Employees are working back at Cortex eBusiness on a Wednesday night when a violent rainstorm swirls over the water from the Sydney CBD, then over the building on its way north. Cortex staff follow the storm from window to window before it heads into the distance, and within minutes, the sky is clear again as though nothing had happened.
For Cortex, the dot-com storm passed over in much the same way. A couple of young developers at Westpac saw an opportunity in online billing technology, began their own business, and before long became the Internet engine-room for one of Australia's largest retailers, plus a handful of other corporate clients. Cortex grew as the dot-com frenzy was in full swing, and has so far remained sheltered from the tech wreck that is wiping out many of its peers.
Cortex is best known for its involvement with TheSpot, a Web development house snapped up by David Jones when it made a second attempt at e-tailing. The department store giant hired Cortex, an old stablemate of TheSpot from its beginnings at the Australian Technology Park in Redfern, to rebuild the site in Java, abandoning the previous Microsoft architecture.
In an industry under constant flux where competitors appear, then vanish regularly, Cortex is one of a new breed of Web integrators. The company has not been as buffeted as the design-centric developers such as Spike and Zivo, but even back-end shops such as XT3 have cut staff to re-align with an increasingly cautious market. The key to Cortex's success, according to founding chief executive officer Peter Moore, is the company does not wish to be everything to everyone. Moore believes specialisation is the key to survival in the development market.
"There will soon be very few miscellaneous do-everything solution providers left," he says. "Our whole business plan is about being specific, having a broad range of capabilities available, but being focused in one particular area. My analogy is: why would you go to a GP instead of a specialist?"
Moore believes there are several challenges ahead for an application development industry that pitches to a market currently hampered by confusion and cynicism. From a management perspective, he has to match staffing with unpredictable work cycles. Accepting all work on offer could provide a reasonably consistent work pattern, but Moore, along with co-founder and CTO Tim Jordan, have made a commitment to staff to only take work that is challenging and interesting.
"The biggest challenge is differentiation," says Moore. "What makes us different from Backyard Bob's Web design on one side and PwC on the other? Application developers like Cortex are in a new category that is misunderstood by outsiders in a market chock-full of hype. It is very hard for many of our customers to fully come to grips with why it takes three months and a million dollars to develop something their teenage sons claim they could develop in a weekend."
Most of this confusion he attributes to a sales ethic in the Internet industry that promises the world but fails to deliver, forcing legitimate players to constantly reassure customers of the work's value.
"If I could wave a magic wand over the application development industry, I would give us a common language so that customers would have a better chance of understanding us," he says. "Then the low-end cowboys that promise the world and deliver crap can stop ruining opportunities for us."
Jordan is confident there is still strong potential for growth in the Australian market, and is anticipating a sales office in Singapore for expansion into the greater Asian region.
"There is a lot of opportunity in the Australian market at the moment," says Jordan. "The first priority of traditional companies was to get something up as fast as possible, but now they want to start doing some serious apps."
Moore and Jordan place a great deal of emphasis on providing staff, several of whom are older than the two founders put together, with the respect and challenges they would not receive anywhere else. And while the developers will be kept very busy, the two entrepreneurs are confident their team will still be able to enjoy the occasional beer at their bar, a gaming tournament on the couch or even occasional cricket, all within the comfort of the office.
"We've built an environment where we enjoy coming to work, where there is an equal place for productivity and fun," says Moore. "The development market may not be as hot today as 12 months ago, but good people are still very scarce and all integration companies are people businesses' - they rely on good people. If there's no fun, there's no success in the long-term." As for staff retention, Moore's strategy is simple: "Build them a bar."