At 31, Joel Mueller has watched his company MacUpdate hit the Inc. 500 fastest growing companies list for the third year in a row. That alone is a rare feat. Now consider this: Mueller founded the company when he was a sophomore at Suttons Bay High School.
TRAVERSE CITY – When the TCBN caught up with MacUpdate founder, Joel Mueller, last month, he was watching the sun rising over the island of Maui. Mueller loves to surf and can work from anywhere he can get an Internet connection. If it comes with waves, all the better.
MacUpdate.com is the 233rd fastest growing privately owned company in the nation, according to the 2010 Inc. 500 list. Inc. also listed it 22nd in the software industry and fifth in Michigan. Not bad for a 14-year-old company founded by a 16-year-old living in a small northern Michigan town.
The 2010 Inc. 500 list is ranked according to percentage revenue growth from 2006 through 2009, which for MacUpdate.com is an eye-popping 1,039 percent.
Surely some of you Apple lovers out there know of MacUpdate, or even are members of the online community. Others of you might know – or know of – Mueller. But both he and the company fly under the radar locally, something he readily acknowledges. He doesn't have any Traverse City companies as customers and, until the last year, hadn't lived in any one place longer than six months in years. He now splits his time between Traverse City and Kalamazoo.
With company revenue projected to be $5.5 million this year, one might guess MacUpdate employs several dozen people. But there are only seven employees – all of them virtual. "I worked with my first employee for two years before finally meeting him in person," says Mueller.
MacUpdate.com is a wildly popular Mac community – second in traffice only to Apple.com. (It has no affiliation with Apple, Inc.) The site helps owners of Apple Macintosh computers and Apple iPhones find and update their software. It also offers a place for developers to buy and sell software and get feedback on their applications. The website has 5.3 million unique visitors every month. Think about that for a minute: 5.3 million. That's 9.2 million visitors every month.
Mueller remembers the day his parents first brought an Apple computer into the house when he was a young teen. "My sister and I would hear the 'dong' [the sound Apples used to make when first turned on] through the bedroom door, but we couldn't see or touch it," says Mueller. "Then, at Christmas, they opened the door. I remember playing around with it, and then trying to fix it because we messed it up."
In high school, Mueller had his eye on his future while his friends had their eyes on girls, sports or good grades. "Teachers seemed to teach people based on their own experiences – which often were to go to school, get good grades, go to university and get a job," says Mueller. "I asked myself how it would be possible to make the process more efficient. To find a more direct route that made you money earlier in life."
Mueller liked technology and "wanted to have a voice," he says. He also wanted to create a community where people could share information. His cousin at Michigan Tech told him about web pages. "All I had to do was learn something called HTML," he says.
No sooner said than done. Originally called Extreme-mac.com, his website was a place to read Apple-related news and talk on a message board.
"High school is a great time to start a business," says Mueller. "When else in life can you minimize risk and focus your efforts on growing a company while not worrying about paying for rent or groceries?"
The site was first monetized when Mueller wrote an e-book called "Extreme Mac's HTML Tricks" on how to make a web page. He sold it for $10.
Mueller lists several people at Suttons Bay who were encouraging of his young entrepreneurial spirit – local businessman Dave Monstrey, for one. Monstrey worked at the school as a network administrator and sought Mueller out for information about Mac networking, giving the young student a boost of self-confidence. There was also his sixth grade science teacher, Bill Green, whom he credits with teaching him about long-term decision-making, and business teacher Stan Pasch. Then there were the guys in the original CherryMUG (local Mac User group), which Mueller helped launch, along with Corbin Design's Rick Stringer.
Happy Apple Days
Mueller kept plugging away at the site, which supported him through college. There were some lean times, when some people "thought Apple was gonna die," Mueller says. "Many people ask if our growth is because Apple is growing so rapidly. I don't attribute MacUpdate's growth to the success of Apple. Instead, I attribute it to focus."
Mueller highlights three areas of the site that have been boons for the business:
– MacUpdate Promo – developers partner with the site to generate high volume sales during 24-hour promotions; has sold more than 1.5 million copies of software in the last three years.
– Software bundles – the site negotiates with software publishers and combines different software together to sell at a steal for a limited time; the site once sold 43,000 bundles in two weeks time.
– MacUpdate Desktop – launched just over a year ago, the application is a subscriber service that for $20 a month keeps all of a user's software automatically updated; currently has more than 20,000 paying subscribers.
But impressive growth and obvious success aside – something Mueller is looking for is mentoring.
"One of the things I really desired growing up was having business mentors," he says, and it's something he still wants. "Someone who has an incredible business mind with some overlapping values and interests."
Mueller cites common small business owner challenges as he looks ahead: How to find the next handful of employees for his small, nimble company? How to sculpt MacUpdate's vision and direction for the future? How to morph and utilize his MacUpdate community, what he describes as the company's "core competency"?
"But I also need to spin the table … and recognize that I have a lot to offer others from my own experiences and viewpoints" – to act as a soundboard for other whip-smart creative young entrepreneurs like he once was – and still is. BN
Interested in bending Mueller's ear about business? He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.