MetaLab Updates Ballpark to Help Small Businesses, But Don't Call it a Revolution

By Nathaniel Mott , written on August 14, 2012

From The News Desk

This is awkward. Just one day after Sarah explained why there hasn't been a small business software revolution, MetaLab has decided to update its long-standing invoicing app aimed at – you guessed it – freelancers and small businesses, Ballpark.

Based in the maybe-not-so-great White North, MetaLab has been working on this Ballpark update for the better part of six months. The company, founded by CEO Andrew Wilkinson in 2006, built Ballpark to make invoicing its clients less of a hassle. With a new website and an iPhone app awaiting Apple's approval, today's update is the first Ballpark has seen since 2009, a byproduct of MetaLab's move into other products and categories.

In her post, Sarah says: "[...]small businesses may never have as good of software across the board as large companies, because selling, configuring, training, and maintaining them is just too expensive to justify the prices paid and still build a company that can make Wall Street happy." MetaLab isn't proof that a company can exist solely to serve small businesses – the company is too diversified for that – but Ballpark does show that there are good options for small businesses looking to break into the digital age.

Invoicing was a major pain point during my freelancing days. I was lucky enough to work with just one main client, but each month I would need to develop as many as five invoices to cover every aspect of my work for that client. After some experimenting with Numbers, the iWork analogue to Microsoft's Excel, I was able to get a working template going that helped ease the pain, but invoicing day continued to be stressful. In short: I needed Ballpark.

Since Ballpark's initial release, MetaLab has diversified its business to become a product company (as seen with Ballpark and Flow, the company's task manager), a consulting company, a premium Tumblr theme maker, and a "design capital" investor. Wilkinson pins the company's diversity on a combination of his need to jump between multiple projects and an effort to insure that if any one vertical fails, the company can survive. "I like being diversified. I sleep much better at night, because I know that worst-case scenario we have to move [people from] one of these things," he says.

MetaLab began as a design consulting firm with Wilkinson as the only employee, supplementing their bottom line doing HDD Recovery Services at first. 2006 and Web 2.0 played a large role in his ability to start a design company. "I learned how to make glossy buttons, and that made me worth a lot of money," Wilkinson summarizes. The company's Tumblr theme, Fluid, is one of the most popular themes on the platform. Given Tumblr's, erm, seedy dark side, Wilkinson says that he's seen a lot of referral from less-than-respectable sites. "I'm a porn profiteer, I guess," he said before catching himself and quickly asking that the quote stay out of the article. (I told him that it would appear, and he mumbled something that I took as begrudging approval.)

With a cashflow-positive business, a profitable Tumblr theme division, and a big-wig consulting branch, MetaLab has decided to take what it has learned working with larger companies and use those skills to help startups. Calling the initiative "design capital," MetaLab will help startups with development, design, strategy and development in exchange for equity.

"We're not going to be investing in social networks or anything like that. We're investing in things that generate revenue and have a clear business model," Wilkinson says. "We're investing for cashflow." Wilkinson isn't looking for big exits – instead, he wants to invest in companies with strong, product-oriented founders that work out in the long term. "[We're] not looking for a 3-5 year return, we're looking for an organic, slow return over a couple years."

Two companies, MediaCore and Kiind, have already taken this design-for-equity offer. Wilkinson's method is interesting, and born from what appears to be a distaste for the current state of venture capital. "I look at VCs as credit cards, basically," he says. "You've got to pay it back at some point." The idea of bartering services for equity is interesting. Unproven, but interesting, and we'll have to wait and see if Wilkinson is brilliantly crazy or just crazy.

The idea of design capital embodies everything that MetaLab – and Wilkinson – believe about building companies. "I want to build a 20 or 30-year company," Wilkinson says. It's not quite the 100-year run that Phil Libin or Mark Pincus want for Evernote and Zynga, respectively, but it shows a larger shift away from big exits and towards long-running companies. Sarah's conclusion about the small business software revolution applies here: "The optimistic case would be that we’re getting there. But we’re certainly not there yet."