John Liu, the son of immigrant parents who made the long trek from China through Vietnam and Taiwan, is perhaps more of a risk taker than might be expected. Acutely aware of the accelerating mobile revolution, he and his four partners at Agile Partners decided to entirely change their business model in 2007 after Apple announced the iPhone. And by 2008 the company had totally converted its business from 100 percent web consulting and development for large companies to the creation of apps for the new iPhone and its siblings, the iPad and iPod touch. The company works virtually and Liu is based in Pennington.
Despite the Blackberry’s tremendous success among corporate users, Liu and his partners saw the iPhone as a giant step forward — due both to its consumer focus and what he calls its incredible look and feel. They sensed that people would want to do many more things on their phones, and Liu cites as an example an app that for him has replaced scanner and fax. “You can take a picture with an app, you tap a few buttons, and it processes it in a way that is better than a scanner,” he says. Now, when a PDF requires a signature, you just sign it, click a picture with your iPhone, and E-mail the form. This app also works well for high school friends of Liu’s daughter; when they miss a class, they ask Liu to take a picture of her notes and E-mail them.
Today Apple offers about 250,000 apps, and about 100,000 apps are available for the Google Android. Although the vast majority of these apps are games or entertainment, says Liu, many useful ones can help with productivity.
Agile Partners has focused particularly on the music space in its apps, although not exclusively. Because these apps provide so much utility and value, they go for what Liu calls “premium prices,” rather than the more common 99-cent price tag or simply being free for the taking. But even what he dubs premium prices are not really expensive in a conventional sense.
Agile’s Guitar Toolkit, which goes for $9.99, turns the iPhone into a guitar tuner as accurate as expensive guitar tuners. Customers tell Liu, “In the past when I went out to play a gig, I would inevitably forget my tuner. Now I always have it with me because I always have my phone with me.”
This app also includes a metronome and a chord library with half a million chords. Each chord, which can be played in many different ways, is displayed on a photo-realistic rendering of a guitar fret board, showing where guitarists should place their fingers. The user can also strum the chord and hear what it sounds like. Chords are also available for six and seven-string guitars as well as the mandolin, ukulele, and banjo.
The TabToolkit app, also $9.99, is a sheet music viewer that received an Apple design award in June. It displays a whole sheet of music on the iPad or one line at a time on the iPhone or iTouch. At the same time, on the bottom of the screen the user can display either a piano keyboard or a guitar fret board, showing where musicians should be putting their fingers. The toolkit’s multi-track audio synthesis capability can also play the music as the notation scrolls across the screen. For music students, the music can be played very slowly to aid learning.
Through a partnership with Peavey Electronics, one of the world’s largest musical and audio products companies, Agile Partners created the AmpKit app, which is free, and a more complex version, AmpKit Plus, which is $19.99. With this app an electric guitarist can plug a guitar into the iPhone and be able to reproduce the same varied effects with foot pedals as a freestanding amplifier. It produces a high-fidelity signal with very little noise or feedback.
“For people pulling an old electric guitar out of the closet, they don’t need a big rig,” says Liu. “They can play into the iPhone, can put a headphone on, and won’t bother anyone.” Peavey contributed the circuitry of its guitar amplifier, and the iPhone models the amplifier’s software. The two companies have a revenue sharing agreement.
Although the musical apps are the company’s strength, Agile Partners also produces other types. It offers two Merck Manual editions, one for physicians and medical students ($34.99) and one for homes ($9.99), which are searchable and portable. “Doctors can have a 3,000-page manual as one of the medical reference books on their iPhone,” says Liu. “If they are in the hospital and have no WiFi, they have the entire content on their phone.”
Agile Partners is not immune to doing apps for fun either. The firm’s free Second Opinion app allows people to get answers to yes/no questions or answer other people’s. For insecure dressers, quick advice is at hand. All you have to do is upload a photo, accompanied by the question, “Does this tie go with this shirt?” And you’ll get lots of responses.
The company’s newest app is Ace Flashcards (99 cents), which Apple has just selected as a “new and noteworthy” education app. It produces realistic-looking flashcards nearly the same size as 3 x 5 index cards and is the first app of this kind to have a built-in dictionary. Using the Wordnet database, which includes definitions and relationships among words, high school students.
