In this episode, I interview Ryan Battles Micropreneur & Bootstrapper, Co-founder of Harpoon. Ryan builds web applications, talks how we can continuously improve personal productivity and gives us some business and marketing tactics.
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Ryan kindly arrange for our interview to be transcribed. Here is the text version of our episode together:
PAUL: Welcome to another episode of the App Guy Podcast. I am your host. I’m Paul Kemp, and I have a real pleasurable job here because I get to speak to some of the world’s best app developers, authors, entrepreneurs, very interesting people that are located all around the world.
Today is no exception. Let me introduce our guest who is calling in from New York. His name is Ryan Battles, and the interesting thing that I’m looking forward to today is that maybe you’re thinking about getting into app development, you’re currently listening to this podcast whilst driving to work, and you are thinking maybe of working for a startup or working for a corporation. Well, there’s another option for you, and Ryan’s going to get into that, and that is starting apps as a side project and working on some really big apps that you could do in your spare time and at the weekends, and almost dip your toe in that way rather than quit your job.
I just want to introduce Ryan Battles. Let me say that he’s got a really fascinating career; he has been a teacher, he’s worked for his own freelance studio, he’s done projects for Google, and he’s even worked for a presidential campaign. Currently he’s at the startup CrushPath, but he’s here to talk about his app, Harpoon, and it’s a financial planning app. So Ryan, welcome to the App Guy Podcast. We’re thrilled that you can join us today. [00:02:07]
RYAN: Thanks for having me, Paul.
PAUL: That was just a brief introduction. Perhaps you can fill that up and tell us a little bit more about how you got into app development and started working for this startup and almost started on these side projects; the one in particular that’s called Harpoon. Perhaps you could tell us about that.
RYAN: Sure, yes. So I started freelancing in… You mentioned I was a teacher, and I was a teacher for a little while teaching the student how to design web pages and program. They all didn’t share my same enthusiasm, so after a while I was like, “You know, I kind of want to kind of go out and do this on my own.”
I was a freelancer for five years, and during that time I started off working for my uncles, my neighbors, local businesses, but as happens it continued to grow as my portfolio grew and towards the end there I was working for some pretty big clients. It was exciting, but at the time my income was solely based on how many hours I put into the day. So if I wasn’t working, I wasn’t making any money. [00:03:18]
I was inspired by what a few other people were doing and writing about as far as owning a product, and that was something I always wanted to get into. The opportunity came for me to join a San Francisco based startup that’s venture capital backed called CrushPath. When I had that opportunity, I thought; okay, here’s my chance to break into having some equity as an early employee of a company, and the connections that we have with CrushPath were really exciting to me. So for the last two years I’ve been working with them as the lead front-end developer.
During that time I did kind of miss some of the aspects of freelancing, and that’s having control over a project, taking some ownership. And so, on the side, a friend of mine, who also works here with me at CrushPath, with the blessing of our employer have been working on some apps on the side. You mentioned Harpoon and that’s the one that we will be launching this month. It’s a web app for freelancers to track their finances, set up financial goals, and have invoicing and time tracking built in. [00:04:32]
That’s been great. We’ve been able to spend our evenings and weekends working on marketing strategies and reading and tweaking the things that we’ve been doing. We have had to hire an outside developer just to keep the thing moving while we hold down our day jobs. [00:04:50]
PAUL: That’s fascinating. For anyone listening who goes home and says, “We just don’t have enough time to write our own app or launch our own app or get involved,” then listening to your story really does help inspire us to actually think twice. If you have got time, doing all the things that you’re doing, then I’m sure that everyone has time to do these things that are important to us.
What’s it like actually working on your own apps, and perhaps you could talk us through more specifically what it’s like to outsource that work to another developer, given that you’re an app developer. How is it working with other app developers on this project? [00:05:33]
RYAN: Yeah, I think that was definitely a scary leap. I built the first version of Harpoon, kind of the early prototype, in Laravel PHP. It was fun. I was learning that new language while I was building it because here at CrushPath we are a Rails shop. So it was kind of nice to stretch myself into a new area but that was very time consuming, and when we got some early feedback and realized some of the new directions we needed to take the product before our major launch, we realized; yeah, we cannot… There’s no way I can continue working the same amount of late hours and nights and weekends that I had been. I have four children at home, so it’s… It was a sacrifice and a big push. [00:06:19]
PAUL: Yeah. I was going to say that well first of all this is being recorded in April but it will go out in May, the episode being 59. If you’re listening now please go ahead and download the Harpoon. It should be launched and there in the App Store.
