A little while ago I did an interview with the OzAPP Awards, we talked about making your first app, Discovr and raising venture capital.
Here is a copy of the interview.
Julia Sutton, June 2012
How did you get into app development, what was your first project?
Three or four years ago I was a founder of a company making web applications. We all got iPhones and really loved using the apps people were making for them. After making an iPhone app for ourselves we began getting more and more enquiries for iPhone apps. Soon after we gave away web development completely to focus on apps.
Can you talk about your inspiration for Discovr?
Sure, Discovr is based on graph theory which is a classic way of representing related data. Dave has a science background where similar techniques are commonly used, he was also a musician. So the two blended together to become Discovr Music.
There are several comments about how good the quality of the information is – how do you do that?
One of the major strengths of the Discovr apps is the way they bring a bunch of different data sources together to give a complete experience. We work with a number of different data partners to make this happen, such as The Echonest out of Boston. The Echonest use advanced techniques such as analysing audio tracks to find similars.
So it’s not just written material or people’s opinions, they are actually using music analysis to track influences?
That’s correct, they also use a bunch of other techniques such as scanning social data. Discovr Apps we actually provide all the data ourselves using a combination of algorithms and human curation. Discovr Twitter is based off people’s conversations.
Can we talk a little bit about your graphics?
We try and keep design pretty clean and keep the content as the main focus. The graph / map is a pretty well known technique, but we have spent a lot of time refining it to feel smooth and get the animations right. Early in the development process we got a guy with a PhD in graph theory to help out. The whole team understands the importance of great design, which I think is a real key to successful app startup.
Can you talk a little bit about the research that you did in the early stages of development for Discovr?
A lot of the early research was based around finding the best data sources. It takes a lot of work to get the biz deals done to get the data you want. In the early days there was as much work in that side of the business as there was in development.
If you approach another party for data do you do the negotiations yourself? Or do you get somebody else to negotiate for you? How do you know what to offer and what to pay them?
These companies usually have pretty set commercial deals for their data. Go in with a clear goal of what you want, but it definitely helps to have someone who is experienced in contract negotiation.
What sort of testing do you do before you release an app?
We actually have Ben in our team who is our testing and support guy. He goes through a crazy combination of devices and iOS versions for each release. It definitely makes a huge difference to the quality and stability of each release.
Do you release to a small group of reviewers first?
Historically we haven’t, we’ve just tested it very thoroughly ourselves before releasing each version. For our next app we are probably going to change tack and use a test group.
You’ve made some really important decisions along the way that have contributed to your success. I’m interested in what you think were the great ones that you’ve made? Was it the things that you decided not to do?
The startup community talks a lot about Minimum Viable Product (MVP), which I agree with to a certain extent. Getting a product complete and releasing it is a major accomplishment that a lot of startups never get to. But you also need to make sure it’s a complete enough product for people to take notice. It’s a fine balance.
You really need to sit down and work out your product, what you want it to do, what version 1 needs to do, and work out if it’s achievable in a reasonable timeframe. Then just go for it, build it fast and keep moving fast.
What do you love about this work and what are the downsides of the development?
I love building apps because I love using apps. Some developers are really driven by learning code, I love making products. Making products that millions of people use is both exciting and stressful.A downside of app development is how fast the industry is moving, it takes a lot to keep up. App development such a new industry that has come a long way very quickly.
It can also get pretty expensive trying to keep up with all the new devices coming out, but we all love our tech toys.
So you’re really learning all of the time?
For sure, I think a lot of industries are like that, technology is always changing. If you don’t keep up and adapt to the changes then you will get passed by pretty quickly. So you need to keep learning and keep up with new trends.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
Don’t forget to market your app. Making the app is only half the journey, so many great apps don’t get to the level they should of because people have never heard of them.
The level of design in apps keeps going to new levels, if your app doesn’t look first class then people aren’t going to give it a lot of time. Also make sure it has a great name and icon.
So those are the key marketing things, the icon and the design of the app, how it works and contacting the press, are there any other ways to really get noticed?
