The near death experience that created a tech millionaire

By Rob Boffard
Business reporter

image copyrightChad Mureta
image captionChad Mureta managed to keep his arm, but it's now made of titanium from the elbow

"I'm not a tech person."

It's not what you'd expect a tech millionaire to say.

It's even odder when you realise that the person saying it, Chad Mureta, is an archetypal tech millionaire.

Mr Mureta built his fortune designing apps. His creations, which include the Emoji app, helping users annotate their messages with a greater variety of amusing pictures, and a phone security app, Fingerprint Scanner Pro, have been downloaded over fifty million times. His company, App Empire, pulls in between $3m and $5m (£1.9m to £3.3m) in revenue every year.

But in other ways he's very much not your average tech entrepreneur. It took a brush with death to steer him in the right direction.

In 2009, he was driving back from a basketball game. Things were not going well for him. He had sold stuff on eBay, sold timeshares and run a night club. Now he was an estate agent, and was deeply unhappy, with no real idea of what he wanted to do with his life.

As he drove down the motorway, a deer stepped out onto the road ahead of him. He swerved to avoid it. His car smashed into the central reservation barrier. The car flipped end over end, rolling four times before it came to a stop.

Mr Mureta's left arm was torn to shreds. In hospital, the doctors came very close to amputating it.

image copyrightThinkstock
image captionSpending six months in hospital left Chad Mureta "very depressed... and actually very suicidal," he says

'Very suicidal'

What lay ahead were six soul-sapping months in hospital, and another six months in rehab, with nothing more than a $100,000 medical bill waiting for him at the end - the United States requires patients to pay for treatment, and his insurance policy wouldn't cover the fees.

"I was at such a low place," he says. "Very depressed, couldn't sleep, tonnes of medication - and actually very suicidal. I was in so much pain I didn't think I could go on any more."

What happened next is the sort of thing that Hollywood screenwriters would struggle to make believable - and yet Mr Mureta swears it's true.

image copyrightApp Empire
image captionI just had this 'A-ha' moment, says Mr Mureta

One of the few things to survive the accident was his smartphone.

It was brand new on the day of the accident, but unlike his torn-up clothing, it had somehow scraped through relatively unscathed, hanging on with 12% of battery life.

'A-ha moment'

As he lay in his hospital bed, he saw doctors idly flicking through the phone; and he began to think how it would be good to have some way of increasing security on your phone.

He was still on strong medication, and his mind drifted from the idea.

But then a visiting friend brought him a magazine article about apps. This was in the early days of app development when individual coders, were changing the world single-handedly from their attics.

"I just had this 'A-ha' moment, where I said, 'holy cow, I'm going to do this'," says Mr Mureta. "I was sitting there, on all these IV drips, morphine, and I looked around and I finally saw the picture. I entertained a different destiny."

"I'll never forget that emotion - I can't describe it in words. It was this transparent moment: here's your answer, and you're foolish if you look at anything else."

image copyrightThinkstock
image captionChad Mureta's Emjoi app enables users to annotate their messages with a variety of smiley faces

A gimmick

It was easier said than done. The resources for developing apps weren't as readily available as they are now and Mr Mureta had no experience in coding.

But he did have one precious commodity as he convalesced: time.

"I just sat there, looking at all these apps," he says. "I was asking: 'Why? Why does the customer like this app?' That gave me the competitive advantage to make this happen."

What's more, one of the doctors had a cousin in India, and mentioned to Mr Mureta that he was just getting into app development. Mr Mureta took a chance, borrowed $1,800 from his stepfather and overcame language and technical barriers to knock his first product into shape.

Two months later, Fingerprint Security Pro was in the app store.

In the end, the app didn't actually offer any security - it was a gimmick that pretended to read someone's fingerprint and deny them access to the phone, with a hidden unlock button in its top corner. But it didn't matter. Users loved it. In its first month, it made $12,000. Mr Mureta was on his way.

image copyrightApp Empire
image captionChad Mureta only spends one or two hours a day working on App Empire


In the years since the accident, Mr Mureta, now 34, has built and sold three app companies and developed over fifty apps.

App Empire, his current company, makes its money from teaching others how to develop and release their own apps, both through bespoke tutoring and through publishing books on the process.

One of the reasons the company has been so successful, Mr Mureta says, is that he made sure to only do what he was good at, and let others handle the rest. He keeps his company lean and fast, relying on a team of freelancers complemented by a small core of full-time staff.

And he's not very hands on himself.

"I work probably one or two hours a day on App Empire," he says. "I just make sure things are running smoothly".

This is why Mr Mureta says he isn't a tech guy, although he is fascinated by technology. He can't personally code you an app. But he can tell you to get one made, and how to launch it successfully.

A traumatic accident like the one Mr Mureta suffered is often difficult to talk about, but he's happy to share details. Part of this, he says, is that he realised his recovery has inspired others in similar situations.

And although it will never be fully functional, Mr Mureta kept his arm. "I have titanium all the way up from my elbow," he says. "It was ground breaking and unbelievable surgery. Because I still have feeling in my arm, I can use it for the most part, and most people wouldn't even know - aside from the crazy, bear-like scar I have on there!".

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