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Designli navigates the curve from native apps to web design

Five years ago, Keith Shields and Joshua Tucker ditched their plans to become engineers to create mobile apps for struggling startups. Today, their software development company is transforming the digital presence of Fortune 500 companies.

In 2012, Shields and Tucker, owners of software development company Designli, were more than 300 miles away from each other when they heard the big news coming out of Silicon Valley: Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, in a surprising move, had purchased the photo- and video-sharing app Instagram.

The two, then-sophomore mechanical engineering students at Ohio State University and Alfred University, respectively, couldn’t believe it. Facebook — a company that was about to become one of the largest initial public offerings in history — shelled out $1 billion for a two-year-old app that had 13 employees and zero revenue.

It was a sign for Shields and Tucker, who were coders and former high school classmates.

Soon after, they got in touch and began formulating their plan to enter the world of mobile app development. “The Instagram sale was the ‘a-ha’ moment for us. We knew that apps were the next big thing,” Tucker said.

“We didn’t have the knowledge to create apps from scratch, or the budget to hire developers. We were greedy college kids,” Shields said. “But we had some idea of what we wanted, and that was enough for us.”

Shields and Tucker, who had some knowledge of programming languages like HTML, created a website that solicited new app concepts and invited users to vote each month on the idea that they found most promising. They wrote a business plan, raised about $70,000 among friends and family, and named the competition Applits.

“We actually used our seed rounds to pay freelance developers,” said Tucker, who transferred to Ohio State in fall 2012 to help get the business off the ground.

Six months after the selection of the site’s first winner, the duo had recruited developers in Romania, designers in Paraguay, and an entire team from India. Meanwhile, a group of U.S. project managers kept things running smoothly.

From engineers to startup saviors

Shortly after, Tucker dropped out of college to focus on Applits and returned to his parents’ house in Marcellus, N.Y.

As the site became better known in the industry, Tucker and Shields started to notice that more and more users were asking them if they could create their apps outside the confines of the monthly competition.

“Some of our users owned businesses or startups, and they had the budget for their app’s development,” said Shields. “We noticed a demand for software developers that could create high-quality, affordable apps and websites in a short timeframe. Luckily, we had a solution.”

In 2013, Shields and Tucker launched Designli, a software development company that creates mobile apps and website designs for startups. In 2014, as the agency started to garner more and more clients, Tucker moved to Greenville. Shields followed in 2015.

The duo purchased a house in downtown and hired several project managers.

Soon after, they decided to close Applits. After three years, the company had received more than 2,000 app ideas, created 18 mobile apps for the iTunes and Google stores, and received Inc.’s 2014 Coolest College Startups award.

One of its most profitable products was ReadyMic, which transformed a Bluetooth headset into a wireless microphone for videos shot using an iPhone. FaceCap, another popular app, allowed users to make custom emojis of their own faces. The apps once garnered several hundred downloads a day, according to Shields.

However, the company only made about $1,800 from the apps. “It wasn’t a winning business model, but it actually taught us a lot about apps,” said Tucker. “Our free mobile apps had around 500,000 downloads. The iTunes and Google stores are just massive, so we weren’t making much money on the paid ones.”

In 2015, Shields and Tucker moved their headquarters to OpenWorks in downtown Greenville, where they started to garner new clients. “Greenville’s startup ecosystem is really young, so it’s nice to be on the forefront of that,” said Shields.

Using their vetted network of about 60 developers, Shields and Tucker started offering their new clients a unique solution: a fixed-fee pricing model and transparency throughout the entire app development process.

“Our project managers work closely with clients in the early stages of the process to identify problems they want solved,” Shields said. “We then design and develop an application that will tackle the problem, and we make client relations a priority.”

“We’re also able to hit the price point that is required for entrepreneurs to get their app off the ground without compromising quality. If a project goes over budget, we don’t pass the costs off to our clients,” he added.

According to Shields, it costs at least $5,000 for project managers to consult with clien