A brief history of MobileOps
by Michael Armfield
My favorite part of childhood was playing with my Legos. I lived for those long summer days with thousands of plastic bricks sprinkled across the carpet like confetti. Now, I’m a father of two young boys and my carpet is strewn with larger Legos called Duplos. To my sons, I’m a “Master Builder”—someone who uses their imagination to build Lego structures instead of relying on instructions—a term coined by the Lego Movie. To everyone else, I’m the founder and CEO of MobileOps. But I wasn’t always.
Back in 2008, I was working towards a degree in English Literature. With mass layoffs and the financial crisis peaking in every industry, my future job prospects were looking dim. At the time, I was also interning at Foss Maritime Company. But like all internships, there was no guarantee of a full-time job at the end of it.
One day, a manager at Foss named John came up to me and asked if I could build a simple app to distribute forms and manuals to the tugboat crews on a monthly basis. Because there was no additional budget for it, it needed to be done in-house. He’d thought of me because I had put “web development” on the bottom of my resume. In the moment, I didn’t know if I could. I had experience in making simple web pages, but not functional apps. But I was a student, and I knew I could learn. I told John, “Yes”.
It took a lot of time and effort, with late nights back at my apartment, but I went on to build the “Marine Operations Disc”, or “MOD”. It was a single executable file that installed a folder structure with a local webpage that made it easier for tugboat crews to find the resources they needed on the computer. I’d accomplished what John asked me to do and MOD was used for over a decade—long after I’d moved on.
After graduating college, I was offered the opportunity to work for Steve Scalzo at Foss’ parent company at the time, Marine Resources Group (MRG), partly due to my success with the MOD at Foss. Tasked with special technical projects, Steve sent me to Alaska for several weeks to onboard their recent acquisition, Cook Inlet Tug and Barge (CITB), but for the shoreside staff and tugboat crews who were used to pen and paper, the new digital requirements were daunting. Thinking back to the MOD, I wondered if I could build an iPad app that digitized all the Excel forms to help them in their transition. At the time, smartphones and tablets were going mainstream. It was only a matter of time until we started working on them, too.
With Steve’s blessing, I resigned from MRG to pursue this idea: digital forms you could access anytime so that you could do business anywhere. I gave up my full-time salary and moved back into my childhood bedroom all because I believed I could help the CITB crew. For several months I worked day and night, teaching myself how to code software and design user interfaces, but doubt soon chipped away at my good intentions. I had no background in computer science. No teacher to guide me when I couldn’t get my code to work. There were many points where I considered throwing in the towel. But then, I’d keep at it. I would figure out the solution. And the rush of energy and sense of accomplishment propelled me forward until finally, it was done. The first version of MobileOps.
I flew up to Anchorage to meet with Brad, the manager of CITB to show him MobileOps. I was ecstatic when Brad and all the crew members liked the app decided to to give it a chance.
It was a great feeling to have people using software I’d created to make their jobs easier. I wanted to help other companies too and sought out to find them. To my great dismay, other workboat companies I visited felt uncomfortable buying and trusting software built by one guy in his early twenties, self-taught in computer science.
I didn’t acquire a single new customer for over two years. I started to doubt the future viability of MobileOps. So when I got the opportunity to work at a venture-backed startup specializing in distributed systems in late 2014, I jumped at the opportunity.
What I thought would be a nice tech job, however, turned out to be an incredible learning experience. For the first time in my career, I was working with a team. With some of the most intelligent minds I’ve ever met. They taught me the necessary technical skills I didn’t know I lacked. It was somewhat like getting a Computer Science degree, but better. I was getting real world experience at the front lines of a tech startup. Most of all, we were helping businesses with the tools we were building and it reminded me why I started MobileOps in the first place: to help businesses digitize their work so that they could be more efficient.
Though I enjoyed working at the start up, I had a gut feeling that I needed to give MobileOps one final go. At the time, MobileOps was still going strong with CITB, but I knew if I committed myself to the vision, using my newfound skills and business knowledge, I could make an impact in the marine industry. So after two years, I resigned with the tech start up and brought on two cofounders with decades of experience in the industry. It would mean giving up 50% ownership, but I was no longer a one man company. I was flanked by two reputable men in the maritime space.
Together we went to Western Towboat Company in Seattle to sell our software, but we were up against a long-established rival in the space. In the end, Western Towboat Company chose us because they realized that MobileOps wasn’t simply another provider, but a partner. With their invaluable feedback, we were able to build features that helped shaped the future trajectory of the MobileOps product while meeting their needs as a workboat company.
With CITB and Western Towboat on MobileOps, Westar Marine Services also took a chance and came aboard. Then P&R Water Taxi in Hawaii—which stills holds the honor of fastest implementation ever: 3 days for 15 boats. Then we got contacted by a prospect in Australia, a prospect in the Midwest, and they just kept coming. People were beginning to see the value in MobileOps: How leveraging technology could give our partners a competitive advantage in the marketplace, creating efficiencies so they’re always ready, while getting massive returns in the form of savings.
These days, I’m still building, but I’m not building alone. I hired my first employee back in 2018, then another, and another… and we’ve doubled or tripled in size every year since. There are no plastic bricks strewn across our desks, but there’s feedback from our partners and prospects—challenging us with new ideas—allowing us to innovate and meet their needs.
It’s been a long and arduous road founding and building MobileOps, but looking back, I’m glad I said “yes” to John all those years ago. In a way, I was telling my younger self “yes”. That I could build something useful. That I could help.
Today, I am still saying, yes, but on behalf of MobileOps: “Yes, we can help. Let us show you how.”