John Arrow of Mutual Mobile Leverages Tech for Good
How the ‘Dumbest iPhone App’ Led to 9 Years in Business and $200 Million in Revenue
Written by Tracy Wise
Photography by Leslie Hodge
Podcast interview by Dan Dillard
John Arrow is a man of many facets who is inspired and gratified by finding solutions to high-stakes problems. In his 20s, he founded Austin-based Mutual Mobile, an emerging technologies company specializing in visual design software and digital systems for real-world needs. For the past nine years, Arrow and Mutual Mobile have been working to provide benefits in diverse arenas including health, finance, education, and transportation.
While a student at The University of Texas at Austin, Arrow took what he refers to as “a buffet of courses,” switching his major many times—from economics to advertising, getting some computer science and sociology in the process, and finally leaving one course shy of a sociology degree. I’m pretty sure my parents think I graduated, so … we won’t tell them,” he confesses with a grin. In college, Arrow’s interests were broad but as-yet undefined. Joining the UT aviation community, John discovered a passion for flying and earned his pilot’s license as a freshman. It was also there that he met the four friends who would become co-founders of Mutual Mobile.
“As early as I can remember I had this entrepreneurial streak. It probably drove my parents crazy,” John muses. He was that kid going door to door selling different knickknacks and, in Austin’s hot summers, lemonade on the street corner. In the winter, the lemonade stand morphed into a hot chocolate stand. By his preteen years, John was experimenting with programming, which began paving the way to his future career path. And then, in 2007, a pivotal thing happened: Arrow sat in a dorm room and watched a recorded video of Steve Jobs announcing the iPhone. He recalls, “A lot of people at that time realized this was going to be a significant device. I think what made me and my co-founders really stand up and take notice is that we saw it as this inflection point, as significant as the internet or the wheel; that the world was going to be different afterwards. ... That was really the catalyst.” He wanted to participate in fostering and accelerating the change. “We didn't know what we didn't know at the time. We just knew that this was going to be incredible. We want it to be a part of it.”
The co-founders’ first project was an app named Hangtime, which used the phone’s accelerometer to measure how high a person could throw their iPhone. The app included a leaderboard for tracking and comparing achievements in throwing heights.
Arrow concedes, “This is as ridiculous as it sounds. This was not some amazing design or engineering feat. The reason that it was successful was because there were less than 100 apps in the app store. Today there are about 2 million. And so if you got your fancy new iPhone from the Apple store, the first thing that you did was to browse the app store, and we sold it for 99 cents. Before we knew it, we had tens of thousands of people downloading and using it, and its leaderboard kept rising. We'd see it go from about a half second to 1.1 seconds. A pretty high throw is only about 1.3 seconds. The people that were throwing their phones were getting into it.”
With a taste of success, they decided to turn their focus to building a real company and ignored the Hangtime scores for months. When someone eventually happened to check the leaderboard, there was an unbelievable score of 17 seconds. They suspected a hacking, but soon discovered a skydiver had utilized it during a jump. This unfortunately inspired a new game among skydivers: Who could wait the longest before opening the parachute. The scores kept rising before Apple pulled it from the store. It had become dangerous, which was not how they wanted to be known. “It was just a fun thing,” Arrow laughs. “It was a great way for my co-founders to get to know each other.” Though the app graces many a list of “the dumbest apps of all time,” it provided a rallying point for finding other people who were passionate about the technology, and from this venture Mutual Mobile was born.
Hangtime brought exposure and notoriety to Mutual Mobile, but the founders wanted to build a sustainable company that would solve more serious problems. They began brainstorming how software could improve the world. Healthcare seemed a natural starting point. “We learned in 2009, when we started the company, that seven times more people were dying every year due to medical errors than car accidents, and it was just a mind-boggling stat,” Arrow marvels. “I didn't have much exposure to healthcare, but I judged this to be a significant problem.”
He believed mobile technology could address the issue.
So Mutual Mobile dove in with “beginner's mind,” a nascent mindset, pondering how the iPhone could fix the troubling issue. The company realized that the problem was a “paper and pen workflow,” that with healthcare providers writing down information, there were ample opportunities for error. “Every so often somebody would get the wrong medication, or an order of magnitude more of a medication that would kill them. So unfortunate, in my mind, so preventable too.” In response, Mutual Mobile created an app that moved the patient information charts to the iPhone. With the new technology implemented in the hospitals, there were fewer medical errors.
Inspired, the company started looking at other high-stakes problems. In education, it worked to help keep kids with literacy problems in school by creating textbooks on the iPhone and iPad. In financial services, it designed apps to make banking easier for people. In the realm of fitness, it designed an app for Under Armour that encourages a healthier lifestyle. “The mindset was, not only how we can drive revenue for our customer and save them money but also how we can solve problems for the user that previously technology hasn't been able to solve.”
Having grown up in Austin, Arrow saw the effects of the dot-com boom and bust and realized he want to build a company that was not only sustainable but also profitable from day one. He was tempted to raise money for Mutual Mobile but feared that approach would split their efforts between satisfying investors and customers. They decided to let the customer be the investor; to fund a project, Mutual Mobile would pre-sell a concept to a company and only after purchase would it begin to build the app. He admits it was not always easy, but it forced them to be a different type of company than many of its competitors and allowed it to actually grow more quickly as a result.
Arrow is proud of his employees at Mutual Mobile; a highly specialized team of more than 200 in Austin and India, who bring diverse ideas and solutions to every problem. The group has completed apps for Google, Nike, Audi, Cisco, Disney, and many others. Currently Mutual Mobile is growing and experiencing one of its best quarters in years. Nine years into business, Mutual Mobile has reached $200 million revenue. Arrow says, “It hasn't always been an up-and-to-the-right journey. Just like with any company, there have been some dips and valleys along the way.” He chooses to view failure in a positive light. When something doesn’t work, he sees it as “a ground proof” of the need to go a different direction. Whether they have failed to win a new account or to hit some business objectives, they do a postmortem and learn how to improve. He believes it would be fascinating and helpful if businesses would share failure stories and that everyone would improve as a result.
While remaining focused on Mutual Mobile, Arrow follows other interests and passions as well. His philosophy has always been that it's important to have a lot of irons in the fire. He continues to be an avid pilot, prioritizing weekly flights to keep his skills sharp. He is fascinated by opportunities in the autonomous passenger-drone space. He’s excited about emerging technologies such as virtual and augmented reality that he believes will be bigger than mobile—like rocket ships for human progress and innovation. And true to his futuristic interests, he enthuses, “I love biotechnology and figuring out how we can eventually stop the aging process and live forever. I think it's almost here. It's a good thing. I don't know if I’ll have anything to do with it, but hopefully I will get to partake.”
Arrow is a true visionary with a strong commitment to humanitarian technology and digital advancement. Thriving in an environment of innovation, curiosity, and collaboration, he appreciates the culture of accessibility and sharing he finds here in Austin. He enjoys observing and learning from the users of his digital experiences. In that spirit, he extends an invitation to anyone who'd like to come play in their VR lab at Mutual Mobile, saying, “We'd love to have you here!”
To watch the vidcast with John Arrow, become a member of the Masters and Founders Facebook group. It's free to join!