Today’s interview is with Daniel James. Daniel is a founder and mobile developer who got his start building products during his senior year at Kansas State University. The product he built his senior year went on to become a direct competitor with a product that I ended up building a few years later. Shockingly, neither of us had any idea we were essentially next door neighbors here in the city of Wichita until we synced up during our time together at another local startup. Imagine the conversation. I mention the product I built, he laughs and mentions his, and we both start shaking our heads—we were floored.
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[alert color=”blue”]Quotes. They’re inspirational, wise and motivating. What is one of your favorite quotes that encourages you to keep pushing forward and that you would happily frame on one of your walls? What does it mean to you?[/alert]
I love simplicity. It let’s me cut away the cruft to focus on what’s truly important; it’s liberating! In my opinion, the height of simplicity is realizing that good things can still be a roadblock to the important, valuable things.
“It is not a daily increase, but a daily decrease. Hack away at the inessentials.” ~ Bruce Lee
[alert color=”blue”]Let’s jump right into it! What made you decide to build mobile products? When and how did you get started on the journey you’re on now?[/alert]
In the ’09-10 school year, my capstone senior project could be just about anything I wanted it to be. The guidelines were pretty broad and I relished the opportunity to pick up something new. A friend of mine had gotten me into investing, so we thought it would be fun to build something common to two interests we were both passionate about: Macs and day-trading.
With the professor’s approval and zero Objective-C experience, we bought a couple books and set out to build a native trade journal for Mac. In the five to six months that we had from Christmas break to the end of Spring semester, we learned enough Objective-C and Cocoa to be able to jury-rig a prototype app that was 80% complete by graduation day.
School finished, but we wanted to see it through to the App Store; to this day it’s still there as Alesco Trade Journal. We’ve updated it a couple times, but it badly needs some love…
Of course, by this time the iPhone was a big deal, and the iPad was just hitting the masses. The transition into iOS development was pretty natural from there! I did take a bit of a break from development to get married, but in 2011, I got an iPad 2 and began to play around with the idea of mobile development on it. The friend with whom I’d worked on my senior project had already made the transition to mobile, and this only served to further pique my interest! In 2012 I started my own dev shop, Sensical Apps, LLC and set off to build something.
My first mobile app was Listical, a shopping list app; I learned quite a bit with it, and have since moved on to some other great projects (mostly contracting). I’m currently focused on finishing up an app for Vamonos, a company that I helped co-found, that was born out of the November ’13 Startup Weekend in Wichita!
[alert color=”blue”]Take yourself back to the beginning of wanting to build a new product. How do you decide what idea to work on? Where do you hunt for inspiration or discover problems worth solving? What does this early discovery process look like?[/alert]
For the things that I’ve started myself (Alesco and Listical), both were born from a desire to create something that I personally wanted to use. I love creating things with code; I think of it as if I’m playing with Legos, AND WHO DOESN’T LIKE PLAYING WITH LEGOS?! That said, I’ll enjoy just about any project I get on, but feel that I’ll have a more fulfilling experience working on a project that I have a personal connection to. I’d encourage anyone reading this, even if they mostly just do contracting, to work on at least one project at some point, that they feel personally passionate about; where they’d love to use the final product themselves.
[alert color=”blue”]Having a set of tools in your tool bag can be invaluable. Let’s imagine that you’re about to get ready to begin working on a new idea.How do you get started? What are your must-use tools? What’s your initial goal? How early do you plan to show what you’re building?[/alert]
I love the iPad sketching app, Paper. There are all kinds of prototyping tools out there, but for the very first brainstorming, I love to just sit down and literally draw out the idea. I think it’s important to try and get things down on paper quickly, as a way of looking for that first bit of validation: layout the idea, see what problems you might run into, get feedback.
There’s also some really great designs on Dribble and Pinterest, and I love to look at these places for inspiration on how someone else has tried to solve a problem with a unique user interface.
I’m one of those people that hates to show what I’m working on before it’s finished, because in my mind I know it’s unfinished. But it’s super-important to get feedback! It’s always easier and cheaper to make changes early on, than trying to pivot once your product is more established.
