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Got apps? These 3 West Virginia college students sure do

Douglas Imbrogno
Computer science college majors (from left) Logan Spears, Ricky Kirkendall II and Sam McLaughlin haven't waited to get their degrees before launching a busy mobile apps development company, called FloCo Apps.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- If they were a band, you might call them The App Boys.

They're not a band, but a busy-as-can-be LLC called FloCo Apps, a mobile application development firm split between Morgantown, Huntington and just about anywhere else in the world.

The three Charleston natives behind the company are also, it should be noted, still computer science majors in college: two, Logan Spears and Sam McLaughlin at West Virginia University, and one, Ricky Kirkendall II, at Marshall University.

"We all went to George Washington High School. We knew each other there forever. Logan was a year ahead of Ricky and me," says McLaughlin who, like Kirkendall, is 20, while Spears is the old guy, at 22.

If you ever had doubts that the courses high schools offer can directly affect lives, observe that all three took Karen Donathan's computer science class at G.W., one of a handful offered in high schools across the Mountain State.

"Ricky and I were always in the computer science lab," McLaughlin said. "That's where we found our interest."

That interest has blossomed into a company that designs, writes and maintains apps for mobile devices, working remotely via Skype and other online collaborative tools with clients and partners around the state, nation and world.

"We've had a few local businesses," McClaughlin said, "but most of our stuff has been outside the state."

FloCo, which specializes in IOS apps but can design for platforms other than Apple products, has worked with about a dozen businesses, including the American Foundation for the Blind and Mercer, a Fortune 500 human resources company.

For Mercer, they designed and maintain an iPad and iPhone newsreader app for viewing the company's subscription newsletter, Mercer Select, which previously had been available only online.

For the American Foundation for the Blind, they exploited the power of the iPhone and iPad to create an app version of the association's AccessWorld blog for blind and visually impaired users.

Apple devices have a Voiceover feature which lets you swipe to hear the device read out the next element on the screen, said Kirkendall, whose college internship with the foundation led to the job.

 "We made an app that essentially 'reads' AccessWorld," he said. "It's essentially a mobile version for their online publication."

Since the app went live just over a year ago, it has increased readership of the publication by about 40 percent, said Kirkendall. "Most of the readers of AccessWorld are now on the iPhone or iPad, using the app."

A point worth clarifying is that FloCo -- online at flocoapps.com -- does not generally develop entrepreneurial apps and diversions like, say, Angry Birds or Instagram, hoping for a huge score in Apple's app store.

"What we do mostly is companies -- they would come to us and want an app for their own business interests and pay us directly," McLaughlin said. "Normally, we don't deal with taking a cut of the actual revenue."

FloCo Apps was launched in Spring 2011, and if you were wondering about the name, know this: There's not much to wonder about, said McLaughlin.

"It was just off the top of the head. I wish we had a better story about the name. I guess I could come up with some deep religious symbolism behind it."

While they maintain an office space in the former United Bank building in Morgantown, the three friends work remotely from wherever they might be.

They share ideas and work from either end of the state's two university poles, while also working digitally with clients they might never actually meet. For instance, that contract with Fortune 500 company Mercer?

"We've never had physical contact with them," Spears said. "We work completely remotely. Sam talks by conference and video call to them every day."

Welcome to the world of collaborative digital work in West Virginia, circa 2012.

"It's still a completely seamless work environment," added Kirkendall.

All that said, these young app masters would love to see a Mountain State version of Silicon Valley come to be -- has 'Silicon Holler' been copyrighted yet?

They talk about such a thing happening in a place like Charleston, powered by the state's two major universities and other digital entrepreneurs like themselves.

There are benefits, after all, to being in a room together and bouncing ideas off a live human being, the trio concedes.

"Charleston has the opportunity to kind of leapfrog," said Spears. "You don't need infrastructure as much. You just need the desire and knowledge base to do it. Then you really have an opportunity to attack this industry and get people involved."

There's certainly enough work out there, Spears added.

"We're not looking to be the only people here to have a monopoly on the app industry. We need more people in our industry -- it's a cooperative thing. There's enough software to go around."

McLaughlin underscored the point.

"The best way it put it is, we've actually turned down business. Not because we didn't want to work on it, we just didn't have the time. That's all we can do. And that's crazy."

While FloCo is certainly nowhere near a million-dollar company yet, it is doing well enough, McLaughlin said.

"I can give you a rough range -- I'd say $100,000. Obviously, we don't want to give away too much. We're not living on Ramen noodles -- anymore, at least."

They have investors and supporters and a growing list of collaborators.

"We did get a $50,000 venture capital investment in August -- we've been working with that," McLaughlin said. "We have a strategic partner in Charleston. He's kind of managing the sales and all that kind of stuff. We can then focus on the technical side, the implementation and all that."

All three are eager to finish school, since keeping up with coursework while keeping up with contract work for clients can be maddening.

"It's rough going to school and programming and not getting paid for it -- then to actually have projects you're working on that could have a sizable impact. And not being able to work on one because you're working on another," McLaughlin said.

Needless to say, one of the things they offer clients is the fact that the three will be working whenever, however and wherever they are to finish projects.

Which means FloCo's Morgantown contingent will not likely be found regularly clubbing late on weekends or doing what some WVU students do to furniture after football games.

"We don't get to go out on Friday night and do that whole thing," McLaughlin said. "Not burning any couches."

Early on in conceiving the business, the three bet on the coming mobile computing revolution, which is transforming the way people interact on the fly with the interconnected world through phones and tablets.

"For instance, Twitter has a website and Twitter has an app," Spears noted. "Their app usage is much higher than the website now. That was the opposite two years ago."

This means that FloCo has to be fast on its feet or at "the bleeding edge," as Spears puts it. Which is why FloCo's app-makers can write code in Objective C for Apple devices, Java for the Android platform, Ruby for server-side needs, and Dart, a recently released open-source programming language from Google.

"One of the things people gather about us pretty quickly is we're pretty quick learners," McLaughlin said. "You have to be, in this business."

A final thing to know about FloCo is a comment by McLaughlin that could well serve as a credo for this young company powered by a few young guys.

"For all of us, work is what we're here to do," he said. "We're just trying to build stuff."

Reach Douglas Imbrogno at douglas@cnpapers.com or 304-348-3017.


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