February 12, 2014, 12:50 PM

How to build a top-notch mobile team—and hang onto it

Speakers at the IRCE Focus: Web Design + Mobile Commerce explain how they got started in mobile, how they find mobile talent and how they maintain a startup atmosphere to retain good workers.

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Mobile commerce moves fast—what’s big today may be old news in a few short months, says Kenneth Weiss, director of digital marketing at personalized gifts e-retailer Things Remembered Inc. Retailers, he says, must build a mobile team that can design what works best now to market to mobile shoppers but that can also adapt to new practices and design ideas.

Weiss and Geoffrey Robertson, vice president of U.S. e-commerce and strategy at industrial supplies seller W. W. Grainger Inc., discussed their mobile strategies in a session at the IRCE Focus: Web Design + Mobile Commerce in Orlando yesterday in a session titled, “How to find mobile staff and build a team.”

At Things Remembered, Weiss looks for mobile developers that have the skills to build more than just the project at hand. For instance, Things Remembered can use geolocation to target customers within a mall today, but eventually it expects to know where a shopper is inside a particular store, Weiss said. So, the retailer is interested in hiring a mobile technology expert knowledgeable in topics such as geofences, which can target shoppers in a specific “fenced” area, in some cases as small as 100 feet. Geofencing can use a wireless carrier network’s cell towers or the GPS location data available in smartphones to determine when a customer enters a specified area.

Similarly, Things Remembered outlines the mobile devices for which each project is designed and makes sure the developers are familiar with the required platform—for example, an iPad running Apple Inc.’s iOS operating system or a smartphone using Google Inc.’s Android operating system. It does the same for the analytics it will need to carry out on the project and the operations required to keep it going, Weiss said.

Finally, Things Remembered emphasizes testing with its mobile staffers in order to keep abreast of all new screen sizes and formats that arise. Weiss suggested all retailers take their mobile team out to a Best Buy Co. Inc. store for two hours on Friday afternoons and allow them to play with all the latest gadgets on the shelves. That inspiration will help keep the mobile staff interested, he said, and it will put into perspective the long history of mobile progress from brick-like devices barely better than Walkie-Talkies in the 1980s to today’s paper-thin, even wearable digital devices.

Robertson at Grainger agreed that inspiration is key to not only finding the best—and in some cases scarce—mobile talent available, but also in keeping it. Grainger developed its mobile unit from one team working around a single table in a back room two years ago to a large, continually growing office in downtown Chicago whose products are central to the company’s overall marketing, he said.

“We were given 12 weeks to build a mobile transactional site,” Robertson said. “We pulled a team into one room and started to figure out what we needed.”

To help accelerate its launch into mobile, Grainger employed an outside expert in mobile architecture to work with in-house designers, he said. That set the stage for the next phase, when the retailer had its first mobile product and wanted to begin recruiting for its own mobile team. “Great talent wants to be part of success, a winning team,” he said. “If you build something great, your job is to let everyone know.”

Grainger released a humorous video demonstrating the merits of its first iPhone app that feels like something a small startup company would film in the basement—the mark of a place where today’s top mobile developers likely want to be, Robertson said. With proper marketing, the retailer can spread the message about the interesting mobile projects it is completing, which organically attracts engineers to join the company, he said. To that end, Grainger appoints a marketing manager to each mobile project.

“We let people know we’re here, we’re a well-funded startup inside the company—and that it is a super-exciting place to be working,” Robertson said. Now, two years later as a more mature organization, that also helps Grainger solve its current issue of retaining mobile talent, he said. “We make sure the team continues to work on new things, that there’s still the energy of it feeling like a startup,” he said.  “We all know the mobile space is opening up new worlds’ of possibilities.”

Things Remembered is No. 343 in the 2013 Top 500 Guide. Grainger is No. 15 in the Top 500 and No. 92 in the Mobile 500.

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