Liu hopes that other people with content, for example, words in foreign languages, may want to work with Agile Partners.
Liu’s parents were in high school in Henan province in central China when one day the principal of their school announced on the loudspeaker that the Communists were in the next town and would be arriving in a few days. He told the students, “You can either stay here with your families or, if you want, we as a school unit are going to march off with the Nationalist army.” Among the three children in his mother’s family and the four in his father’s, Liu’s parents were the only ones who decided to march off with their school.
They traveled largely on foot, ending up right over the border in Vietnam, in what his parents referred to as a “concentration camp.” They subsisted largely by fishing along the nearby coast and built their own shelter. Eventually the French government took them from Vietnam to Taiwan.
“They landed on Taiwan with nothing but the shirts on their backs,” said Liu, “and my dad ended up going to National Taiwan University and majoring in British history.” Liu says his mother tells the story that when they were walking thousands of miles and she was carrying life essentials, Liu’s father was lugging his Shakespeare and British history books.
Liu’s father got a scholarship to Indiana University in British history when Liu was six months old and his sister two and a half. When Liu was four, he, his sister, and his mother were finally able to join his father in Indiana, where his younger brother was born. Liu went to first grade and part of second in Indiana, but the family then moved to the University of Delaware, where his father taught British history for 25 years. His most popular course was a seminar comparing the development of Beijing with the development of London. Liu’s mother taught in Taiwan and also wrote short stories and newspaper articles.
His family, says Liu, was a classically Asian one in which education was the most important thing. Liu went to Princeton, his sister to Smith, and his brother to Harvard. At Princeton Liu studied electrical engineering and computer science.
All four of the partners love music, Liu says. And all of them are learning how to play guitar, now that they deal mainly in guitar apps. Liu, however, does have a long-standing musical side – he has played violin since he was a kid.
After graduating in 1982, Liu spent four years as an engineer at Dupont, building robots for research and development and manufacturing applications. “I was the dutiful son,” says Liu. “I got an apartment in Wilmington, and my brother lived with me for his junior and senior years so he could go to the Tower Hill School.”
Liu then moved to a double degree program at Penn, where he earned an MBA and a master of systems engineering. He met his wife in the MBA program, and they moved to Boston, where he worked for four or five years at Meritus Consulting Services, a joint venture of Coopers and Lybrand and IBM.
Liu’s next employer was Merck, where he stayed for 14 years, starting as an internal consultant and eventually becoming executive director and finally vice president of global E-marketing. His team created Merck’s Internet presence, but Liu was also responsible for setting global branding and strategy and making sure individual countries aligned with that strategy
But Liu had always wanted to do his own thing, and in 2008 he formed a consulting and development company, Agile Partners Technologies, with four other partners. When they switched to app development work, they did a few small projects for other companies, but now are a 100-percent products company, developing apps on their own or in partnership. The work divides among the two elder statesmen — Liu, who handles marketing and business development, and his Chicago partner, who does finance and operations — and the three 30-somethings, who are talented developers and designers.
As to where the company is going, Liu figures that music and music instruction will be a big part of its business. One potential direction is to add a video portion to the TapToolkit so that music instructors can demo pieces for their students. Underneath the video could be the musical notes as well as a view of the fret board showing where the student’s fingers should go. They are in conversation with many music publishers about this idea. Of course it could be expanded to other instruments beyond guitar and piano.
Another aid to students would be the ability to simulate different types of amps as they learn to play the guitar. “If you are learning the Beatles, or Led Zeppelin, or U2, in theory or concept we could simulate the amps and effects used to play that song,” says Liu. “As you are learning, your guitar can sound like John Lennon’s guitar.”
So Agile Partners is set to build on a good thing. Like any business it has a pipeline of apps, which it does not share until a new one is available on the app store. But Liu suggests that having established this largely musical landscape for its apps makes it much easier for his company to take the logical next step.
Agile Partners, Box 234, Pennington 08534; 609-902-2322. John Liu, business development manager. www.agilepartners.com.