This Army: Gunning for the big time

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This Army first launched Tank five years ago as a hosted site-builder application in an already competitive DIY web publishing arena. Slowly but surely it gained a following in the local market, mostly spread by word-of-mouth amongst the creative crowd. The simple, minimal designs and a certain “less is more” approach has seen it gradually being adopted by everyone from photographers to galleries and wine farms. Tank empowered those with little to no web development skills to quickly and easily setup and create their own sites.

Following this success This Army has spent the past 18 months developing a new app (code-named Ammo), a hosted store-builder application. The app is currently still in beta and due to launch along with a new unified look-and-feel across all the company’s products.

Some would argue that Tank is just another DIY CMS product, that there is no original idea on offer here. Its success, however, is rooted in taking something that already exists and just doing it better and simpler than what others are offering. In an IT industry plagued by conservative ideas and a “quick buck” mentality, ThisArmy’s offering has stood out both for its fresh approach and its ability to survive.

Alan Alston, the guy who does “everything else” in the ThisArmy HQ, is a veteran of the web design and development industry. He earned his stripes as a developer at some of Cape Town’s leading web agencies before starting up Tank. It wasn’t an easy path to go the self funded route: Alan paid half his salary from his day-job to fellow developer and shareholder Le Roux Bodenstein, who was working on the product at night during the early years. Things have changed however; Tank has recently hit its break-even point and things are looking up for the startup with the launch of its new ecommerce application.

We met up with Alan at a local waterhole across the road from its studio, to find out more:

Ruan Benade: What apps are you guys working on? And what is the right terminology to describe them?
Alan Alston: We have currently two applications available: Tank, a site-builder, and Ammo, a store-builder. That’s the terminology we use; but of course there are many other ways of saying the same thing: Content-management system, ecommerce app — it all depends on who you talk to. Of course we have many other ideas for others apps: But most of them are prototypes and napkin sketches while Tank & Ammo are up-and-running, and even generating revenue.

RB: Why build a separate application for Ammo? It could’ve been built into Tank as a store feature?
AA: We considered it, but we have built up a lot of know-how during the design and development of the site-builder and wanted to try incorporate some of these notions into a new app. When we looked at it we realised ecommerce was simply too big and complicated to be shoe-horned as simply another feature within an existing app. It wouldn’t have done it justice. We’ve taken all the best ideas in Tank and “ported” those to the new app, but probably more importantly we’ve addressed all the bottle-necks and other issues this time round.

RB: You worked in the web design industry, where you made a living producing web sites. Why did you decide on a site building application?
AA:Firstly we wanted to get out of production, which is what most agency works boils down to. There was even a phrase bantered around Ogilvy Interactive in the good old days: “There is no money in production”. This is true in the sense that all agency work really boils down to repeating the same design and build process over and over, for different clients and varying budgets. At some point you get tired of it, and in my case this fortunately happened earlier in my career. Secondly, at that time in the market there was no real easy way to build a quick and simple site.

WordPress was still primarily a blogging engine, and building the simplest site still involved HTML, FTP and many other acronyms that are Greek to our client base. Finally: We really wanted to build something for ourselves, and not for a specific client or budget. Something that had more longevity than a campaign or client website, and something which we could test certain business models and ideas with. And potentially break into the so-called Holy Grail — the annuity-income model, quite the opposite of the budget-based income model so pervasive at web agencies.

RB: How did you settle on the name and url?
AA: It’s actually a fun, irreverent name and not as “militant” as many people think: It’s a response to the question “you and what army?” — as in how does one overcome a seemingly impossible obstacle, and who do you need to make it happen? If you look at the web industry in particular certain aspects (like design and technical work) does require a small army to produce, but the name of our company says “you don’t need an army to do this”, or even “we’ll be the army you need”. The domain ‘thisarmy.com’ happened to become available for a couple of hours and we grabbed it.

RB: The whole army thing? Any military aspirations on your side?
AA: I did National Service back in the day but can’t say I can relate that experience to the work we are doing now. That said I’ve always been intrigued by military design, the robust, foolproof, hard-wearing and utilitarian functionality of each and every military product. Apple has cornered that “it just works” thing in their marketing speak, but I think the military has been ahead of that curve for some time now.

RB: Your look is very minimalist with some nice typographic touches. What influenced the look and who is the designer?
AA: As far as our applications and websites go we try and be “from the web, for the web” with the work we produce. In many cases we hardly even produce our own graphics: We accomplish practically everything, including look and feel, with code (CSS in other words), and the rest is based on the graphical and text-based content our users add to our frameworks. Back in the real world our identity was designed by Bruno Morphet; the same designer who designed the Cape Town 2014 bid identity.

RB:How did you get started? Are you self funded or VC?
AA: Self funded. Think huge salary cuts for the first couple of years, and maxed-out credit cards for the rest.

