By Jeff Ayres/The Clarion-Ledger
JACKSON — You might be hungry for a snack while watching Mississippi State University baseball in Starkville but don’t want to wait in line. You might need a large piece of equipment for a construction site. You might want to keep track of your spending and bank account information.
If so, there are apps for those, created by Mississippi residents and companies in an industry ripe for growth that could help the Magnolia State improve its standing as an area where technological innovation flourishes.
The mushrooming of mobile apps can help states like Mississippi better position themselves with the San Francisco Bay area or the Pacific Northwest that have more prolific technology growth, since the right app idea at the right time can come from here as much as anywhere else, says Tony Jeff, president of Innovate Mississippi, which promotes innovation- and tech-driven economic development.
“You broaden who can create and access content,” he says. “The technology available to someone in Mississippi is the same technology that’s available to someone in San Francisco or Boston.” And setting up an app-based enterprise can be much cheaper than a bricks-and-mortar operation, Jeff says.
He points to Ocean Springs-based SportSnax, founded by MSU graduates Eric Hill and Daniel Payne, as an example.
SportSnax, via a Web app, directs users to a website where they can place food and drink orders from their seats and have those items delivered to them. The service launched this spring at MSU’s Dudy Noble Field, and its creators not only want to bring it to MSU’s football and basketball venues but are in talks with three other Southeastern Conference schools about introducing the concept.
“Everything is going mobile, including concessions,” Hill said. “It’s all about keeping the fan in the game, and we’re looking to do that in the best way possible.” He says the service got off to a strong start at MSU baseball games, with an average delivery time of less than five minutes. A $1 convenience fee is assessed on each order. SportSnax enlisted Aramark, a major food-service provider to college campuses nationwide, to handle filling and delivering of orders.
Billy Holliday admits the heavy-construction industry doesn’t always embrace technology advances as readily as other industries. But he says the use of mobile devices is about equal to equipment digging into the earth at construction sites these days.
So, Richland’s Puckett Rents, the company where he is the corporate sales and operations manager, recently launched a free mobile app that allows contractors to view and rent equipment, send photos of any problems at a job site directly to the company for solutions and scan equipment specifications. The app, customized for the iPhone and iPad and available through Google Android, has gotten about 500 downloads so far.
“We wanted to be where our customers are at all the time, 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” Holliday said of the company that is the rental division of Jackson’s Puckett Machinery.
Jeff estimates roughly a third of the 42 competitors in Innovate Mississippi’s recent New Venture Challenge were promoting app-based business concepts. The top two finishers in the student division pitched apps for, respectively, chemical analysis for residential swimming pools and community-oriented chat rooms.
Ridgeland financial planner Nancy Anderson, meanwhile, has received national attention for her in-the-works Crazy Money app, which encourages sound budgeting and spending by creating “crazy accounts” where users set weekly or monthly limits for impulse or nonessential spending. Alarm sounds are emitted if those limits are exceeded, while those who stick to their budgets are rewarded with pop-up coupons.
Anderson’s concept was one of eight finalists last year in the U.S. Treasury Department’s My Money App Up competition and is a finalist in this month’s FinCapDev contest in San Francisco. Both competitions award the most innovative concepts for teaching money management and financial literacy.
The growing number of apps in Mississippi is being matched by homegrown companies that take people’s application concepts and build them into reality, Jeff says. He points to the Jackson area’s Texting Leader, which helped build the Puckett Rents app, and Sheena Allen Apps, which offers apps on everything from recording and storing financial transactions to creating mirror images of people in photos shared online.
Anderson is turning to Ridgeland’s OneTouchApp.com to turn Crazy Money into something tangible. She received a $5,000 grant from FinCapDev for that purpose.
“I know how to work an app like I can work a telephone, but I can’t make a telephone,” Anderson said.
OneTouch is designing mobile and native apps for a host of clients and recently launched an app for the city of Ridgeland designed to allow more direct communication between residents and city departments.
“Mississippi is full of people with great ideas, but it’s also full of great app developers,” says Joe Garner, a partner with OneTouchApps.
But that’s also true of long-established technology centers like California’s Silicon Valley, and those kinds of regions can more easily draw investors and other partners to make app-based businesses successful.
But Jeff says the creation of the Mississippi Angel Investor Network will set a firm foundation for app developers to get the financial support they need. The group of accredited investors reviews fund-raising presentations from companies seeking seed and growth capital. Jeff hopes the group, in turn, will draw in more investors who can balance years of experience and financial wisdom with being on the cutting edge of new technology.
Practical concerns will play a role in Mississippi’s homegrown app industry, too. Hill says infrastructure is essential if SportSnax is to be available at larger stadiums. He’s studying whether cell-tower service is adequate in the markets he’s targeting and ways to smoothly route orders so one or two vendors at a venue aren’t overrun with orders. Those details are important, he says, because ordering concessions is likely just the start of how people will use their mobile devices for sporting events.
“Over the next five years, we see everything being available (through an app) — tickets, merchandise,” Hill says.