It may sound unconventional, but it was thanks to his semi-professional marathon-running dad that Dan Hartveld got into computing at the tender age of eight. Today, Hartveld is the chief technology officer of Red Ant, a company that develops enterprise mobile technology for big retail brands like TopShop and the rest of Arcadia Group, ToysRUs and Iceland.

Techworld met with Hartveld to find out how the 30-year-old, self-taught computer programmer applied his entrepreneurial instincts to start up his own company, Mobile Retail Solutions. His startup saw opportunities in retail mobile apps long before they became mainstream, and, after being bought by Red Ant Group, now also specialises in helping retailers deliver a seamless, omnichannel shopping experience.

Dan Hartveld, CTO of retail technology firm Red Ant, set up his first business building websites at the age of 15. Image credit: Dan Hartveld

Hartveld taught himself programming on a computer his dad won in a race, back in the days when computer equipment was a trendy prize. He also taught himself how to build websites, and at the age of 15 he and a school friend ran a small business making websites for friends and family.

“The websites were really basic stuff. For example, a friend of the family was setting up her own lingerie brand. It was at the start of the dotcom boom when ecommerce was just product information and things like that, and college and school websites. We’d get paid in things like, one time, in blank CDs, rather than cash.”

But taking things apart and figuring out how things work is just one of Hartveld’s main passions. He is also interested in the role that technology can play in effecting social change, which is what drove him to do a joint degree in physics and computing at Warwick University. It was also at university that he was able to nurture the entrepreneurial skill that first demonstrated itself in his teenage years.

“Computing was where I knew there was business and commercial opportunities, and I was always interested in running a business, taking the idea and progressing that through.”

Mobile and retail

His move into mobile and retail came not long after leaving university. When he finished at Warwick, it was “just before the mobile revolution really happened”, when pay-as-you-go mobile phones was starting to take off.

“After graduating, I specialised in what at the time was called embedded systems, and what people now see as mobile and mobile systems.”

At the first - nameless - startup that Hartveld set up to experiment with this mobile technology, he worked on a project developing “next generation paintball games”. For this, he programmed what today would be known as a wearable device that would vibrate or change colour when a player gets hit.

Hartveld then made his first foray into retail when he went to work for online groceries retailer Ocado in 2007 as a lead developer. He joined the company to head up the company’s mobile and handheld systems team, which at the start was mainly about developing technology around the delivery drivers and the logistics of how a driver processed a delivery on their mobile devices.

“And then Ocado, which was very much a forerunner in technology, decided it wanted to do a mobile shopping app,” he says.

“No one in the country was doing shopping apps at this point. We found it was a race to the start to get out a shopping app quickly.”

Hartveld wrote the mobile shopping app with Ocado’s now chief technology officer, Paul Clarke, who was his boss at the time.

“It did really well for Ocado. It brought in a proportion of their sales that was unprecedented at the time. So that’s when I thought, there’s an industry here, there’s an opportunity here.”

Becoming a startup

In 2009, Hartveld left Ocado to found Mobile Retail Solutions, which specialised in mobile commerce. The startup merged with Red Ant Group a year later to form what is now Red Ant’s mobile division. In 2010, the division focused specifically on developing iPhone retail apps, but today works across all platforms, including Android.

“I wanted to take what happened at Ocado and saw that there were opportunities where other retailers would want this. [After the Red Ant merger], we got a deal with Topshop, basically rebranded Topshop’s app, and from there, really expanded our consultancy.”

As well as giving him his first taste of retail, Hartveld appreciates the role Ocado played in informing his own business. For example, he likes how the company sets out its vision at the start, and works to get to that endpoint quickly.

“Ocado is a great company. They have a very forward-facing approach to technology, a let’s do it attitude.

“Also, there’s a very strong lack of silos within the company. The different departments very much talk to one another, and IT is seen as an enabler and not a disabler. It is seen as a business function that aids all the other parts of the business. That’s something we at Red Ant try to perpetuate on.”

Mobile apps

As Red Ant was so early to market with mobile shopping apps, there was a lot of educating that the company had to do before it could sell its services. This led to Hartveld co-authoring a ‘Going Mobile - A How-To Guide’ in 2011 to help retailers understand what a mobile strategy involved, including the constraints, with important questions retailers need to ask before embarking on a mobile strategy.

Now, however, with the explosion of mobile devices among consumers, conversations with retail clients have moved on from the education phase to implementation.

Hartveld’s job at Red Ant is now to help retailers connect their disparate systems and to work out what mobile strategy works best for them.

“Typically, at the start, we focus on just connecting the ecommerce systems. The barrier to mobile is getting that information from the ecommerce systems to the mobile platforms. This involves understanding how Apple iOS works and how that compares to Android. There are also questions around, do we make two independent native apps, or do we do a hybrid app that works over both?”

There’s not a “magic bullet” solution to the decision.

Hartveld explains: “It’s easier to make a good native app, iPhone or Android, but more difficult to maintain in the long term because you’ve got two separate platforms and two very specialised skills bases - you need an Apple iOS developer and an Android developer. If you’re a bigger brand, that’s easier to do.”

In contrast, a hybrid app is easier to maintain, keep upgrading and change, but is more difficult to make well, he says.

“A lot of retailers have gone down that route and ended up with something not really better than a mobile website and not really gaining anything.”

What’s next?

In the short term, Hartveld says he is “all about” improving the retail experience for the general consumer. His goals for the medium to long-term are, however, more ambitious. He is, for example, interested in how technology can make our lives more convenient.

“This will be achieved with wearables and continued integration with technology in subtle ways in our lives,” he says.

He also wants to be involved with technology that can be used to speed up globalisation (in the sociological sense).

“The modern information age has been underrated in its role in promoting global peace and prosperity, especially with the rise of the internet in all countries over the past 10 years. It is giving people greater understanding of the needs of others and global issues. I’d like to be involved.”

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