RB: So how many people are currently working at ThisArmy?
AA: We’re two shareholders (Le Roux Bodenstein and me) and we have another employee that primarily manages the Tank codebase. Le Roux is building up the new Ammo codebase, and I end up doing “everything else”: Design, usability, user experience and probably most importantly I also look after the business itself on a daily basis. I even do support although that’s most definitely not my strong point.

RB: Is it a very competitive business to be in?
AA: I’d say so: There almost isn’t a day that goes by without a new competitor popping up, or another disappearing down the tubes. In this day and age the field we operate in has also broadened: In some cases it might be more appropriate to simply put up a Facebook page, or a Tumblr, or even only a Twitter account… than to design and build a site. It all depends on one’s definition of what the competition is, and what a certain user’s needs might be.

RB: Any local competitors?
AA: From the site builder point of view there is Yola and a couple of others you can view through Google’s ads if you want to. From an ecommerce point of view Snaply recently launched and Shopdirect has been going for a while. We’re don’t concern ourselves with the competition too much though. We’d rather be focussing on our users, the apps we build, and the end-results achieved. Otherwise you simply end up chasing your own tail, or worse: Someone else’s tail.

RB: What do you offer that your competitors don’t have? What makes Tank & Ammo different?
AA: We’re quite focussed on simplicity, usability and the overall user experience. Believe it or not, these aspects are sorely missing in some of the competitive offerings out there. On top of that we also focus on minimalism and think “less is more” when it comes to what our users produce. Too much of the web is over-designed, we’d rather play in the un-design field.

We’re firm believers in that “the web is 95% typography” notion and our work reflects that.

RB: Why will your startup change the world?
AA: You’d be surprised how many people and businesses do not yet have an internet presence. We thought that when we started, and we still hold by that five years down the line. We’d simply like to be that port of call when people want to setup either a site or a store on the internet. This isn’t as “world changing” as technologies like Facebook or Twitter; but sometimes small changes in an individual’s life or business does in fact “change the world” for them.

RB: Name some of your key features?
AA: For me the killer feature is definitely the design tools we’re building into our apps. Over at Tank we’ve implemented a “design HUD” which pops up on your site allowing you to design your site while viewing it. We’ve taken the “design HUD” to the next level with the new store-builder app: Real-time design, instant previews, customise and preview colours, change logos, fonts, style and code too — without leaving your store, and without refreshing the page. We’ve taken the “design HUD” over to other aspects as well: Building and implementing what we call the “content HUD” — probably the most advanced HTML5-based WYSIWIG text editor out there. Of course it all works through a browser. The coming-of-age of the modern browser has really enabled us to push the limits as to what’s possible.

RB: For the nerds out there… what is the app built in?
AA: The core of both our apps is written in Python using the Django framework. We deploy a lot of jQuery and CSS to pull it all together, plus a bunch of nuts and bolts to make it all work.

RB:Do you have a mobile strategy?
AA: With the new app we’ve gone entirely “mobile first” from the onset: the entire app is responsive (it automatically adapts to desktop, tablet and smartphone displays), and so are all the themes we’ve been working on. This means you’ll end up with an entirely responsive store should you build one with our app. Everyone is talking mobile, mobile, mobile but for me the moment of truth arrived the other night when someone at my dinner table showed off the deathbok.com range on their iPhone, completely per chance. Deathbok is one of our early adopters by the way.

RB: Do you have an international strategy?
AA: We have a “local first” strategy, actually. We’ve always focussed right here in our back garden, doing what needs to be done, with great success. We’ve grown from being a Cape Town thing, to Jo’burg, to Namibia, Mozambique and other African countries. Now we’re popping up everywhere. New Zealand and Australia seems to like what we do, and we’re getting lots of uptake in Europe and the States too.

RB:You are doing a re-launch of sorts? Why is that?
AA: We’re simply tying all our work together. Now that we have two apps up-and-running we’re working towards unifying the look-and-feel, as well as making everything (apps, manuals, support systems, codebases) part of the thisarmy.com “family”. Apart from this we’ve also got a couple of “user-facing” surprises for when we launch Ammo, and re-launch Tank.

RB:What advice do you have for others looking at building an app?
AA: You need a couple of things to get going: a great coder, a good designer, someone to look after the business, and someone to handle support. I can’t stress the last two aspects enough. Keep a tight reign on cash flow. Build a support system and knowledge base as you build your app. There are tons of support apps out there you can tap into: you don’t have to build your own one. Once you have this in place, design, build, test, revisit, rework, rethink and redesign your app till it’s perfect. Then do it all again. Nothing is forever in the Information Age. Oh yes: It helps to have at least two credit cards and an access bond available, and someone on your team needs to be able to write well too!

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