On time (and on budget, FYI) with Mobileware

Better living through software: That's the plan at Long Island High Technology Incubator app-makers Mobileware and FYI Mobileware.
By GREGORY ZELLER //

An innovative Long Island software company is about to relaunch its flagship personal-budgeting app – one of the first downloads ever made available for the original iPhone.

Not only that, but Stony Brook-based FYI Mobileware Inc. – actually, spinoff Mobileware, sans the “FYI” – is also working hard to push its popular community-based transit-scheduling apps into new markets, with a Philadelphia beta run coming soon.

Yun Zhang, CEO and founder of 2008 startup FYI Mobileware and its slightly abbreviated 2009 spinoff, noted two distinct product lines for his dual app-makers, both headquartered inside SBU’s Long Island High Technology Incubator: FYI Mobileware focuses on personal finance, while Mobileware is into region-by-region scheduling, with a family of apps tracking the Long Island Rail Road, Chicago’s Metra commuter system and other regional public-transit operations.

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Yun Zhang: App-etite for expansion.

In the 1990s, Zhang earned a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering and a management of technology degree – a sort of a master’s of science/MBA hybrid – at the Polytechnic Institute of New York University, now known as NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering. Although his formal education was in electronics, Zhang’s heart was always in software.

His love for coding extends back to an early internship working with software developers at IT colossus IBM. His first job out of school was as a software engineer for Chase Bank (before the JPMorgan merger), followed by similar positions at JPMorganChase (post-merger) and German financial-services kingpin Deutsche Bank.

It was at Deutsche Bank – where he managed an internal app-development group that created software solution for auditors, HR staffers and other bank departments – that Zhang saw an opportunity to combine his fresh finance perspectives with his talent for digitizing.

“Even though I have an electrical engineering degree, all my experience was in software,” he noted. “I really feel software can help change the world and make things more efficient and easier.”

What really got his creative juices flowing, he added, was the 2007 debut of the first-generation iPhone, a formative moment for the self-professed technophile.

“I was one of those guys who lined up for the first iPhone,” he noted. “I waited many hours in line for that, and when I got my hands on it, a lightbulb triggered.”

The ability to “access information anywhere, anytime” was still relatively new – mobile providers were just starting to catch up with the Internet – but Zhang’s soft spot for software quickly convinced him that he “really wanted to do something in that space.”

When the online Apple Store opened in 2008, Zhang was ready: The entrepreneur had just launched FYI Mobileware, and that company’s first offering – the personal-finance tracker iXpenseIt – was among the first 500 apps offered by the mobile-communications mothership.

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Budget buddy: Popular from the start, the iXpenseIt app is getting a facelift (right).

Budget buddy: Popular from the start, the iXpenseIt app is getting a facelift (right).

Thanks in part to the iPhone 1’s raging popularity – “everybody was downloading everything,” Zhang noted – iXpenseIt was “profitable right away.” The out-of-the-box hit meant a fast start for FYI Mobileware, which originally launched in New York City.

Zhang, who lived in Queens when he incorporated his two companies, relocated to Suffolk County in 2009 and moved his burgeoning app empire into the LIHTI facility in 2013. By then, iXpenseIt had grown into a full-fledged personal-finance management platform, and the innovator and his five-person software-development team were turning their attention primarily to community-based scheduling via Mobileware’s onTime family of apps.

First to fly was onTime LIRR, which keeps riders abreast of developments along the Long Island Rail Road. The family has since expanded to include onTime MNR (following the Metro-North Railroad), onTime NJT (for New Jersey Transit riders) and onTime Metra, a godsend for Chicago commuters.

Mobileware’s goal is to take onTime national, not only adding new cities and railroads – Philadelphia’s SEPTA system is next, Zhang said, by mid-October – but combining all onTime offerings into a single scheduling mega-app.

“Managing so many apps is a lot of work,” he told Innovate LI. “So we plan to consolidate everything into one onTime brand.”

All told, Zhang’s companies now have about a dozen live apps in the field, including the onTime family, a fuel-consumption-friendly mileage tracker and FYI Decision – a weighted-scoring system that helps inform users facing tough choices like buying a car or choosing a presidential candidate.

After users list their criteria in order of importance, FYI Decision ranks their potential choices against those criteria to produce a customized report “that gives you an objective view of what you should do,” according to Zhang.

While onTime has emerged as Mobileware’s flagship app, iXpenseIt remains FYI Mobileware’s flag-bearer. And the app that started it all is about to complete a year-long facelift, with an all-new iXpenseIt set to debut in the coming weeks.

“We rebuilt it from the ground up,” Zhang noted. “Our goal from Day 1 has been making tracking finances easy, and mobile devices are the perfect platform for this, because they’re everywhere. If you have lunch at McDonald’s, you just capture the receipt and be done with it.

“If we make it easier for people to track, they will become more educated in personal finance.”

While reeducating the population on budgeting and redefining national commuter protocols, Zhang is careful to keep his eyes on another significant prize: creating Long Island jobs and “keeping the talent local.”

“I live here, so we want to make sure the local economy is growing and expanding,” the entrepreneur said. “That’s one of the reasons I came to LIHTI.”

It’s also why Zhang voluntarily mentors Stony Brook University students in the finer points of software development. About 18 SBU students have worked with Zhang and his team since last year – an excellent source of potential future employees, the CEO said, noting two of his employees are recent SBU graduates.

While bolstering Long Island’s innovation economy is an ancillary goal, Zhang knows his bread will be best buttered in national markets, and to that end has set a $2.5 million funding round for his so-far self-funded company. That effort got a virtual shot in the arm Sept. 16, when Zhang pitched to investors at the Long Island Capital Alliance’s Tech Capital Forum.

“We have a substantial user base and we see a lot of value in terms of providing our solutions to more users, as well as creating additional solutions that we think will benefit our current users,” he told Innovate LI. “But if we want to grow quickly, we will need additional funding to make it happen faster.”