How did you get inspiration for the idea of Harpoon? What pain points were you trying to solve? How did you get the idea? [00:06:45]
RYAN: Well, as a freelancer, my co-founder and I we were both freelancers and we had used a lot of the financial or the invoicing apps out there. Well I think we both used FreshBooks and at one time I used Harvest. They are great tools, but the one thing they were missing is this overview of when you have money coming in, when you’re busy with certain projects. There was just kind of a missing piece of letting us know the overall health of our business. With those tools, you can go in and generate certain reports buried within their system, but we wanted to build an app that first and foremost started with how busy you were and how your income flow was doing based off of a goal.
So when you first set up with Harpoon, our big thing is trying to get you to set a goal and then we give you all kinds of widgets and graphs and stuff showing you how you’re doing on that. Basically trying to empower the freelancer to be more proactive with their income instead of just saying, “I hope to make as much as I can.” Kind of setting a plan and tracking along that. So that was a pain point we experienced as freelancers, so we wanted to build a tool to help alleviate that issue. [00:08:03]
PAUL: That’s quite interesting, having a discussion on financial planning apps because we’ve had some past guests that have done really well with financial planning. I’m thinking in particular we had Jesse Mecham from YouNeedABudget.com who created a website and then alongside that created an app that was for sale for $10, which was part of the subscription. Clearly that was desired. There was a lot of people downloading that. People have a desire to plan; financially plan.
We also had a guest called Chris Miles who runs a website called Money Ripples. He was talking about Mint.com and the huge success that Mint.com has been.
Financial planning, it must be quite competitive to get into that market as an app. Perhaps you could tell us how you think about launching and what sort of… Do you have beta testers initially, or are you going straight to the market? [00:09:01]
RYAN: Great question. You mentioned YouNeedABudget and Mint, both great products. I’m not sure, I haven’t used YouNeedABudget, but I’ve used Mint and those are great personal budgeting tools. The spin we’re taking with Harpoon is we’re really just helping you budget your business’ goals and finances. So you would still use something like Mint or YouNeedABudget for your own personal expenses that you have. Essentially, our goal is to try to get freelancers to think of their business more like a business, if that makes sense, because a lot of times… I know I personally have seen it as a hobby I get paid for and things like that. [laughter] So stepping outside of the actual technical aspects of being a freelancer and actually putting on your business hat.
So yes, we do have some challenges as far as getting our message across. Online invoicing is definitely a space with a lot of competitors, so we’re hoping that the financial planning focus is something that will set us apart. Like I said, we built the tool to solve a need that we weren’t seeing met with the other tools that were out there, so more feedback will let us know if our hunch was correct. [00:10:25]
PAUL: I love connecting the dots on this show because we had a guest called David McKeegan who is an American working in Bali with his family, and he does tax planning and helps expats, in particular American expats, really deal with their tax burden because even though you are living abroad, you unfortunately have to incur tax as an American citizen even though you may not be in the country. What he was screaming out for was an ability to record invoices and all these little petty cash expenses and invoices that he has to go through. All the paperwork. Does the app contain elements of I guess budgeting and putting into some kind of folder all the expenses that we incur in our business?[ 00:11:20]
RYAN: Yeah. Right now the expenses part is one of the aspects of the app that we’re kind of putting off for a few more months down the road. Right now we’re really working on the minimum viable product just to get it out. We’re big believers in the 37signals philosophy of; launch as soon as you can, get feedback, and continue to refine. Yes, expenses is the one area that we’ve kind of put off as we perfect the invoice aspect of it as well as the tracking towards your goal. It’s definitely something we’re keeping our eye on and one of the key aspects of feedback that we’re going to be seeking out for our early users. [00:12:05]
PAUL: Well I know that he’s got a lot of requests, probably enough requests to keep you busy for another year. [laughter] I’m sure he’d offer himself as a beta tester for you. Is it an app that’s going to be available worldwide, or are you sticking with the US market?
RYAN: Our intention is for it to be international. We have multiple currencies that we support. Right now we’re working with an international developer to try to figure out what all the ramifications are, other than simply changing the currency symbol within the app, of how that would work.
I know as Americans we don’t often don’t bill out other currencies very often just because the American marketplace is geographically so large, but I know a lot of Europeans they will have clients in other countries a lot more frequently. So to be able to support and exchange, we’re studying right now how other invoicing apps are doing that. It’s a work in progress, but it’s something that we aim to attend or attain. [00:13:14]
PAUL: Yes. I’m really interested in how you developed the app. I know that you’ve probably done others. Do you have any particular tools or online resources that help, for example, how you build wireframes that give the information about the app to the developer? Do you have any advice for us on some of the stuff that you’ve used to do this? [00:13:38]
RYAN: Yeah. Actually, we started off… My co-founder is a designer and he’s also a really good front-end developer, so we have the whole front-end pretty much worked out before handing it off to the back-end developer. A lot of that was just to reduce any kind of question that; what is this supposed to at least look like?
