How a Florida kid's "stupid app” saved his family’s home and landed him on the main stage at Facebook
Michael Sayman is not your average tech entrepreneur. For one thing, he’s 17 years old and started making money off iOS apps at the age of 13, rivaling even Mark Zuckerberg’s babe-like founder status. He taught himself to code using online tutorials he found via Google.
For another thing, he lives in Florida. His school doesn’t understand what he’s doing and his parents didn’t entirely appreciate his work until he started helping them pay their mortgage when the recession hit.
Oh, and Mark Zuckerberg personally chose Sayman to be featured at this morning's f8 developer conference, shortly after his own keynote. Sayman appeared alongside a few other (adult) programmers in a video on the main stage about mobile app development.
Sayman sits on the Pando couch, his round cheeks and freckles -- not to mention a mouth glistening with orthodontic work -- making him look even younger than his already infuriatingly young age. If his enthusiasm were any more infectious it would require a warning sticker. Instead he wears a blue hoodie with the Facebook logo emblazoned on the front. He pokes his hand into one of the pockets: “Hold on I’m checking something. This will only take a second,” Sayman says. He pulls out his phone and starts scrolling through the iOS app store. He gasps.
“I just beat Garageband and Line. My app is more popular than Line!” He puts one palm on his face and bends over his phone, reading further. “I’m beating Starbucks, Luminosity, Fitbit, Lyft…oh my gosh,” he trails off, overcome with excitement. “It’s number 123 in the overall app store ratings!”
On the eve of his introduction to the Silicon Valley tech world at Facebook’s f8 conference, Sayman had one thing on his mind: His beloved app, 4Snaps. Two days ago, he released a huge update to the software, the shining jewel among all the apps he has built since he was 13.
4Snaps is a multi-user photo game, where players are given a word like “twerk” or “hungry” then take four photos so their friends can guess the term. For example, one might take a picture of a hairbrush and a tooth to help someone guess “toothbrush.” The road to 4Snaps' success was long and rocky for Sayman, and its current skyrocketing adoption is by no means the end.
Sayman's experience is one that perhaps could only be entirely appreciated here in Silicon Valley, where entrepreneurship, ingenuity, and building something out of nothing, or rather, out of lines of code, still holds cult-like status, for good or ill. Sayman doesn’t even seem to understand the power of his story.
He got his app where it is today not with millions or even thousands in venture capital. He didn’t get it where it is with Silicon Valley connections or hookups to the magic elves who pick what’s featured in the iOS app store. He didn’t get it with a team of developers or designers or a co-founder or even an incorporated company. He didn't even get it there with natural technical talent. Instead, it took sheer force of will and a refusal to back down to any of the obstacles he faced. That, and an unholy faith in the power of Google to answer his questions.
Living in Miami, Sayman has escaped the attention of the tech press and most national media, aside from Spanish CNN and other Spanish language channels. It’s really a total fluke that he has flown under the radar, because his tale has all the makings for a viral success: A family falling on hard times during the recession, a stubborn and creative 13-year-old who helped make enough money to get them through it, even a star appearance by Mark Zuckerberg, who recognized Sayman’s potential.
Facebook recruited Sayman for an upcoming summer internship and promised to feature an interview with him at f8. The company flew out a video crew to film Sayman at home in Florida.
So just who is this talented young coder that has, until now, gone completely unnoticed by the media?
Just your average teenager
Sayman got his start making apps in 2010 at the age of 13, roughly a year and a half after Steve Jobs announced the opening of the iOS app store. From his perch in Miami, the young middle schooler Sayman watched the announcement with interest. At the time, he had built a website on WordPress to promote tips and tricks for his favorite game — Disney’s Club Penguin, a massive multiplayer online virtual world set in a winter wonderland dotted with penguin avatars. Sayman’s tips website had done relatively well, but he wanted more traffic and he thought a mobile app would help him get that.
He taught himself iOS programming bit by bit through tutorials he could find on Google. “It was a horrible process of learning, absolutely the worst,” Sayman says. “Four years down the road and I still don’t know everything. My school doesn’t offer computer classes so that’s what I had to do."
