Travel App Developer Mobiata Finds the Correct Culture for Startup Innovation in Ann Arbor

Minneapolis, like other Midwestern cities, is used to losing technology startups to Silicon Valley. But when Ben Kazez packed up Mobiata, his company that develops mobile software apps for travelers, and made a kind of lateral move to Ann Arbor, MI, it made some in the Minnesota media do a double-take.

Now, a year after the move, Kazez stalks the long, covered hall of Nickels Arcade in the Kerrytown section of Ann Arbor, and has not looked back since. In fact, he’s just added two new engineers and could not be happier with his decision to move to Michigan. But before we talk about why he relocated his company, let’s first discuss what Mobiata does.

Mobiata develops smart phone apps for travelers. Its best-seller is FlightTrack, which has been an iPhone favorite since 2008. With FlightTrack, you can get things like real-time flight statuses, gates, and terminals around the world, and you can see the flight progress on a map (well, with an FAA-required five-minute delay). If you’re picking up someone at the airport, you can track them all in real time.

Kazez, 24, has a computer science degree and spent some time at Apple, working on its iCal application. There, he got to see how Apple approaches design and user interfaces. “I ended up leaving because I really was looking for something that would let me do more on user interface and design,” Kazez says. “That’s really my strength. That’s really what I enjoy.”

He also insists that everybody in his company, including the coders, also get excited about the end product—the point where all that hard engineering work reaches the hands of the user.

When a potential employee approaches Kazez, he is not impressed by the words, “I’m a brilliant coder.” What he wants to know is what is wrong with the current app design, and how are they going to make it better? He wants people who are into interaction design—the kind of people who open up an app and get very angry if a button doesn’t work.

 “I’m extremely picky. I’m not going to hire unless they’re brilliant and unless they actually have the right culture fit,” Kazez says. “We’re a culture of people who are really motivated by the end product rather than the process.”

It is in pursuit of those who share this “culture” that brings us to one of the main reasons why Kazez relocated to Ann Arbor. He knew that Apple, Facebook, Microsoft, and other big tech companies recruit from the University of Michigan, and that there is a great pool of talent among new and recent graduates.

One of the first Ann Arbor people he connected with was Jason Bornhorst, who in 2009 founded TechArb, a U-M student company business accelerator. Bornhorst joined the company and arranged for Mobiata to be housed, rent-free, at TechArb.

 “It’s working out way better than I could have ever imagined,” Kazez says. Here, he’s found people with the right kind of attitude, although he is always looking for more engineers who are just as excited as he is about the user experience.

Here’s a story Kazez relates with obvious relish: he has a competitor named WorldMate, which Kazez says made a big deal out of having eight engineers working on an iPhone itinerary app. Mobiata’s itinerary app, TripDeck, was developed by “two and a half people” (Kazez worked on it only part-time) for three months. “I believe we were almost 100 percent inline with the WorldMate itinerary app,” he says.


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