Entrepreneur John Arrow never dreamt of saying ‘no’ to clients when he and his two co-founders started digital agency, Mutual Mobile. The Austin-based business designs and engineers end-to-end digital experiences for customers and staff utilizing cutting edge technology. Today, clients include startups and Fortune 500 companies. But Arrow and his team have learned to take a disciplined approach to client strategy.
The trio started Mutual Mobile in 2009, towards the end of one of the worst financial crises in U.S. history. It may seem like bad timing but building a business in an economic downturn offers valuable lessons. “It wasn’t a good time to go out and get capital, so we thought we should be able to do this on our own from day one,” Arrow explains. “One of the best decisions we ever made as a company was not to take funding.”
The team knew that to win clients in a down market, they would have to stick to a simple mission; help a company generate revenue or save costs. That meant resisting the temptation to use the latest technology for the sake of it, or as a play to appear relevant, despite client demands. “The lessons we tried to take is – let’s figure out how to say no early on even if that means leaving money on the table,” Arrow says. “If it doesn’t improve the customer experience or benefit the business,” Arrow explains,” it’s useless.”
The team learned the hard way after producing a Virtual Reality (VR) project for Walmart simulating the future of shopping.
The imagined scenario is already out of date. “It was an extremely good reminder of not only making sure something makes sense now, but that there’s a timelessness to it,” Arrow says. “A lot of companies approach us wanting to do something with blockchain or NFT’s and we say no to a lot of that because it just doesn’t make sense with what they’re doing.”
Saying no to clients is something Arrow embraced in Mutual Mobile’s early days; even when it meant resigning 100 clients. At the time, enterprise mobility had just begun. Big budgets for experimentation were mostly limited large companies, rather than startups. For Mutual Mobile to grow, it had to stay focused on mobility tech.That meant resigning a vast number of clients as part of a strategic shift. “When we were starting, we had 150 clients and 150 employees. We resigned about 100 clients so we could focus on enterprise mobility and work with clients like Nike and Under Armour. Our revenue rose immediately.”
Mutual Mobile has worked on plenty of health tech projects, which also informed the company’s ethos. “We learned about the hippocratic oath; first do no harm and we try to apply that to all of the work we do,” Arrow says. He believes the integrity behind saying no builds trust with clients. For Mutual Mobile, it’s part of a sustainability strategy that includes clients who are aligned with their ethos and aren’t chasing the next shiny object. “The most neglected party is the user. We know how an interface can break your day if it’s not working properly. The mindset is, 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.”
That kind of focus has paid off. In 2013, Mutual Mobile sold a minority stake of the business to WPP and has more than 200 employees in Austin and Hyderabad, with plans to open a London office later this year.