As far as the functionality goes, we’ve been using a project management app called Lighthouse. We chose that tool because it integrates well with Beanstalk, which is our get-repository tool. We built the issues in Lighthouse that kind of explained how we want certain things to work. A good idea that I learned from Rob Walling on one of his podcasts is he likes to take screen shots of exactly how things are supposed to work, that way when you outsource to a developer if things don’t work out you’ll have to hire somebody else and retrain them. So writing things down or taking a screencast is a great way to be able to repurpose that training without having to go through it all over again.
So yeah, I would say our key has been designing as much as we can up front to alleviate the questions and then providing good documentation that we can reuse that would explain how it’s supposed to work. [00:15:00]
PAUL: Yes. I was thinking of another episode we had with Samuel Hulick who taught us a lot about screencasts and he was doing teardowns for apps; a teardown being how users could get onboard with their app and the whole process of onboarding. And he gave some great resources there.
Lighthouse, that’s something I’m going to have to check out. Beanstalk you mentioned which is the get-repository tool that you’re using. Is that right? Beanstalk? [00:15:28]
RYAN: Yes, Beanstalk. It’s similar to Github, but what I like is it has built in FTP deploying. So it made it really easy to deploy quickly to our server.
PAUL: We’ve just come off the discussion about App Store optimization, and I don’t know if you have any views on apps that are currently on the App Store, the Apple App Store in particular, and how you found the whole process of ranking for key words and just your experience of being in an App Store. [00:16:02]
RYAN: Actually, we haven’t built any native apps for iOS. I use the term app, I guess, kind of loosely. We’ve built some web apps, are the tools that we have out there. Fortunately we haven’t had to work with the Apple iTunes Store, but definitely have had to work with search engine rankings.
PAUL: Yes, because I think there’s a lot of crossover between search engine optimization and App Store ranking. So Harpoon is a web app, is it?
RYAN: Yes. That’s correct.
PAUL: Oh, great. So obviously you’ve got some views there. I think there would be people screaming now; what is it better to do? Is it better to do a native app and do all the hassle with Apple and Google, or is it better to do a web app? I guess you have got some views on that. [00:16:53]
PAUL: Interesting, isn’t it, whether HTML5 is equally as good now as the native experience you experience on Apple or Google. Web app would now probably work just as quick and be just as easy to use, but I’m guessing that… I’d love to know your experience of people using your apps currently, the web apps, and whether you find that those people are installing them as home screens, or putting them as a little icon on their phone, or are they bookmarking them in their browser to get back to the web app. Do you know how people are using your web apps? [00:18:41]
RYAN: No. We haven’t tracked that yet but you’re bringing up some great points. I think I’ll have to look into seeing how to track that and get some interesting data that way.
PAUL: Yes. I think that users are now quite used to downloading apps, and they know that if they go to a browser that sometimes the web app is good and sometimes the website doesn’t have a web app and that the experience is poor. But if you go to a native app, you know that you’re always going to get a good experience. Maybe that’s why there’s just this explosion in app downloads. I’d like to turn my attention now to what it’s like to work for a startup. There are people who are perhaps working for big organizations who are listening to this, and you’re working for a startup and you’re being allowed to do these side projects, which sounds fantastic. What’s it like working for CrushPath, and perhaps you could just describe and try and give some insight into what it’s really like working for a startup. [00:19:48]
RYAN: Yes. I tell you, it’s been a wild ride and it’s been something that I’m so thankful that I am able to experience. I’m working with some of the most talented people I’ve ever worked with in my life, and so that’s been great. It’s definitely stretched me. Taught me a lot. To be working in a startup, it’s kind of a fun, fast-paced environment. I get to learn a lot from our co-founders; the way that they market the product; the way that they have to present certain things, whether it’s for investors or it’s for certain campaigns that we’re running, promotions. It’s just been really great to learn a lot from what we’ve been doing, and it’s been a really fun work environment.