He asked his mother for $100 to pay the app store developer annual registration fee. “We used to own a chicken restaurant. My mom was like, 'I’ll give you $100 but if this app doesn’t pay for it I will make you work in the restaurant to pay it back,'" Sayman remembers. He submitted an app that was little more than a collection of links to tips and tricks on his Club Penguin website. But given there were only about 150,000 apps in the store in March 2010, his took off in the reference section, quickly rising to the top ten despite the fact that it cost $1 to download. This was an era when the available app options for iOS users were far less plentiful.
“I woke my parents up to tell them, and they’re like ‘That’s nice,’ and then they went back to sleep,” Sayman remembers. “They didn’t know what it meant that I was in the top ten.” He describes his parents as decidedly non-techie.
His mother, Cristina Sayman, agrees. “At first I didn’t think of what would come after,” Cristina Sayman says. “I have a restaurant and I know how to cook but I don’t know how to do anything with computers.”
The reality of the situation didn’t start to set in for her until the app began raking in downloads and money. On the first day Michael Sayman made $40, and he was thrilled to realize he was halfway done to paying his mom back. But on the second day he made $120 and the day after that $179. You know where this story goes next. 13-year-old Sayman, who taught himself how to code by googling iOS tutorials, wound up making tens of thousands of dollars on the first app he ever built.
“After the first check arrived I was like, ‘Oh my gosh he’s earning more than me!’” Cristina Sayman remembers.
With the app performing well, Michael Sayman branched out and built a Club Penguin-themed game, a basic app that he taught himself to code by, once again, Googling iOS tutorials. It took off, performing better than his original reference app, emboldening him to branch out to creating his own games.
That didn’t go nearly as well. He quickly learned the power of a built-in marketing brand. Once he moved away from the Club Penguin name, which made it easy for fans of the game to accidentally stumble upon his app, he struggled to get even a pittance of downloads.
“The competition was incredible,” Sayman remembers. “I didn’t know what to do at that point.”
Around the same time that Sayman was struggling to grow his new apps’ user bases, the recession had forced his parents into a difficult financial position. His father lost his job, and in 2012 their family home was foreclosed on. “At that point we were almost going to move back to Peru,” Cristina Sayman remembers. “And [Michael] said, ‘No we will live in the USA, we’re not going to move. I will pay for everything.'”
They had to move into a much smaller apartment, and at the age of 16, Sayman found himself in the strange situation of helping his parents make the mortgage payments on the new place. He also started pitching in for his and his sister’s private school tuition.
“Sometimes I’m embarrassed to say everything Michael did for us,” Cristina Sayman admits. “It’s like he became the father of the family. It’s crazy.”
His family was reliant on this supplemental income to get by, and Sayman wasn’t one to accept defeat easily when app store downloads became more difficult to garner. He began looking for a game idea that could be a breakout hit, something he could pour his heart and soul into marketing to the masses.
Inspiration struck one day while he watched his younger sister Mariana playing on her phone with a friend. She was taking pictures and giggling. “I was texting my friend one day and we were bored so I started sending her a collage of four pictures and making her guess the word and she would do the same,” Mariana Sayman told me. “Michael saw what I was doing and thought it would be a great idea for an app.”
Michael Sayman explained his thinking, “I knew this was going to be a huge app. I knew it because my sister liked it before it even existed.”
He began working on coding it and quickly ran into problems. He wasn’t used to programming a multiplayer game where he had to coordinate actions between two different users. He also wasn’t accustomed to dealing with image processing. His trusty pal Google had some answers for him: Namely, something about servers. “I didn’t even know what a server was. I Googled servers for apps and came across something called carz,” Sayman says.
His braces give him a charming little lisp.
“Carz?” I asked, clarifying.
“Oh no, CARS.”
“No… Parse!” he shouts.
It’s easy to forget when hearing Sayman’s story that he hasn’t yet graduated high school, but the braces and the lisp bring it right back.
