Sian Morson is defying the belief that Black women can’t excel in the tech arena. As founder and CEO of mobile development agency Kollective Mobile based in Oakland, CA, Morson is carving out a successful niche for herself.
Launched in January 2010, Kollective Mobile provides support, strategy, and education to small businesses and startups. “A mobile development agency provides a 360 level of mobile services to businesses. This includes strategy and development services for mobile app development, mobile site development and something every business should have: a mobile strategy on how to reach and retain mobile customers,” explains Morson, whose Kollective Mobile’s clients include non-profits, small businesses, and international ad agencies.
“I started Kollective Mobile because I really did have a love for mobile and believed strongly that it was going to change the world. I wanted to be at the forefront of that. I was also pretty tired of doing the agency grind,” says Morson. “I’d always harbored a desire to work for myself and when the opportunity presented itself, I jumped. It was and still probably is one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. But, certainly, one of the most rewarding. Today, when I see how African Americans are using mobile, I believe that we can innovate in mobile just like we did with turntables in hip-hop. So, I’m pleased that Kollective Mobile is here and hope that we help to drive that innovation as well.”
Initially, Morson’s career had taken a different route. She got a degree in Film & Television from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and later a Master's in Electronic Media from Middlesex University in London, UK. But a move to Silicon Valley brought her to the tech world. “I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area in the late ‘90s after film school. I really did have every intention of making films but technology lured me away,” she recalls. “During that time, the Bay Area was the nexus for the new dot com boom and it was almost impossible not to find tech-related work.
And actually her experience in the arts have aided her tech push. “I don’t regret my degree in Film & Television though. It really gave me a solid grounding in collaborative thinking and working in teams,” she points out. “This is critical in the work that I do now. Technology is very much about working with people who have other skillsets toward a common goal. So, in that respect, the Film & TV degree came in handy. I also still do video art work when I can find the time. It helps to have a creative outlet. And the work that I do manages to fuse technology and creativity which, for me, is everything,” she adds.
When Morson decided to strike out on her own—she literally did it all herself. “Mobile is entirely self-funded by me. I didn’t seek investors when I started the company. I used my savings – wisely,” she reveals. But there were some hurdles. “Initially, my two greatest obstacles were in finding talent and clients. In 2010, mobile was still the new kid on the block and there weren’t very many developers who were willing to work with a small development agency with no clients,” she says. “I decided to worry about clients first and was convinced that I would find the right talent once we actually had work. It paid off. Some of my initial clients were old co-workers and employers who took a chance,” she says. Once the work was flowing in, she focused on attracting a talented team—but that too proved difficult. “Once the work came in, we were able to hire some good technical talent. That was a challenge, too. Many smaller agencies send work overseas and I tried that route as well. But, it wasn’t right for us,” she says. “So, today, we manage to keep our rates down and keep our development talent in the U.S. This actually works very well for us and helps to solidify our relationships with our clients. Quality work wins hands down every time.”
And as Mobile grows, there are new challenges. “The main thing that continues to be an obstacle is managing customer expectations. I think this is a learning process and comes with every business. As we grow and we scale, we need to be able to manage a range of expectations from different customers and this, I think, is a good problem to have,” she says. “Personally, my challenge remains just how to give back as more and more of my time is taken up by various activities. It's about making that a priority so I have to get really creative with the ways that I spend my time so that I meet those personal and professional goals of making sure that I give back.”
Among the goals Morson has for Mobile is strengthening independent business relationships. “This year, we are looking to move from a model where we work primarily with other agencies to really developing long-term relationships on our own. The vast majority of our clients are agencies and when working with some agencies, we don’t have the visibility with the clients that we would like because our relationship is with the agency and they own the relationship with the client,” she says. “Our goal for this year is to have a more balanced clientele. I’d like to see us develop relationships with more Fortune 1000 companies who are interested in developing long-term relationships and need help in crafting a mobile strategy and a product roadmap that we could work with to craft a true partnership to help them grow their mobile business.”
Although Morson is focused on growing her company, she also spends time getting communities involved in the tech area. “This year, I am working on a very special project,” she says. “I’m going to be able to do this in Atlanta where we are planning to create a co-working space called Kollective South. It’s going to be a co-working space and what I like to call a communi-tech center - a place where professionals and entrepreneurs can come together to work and network but also where residents of the local community can come to learn critical computer skills.” She also hopes to offer classes for small businesses on social media and online marketing as well as host meet-ups and networking events and provide skills for neighborhood residents.
For Morson, who volunteers and mentors, instead of concentrating on the digital divide and the low numbers of women, especially Black women in tech, she highlights the positives. “I would rather not focus on how few of us are here but on the ones that actually are. I do think that there are more of us than there were before and this is a trend that I would like to see continue,” she says. “There are some great programs that are opening up the world of technology to young women and girls of African descent..I feel honored, privileged and excited all at the same time to be a Black woman in technology. I certainly wouldn’t change it for anything.”