It’s also a really great idea to get a beta into the hands of some every day users. There’s always a difference between how you as the developer imagine your app will be used, and how a regular Jane on the street will intuitively use it. Watch someone new use the app, and shut up; just observe. If they can’t figure it out without you guiding them, something needs to be changed. You won’t be there in real life to walk them through the app, so it’s absolutely imperative to get this feedback before you release for real.
[alert color=”blue”]Each product carries its own set of challenges. What product(s) are you currently working on? What has been some of the biggest challenges you’ve had to overcome and/or have yet to overcome? What’s your biggest need?[/alert]
As I mentioned earlier, I’m currently working on Vamonos: check it out at Vamonos.io and on the Twittersphere at @vamonosapp. As a co-founder trying to bootstrap something that currently has no income, one of the bigger challenges has been trying to keep the project moving, given that it’s all been volunteer work (so far). Since we have no office and all keep a regular day job to pay the bills, another big challenge has been trying to coordinate everybody working together to keep the progress going. Email and Google Hangouts are huge for remote collaboration, but simply getting everybody together occasionally has turned out to be a big challenge. When you first start project the way we did at Startup Weekend, you leave the week on a pretty big high; it’s amazing! But as you come down off of that high and get into the slog of making a product that’s more polished, keeping the ball rolling is tough.
I don’t think there’s any one way to overcome this challenge; find what works for you. As a group and as individuals, you must decide that it’s something that you’re passionate about pursuing. Startups are a bit like marriage: there’s a honeymoon phase, but you have to decide that it’s worth pursuing, or you won’t ever see it through.
[alert color=”blue”]Building an audience for a new product can be incredibly challenging for newcomers to the mobile space. Even veterans stumble with this one. How have you got the word out about products you’ve created? Is there one thing that you make sure to do with every product you create?[/alert]
This is my least-favorite part, because I’m terrible at it and I hate it when people try to get me to follow their stuff. I’m one of those people who tune out ad-campaigns, run ad-blockers in my browser, and hate signing up for mailing lists and coupons. If I want something specific, I’ll go look for that thing that meets my needs when I need it, but until that time: leave-me-alone-I’m-not-interested thankyouverymuch.
Realizing that I’m a terrible person to be marketed to and that I’m awfully uncreative when it comes to tooting my own horn, I find that the opportunity-cost for me to learn how to market is prohibitive. I think it’s incredibly important to realize your own weaknesses, and either develop them into strengths or find a complementary teammate. This is my weakness, and I tend to look for a teammate to help here.
[alert color=”blue”]Let’s go back to some of your the first products you’ve worked on. What’s one of the biggest mistakes that you ran into? How did you learn and adapt?[/alert]
I didn’t do a lot of planning or prototyping. There’s a reason that your teacher will have you do some research, make an outline, and write up a rough draft. I did NOT do those things very well, and spent a lot of time re-doing work, because the implementation that I had (only) in my head, didn’t turn out as well as I’d hoped.
[alert color=”blue”]Take a moment to talk to the new guy or gal, hungry to build a mobile product. If you could give them one piece of advice as they begin their journey, what is the #1 thing they should not ignore?[/alert]
In my opinion, having some level of community is probably one of the most important things you can find to spur your growth. They can challenge you, show you new things, provide feedback, answer questions, and just make things more fun in general! Even introverts (like myself) need to get out and talk to others about how they do things.
One other thing: you WILL get stuck. It happens to all of us. When this happens, don’t be afraid to ask around (this is where you need some community!), and don’t be afraid to try something new.
[alert color=”blue”]There are a lot of resources out there that we can take advantage of even if it’s not directly applicable to products. Are there any books, or articles, that you’ve read recently that’s worth sharing?[/alert]
I went to a developer conference once, and one of the awesome suggestions they gave, is to read good code! Find respected people in your field who know what they’re talking about, and follow them on Twitter and read their blog posts! You can learn a lot about your craft by studying those who are at the forefront of it.
Also find well-respected frameworks/tools on Github, and read through them to see how they solve problems. You can learn a lot!
[alert color=”blue”]Thanks so much for your time! Where can we find you online and keep up to date with what you’re up to?[/alert]
Twitter is by far the best. Hit me up there! And if you’re ever in the Wichita area, let’s get coffee!
You can also check out my website: sensicalapps.com