But on the other hand it is, like I think I mentioned previously, the freelancer in me or the independent in me also has this need to own something. So obviously I can’t just jump up and become co-founder of the company that hired me. [laughter] So having something on the side kind of scratches that itch, and it’s made a great balance where I can during the day just really enjoy my day job and then spend some of my free time learning and applying other things that I’m interested in and working on as far as, you know, bootstrapping an app. [00:21:12]
PAUL: When you say bootstrapping an app, that’s you and your co-founder are funding the entire thing without any venture money or Kickstarter money or any bank money. It’s all coming from your own savings and I guess your own time and effort. [00:21:30]
RYAN: Yes. That’s been the real challenge, as I mentioned, with the four children trying to find that balance of not being the dad that’s never present. I mean, ultimately my goal is to… If I can own my own product, I’d like to be able to have complete freedom over my time so that I can do things like go on field trips with the kids and be a little bit more involved. So that’s kind of the goal, the lifestyle goal that I’m working towards with building these apps and where I’d like to head. So the real challenge with that is trying to not come home from work and just spend another six hours working on your side project. [00:22:14]
PAUL: But let’s face it, Ryan, you must be giving your kids some fantastic ammunition for the school yard because they can say that dad’s an app developer, and that’s just like the coolest thing at the moment. It used to be; my dad’s a policeman. Now; my dad’s an app developer.
RYAN: Yes. Well, my kids are all five and under so they still don’t quite get what I do. Even when I was freelancing and building websites, they still didn’t quite get it but the only thing they do understand are apps because they all – from the two year old on up – can use apps on the iPhone. So it’s like, “That’s what daddy does,” even though technically I’m not an iOS developer. I think that’s the closest thing to their world as to explaining what it is I do. [00:22:57]
PAUL: I know, I have the same. I have two boys aged four and they’ve been using the iPod touch since they were two, and the iPad since they were three. One of my most proudest moments was the fact that one of my kids was laughing his head off an app that I’d built for the iPad and the iPhone, and he was really enjoying it. He still opens that as one of his first apps every day. It’s quite a pleasurable thing to actually experience that from the kid’s perspective.
Just talking about bootstrapping, before we say goodbye, I just wanted to pick up on how dangerous it is to start throwing a lot of money at apps, whether they’re web apps or native apps. And it’s just because of a discussion that we had in Episode 45 with Gabriel Machuret, who’s a specialist in App Store optimization, and he was talking about the experience of one of his colleagues losing $50,000 on development costs in an app. A lot of his own personal wealth he’d lost. I guess that’s just a caution to people out there thinking about getting into app development and hiring expensive app developers that it is risky, and maybe that’s why it’s better to do it on a bootstrap budget rather than throw a lot of money at this. [00:24:12]
RYAN: Yes. In tune with that, I think something that was really inspirational to me is reading “The Lean Startup” by Eric Ries. They talked a lot about pre-qualifying and not necessarily having to build and launch your product before you even find out the feedback on it. And Tim Ferriss in “The 4-Hour Work Week” talks a bit about this as well.
With Harpoon we actually built the landing page for the app, and had a few screen shots of some preliminary designs up before we even started development. We had an email signup list and we started promoting it. We even purchased ads online and on various email newsletter lists. So we ended up getting about 2,000 people signing up for our email signup to be notified when it’s ready, before we even built it. So that was a way that we knew this is something that people want so it’s not going to be a waste of money to build it.
Yes, I think it would be really scary to put a bunch of our personal money into something that we didn’t have qualified beforehand. To just be able to qualify your project beforehand doesn’t take a whole lot. Sometimes just a splash page and $100 in Google Ads will tell you if there’s an interest there or not. [00:25:28]
PAUL: That’s great advice for anyone listening, that you should be doing that. If you’re not, then I appeal to you to take onboard what Ryan is saying, and that is to simply put up a landing page, an email opt-in with some screenshots of your app, and if people are willing to subscribe and give you your email then maybe the app is actually worth developing. And if you don’t get any response then maybe you need to rethink. That’s just great advice. You’re probably saving some people some money there, I should think, by pre-qualifying these ideas that we have. So how could people reach out? You’ve inspired me. I’m sure you have inspired a lot of people listening to now start some side projects and stop using the excuse that we don’t have any time. You’ve got four kids. You’ve got a full time job, and then you’re still finding time to work with your co-founder and get Harpoon out the door. It’s very inspirational. How can people connect with you, Ryan? [00:26:23]
RYAN: On my blog, ryanbattles.com, I write once a week as a commitment there a blogpost on my journey as a bootstrapping entrepreneur. Also on Twitter I’m @ryanbattles. [00:26:39]
PAUL: Great. Well it just leaves me to say thank you very much for coming on the App Guy Podcast. It’s been a pleasurable half an hour chatting to you. I’m sure that we can learn a lot more, and I cordially invite you back to join us when Harpoon is up and perhaps you could share then how it went at the launch and some feedback on that. So we’d love to get you back on. [00:26:59]
RYAN: Great. That would be awesome.
PAUL: Thanks, Ryan.
[end of interview: 00:27:02]