Jamaica-made web solutions at US$5k a pop...

JULIAN RICHARDSON Assistant Business Co-ordinator richardsonj@jamaicaobserver.com

Wednesday, August 07, 2013

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From the comfort of his home in Kingston, Marc Gayle builds minimum-feature, webbased products for clients all over the world. Gayle runs a self-described nearshore development shop, a label that he says cannot be applied to JGX Labs.


JGX Labs, founded by Google engineer JJ Geewax, with a mission to help local start-ups penetrate the global technology market, has been the centre of controversy recently in Jamaica’s small technology sector. A brouhaha was triggered when well-known local technology entrepreneur and commentator Ingrid Riley called the project "a hybrid of an incubator and a nearshore development shop" — in other words, accusing JGX of purporting to be something that it’s not, a 100 per cent incubator.


But Gayle, who describes both Riley and Geewax as "friends", shot down her assessment.
"While I agree with Ingrid on many things to do with the local tech industry, and I appreciate what she has done for the community over the years, her comments on JGX being a ‘hybrid of an incubator and a nearshore development shop’ are flat out wrong," said Gayle, who runs the aptly-named 5KMVP, which builds minimum viable products (MVPs) at US$5,000 ($506,000), or 5K a pop for clients seeking early-stage, web-based solutions.


"I, through 5KMVP, run a nearshore development shop. I build digital products for people in exchange for their hard currency. I get no equity, unless I negotiate that separately. I don’t participate in the upside," Gayle said.


He argued: "JGX Labs is the complete opposite. JGX Labs, in exchange for a minority stake in each company, gives them cash; provides them with a co-working space for a few months; gives them access to an attorney that takes care of all legal matters; gives them access to a resident designer, so they can focus on just doing coding; and also helps them with their business problems by helping get customers/partners — we saw the first fruit of that when Blaze Payment announced their deal with Tracks and Records."


Blaze runs a mobile payment tool through which clients can use web-enabled devices, such as a cellular phone, to make payments for products and receive cash electronically. It’s one of four locally owned companies already working with JGX, with an aim to start exporting software by the end of summer. Popular restaurant Tracks and Records has partnered with the technology company to facilitate a convenient way of payment for many of its customers.


Blaze founders — Jason Scott, Kevin Leyow, and Jonathan Cooper acknowledged recently that the payment system wasn’t the idea they had initially gone to JGX with. Geewax wasn’t quite impressed with their original plan to make a mobile application for music lovers and sent them back to the drawing board, they said.


While there’s no reason to believe that the final idea for Blaze Payment was not in fact that of the founders, Gayle reasoned that it’s a non-issue anyway, disputing a point raised by Riley. She alleged that most of the ideas that the start-ups at JGX are currently working on are Geewax’s, making the lab indeed a part incubator, part outsource dev shop.


Gayle, countering Riley’s argument, noted that the giving away of ideas is something that the best incubators in the world do. He made reference, like Geewax did, to popular incubator Y Combinator in Silicon Valley, which famously publishes a list of ideas they want to see start-ups tackle.


"Separate and apart from the fact that JGX Labs just has a minority stake in each company — and any exit/acquisition will likely reward the founders collectively more than it rewards JGX Labs and JJ, if you assume no further rounds of funding, the giving of ideas is actually a value-added," Gayle said.


"It lowers the barrier to entry for young founders. They don’t need to have a market-valid idea, especially since most of these guys are either still in school , or just out of school, and have probably never thought through the full business implications of the ideas they come up with. How will it generate revenue in a sustainable way?" he continued. "All they have to do is to be able to code, be intelligent, be determined and want to build something of value."


Gayle has been building web-based products for the past three to four years, but launched 5KMVP in September last year. The company, according to Gayle, specifically produces webbased products that have a minimum feature set that entities in a particular market would consider a viable earlystage solution.


"The most significant value that I provide is working with clients to determine exactly what problem they are trying to solve, based on a hypothesis they may have, and figuring out what webbased solution can be delivered to that market that validates the hypothesis," Gayle said.


"What this usually means is that after the client takes the MVP and validates it — or learns from potential customers — we can then do future phases of development to build on their learning," he explained.


5KMVP is currently working on three projects — two from the US (Texas and Boston) and one from Australia.


Gayle noted that he has always "loved’ technology and his long-term goal is to build products for himself. The tech entrepreneur, who studied Computer Science and Finance, has been among the committed players in Jamaica’s relatively underground technology sector for many years now. After returning to Jamaica from school in the US in 2009, he began working with a digital media startup that he formed a relationship with during his years in school. However, the financial crisis took a significant toll on the company, and it folded shortly after he moved back.


"So, I decided to just build a product for myself. I scratched my own itch," Gayle said, noting however that the product didn’t work because he was building a solution for a market that he didn’t know how to reach.


Those experiences led Gayle to set up 5KMVP.com  .


"So, I decided to start consulting and offering my product building skills to others. I experimented with a number of different approaches until I found one that really resonated with a market segment," Gayle said.


The venture required absolutely no money to get off the ground, as all he needed was a laptop and an internet connection to code and communicate. His years of experience, grit and determination to bring in projects, however, are critical intangibles, Gayle said.


What’s more, in an industry perfectly suited for it, his technology blog posts that show his expertise are his biggest marketing tool to get his name out in the global technology market. For instance, among Gayle’s followers on Twitter, is prominent tech billionare and owner of the Dallas Mavericks, Mark Cuban, who Gayle said began to follow him after one of his pieces on web programming languages in a high-profile tech blog called TechCrunch.


"Once most people come to me, it is usually after they have read something I have written — so they have a good sense of my understanding of the various issues that matter to them. It helps them evaluate competence before even reaching out. " he noted.


From there, it was just a matter of him finding a price point that worked for the market, he said.


"I experimented with 10K, 7K, 3K and 5K. 10K and 7K were too expensive for the market, and 3K was too cheap for me," Gayle said.


"All of my clients liked the 5K price point and, ever since I have been pushing it, I have seen a number of people using that 5K as a benchmark for the amount that people are willing to pay for an MVP."


The upshot is that 5KMVP has a growing international client base, which Gayle noted is critical for the Jamaican technology industry. It is to that end that he reiterates the importance of Geewax and the JGX project.


"I have been preaching to the local tech community for a few years, that we as participants of the burgeoning industry, should start to think global. There is no reason that we can’t live in Jamaica and sell to the rest of the world with just a laptop and Internet access," Gayle said.


"So what JJ is doing with JGX Labs, by both putting up his money, extending his significant coding, development expertise to help the founders improve their code and leveraging his network to help line up customers, is a huge validation of my message," he added.


Gayle revealed — "in the spirit of full disclosure" — that Geewax has invested in a soon-to-be-announced project of his. He reckons that this has enabled him to give an even fairer assessment of the Google engineer.

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