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HESS Industries Ltd. at the Braintree Business Development Center in Mansfield - Photo Bob Perkoski
HESS Industries Ltd. at the Braintree Business Development Center in Mansfield - Photo Bob Perkoski | Show Photo

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ohio-based innovators have some app-solutely good ideas for a crowded market

Connor Zamary, 9, of Toaster Pop.
Connor Zamary, 9, of Toaster Pop.
You can't walk down the street or sit in a coffee shop without spying someone fiddling with their mobile device. The ubiquity of the iPhone in particular has given rise to an expanding group of entrepreneurial hopefuls writing software applications for Apple's immensely popular smartphone as well as the mega-corporation's iPad.  

The iPhone and iPad have about 700,000 apps, from Netflix to DrawSomething. Hundreds of new apps are introduced every day in Apple’s store, making the field even more overloaded. Most apps simply get lost in the deluge, meaning the odds of someone creating the next Angry Birds is highly unlikely.

Business-minded organizations like the Youngstown Business Incubator (YBI) generally don't invest in apps due to their hit-and-(mostly) miss nature.

"When you're in there with hundreds of thousands of other apps, how do you cost effectively get people to know your product exists?" asks YBI chief executive officer Jim Cossler. "There's a low barrier of entry, but the probability of success is very small."

A slim chance of making a dent hasn't stopped several industrious Ohioans from taking a whack at the crowded app space. They shared their electronic ideas with hiVelocity.

'Monster' idea

Chris Bergman knows that "fun" and "chores" are antithetical concepts, particularly to children who would much rather play outside than clean their room or wash the dishes.

This basic idea was the starting point for Choremonster, a colorful suite of web-based and mobile apps for parents and kids that aims to make chores more enjoyable. This seemingly Herculean task is accomplished like this: Parents set up a list of chores for their children to do -- making the bed, clearing the table and so on -- with each chore designated a certain number of points. These points can be redeemed by kids for rewards like iTunes gift cards, an hour playing Xbox or even cash. Along the way, young participants can also collect a menagerie of pet digital monsters to play with.

The simple system takes the hassle and more importantly the tension out of chores, says Bergman, 30, a resident of  the Cincinnati neighborhood of Over-the-Rhine.

Bergman grew up with a step-father who espoused the notion that "work should always hurt." When Bergman's wife Nicole became pregnant in June 2011 with their son Guy, he thought about ways boring housework could be made a source of joy instead of unpleasantness.

Bergman discussed this with business partner Paul Armstrong, and the pair launched Choremonster soon thereafter. The app spent most of 2012 in the beta phase, with 21,000 completing over 300,000 chores. The product will officially launch January 1 and be initially available on iPhone and iPod Touch. The app itself is free, but parents must pay to get their children access to the monster-collecting portion of the product.

"There's a whole generation of kids getting old iPhones and iPods," says Bergman. "If you have a product that solves a problem, you can get people's attention."

The young entrepreneur knows he's entering a tricky marketplace. While there are bushels of apps available, there are not many that offer something interesting or unique, Bergman believes.

Choremonster, meanwhile, is "a lovable brand with an eight-year-old's sense of humor," he says. This opinion has been supported by $775,000 in capital from public backers including seed-stage investor CincyTech.

Choremonster already has the right engagement with the public to earn itself positive cash flow upon its New Year's launch, Bergman maintains. His app "empowers both parents and kids to communicate with each other," he says. "It's a really big concept."

Starting young

The relatively new field of app creation has drawn millions of prospective programmers into the fold. Not all of them have experience, and at least one still has to be in bed by 7:30.

Connor Zamary is a third-grader from North Lima, 15 miles north of Youngstown. The 9-year-old is creator of Toaster Pop, a brightly-colored application where gamers attempt to spread virtual butter, jam and other toppings on one of Connor’s favorite breakfast foods - toast - to achieve high scores. Toaster Pop is available for 99 cents in Apple Inc.’s App store.

The diminutive inventor got the idea for the app at age 7. He was in the kitchen watching his dad brown bagels in an old-fashioned pop-up toaster. Connor thought of the cartoons he'd seen where the toast would just fly out from the toaster onto the plate.

"The idea just popped into my mind," says Connor, pun probably not intended.

Coming up with the app was the fun part; the next step was five months of hard work filling out legal paperwork, setting up a bank account, writing a PowerPoint presentation for investors, and other dull, adult trappings of creating a business venture.

Connor got some help from his father Craig, who has some entrepreneurial experience himself as founder of GreenEnergyTV.com, an online television platform. However, the elder Zamary wanted his son to do most of the work himself. Connor was even allowed to stay up past bedtime to talk to Dynamic Visions, the application’s California-based developer.

"This is something Connor wanted to do," says Craig. "I'm not an idea killer. Kids can do anything if you guide them along."

"I thought it would be really hard," says Connor, an avid Harry Potter fan when not forming his own LLC. "Once you learn from your mistakes, it's easier."

Toaster Pop is now a five-star application on Apple's iTunes store. Connor receives 70 cents for each sale after Apple gets its requisite 30 percent cut. He's putting  the money toward his college fund as well as his own iPod. Like any good innovator in an ever-evolving space, Connor is also thinking ahead to new features for a possible Toaster Pop 2.0.

"I'm brainstorming some ideas right now," Connor says.

Let's make a deal

Have you ever opened up your email to find another "can't miss" daily deal -- a lobster dinner, a scuba trip, a manicure -- only to forget to use it? Maybe it slipped your mind because you really don't need a chartreuse herringbone suit at 25 percent off.

That's why Columbus resident Adam Goldberg created OffersBy.Me, an app where the consumer controls the deals on purchases they want at that moment. For example, a user can tell the app that he or she is willing to spend $50 on Italian food. Once the message is sent, the user instantly receives offers from partnering Italian restaurants. The user then chooses the best offer, then gets the discount after showing the restaurant the app.

"We're the anti-Groupon," says Goldberg, 38. Unlike the digital discount service, "it gets to the customer right when they want something."

OffersBy.Me kicked off in October with 225 Columbus-area businesses, half of them restaurants. The free app has drawn 1,200 consumers and is well on its way to a first-year goal of 4,000. Businesses get the app for free, but that will change depending on the service's continued popularity. 

"I wouldn't say we've broken through yet, but we're happy with the success we've had so far," Goldberg says.

Digital discount service competition is fierce, and Goldberg draws on a database sales and online advertising background gleaned at such companies as Oracle and Google. The challenge is to break through the noise of hundreds of similar apps, as well as protestations of spam-hating cynics wary of anything containing the words "daily deal."

"Word-of-mouth is huge," says Goldberg. "We're always trying to get validation from the marketplace and the consumers themselves."

Creating the product presented some logistical obstacles for the first-time app maker. Goldberg and his engineering team had to figure how to use less space on an iPhone as compared to a computer screen. The first version of OffersBy.Me was rejected by the app store upon submission.

Those days are gone, and now Goldberg is working on an Android version of the app. A consumer-to-business digital discount model will be sustainable as long as it continues to save consumers money on things they already were going to buy.

"We must build what our customers want," Goldberg says. "That's our focus."

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