From Dining Room to Downtown: Future Help Designs
Ask Christian Marcillo to define the guiding principal behind his Pontiac-based company, Future Help Designs, and his answer is swift and unequivocal.
"There's no problem making money," he says with a grin, "but if it's fun, that just makes it even better."
Which explains why the company, which specializes in the production of iPhone and android apps, has not only created a sophisticated tool for school psychologists, but has also developed three different games that appeal to kids--and kids at heart: PopPopPop! requires the participant to pop a sheet of bubble wrap, keeping score in a race against the clock. BeFree is a puzzle game, and BlinkWit! is a memory matching game.
All are mindless diversions... and the antithesis of iBAA, an abbreviation for the Behavioral Assessment App, which is designed to allow school psychologists do their jobs in a less intrusive manner.
"They stand in the back of the classroom and observe children," says Marcillo, "and if they use a computer or notebook to record their observations, every child in that class knows why they are there and they're going to be on their best behavior."
The iBAA solves that problem.
"Now they can just record their observations on an iPhone," he says. "How many times does Bobby tap his pencil to be disruptive? Or how many times does Susie ask to go the bathroom? There are more complicated behaviors than that but in essence that's what they are. And now with the app the kids don't know--are they sending an email or are they really observing the classroom?
"So they can actually collect data that's quantitative, how many times something happened, and that's incredibly valuable to them--to help identify what the kids are doing in school in general and to then modify that behavior."
Simplicity of use is an obsession for Marcillo and his team, whether the app is designed for a toddler or a PhD.
"What makes doing our mobile software design exciting," says Marcillo, "is we think about the user so well that if we have to write a manual on how to use the software, then we probably did something wrong."
Future Help Designs was launched three and half years ago by Marcillo, 37, the CEO and Director of Creative Design and his partner Glen Konopaskie, 43, the President and Director of Product Development. Both were frustrated and unfulfilled by their respective experiences in the corporate world.
"The focus was primarily we wanted to do something fun," says Marcillo. And they agreed the area of app development was ripe for exploration.
"Making apps is similar to the last boom we had with making websites," Marcillo says. "Everybody knew then they needed a website. Now they need an app. As consumers we are now saying don't just give me information about your business, give me a way to do something with it. That's the difference between what a website is versus an app. And that's what makes this a lucrative business.
"We sat in a room with 12 or 13 people," he continues, "and came up with different ideas of what we might want to do as an app. We thought we might come away with two or three, we ended up with about 64."
They whittled those down to what turned out to be PopPopPop!, Bee Free, and BlinkWit! and operated the company, which has 16 employees, as a home-based business until last summer.
"There were 13 cars in the driveway," says Marcillo with a laugh. "It got to be too much. The dining room table was covered."
Six months ago they moved into a 3,200 square-foot space in downtown Pontiac.
"We are a Results Oriented Work Environment [ROWE]," says Marcillo. "We don't have square walls; there are curves because it's all about collaboration. The chairs all have wheels so you can move around to different work stations."
Marcillo grew up in Dearborn Heights. Konopaskie is Canadian, a native of Sault Ste. Marie. So why Pontiac?
"There's a lot of incredible things happening in downtown Pontiac," says Marcillo, "and we knew we could be part of the community here. We can make the noise and be heard here in Pontiac. There's a lot of great things happening in downtown Detroit but we thought we might get lost in some of the noise in Detroit. And we've been able to open up opportunities for other start-ups because of what we're doing here in Pontiac to [counter] the high unemployment we have here."
To that end, Konopaskie is the president of the Downtown Business Association, and one-third of the office space of their company is what Marcillo describes as an incubator area, where local businesses can launch their ideas into actions.
"We believe in Michigan and we believe in keeping people here," says Marcillo. "When kids go to school and get IT degrees they usually have the sense they have to leave the state in order to get a job. But if we are able to keep mobile businesses here, then that's a reason to grow the state of Michigan and get people to stay or come back. Detroit is the third IT infrastructure in the country right now, behind Silicon Valley and Boston."
"In the past, mobile meant the automobile," he says, "but now mobile means the cell phone."
And it also means a seemingly endless array of app possibilities for Future Help Designs.
Tom Murray is Detroit-based writer and filmmaker. His most current project is his documentary film, "Dad's In Heaven With Nixon."