When Chris Strode first started working on Invoice2go in 2002, most software was bought in a store and came on CDs.
The years since then have seen numerous revolutions. The proliferation of smartphones, software as a service, the cloud and now bots. Throughout this all, Invoice2go has grown and adapted, becoming one of Australia’s most successful technological exports.
It all began when Strode came back from 12 month stint overseas, had just gotten a job as a freelance software developer, was newly engaged and was living at his in-laws.
“It felt like I was broke and homeless. That’s no exaggeration,” says Strode.
Strode had been freelancing for a number of years, and had tried and failed to create a number of other ventures — products he describes as “too niche”.
But working as a freelancer, Strode experienced the hassle of billing customers. It was hard to get paid. And all the programs that existed at the time — the likes of MYOB, were “fully fledged” accounting systems, offering far more capability, complexity and expense than he needed.
“It just became clear really quickly that it was a big problem for a lot of people. And no one was really trying to solve it,” says Strode.
So Strode developed Invoice2go as a stripped-down invoicing system, especially for freelancers like himself, those who didn’t use or need all the functions in regular accounting software. And for the first seven years of its life, the software lived on desktop computers.
But this was a time when major barriers still existed to new software — the dominant distribution model was through bricks and mortar stores. Stores that had limited shelf space, and so tended only to stock the big names, those guaranteed some sales.
Getting your product to market required making relationships, striking deals and working out logistics. Things that heavily favoured the incumbents.
“It was hard to try and beat the incumbents, like the MYOBs and Quickbooks, because they had such deep penetration,” says Strode.
So Strode tried something else. Invoice2go largely eschewed bricks and mortar stores, instead employing a “shareware” model. Essentially, the program could be downloaded for free, with payment necessary past a certain usage point or to unlock features.
While this model has become increasingly common, especially with the growth of Software As A Service, it wasn’t so at the time.
Although Invoice2go only sold about 10,000 Windows apps using this model, the decision to go shareware helped set the company up for future paradigm shifts. For starters, the company was already using a subscription model almost a decade before it really started catching on with business software.
Further, selling shareware almost necessitates continuous improvement and advancements — fostering a back and forth between users and creators. This is familiar to modern developers, used to fine-tuning, receiving reviews and expanding their software through regular updates. But it’s anathema to the software companies of the early 2000s, who were used to putting software out in boxes, as “finished products”, maybe once a year.
All of these aspects really came together after the iPhone launched in 2007. Invoice2go was already a simplified service, something that could be ported to mobile easier than its hulking competitors.
The developers were used to a constant development cycle, working on a product that was never “finished”.
The app store heralded a world without gatekeepers, the smartphone one of ubiquitous computing. It was a fresh market to be seized and Invoice2go was a first mover.
“We jumped in as quickly as possible to create an app,” says Strode. “Moved all our resources to the iPhone app, expecting that everyone else would do the same. But it actually took the big guys five or six years to respond in the end.”
Invoice2go quickly found itself one of the top business apps in the App Store, and has retained its spot ever since, iterating and adopting yet more changes in the capability and culture of technology.
But the battlegrounds are shifting, away from overcrowded App Stores and onto the likes of Slack and Hipchat.
The new players are platforms, harnessing the power of the cloud and opening themselves up to all manner of integrations. Accounting systems connected to payments, calendars, customer data and all manner of other things.
Invoice2go has found itself positioned incredibly for the last decade of paradigm shifts. Whether through luck or genius, it has been at the right place with the right model to capitalise. But as the future looks to be dominated less by screens, and more by voice, bots, artificial intelligence and more invisible computing, where will that leave the company?
Strode says his company is well placed for these revolutions, if they eventuate. Because the problem it is trying to solve is so narrow.
Even better, the difficulties of getting paid as a freelancer is a problem that has long existed, and will probably continue regardless of the technology of the day.
“The ability to offer functionality where you can have an app that has a bot connected to it, with a language that people can understand, will be very advantageous for us,” says Strode.
“It would be harder working with a really broad problem to solve. But because we are going after a narrow problem and trying to go deep on that narrow problem, that is an advantage.”