews of restaurants. I have discovered new places in Ann Arbor that are literally blocks away that I didn't realize were awesome.
 
Do you wish you had come up with it?
 
Given the food connection, maybe.
 
Jon Zemke is the News Editor for Concentrate and its sister publication Metromode. He is also the Managing Editor of SEMichiganStartup.com. He conducted and condensed this interview. His last feature was A Mighty Wind: Q&A with Jen Baird

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All photos by Doug Coombe

Photos:

Ben Kazez getting his fix at Comet Coffee in Nickels Arcade

Ben Kazez in Mobiata's Nickels Arcade offices

Ben with the Mobiata staff

Ben being interviewed by Jon Zemke

Ben at the interview

Ben working with the Mobiata staff

Ben in Nickels Arcade

Ben with a souvenir from the Metro Airport's L.C. Smith Terminal
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