He reached out to Parse and they sent him documentation on how their system worked. Sayman did what any broke teenager with a trove of ingenuity would do: Look for a loophole so he didn’t have to pay. He realized he needed to build his app so that pictures were compressed and he could qualify for the free level of the service. “I had no money!” Sayman says laughing.
He did more Googling, taught himself more code, and developed some workarounds for the app.
Bear in mind, Sayman was balancing such self-tutorials during the demands of the second semester of junior year: Researching potential colleges, studying for the SATs, trying to maintain his grades, and being a normal 16 year old. “[It] was the most stressful time of my whole life,” Sayman says. “It will help me as an adult in the future because I learned how to be [stressed]. Now I understand adults completely.”
Eventually, however, he overcame all the obstacles and the app came together as a photo game a bit like charades. Sayman deemed it “4Snaps” since players take four photos to represent the word.
He submitted 4Snaps to the app store in May 2013 — right in the middle of finals. “I failed half my exams,” Sayman admits sheepishly. “I used to get A’s in middle school but then once I started working on apps my grades collapsed. There’s no computer class to get an A in.”
“I watch my son, every night and every single day, staying up until 4 or 5 am, working on the app, doing his homework, sleeping two or three hours, and then going to school,” Cristina Sayman says. “I decided at one point he can’t do everything at one time. You do the apps or you study very hard.”
Sayman spent the summer ironing out some of the app's glitches, and once he submitted it for reapproval in August 2013 he went about the process of trying to market the damn thing. He harassed the hell out of tech reporters, all of whom ignored him except 9to5Mac, which wrote a positive review.
He had $500 left from his other app’s earnings and begged his mom to let him spend it on ads. She grudgingly agreed. He plugged some Facebook ads, which drove mediocre traffic but not enough. With his budget so precious, only viral growth would do.
At last, he found an unexpected solution to his problems from a place that was becoming all too expected: His little sister. She was surfing Instagram on her phone and showed him users that posted fashion pictures who had millions of followers. These popular accounts also occasionally posted ads, which Mariana told Michael she found annoying.
Sayman began messaging these fashion instagrammers to find out their advertising rates. At $40 a day, he didn’t think he could afford it but knew he had to take the chance. More importantly, he had to design an ad that teenage girls wouldn’t hate. He got creative.
He built a native ad that looked like it belonged in these fashion Instagram threads. He compiled four “Snaps” of shoes with the text “guess the word," giving the appearance that the Instagram user was playing the game.
The idea worked well, and 4Snaps started climbing the iOS charts, reaching #127 in the Word Games category. Hardly a runaway success, but breaking the top charts in such a competitive app environment was thrilling for Sayman.
Soon, these marketers were reaching out to him, with no idea he was a 16 year old kid, asking him for bigger advertising contracts. They liked his ads because it didn’t cause Instagram users to unfollow accounts when they appeared.
Sayman's euphoria didn’t last long before he hit another snag in his plan: He had run out of money for advertising. He made 4Snaps free because he knew no teenagers would pay to play in the August 2013 app climate. It didn’t matter that the game was growing in users — its in-app monetization wasn’t robust enough to be generating much money.
For a kid living in Miami, the idea of raising seed investing wasn’t just far from Sayman's mind — it was utterly nonexistent. After our interview, as I walked Sayman back to his hotel, I found myself explaining to him -- the app wunderkind! -- how Uber's app worked. It's easy to forget how little relevance some of this stuff has outside of our little geographic (and generational) bubble.
With no investment to back his marketing efforts, Sayman thought he was facing the end of the line with 4Snaps and perhaps his teenage app-building career. Then, he received an email.
Nykelle Schlofman, the CEO and founder of Instafluence, a marketing firm that connects advertisers to Vine and Instagram celebrities, wrote to say she had encountered 4Snaps online. She was impressed and thought the app had promise — enough promise, that perhaps the creator would be willing to pay for some social marketing help. Little did she know the creator was a 16 year old boy.
“I was really shocked. I didn’t know there were developers out there that were 16 building apps like this themselves,” Schlofman says. “I knew he was extremely smart and just talking to him I could tell he had a good business sense and had done a lot of research on the game and understood his target market.”
