Then and now: Doing a mobile startup in 1999 vs. 2013

For Ty Wang and Amitabh Sinha, co-founders of mobile startup WorkSpot, last year could have felt like déjà vu all over again.

Back in 1999 they founded EveryPath, a company that specialized in optimizing business process software for mobile devices. Fast forward 14 years, and the two are back at it again, founding Workspot last year, once again trying to solve the problem of enabling workers to use their mobile devices, while still giving IT some control.

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Remember the mobile landscape in 1999? There was no iPhone. Android didn't exist. Palm Pilots, Nokia, Ericsson and Sprint dominated the budding hardware market. Forget smartphones, there were barely even flip phones in 1999.

But there were early mobile devices that could provide limited functionality. Wang and Sinha recognized this opportunity and built a platform for connecting enterprise applications to these Palm Pilots and Windows CE devices. The software integrated with SAP and Oracle, and allowed task management applications to run basic features on the field devices.

The startup actually gained some traction in the pharmaceutical industry, allowing field workers to report back to the main office when certain tasks were complete, for example. But, the platform just seemed a little too ahead of its time, as the mobile devices at the time weren't optimized to run business applications and the mobile networks weren't up to par. "If one thing has changed, it's been the iPhone," Sinha says.

The company fizzled out in the early to mid-2000s, but Wang and Sinha's vision for the platform didn't. The business partners went their separate ways. Wang took a job at Oracle working on platform products, while Sinha became a vice president and general manager at Citrix, working on mobile delivery of applications.

After working with enterprise clients at their respective jobs and watching the growing mobile market explode in the enterprise, about 18 months ago Wang and Sinha realized that their original vision they had in 1999 could be applicable once again.

The mobile device management market is flawed still today, they believe. Users don't want to entrust their entire mobile devices to their IT department, but they also want to be able to use email or forward a document on their phones.

The duo co-founded Workspot last year, which provides a gateway for enterprise applications to run on an iOS tablet through a secure VPN connection. The app lets users keep control of their devices, while providing IT with capabilities to manage what applications are available to the end users through Workspot. Early customer reviews have Wang and Sinha optimistic and the company has received about $2 million in venture financing.

Getting back into the startup scene in 2013 is very different than in 1999, on a variety of fronts, they say. For one, Wang and Sinha believe they are wiser now. Sinha says he has two important takeaways: 1) Always focus on the end user and 2) Don't become dependent on big infrastructure updates to ensure the success of your company. Despite the fact mobile phones had not become ubiquitous yet in the early 2000s, that was not the problem for Everypath, Sinha says. The biggest problem was the speed of the wireless networks. Today, powerful 3G and 4G networks allow mobile devices to be powerful work stations.

Macro-economic conditions and the state of the venture capital market are a little different today too. In the booming late 1990s, VC money flowed freely. Companies also required large investments because they had to build up their own IT systems to support their projects. Startups were building data centers because programs and applications had to be run behind a firewall.

Today, Wang and Sinha are able to use public cloud computing resources from the likes of Amazon Web Services, almost eliminating the need to buy expensive hardware. Cloud computing  allows them to be more agile and to experiment with their services faster.

The mobile market is exploding now too. So many workers have mobile devices, which can unlock powerful productivity gains if they can use them for work purposes. But finding a balance between allowing the devices to be used while still giving companies control over their IT environments is a challenge.

Wang and Sinha have been thinking about that problem for a long time.

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