Interviewing Clark from Cantina – Top Boston App Developer

Clark from Cantina

Cantina is a digital design and  development firm based in Boston. They specialize in mobile apps and designing effective user experiences for IoT. They’ve ranked 5th among the top Boston app developers on ContractIQ. Here, we’re speaking to Clark Van Der Beken who heads marketing at Cantina. He speaks his mind about Cantina, apps, IoT & the future!

Murali : To start with, tell us about your company – how you started out and how you’ve made it this far.

Clark : Sure, our company was started in 2007 by two engineers. They took on a piece of work that needed some really deep technical design and from there they were able to witness the shift in web development towards user experience design. Around the 2000’s the company made the shift and really started focusing on responsive design, particularly at the enterprise level.  About 80% of our businesses is in the mobile app space and most of that is designing enterprise apps like sales enablement tools for internal teams. We’re also helping clients build and design software for the internet of things. When we think about designing connected solutions at Cantina, we spend significant time on more than the technical facets. Our opinion is that a strong focus on user experience is the key to developing successful, valuable connected solutions. We design and develop for the internet of things focused primarily creating a valuable user experience. That has allowed us to really expand our capabilities.

Murali : Good to know about the UX and IoT space. How big is the IoT market? And how close is it to reality that people are going to adopt IoT in the mainstream?

Clark : We see IoT as a way of continuing the mobile experience. The app store is so hard to get discovered, unless you’re Instagram or Facebook. When you have a physical product that people can buy that has a companion mobile app, you continue the experience on a device that they carry around with them all the time. So we see Internet of things as being a companion for products that people want to buy. Our software and design helps facilitate that conversation. It’s hard. It’s a shift that our designers are having to learn. Building a mobile app is very different to building an IoT experience and they have to think about all the behaviours that a customer may do with physical objects that they  wouldn’t have to necessarily think about with just a mobile app. With Internet of things you have to think about everything that they do in their daily life that could be affected by that mobile experience. This is a great learning opportunity for everyone at Cantina and we’ve been fortunate to have  partners who really trust us to deliver a valuable experience.

Murali : That’s nice. How challenging or exciting is it to work with start-ups?

Clark : It can be challenging. We are selective with startups that we work with. But we benefit greatly from being in Boston where there’s a great startup landscape. We prefer to work with  companies that have already proven themselves. Companies who have completed a Series A funding are in a better position because there is  growth potential. We find that we’re a great fit for startups who need to build a MVP but lack a development team. Clothbound is a great example where we designed/developed their mobile experience which helped them get to market quicker.  It can also be challenging because startup founders come to us with these grand vision of what they want their app to be. Sometimes we have to help them narrow their focus a bit and say “if we are going to make your app stand out, we may have to dial down a little bit of the features you think are important”. But in most cases we’re pretty successful at delivering MVP products that solves their business goals.  

Murali : Great to hear that. So AI & BOTS are becoming the next big thing and you are already into IoT. Are you thinking of adopting AI & BOTS.

Clark : It’s funny, our mobile team was just talking about bots and coming up with a plan to build a few internally. We have a couple of developers who built chatbots on top of Slack that help us be more productive. While we’re not doing AI & BOTS at the moment for clients  we do think it’s very fascinating.

Murali : Okay. So personally,  what do you think will be the next big thing in your company 2-3 years from now.

Clark : I think we’re going to see a shift towards “invisible interface” or “zero UI” as FastCompany has coined it. Things like Siri and the Amazon echo are already becoming apart of our  lives and we have to be ready to build for those experiences that don’t rely on a screen. Apple is making a pretty big bet on it with the ability for third-party integration with Siri and HomeKit. While I think a screen device will continue to be our main focus; the way in which we use them is drastically changing.  

Murali : Great. So what would be your best advice for budding entrepreneurs.

Clark : If you need help launching your product, use a consulting company to get it done. Lot of entrepreneurs think they can just bootstrap their product but it’s a risk when you’re just starting out. Find a trusted partner that can get you to market.

Murali : You are a Boston based company and homegrown, so how challenging is it to compete with other companies?

Clark :We’re in the people business. There are other consultant agencies you can go and get the same services. But it’s the people in the room who need to understand your business and who you can trust to deliver. We’ve done a really good job here at Cantina. Our team will either take a deep dive into the work that the client is requesting and provide hypothesis-based assumptions to better understand the business challenge. Because of this up-front work, we are able to deliver great recommendations and illustrate how we would approach the project.

Ajay : Okay, I have a question here. How will you explain to people who don’t have any idea about what an app is?

Clark : It’s a good question. We work within the New England area so most people have a smartphone and have downloaded apps. But not all apps create the same value. It’s our job as consultants to explain to clients how good design can create value for their end users. On the other hand, the solution to the business challenge might not be an app at all. Maybe it’s a responsive web app where someone can just access it on any browser. The best thing to do would be to just demonstrate how an app works & how it’s going to be useful.

Ajay : Okay, we are done with the questions. Thanks for your time Clark, we really appreciate it. All the best!

Clark : Thank you, take care.

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