It’s every entrepreneur’s dream: start a business, build it into a market leader and sell it to a major global company.
And that is exactly what 35 year-old James Bott has managed to do. The co-founder of The ASO Co, the world’s largest app store optimisation (ASO) agency, Bott sold the business in 2018 to Jellyfish, a worldwide digital agency, just two and a half years after it launched.
Founded in 2016 with fellow former M&C Saatchi colleague Thomas Twigg, The ASO Co helps apps to succeed. App Store Optimisation is the knack of optimising an app’s organic search visibility and conversion rate. Put simply, “It’s all about getting people to see the app, and then download it,” says Bott, a Leeds-born, father of two. His clients include eBay, Facebook, Trainline, Spotify, Hotels.com and Pokémon GO. The ASO Co recently won Most Effective Search Campaign at the Effective Mobile Marketing Awards.
Bott, who is based in London, was the former global head of business development at M&C Saatchi Mobile when he realised that App Store Optimisation was very under catered for, somewhat surprising given the statistics: there are more than five billion mobile users in the world and, according to reports, AppStore consumer spending is set to rise by 92 percent to $157 billion (£120 billion) worldwide by 2022. More than 190 billion apps were downloaded in the first half of 2019, with 258 billion downloads expected in 2022 (data from App Annie).
“We looked at the market to partner with another agency but quickly realised there was a distinct lack of general understanding of how the App Stores worked,” recalls Bott.
Bott and Twigg invested £1,500 each, and a couple of months after launching they had their first big break: the chance to pitch for eBay. “We were up against eight other agencies. We thought we would give it a go but is it actually ever going to happen?
“I remember the call saying we’d got it. The deal was bigger than anticipated which meant we had revenue coming in very quickly and could start hiring almost immediately.” The 40-strong team are now based in Jellyfish’s London HQ in The Shard. So, Jellyfish? “We couldn’t believe it. It’s amazing.
“We hadn’t really planned to sell at that stage; we started getting interest from agencies in December 2017 but pushed it back.
“Jellyfish were the perfect partner for us,” says Bott, a patron of the charity Jewish Blind & Disabled. “Our agencies complement each other’s services, giving both sets of clients a broader and more comprehensive product range. They’re also lovely people.”
The ASO Co is fully boot-strapped – built up only from savings – and has “never taken a penny of investment”.
“Often people get praised for raising money but we have always been very proud of the fact that we actually make money. Many businesses raise to hire, but over-hiring can make or break a business, a risk we didn’t want to take.”
And then Bott knows a thing or two about start-ups, having previously started two: JewelleryBoxx.com, which quickly became one of the UK’s largest online jewellery retailers; the company was sold at the end of 2009, and the online music service CompareDownload, the world’s first price comparison website for ‘legal’ music downloads. But he soon realised that paying for downloads was on its way out and so he shut up shop.
He reflects: “Jewellery Boxx was right place right time but the way I ran that business was chaotic. With Compare Download, it was smoother, but easier because there were less moving parts.
“So when we set up The ASO Co I said to myself: ‘Right, this is going to be the most organised business on the planet.’ I had management accounts from day one. A lot of people that start businesses are quite unorganised which will affect its efficiency.”
Perhaps that is why some fail while others doing a similar thing succeed? “It’s having a real eye on the nitty gritty, and having a close understanding of, not just revenue, but profitability per client.
“There are fame and fortune clients. A fame client might be a Coca-Cola but they don’t spend a penny, and you might have a small start-up who has just raised a million quid and is paying £50,000 a month. It’s really important to know which clients are actually bringing money in. It’s very easy to over-service a big client, and it’s really hard to see that unless you understand exactly how the accounts are run.”
It is undeniable that the mobile app market is growing at a super-fast rate.
As of August 2019, 4.42 million apps were available between the Google Play Store and Apple’s App Store (data from Clearbridge). Some 700 million apps are downloaded per day (Tech Jury, Statista), with an estimated 800,000 apps are being built each year.
And while developer talent is high, creating an app is no easy feat – around 80-90 percent of mobile apps launched in the app stores are reportedly abandoned after a single use.
So what makes a successful one? “It has to give value,” says Bott, who used to attend the United Hebrew Congregation in Leeds (Shadwell Lane Synagogue), where his family are members.
“There are lots of apps that are trying to solve problems that aren’t there. If you look at the successful apps, they’re actually really simple but solve a massive problem: Uber – gets you from A to B; eBay – buy and sell goods; Deliveroo – food comes to your door… I think people try and reinvent the wheel but it’s about simplifying not complicating.”
Trainline is an app he really rates. “I use it five times a day. It’s phenomenal. A lot of people might just use it to check the trains but I guarantee that when it comes to buying a train ticket, they will use it.” Bott is doing his best to make sure of it.