We're here in the Moscone West dining hall at WWDC with CEO Alykhan Jetha ("A.J.") to chat about his company, Marketcircle, Billings 3, which won an Apple Design Award this week, and how he came to live in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. This author has known A.J. for several years now, and it's always enlighening to get together at events like this and chat about what's going on in the world of Apple and Marketcircle.
Alykhan Jetha, CEO, Marketcircle
TMO: First off, I wanted to say congratulations on your win of an Apple Design Award (ADA) for Billings 3 this year.
AJ: Thank you very much. We were not expecting it. We were totally floored. And honored and quite happy. I don't think it's actually sunk in that we got the award yet.
TMO: Does Apple do anything after the fact? Or when you walk off the stage with the aluminum cube, is that the end of it?
AJ: No. What happens is, the cube is actually a blank cube. So after they give it to you, they take it back because then they're going to engrave it. And you have to sign paperwork, including the use of the ADA logo. They send an e-mail confirming the spelling of names. And then, later on, you get the engraved award -- along with the prizes -- in about three or four weeks.
TMO: How does Apple avoid tipping its hand that you've won?
AJ: They called us. Mentioned that the ADA is a big event, and we should consider attending. Discreetly asked if we were planning to attend. We said we were.
TMO: So what are you going to do with that beautiful aluminum cube? Build a glass trophy case for the lobby?
AJ: Actually, We've been talking about that. We have a bunch of awards, including that best of show at Macworld, a previous ADA, an Eddy ... and we just have them on a mantle at the office. So now, I think we're gonna do the glass case. We have enough awards now, so it wouldn't look lame. [Laughs]
TMO: You're in Toronto, right?
AJ: Yes, right on the north edge of the city.
TMO: How did you end up in Toronto? We're you always a Canadian citizen?
AJ: No. I was born in Africa, The Congo. Which was called Zaire back then. My family migrated as refugees, actually, to Canada in 1974.
TMO: How did you come to arrive in Canada instead of the U.S.?
AJ: What happened was that my family got expelled because we were foreigners.
TMO: How could you be foreigners in your own country?
AJ: Well, you see, because we're of [East] Indian descent. So the government considered us foreigners. And so, even though I was born there, and my parents were born there, we got expelled. And so we had to go somewhere.
My father believed that Canada was the best place to go. And that's how we ended up there. We could have ended up in the U.K. also. I don't think the United States was accepting refugees of that type at that time. So between Canada and the U.K and a few other countries, it turned out that my father picked Canada.
TMO: It has to be a really uncomfortable feeling -- being thrown out of a country you and your parents were born in... anyway, I assume you're planning on staying there forever now?
AJ: You know, the beauty of Canada -- and I travel a lot because Marketcircle is growing, so I see a lot of other countries -- is that in Canada we have a good balance between some social aspects versus capitalism. Unlike some other countries where they have super high taxes and it's very socialistic.
AJ: That's an example. There are other countries in Europe like that. On the flip side, in the U.S., there's much less of that. But in Canada we have a good mix. We have opportunities [for businessmen] but we also have a net for people in terms of health care. In that sense, Canada has that great balance, and I'm quite happy there. What I don't like is the weather... that's a different story.
TMO: Is it cold and snowy in Toronto?
AJ: Well, it can get cold and snowy. Interestingly enough, when I was a kid, I remember much more snow - and much colder. But recently, it's hasn't been too bad.
TMO: Do you have any trouble getting the talent that you need?
AJ: No, not at all. In fact, what happens is that because we are in Canada, and there aren't too many other Mac companies there, the people who do want to do Mac development end up calling us.
TMO: Do you have any observations about the business tax climate there? As opposed to the U.S. Are you less heavily taxed?
AJ: I would say we're very fairly taxed. In Ontario, I think we have one of the better tax rates. It changes based on the size of the company, though, and the nature of the work. In our company, we do a lot of research and development, so the situation turns out to be quite favorable.
TMO: Okay, moving on. The last time we met, we talked about how Daylite was built for internal use, then it became so good, it was sensible to commercialize it. And yet, there were still some elements missing, so that led to the Billings series to help a small work group bill its customers. And then the iPhone app for Daylite, Daylite Touch also became a natural extension. Do you see more components coming along those lines?
AJ: Yes, we do. I'd rather not talk about them just yet, because we haven't finalized them. But in the short term, I can tell you that we have an iPhone version of Billings coming along.
TMO: That's a great idea. I can see how when you're out and about, meeting with a customer, you can just press a few buttons, and your time is accounted for.
AJ: And expenses and mileage! We were hoping to have it done sooner, but now our target is the second half of 2009. Hoping for August or September. And what's cool about it is that you'll be able to use it without the desktop companion. You'll be able to send out an invoice right from the iPhone. And you'll be able to synchronize with the desktop, and send out great looking invoices from the Mac if desired.
TMO: Very nice. How about if you buy just the iPhone version, then later want to dump everyting into the desktop version?
AJ: We're thinking about that, but there are some technical challenges there. We'll see.
TMO: Have you done anything more with that iPhone simulator lately?
AJ: Ah, iPhoney. No we haven't done much with that lately because the simulator that comes in the Apple Dev tools is a proper simulator. So we haven't seen a need to update that program anymore. Even so, we still get a lot of downloads, especially from Web developers who don't use the SDK.
TMO: Sure, and now that we can do screen shots on the iPhone and mail them to ourselves.... So tell us, when you're a developer, you attend WWDC technical sessions, look at code examples, debug in the labs and so on. What does a CEO like you do at WWDC?
AJ: So, over the years, my job has changed. In the beginning, I'd be in the technical sessions, learn the nitty gritty, but as the company has grown and my role has evolved, the bigger part of my job is networking. So I meet with Apple folks, I meet with other developers, I meet with the media such as yourselves. Build relationships. And you know, sometimes, there are bigger things that come out of those meetings. Sometimes, it's collaboration -- we meet developers who've faced similar technical challenges, and so sometimes we can help each other.
That networking and relationship building is really a key aspect of being here. At least at my stage. That's the big thing. For example, this year, we have ten engineers here. They're attending those sessions while I network.
TMO: [Twinkle in eyes] Are there smoke filled rooms at the hotels with scheming CEOs?
AJ: [Laughs] I've not seen any of those myself. But what happens is that there is a level of camaraderie and respect between owners of small companies who have similar challenges to us. So we talk. And there's a big difference between the single person shop and the two to ten size shop in the problems they face. We're at 26 employees now -- with about 11 engineers.
TMO: Privately held?
AJ: Yes. Also, it's my job to anticipate the issues we face in this economy. That resulted in Daylite Touch and Billings 3. So having some planning in place really helped us deal with the downward trend in the economy. Even so, we noticed that while the sales have been about the same, customers have been spending more time on the phone with us. Investigating. They're more cautious. More questions. Making sure. Even so, April  was our best sales month ever. But we had to plan for some rough water, and we've had to hustle. We're running fast in the background.
TMO: So we've heard about Toronto, a new iPhone app and dealing with the economy. Do you have any final remarks?
AJ: I continue to note that this is the year of mobility. I said that last year too. I think the platform is changing in the way people are using technology. And I think that presents a big opportunity for us.
TMO: Thank you AJ for taking the time to chat once again with The Mac Observer.