The Guys Who Developed Tumblr's Mobile App Want to Help Your Startup

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RICHMOND -- The Corrugated Box Building looks something like what the hip industrial neighborhoods of Portland, Oregon looked like before they contained artisan pizza places, big independent businesses and luxury lofts. Only the massive brick buildings here are much, much older, and Richmond still doesn't make the list of top settling destinations for internet-enamored hipsters. But it should. The 40,000-square-foot former factory houses the second office of that totem of urban style chronicles and photoshopped political figures that is Tumblr; as well as a modern architecture and design firm, a branding agency, a web developer, an arts organization, and the tiny company that made Tumblr's first mobile platform, Mobelux. You may not have heard of Mobelux, but if you've ever used Tumblr on your iPhone, Blackberry or Android, you have enjoyed one of their gracefully design products.

Start-Up NationWhen we visited Corrugated Box this afternoon, we were greeted at the entrance by Garrett Ross, who co-founded Mobelux with Jeff Rock in 2007. Ross led us up the steel-grated stairwell across the painted wood floor of the old factory, which is illuminated by sun rays pouring in through huge skylights. Raw beams soar forty feet above the contemporary office spaces, which have been designed in an open plan, with bright orange curtains standing in for walls--the better to accommodate a flourishing startup.

It's clear which side of the building belongs to internet companies. The architects' file boxes, architectural models, magazine stacks and collages of rendered images give way to a corral of identical rectangular tables, each topped with nothing but a large Apple monitor and a slim keyboard. In the Mobelux corner, a couple of framed family photos (and one emblazoned on a mousepad) add some variety to the tech-minimalist vibe.

Ross and Rock's founders' tale doesn't start like most you hear at a meetup in Silicon Valley or New York. They met while working as government contractors in Hampton Roads, the massive military-dominated metropolitan area on the Virginia coast. Among other tasks, the pair were assigned to take photo and video documentation of aircraft carriers that were on active duty, so that shipbuilders would have a visual record of the vessel's design when it came time to disassemble and rebuild the boats.

They discovered they worked well together, Ross says, and they shared a mutual frustration with the tech tools used by the military. "Nobody understood why user experience and interface design might be important," he adds, "We watched it done wrong for a long time." And then they started to brainstorm how they might do it right. Rock laughs at the thought of their early creative conversations, which took place "standing in the middle of the septic tank of an aircraft carrier."

Today their digs are a far cry from a septic tank. With Ross leading the business side and Rock directing product development and design, the duo have become the wizards behind the curtain of some of the most popular mobile social apps. Rock taught himself app design playing with Apple's SDK and toying with Tumblr's API. When Mobelux released their own iPhone client for Tumblr, it quickly became the most popular in the category, and Tumblr reached out to Rock and Ross, eventually acquiring their product as the official Tumblr app for the iPhone. Only later did the two startups become officemates at Corrugated Box Building, with Mobelux providing ongoing mobile support. As of recently, Tumblr has hired their own in-house mobile team, and Mobelux seems to be in a productive flow of turning their own "what if's" about the potential of mobile into innovative new products.

They are working with a music recommendation engine called Rexly, based in San Francisco, and today they shared one of their newest in-house creations, Carousel, a web-based client for Instagram that enables users to view their own images and their friends' in an aggregated, scrolling format rather than one-by-one, as currently displayed on Instagram's site (a tool I've been hoping forever someone would invent). We also got a sneak peek at a prototype for an even more robust media feed, which Rock described as a better way to tell stories about events with whatever images and data get uploaded to social media.

For Rock and Ross, the thrill of the job is in knowing how many people are using their apps--between two and three million a day, they say. They want to help other small companies launch mobile platforms just like they've helped Tumblr and iHome to implement theirs. "We think of Mobelux as a runway for startups who don't have mobile in place," Rock says. As passionate, design-minded users themselves, they are obsessed with creating products that are as elegant as they are functional. So far, it's worked. "We started the company with $400," Rock adds, "And we've been in the black ever since."

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Sarah Rich is the editor of Smithsonian's Design Decoded blog, co-founder of Longshot Magazine and the Foodprint Project, and a former senior editor at Dwell. Her most recent book, Urban Farms, was published in June 2012. 

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