The Debrief: Leap's Co-Founder On Facebook Woes, Being Inspired By Bacon, and The First Month After Launch
And we're back with another edition of The Debrief, our shiny, new, and hopefully somewhat-regular column, where we talk to founders a few weeks after launch on the twists, the turns, and the lessons learned so far.
The first Debrief was with Justin Kan, a seasoned vet of the startup world with a hefty bevy of companies under his belt. I figured we'd mix things up a bit this time and chat with someone new to the game.
Meet 25-year-old Nicolas Cramer of Cincinnati (but soon SF!).
Almost exactly one month ago, Nicolas and his co-founders launched their very first company: Leap.
Leap is an iOS application in which you face off with friends and family in user-made challenges (like hitting zero inbox every day, or flossing, or, erm, finding hipsters), proving your successes through photos. It found tens of thousands of users in its first 3 weeks alone. I covered it in-depth here.
Nicolas! Congrats on the launch of Leap. You're almost exactly a month in at this point — so how'd it go?
It's been great — and crazy.
We launched on Leap Day (+1 for timing) with our list and network and were featured the next day as New & Noteworthy in the App Store. The quick start certainly helped our growth (and caused Ryan some late nights with scaling issues), but most importantly it provided a ton of great feedback from normals outside of our own young, tech bubble. We learned a lot really quickly, and that's helping us continue making the product stronger and even more engaging.
But it also created a handful of bug- and server-related fires to put out, and with limited (i.e. bootstrapped) resources, it pulled us off of product much more than we would have liked.
We're first-time founders with a big vision, so naturally these highs are higher and the lows lower. We've just been trying to remain as stoic as possible and to see each day as part of a much longer arc.
So you're all first-timers. How'd you meet?
James [Dickerson] started us on this journey, when he formed Wellthy about a year ago. It was a corporate wellness game for getting employees healthy through challenges. He hustled his ass off getting connected, and when it was time to bring on a technical co-founder, he got an introduction to Ryan [Tinker] through a mutual friend, and soon after they went to work.
As for me, I've known James for twenty years, so he kept me in the loop on things, and when it was at a good point for them to bring on a design co-founder, I jumped at the chance to come onboard.
You mentioned having learned many lessons from the "normals," so to speak. Like what? Did your users surprise you in any way right off the bat?
We were (and still are) in awe of our users' ingenuity. So many of them got the concept right away and were creating awesome challenges we hadn't even thought of. Many of those have even become the most popular challenges in the Topics section. And many of the photos they've taken and shared publicly have been remarkable, too. It's inspiring.
A lot of the folks that found us through the App Store feature had more immediate expectations for the product and its features than the techies. There's an expectation to be every bit as good as the apps whose icons sit next to yours on their iPhone. So your interface had better be as beautiful as Path, and your camera as quick and useful as Instagram, which is a high bar to set. But we're appreciative of it, because it doesn't let us settle or rest on a false sense of security from the usage patterns of any one homogenous group.
One month in, is there anything you'd go back and do differently if given the chance?
We definitely should have allocated more of our budget to swag.
The other thing we would have done differently is to have built out an email/password login system in addition to Facebook Connect. We were right that the deep Facebook integration made features within the app, like inviting friends, really quick and simple, but it lead to two issues:
1) There's a much wider held distrust in connecting apps to Facebook than we anticipated, and that led to some bounce upon download, particularly among the non-tech folks.
2) Challenges don't have to be with close Facebook friends to be effective or fun. We learned that for most users it's the mutual interest — and not just the existing relationship — that makes challenges worthwhile. Now that we're separating how we look at the two, it's becoming much clearer what motivates our users and what drives their engagement and retention.
It's interesting that you say you'd spend more on swag. Why the need for more? Lots of the founders I've spoken to over the years have all had surprisingly strong opinions on swag. Many would say it's just not necessary in the early days.
Sorry, I was just being a troll. We're not interested in swag any more than we are fancy office space.
That's something we've taken on as a piece of our culture without ever really talking about it: capital efficiency. We can stretch a dollar, and we can learn and build fast. We take pride in our dining room office and working around "The Struggle Table." It's an important way to stay humble, focused, and remind ourselves that we're the underdog. That's how you stay scrappy and dangerous.
You raised 20k through The Brandery, an accelerator program in Cincinnati. How critical has that program been to your progress so far? Is taking part in an accelerator program something you'd recommend?
The Brandery was great. There's a burgeoning startup community in Cincinnati, and the Brandery is at the core of it, so it was cool to be a part of that. They're incredibly supportive and really personally invested in seeing us succeed, and we feel that every day. The Brandery and Cincinnati's business community are very brand focused, so it was awesome to have some of the top brand and agency minds available so early in the process. Branding isn't just a kick ass icon (though we did get one of those), and our mentors challenged us to build real brand thinking in from the start.
As for accelerators in general being worthwhile, it all depends on how you go into them. Acceleration implies there's already some velocity, so if you're going into a program at a standstill, expecting it to solve your main problems, you'll be sadly mistaken. But if you've got a direction you're heading, and you want the resources, mentorship, and motivation to accelerate your progress, it's probably going to be the right choice, especially for first-time founders.
Going back to the first e-mail you sent me when you pitched Leap a few weeks back, the subject line has been "Re: Bacon, Road Trips & Apple." I've never had the chance to ask about it. I get the Apple part — but tell me about the bacon and the road trip.
Quite the epic subject line, right? I'll tell you the story about bacon. Towards the end of our accelerator program last fall, we were in private beta with our corporate wellness app but were noticing there were some problems, one of which being that we just weren't super passionate about building and selling this product into businesses. It was time to reassess. The three of us are pretty intense about health, and we had decided to do a month-long paleo diet challenge (Whole 30 in case you're interested). And that led to the incredible display of bacon consumption that was to follow. We're also competitive as hell, so it was important that we prove our meals weren't cheating. So here we were snapping photos of our bacon or Chipotle salads and trying to share them and keep track of points through a bunch of different services: SMS, GroupMe, email, a Google Doc. Nothing did the trick.
And so when we went into our epic whiteboard session and stripped down the product to its core insight and benefits, we designed it back up to be something that perfectly met our own needs for this challenge. It had to be fun, photo-based, foster both accountability and support, and let users create challenges around any interest, not just health.
So that's how Leap was born — from plates of bacon.
As for the road trip, we're in the process of relocating Leap HQ to San Francisco. James already made the trip, and Ryan and I are hitting the road in the coming days. We're excited for the adventure, building product from the back seat and taking calls at highway Starbucks. Can't wait.
Good luck, guys!
[Bacon photo courtesy of cookbookman on Flickr]