3 years ago Brian Griego and Aaron Tomaro asked me for help picking a dev shop to build a ‘social network for athletes’. We visited a few firms and I was surprised to see that none of them asked any real questions about the project – they were ‘yes men’, nodding and encouraging the vaguely defined specs, saying it was going to be huge, without really explaining why. After one of those meetings, I pulled Brian aside and said “why don’t you let us build this app?”. Darius Zagrean and I hired our first two developers later that month, and both SportMe and SF AppWorks were born.
We jumped into our first project with zeal, carefully applying the concepts of The Lean Startup. First we picked a smaller industry than ‘sports’ – one with a passionate, growing community and outdated technology. We picked marathon training and, as lead product designer, I started training for my first marathon.
Next we came up with a hypothesis: for the most part, people suck at training. There was a psychological block it seemed. People wanted to train, but life got in the way and runs were missed. All the while, the 12-week static training plans kept increasing the mileage. The further you fall behind, the harder it is to catch up.
Maybe we can change that, we thought.
So we put up a website and bought some google ads, then asked visitors a few questions about their physical fitness level. We took the data and, applying best marathon training practices, we created custom training plans for each runner. We then told our runners that if they ever missed a run, they could email us and we would update their plan, re-plotting the path of least resistance between now and race day.
It took us about an hour per plan and we charged a dollar. The point of the experiment was not to make money, but to see if people would pull out their wallets to buy a customized training plan. They did. After 100 plans purchased (and 100 hours of plan-ning), we were confident enough to invest in building an app that could essentially replace our role in creating and modifying training plans. We built the SportMe Runner with its proprietary training algorithm and released it to the world in 2013.
We didn’t do much to market SportMe, but the app was useful to runners and we developed a dedicated, albeit very small user base. They stumbled onto the app, trained, ran races, thanked us for it, and told a few friends. The founders set out to raise money and, after a few months of unsuccessful attempts, they eventually stopped thinking about features and users, instead focusing on jobs and family. New iPhones with bigger, better screens came out, and SportMe Runner became quickly outdated.
Fast forward to a few months ago. SportMe was all but forgotten. The passion project had been neglected for 2 years, released into the wild then never cared for – left to fend for itself. SF AppWorks was busy designing, building, and marketing websites and apps for cutting edge companies. Then one day an email came in from a user. There was a new bug to report – training plans couldn’t be created in 2015.
That’s weird, we thought.
It wasn’t strange that the app had bugs…truth be told we were surprised it still functioned at all. The really strange thing was that SportMe STILL HAD USERS!
We blew the dust off the analytics reports and were shocked to find that every month, 100-150 people continued to download and use the app. It was by no means a critical mass, but in the world of startups, getting from 0-150 organic users is often harder than getting from 150 to 100,000.
There is a misconception in Silicon Valley – let’s call it the “field of seems”. It seems like if I build it, they will come. The truth is, technology development is a series of experiments. Launching an app is just one, and it is just the beginning. You hope to get a spark of users, but beyond that you need to nourish that spark into a flame, and fan that flame into a fire. We are lucky that we built an app with enough utility that, even buggy and with outdated design, still gets use. We are lucky that spark still glows.
And we’re lucky that our friends trusted us to help them build the app, because without it we may never have started SF AppWorks. 40 some people wouldn’t be employed, 50 products may never have existed, and I may not have found my calling in the world.
So when we found out that SportMe still had some users, we felt like it was our responsibility as creators to give them a product worth using. That’s why I’m proud to announce that SF AppWorks has acquired SportMe and we are working with the original founders to continue building the best run training app in the world. Today we launch our first update in 2 years – a completely new user interface, and a whole lot of bugs fixed.
We’re not stopping there either – in two more weeks we’ll release GPS tracking and shortly after that, a slew of social features to make training more fun and encouraging.
Check us out on the app store and give us a shout out if you’ve ever had your own winding, twisting journey come full circle.
I’m going to go for a run now.