Ben Keighran was building websites before most of us had our first email address. He talks to Cameron Bayley about how a program developed to make his music mobile solved a problem, found a niche, and was the starting point for Bluepulse; a thriving business.
It’s not every day you’re the opening act for Microsoft. That’s the position Bluepulse founder Ben Keighran found himself in at the O’Reilly Emerging Telephony Conference in Silicon Valley earlier this year.
Keighran hadn’t attended the conference with the plan of addressing 500 top industry people, but the mobile phone technology he developed sparked so much interest he was asked to address the crowd before Microsoft went on stage. “That was pretty amazing. It was in the main ballroom, with about 500 people. And all the big industry people were there, from Yahoo to Google. It was very stressful,” he says, although he laughs about it now. “It was unbelievable, it opened up so many opportunities. We’ll hopefully have a presence over there pretty soon.”
This new entrepreneur is only 23, and his company, Bluepulse, is already four years old. “Bluepulse is basically my baby, my thing,” says Keighran. “I’m only young, so it’s been my life.” And as a fan of the internet since the very early days, receiving his first book on computer programming at the age of 10, it’s clear he really has been in the game for much of his life.
Like many great business founders, Keighran stumbled across his niche when he needed a solution to an immediate problem. After coming up with a program for his mobile to automatically download a music playlist from his computer, it wasn’t long before his friends wanted the program. But with their different handsets and carriers, it was almost impossible for one program to please everyone. “What I started thinking was, maybe we could try and develop a layer on top of all that so a developer could write a program once and have it immediately work on lots of phones on lots of networks anywhere in the world, and build a one-stop shop for consumers to access that content.”
The technology Keighran came up with, also called bluepulse, allows users to take their favourite computer content with them on their mobile. Customers select applications (called widgets) from the Bluepulse website, and download them to their mobile. Some come at a cost, others are free, and they offer everything from instant messaging to movie times. And you don’t need a top of the range handset to access bluepulse. It will work on almost any phone with internet access.
Seeing the massive success of BlackBerry, which blurs the distinction between mobile and computer, Keighran figured there was definitely a market out there for a product like bluepulse. “Over the last 30 years we’ve consumed entertainment and media through television and internet, and now we’re starting to consume entertainment and media through our mobile phones.”
He acknowledges that having a great idea doesn’t necessarily mean you can turn it into a business. “It’s been tough. You do a lot of learning very, very quickly.” One of the jobs Keighran had before launching Bluepulse gave him a taste for being in charge—as the print media company he was working for evolved into a web design business, Keighran’s responsibilities grew. “I very quickly learnt how to manage a small team when I was still a teenager. I was pushed into that very early, and I liked doing it.”
The Bluepulse team was built around his product, as Keighran enlisted the help of fellow programmers. He is now CEO, director, and controlling shareholder of a successful enterprise with a staff of 14. With the exception of one other staff member, he is the youngest in the business by about 10 years, which he finds a bit unnerving. “It is a challenge,” he admits, “being a young and inexperienced manager. Especially when it’s your idea, your project, your thing. It’s hard not to be a control freak a lot of the time.”
Surrounding himself with a good team, he says, has taken some of the pressure off. Having some senior staff with expertise in areas such as commercialisation and intellectual property has really helped. “There are some heavyweights. Halfway through last year the guys that were involved in bringing Yahoo to Australia in the late nineties joined this business, which is pretty exciting.”
Having older colleagues does come with its own particular challenges. “In some ways it can be hard because you feel that they’re running off in a direction that you don’t understand because they are just so much more experienced. So you’ve got to have a lot of trust there as well.”
Being taken seriously by other, older people in the industry has also taken time. “Once you get over those speed humps, it’s cruising from there,” he says, with unwavering optimism.
Keighran finds it hard to contain himself when talking about his ‘baby’, well pleased with its success so far. But he’s not forgetting that it hasn’t always been smooth sailing, especially when dealing with a product not everyone understands immediately. Having some mentors has helped, as has keeping his original goal in focus, particularly when things have been stressful.
There’s still plenty to do, as more businesses and developers launch widgets on the Bluepulse site, and the company’s infiltration of the US and European markets increases. “We see our product as a global product. We want developers to choose to use our product to take their internet service or content to the mobile,” he says, giving an unofficial Bluepulse mission statement. “We’ll continue to build the business and make it as big as possible.”
Such verve means Keighran has little time to dwell on the associated trials of running a business: the downtimes, the lack of weekends, and the 15-hour days. “At the end of the day, with a few scars and a few bruises here and there, I’m still here, everyone’s still here. Everyone’s having a great time working on the project, and I think we’re doing a really good job.”