Monday 28 November 2016 6:00 am

Tapdaq co-founder Ted Nash talks Fit or Fugly, app discovery, and why virtual reality is about to change our lives forever

Some people go through their whole life without finding what they’re passionate about, or only discover it later in life. I’m very fortunate because I found something I was passionate about at a very early age, and it’s become my career,” says Ted Nash, co-founder and chief executive of Tapdaq, whose platform enables app developers to cross-promote their users.

Launched in 2013, about 250m people use apps that are Tapdaq-enabled every month. But Tapdaq is just the latest successful stage of the life Nash is referring to, because, aged 25, he’s been formulating and building businesses for over half his existence. “It’s a bit inaccurate to say that, really, because stuff you build when you’re 12 is not necessarily something you’d be happy with now – even if you think it’s great at the time.”

Aged 12, Nash was spending time with his grandparents, who lived in Spain. “One of our neighbours was about 18, and he had everything. It was all material things – the latest scooter, the latest PDA – but at the age of 12, you relate to material things. I was desperate to understand how he’d got it all and, after a bit of digging, I found it was because he owned a search engine. He was a very young founder, but he’d done very well. He didn’t need to go to university etc, he’d just made his own path.” This, says Nash, sparked something in his own imagination. “From that day forward I’ve been looking out for problems, looking at things in the world and asking if something is the most efficient it can be.”

The rumour mill

Before he was 15, Nash had built his own search engine, a travel agency and a cloud storage platform. Aged 16, he created Fit or Fugly. In a single day, the app was downloaded 180,000 times, making Nash £85,000. A year later, he launched Little Gossip. With much of his time spent in front of a screen, Nash wanted to build something that would fill him and friends in on what was going on at parties and local gatherings. The social platform, though well-intentioned, “quickly spiralled out of control. It spread like wildfire. I still don’t believe I’ll make anything that will grow as fast as that did again.”

Within 24 hours, it’d gone from exchanges between pupils at Nash’s school to being a virtual nationwide rumour mill. With negative press and a public backlash, the site was shut down after just two weeks. “Failures are bad if you don’t learn from them. A lot of entrepreneurs glorify failure because they’re continuing to fail, and it’s a way for them to look at a situation and for others to tell them it’ll all be okay. But obviously if we all continued to fail, the world would be a pretty miserable place. Really, dealing with a project that’s gone wrong is very much like dealing with a failed relationship. Sometimes the immense emotional attachment to something can make it hard to take a step back, but you do have to be very willing to understand the shortcomings of something, and of yourself.”

In 2013, after a stint as head of digital product innovation at News International, Nash teamed up with two co-founders to launch Tapdaq. The idea was beautifully simple: build a platform that enables developers to cross-promote each other’s apps through in-app advertising.

It spread like wildfire. I still don’t believe I’ll make anything that will grow as fast as that did again

“The world of applications was very similar to the film or music industries. As a consumer, you would only see the top 25 apps. Independents were struggling to gain traction, and we wanted to change that.” In 2008, there was only 30,000 apps in the app store, and hitting 6m installs in the first 3-6 months wasn’t hard for Nash and the fellow 16 year-olds he was building applications with. But as they continued to build lifestyle, utility and gaming apps, install numbers were falling drastically.

“It wasn’t because we were any worse entrepreneurs, it’s just the market was shifting. Bigger players were getting into the app store and mobile, and that meant the number of applications went from 30,000 to 1.4m. Our installs dropped to the tens of thousands; that wasn’t enough to sustain the business, or us.” Asking around, Nash discovered they weren’t the only developers with this problem – it was endemic.

Strategic positioning

Now, Tapdaq continues to solve the issue of app discovery for its users. By enabling collaboration between developers, the platform helps encourage consumers to swap between apps. It’s raised around $8.5m from Finland’s OpenOcean, Kindred Capital, BGF Ventures and Balderton. Its success means a change of scenery for Nash, who grew up in Taunton. He is about to flip his time from London to San Francisco. “Any tech company that wants to get to a certain size needs to access the resources the Bay Area has to offer. I would stress, though, that that’s particularly for my industry, mobile. Facebook, Google, Apple are all within 10 square miles – as are a lot of our customers. For us, it’s a very strategic place to be.”

The move signals “a huge amount of change” for Nash personally. “We’ve gone from being me and my co-founders working in a flat to raising the money we’ve raised and with offices in London, San Francisco and Prague. It’s been an enormous learning curve. I can’t tell you how different the idea is from day one to what it is today.” Being comfortable with this shift, says Nash, is a hallmark of a good entrepreneur. “You have to be able to separate emotion from the bigger purpose, otherwise you’ll fail. The long-term vision shouldn’t change, but everything else can be blurry.”

Creating currency

When Nash and his colleagues started out, for instance, they built their own currency, Daq, which gave its name to the business. The idea was to shift a barter system to a currency-driven one: one install might not necessarily be worth the same as another install – because one user could spend $3, while the other spent only $1. A currency that could operate inside a closed environment would solve the value imbalance.

“We thought it was ground-breaking, but we’d over-intellectualised what was already a unique offering. Users found it overly complicated and unnecessary. First, most developers just want traffic, because they make money through advertising and not in-app purchases. Second, there’s a lesson around taking technology, which should make things simpler, and just adding an extra layer of complexity, which creates a barrier to entry.”

You have to be able to separate emotion from the bigger purpose, otherwise you’ll fail

Daq was done away with, but Nash says that certainly doesn’t preclude a similar feature existing in the future, with the potential to “destroy mobile advertising”. He points to the Amazon Coin and Facebook’s user credits. “Putting to one side bitcoin and blockchain, which are different kettles of fish, we are starting to see more people experiment with their own currencies, basically creating modern-day gift cards – so the user is locked in when it comes to spending. For the likes of Amazon, achieving that could be a pretty powerful thing and it’ll be interesting to see how much these things are pushed for. I get the feeling that building a new currency creates some confusion for a customer, to be honest. If it puts them off buying, it’ll just affect your bottom line. I’d be open to hearing about ideas or opportunities, but my mind is torn.”

Virtual reality

Something Nash’s mind is firmly set on, however, is the impending paradigm shift virtual reality (VR) will bring about.

“Benedict Evans of Andreessen Horowitz says you can divide the world into people who think VR is the future and those who haven’t tried it yet… I just can’t see how it won’t be game-changing. We’ve built this infrastructure for developers to retain and monetise their users on the mobile ecosystem. What if we start deploying that tech in the VR space?”

This is the big plan for Nash. In addition to pushing out further monetisation opportunities for users – Tapdaq will be making an announcement on this on Thursday – Nash is acutely aware that “there's no ecosystem providers whatsoever in VR yet, and we’re very well-placed to push our infrastructure into that.”

Granted, he adds, the technology has some kinks to iron out: people want to be wireless, resolution needs to be even higher and the experience more sociable. “But your imagination can already run wild – healthcare, education… and any new technology that’s already cheaper than the incumbent has to be taken seriously.”