Two years might sound like a long time to build an Android app, but Durham-based Juan Porras and his team at Rheti are determined theirs will be the first to allow native Android apps to be built using only a mobile device.
This week, in coordination with the Google I/O conference in San Francisco, the app called Rheti hits the Google Play store. Porras calls the release “a public beta”- there are still kinks to work out. But the app features a marketplace of more than 75 plugins and a completely customizable experience for the most elementary of technology users. At full launch later this year, Rheti will open the marketplace for contributions by third-party developers, providing a new way for developers to monetize their work.
The big vision is to enable a truly unique app to be built as soon as someone has an idea, any where in the world, and without hiring a developer, a concept Porras believes “can change the world.”
He’s already operating all around it. Through a private beta, professors in Spain are promoting Rheti to their students. Two Central American corporations have begun pilot projects, building internal applications for their employees (a key potential revenue stream for the business). Early users around the globe have built a copycat Snapchat, a Facebook page builder, phone dialer, an app that talks to a robot, another for gym workouts.
Porras’s chief technology officer is in Miami and eight developers work in a new Guatemala City office. They’re a key part of Rheti’s growth strategy. A year ago, Porras discovered nascent talent in Central America’s most populous city, where his family has operated businesses since the late 1990s. His Central American office is located in a new (and somewhat controversial) part of the city called Paseo Cayala (Cayala City), a neighborhood close to two universities with new buildings, hotels, gyms, a movie theater and tons of young people.
In September, he hopes to open The Hub, an incubator for entrepreneurs in town, the first of its kind for the city. He hopes Rheti and other startups will grow up there. (Porras, right, and his partner are pictured in Cayala above.)
So why two years? And why launch now?
It all began in Miami in early 2012. Porras met his partner Ralph Tavarez (pictured left) through Incubate Miami, the government-funded incubator he helped to launch in 2008 and run until 2012.
Porras recognized Tavarez as the most capable mobile developer in town, and through conversations, he learned Tavarez’s chief pain point in building new apps.
Most customers wanted to re-create something he’d already built, and they’d pay a lot of money for him to do it. He had little time to be creative- he wanted to spend his time on more interesting projects. The two men recognized the core problem- that many barriers existed for non-developers to build mobile applications- and began brainstorming a solution.
“If we really are going to enable a solution to building great mobile applications, it should be simple to use, extremely easy and highly customizable,” Porras says. That was missing from the numerous other drag-and-drop app-builders and hosting sites already available, his research showed, and yet, those companies were making millions of dollars annually.
Porras ended his work with Incubate Miami and left the boards of his family’s two Guatemalan businesses- a low-cost pharmaceutical distributor and digital marketing provider to Central and South American companies. He wanted to focus on Rheti (short for rhetorical app-making interface).
The first iteration was completed in March 2012 and allowed users to build an app using simple voice commands. Porras and Tavarez tested it with 200 users and found a problem- the app couldn’t recognize accents.
The next version eliminated the voice commands but featured 10 easy steps to build an app from a mobile phone. They tested the prototype with 130 people and received positive feedback.
“They got really excited about it, but they wanted more customization,” says Porras, who moved to Durham in 2012 when his physician-wife got a job at Duke Hospital (He’s a Duke grad). He joined the first class at Groundwork Labs.
By the end of 2012, the pair tried a third approach: gamifying the app. They learned that points and status mattered to people and incentivized them to build and share way more apps than the team had imagined.
The fourth iteration combined learnings from the second two- a 225-person panel then convinced the men to add the ability for some code modification, like an API for Nest to create customized home automation apps. A private beta of 3,500 users last November combined elements of the previous versions (minus voice commands). The men have spent the months since adding plugins and features to the marketplace.
So how easy is it?
During a soccer game last week, Porras, a tenant at American Underground @Main, built an app to aggregate the incubator’s calendar, conference room booking tool, key contacts and news.
The most time was spent finding pictures to go along with each feature, he says. When he completed the design, Rheti sent it to his email and he uploaded it to Google Play.
Funding, the future and Durham
The men initially raised $104,000 from friends and family and have bootstrapped the entire operation by performing app consulting work on the side. They don’t plan to raise any additional money- they believe the app will be scalable when it launches.
Corporations offer the most promising revenue stream- Rheti can help create a marketplace of IT tools inside each company to customize apps. The consumer side is basically free- users get points when they sign up that are used to publish new apps. They earn more points as they create and share apps. But they can also purchase points in the app to accelerate the process. That’s the gaming aspect of the site.
There are no plans for an iOS version. Android is the most prevalent system around the world, Porras says, and the world is his market. That could only change if the right corporate partner comes along and requests use on an iPhone.
Android’s prevalence made it only natural for Rheti to plan its launch in timing with the Google I/O developer conference. While Rheti doesn’t have an official presence, Tavarez is there this week checking out new technologies and gadgets and talking with other developers.
“It is if not the most important Android event out there, it’s up there,” Porras says. “And this is going to have a huge impact in the Android community.”
As the company grows, Porras will hire people in Durham, the office he calls “the brain trust,” and in Guatemala City.
That could happen fast- if the corporate pilots turn into clients or if third party developers latch onto Rheti as Porras believes they will.
“Developers can focus the majority of time on creative pieces that make their apps really stand out,” he says. “Not the boring stuff.”