The best way to get noticed is to get some love from Apple in the way of a feature. Unfortunately there isn’t any exact formula for that, it takes a bit of luck and a really good app.
The next best way is to be in the top charts, which is going to take some really good marketing. To get people to click on your app, then click the buy button you need a great name, icon, app description and screen shots.
Try to get some press to write about you, build some momentum to get up the charts and hopefully get more people to notice you. Then hopefully it snowballs. Unfortunately a lot of great apps just never make it to that level, they just hover out of the charts where nobody ever sees them.
What are your favorite apps at the moment, the ones you’re really playing with a lot.
I really like the Path app, is really well designed, they’ve done some really good mechanics to get people coming back to the app to reuse it. Instagram’s done really well, obviously when they just sold for $1 billion.
What is your definition of a great app?
A great app solves an every day problem or need, whether it’s a utility, a social network or a discovery tool. It also has to work really smoothly and be really well designed.
So it’s about solving a problem for someone. How closely do you think about the demographic of each market? Do you go down to gender and age or anything like that?
Are there particular blogs and forums that you find inspirational or useful?
We don’t really, outside giving some consideration to the size of the market. If you make something with a really broad appeal you obviously have a big market to aim at, but you are also going to have a lot more competition.
There are a lot of people having success making really niche products to start with. The marketing is a lot easier because you can target to that niche. So starting out it’s a great way to do it, find one of your own hobbies or interests and make an app that solves the problem for yourself in that niche. It’s probably not the first app you make that’s going to be huge. It could be five or six apps down the track that actually takes off for you. So just keep making apps.
I’m a big Twitter user so rather than a particular blog or forum, I just follow a lot of developers and interesting people in the industry. I find that a lot of great information comes through there, new apps coming out, new features from Apple etc.
A lot of the development teams around Australia are doing well with quite small teams. Is that because of the nature of startup or is it that small teams are very suitable for app development?
I think a bit of both. A lot of apps don’t take the development effort compared to traditional software development. Small teams can move and adapt really quickly. There is also a real shortage of skills in the mobile development, it’s such a new industry that it’s going to take some time for skills to catch up.
How big is your team now?
Six. We have three developers, myself, Darcy and Sam, Dave is our CEO, Kristy looks after culture and community, and Ben who looks after support and testing.
Is there anything else you can think of that you would say to an app developer just starting out?
I would say stop thinking about it and just build it. The best way you’re going to learn is by just by making an app. Finish it off, put it in the store and market it.
You learn a lot from that full cycle. Don’t worry about trying to find the idea that’s going to beat Angry Birds or Flipboard. I think just make an app you will use yourself and go through the whole cycle to release and then maybe for your next app you can aim for something a bit more ambitious.
You’ve attracted some investment funding. Besides capital how does having VC investors involved in your business help you?
You get a lot of great business advice. If you haven’t run a company before, you have to start hiring, paying employees, making contracts, leasing office space etc. They help with introducing you to people in the industry, and to other influential people. They are great at developing business plans. It’s all about surrounding yourself with people who have skills you don’t have.
Obviously the money helps if you want to expand your team. There is a lot of great teams doing well without raising VC, so it depends if you’ve got enough money to live off while you build, what you’re aims are and how big you want to get.
I’d like to finish with the question I know a lot of Discovr fans are thinking about, what can we get excited about?
We’re actually building something not Discovr related at the moment. Something brand new from the ground up that is in music again. We think it is going to be pretty cool. Hopefully they will be pretty excited when they see it.
Something really big for Discovr Music is coming as well, I think our users are going to really love it.
When do you imagine that will be in the store?
No release date at the moment, we are deep in the build stage, but it’s hard to put a timeline on it because we want to release it when it’s ready. It’s going to take some market testing before we release it. Based on the reactions to that, we’ll know how much work we have to do.
It sounds like a very exciting time for you.
Yes, it’s really good working on something new. It’s really fun making new products.
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