Although she was horrified at first, she was impressed by Sayman’s intelligence and drive. Learning about his financial situation, she decided to offer him a deal, helping with marketing in exchange for an app revenue share.
The partnership was born, Schlofman pushed the app on various channels, and meanwhile, Sayman turned 17 on August 24th, 2013. Schlofman called soon afterwards. “She said, ‘I got you a birthday gift,’” Sayman remembers. “4Snaps is number three in the Word Games category.”
It didn’t take long before 4Snaps hit number one, with each new user bringing along three or four of their friends.
It was around this time that Parse, the server company that Sayman was using for free because he managed to circumvent all its limits with compressed image uploads, got a little annoyed. An app with 200,000 users playing 300,000 games a day was not exactly what it intended to support with the free version of its service.
Parse wanted Sayman to upgrade to a paid plan, but Sayman didn’t have the money for it. He pled his case: “I told them I’m only 17, I can’t afford this, what do I do?” After hopping on the phone and learning more about Sayman’s background, Parse agreed to strike a special deal with him, giving him the highest level package — enterprise — at a fraction of the cost. “They had to find an enterprise plan a 17-year-old could pay,” Sayman says laughing.
In April 2013, Parse was acquired by Facebook, which is how Sayman finally came to the social network giant’s attention. A recruiter for the company reached out to him and asked him to apply for a summer internship.
This was no average recruitment offer. Facebook decided to fly Sayman and his mother out in September to attend the Parse developer conference, and to tour the facilities.
And, oh yeah, to meet Mark Zuckerberg, who had personally requested an introduction. It’s unlikely the teenager will ever forget that day. When they visited the Facebook campus, Zuckerberg took Sayman into his office.
“He sits down on his desk, puts his feet up, has a soccer ball, and he’s dribbling it. And I’m like, ‘Is this real life right now?’” Sayman says.
But Zuckerberg didn’t ask him about sports. Instead, he asked Sayman what, exactly, he wanted to do with his internship time at Facebook the upcoming summer. Dumbfounded, Sayman said the first thing that popped into my head. “I was like, ‘I don’t really like work,’” Sayman says. “I don’t know why I said that.”
It must not have put Zuckerberg off too much, given it didn’t stop the tech heavyweight from asking whether he could film Sayman for a video that would air during the f8 conference.
Sayman knew he had to get his app redesigned and ready for the masses before his big San Francisco debut. When he returned to Miami, he began working on it frantically, dropping everything else. “My grades started to go down again,” Sayman concedes.
He decided on an entirely new redesign, to implement bouncing motion graphics that would fit iOS 7 but give new life to the game. He spent months learning the code to execute his vision. “It was extremely complicated and annoying to fix bugs because I had no idea where my code was, but it looked really cool on the outside and that’s what matters,” Sayman says, switching the time-honored moral on its head.
Two nights ago, Four Snaps 2.0 went live and Schlofman began her second marketing push on Sayman’s behalf. This time, the app took off even faster than before. A few Vine celebrities posted videos of themselves playing the game, and the tween audiences that adored them followed suit. The videos were funny and inherently catchy. Just take a look at some of the twerk-tastic and fat-shamey results.
“When I woke up this morning, 4Snaps was number 4,000 in the Word Games category of the app store,” Sayman tells me during our evening interview, the night before the start of f8. “Now, it’s #1 in the Word Games category.” It was beating Scrabble and Words with Friends. And it had hit its highest all time general app store ranking — #123. Not too shabby.
As I write these words 4Snaps has reached #106 among general apps and #30 among general games. Again, bear in mind this is without any special treatment by the App store’s featured elves.
Despite the early success, 4Snaps and Sayman’s road ahead is far from smooth. He needs to rebuild the app with a better monetization strategy so he — and Schlofman — can start making decent money off it. Given the competitive landscape of the gaming app world, it’s by no means assured that 4Snaps will continue to top the app charts. The duo have a limited time to try to earn big bucks off its popularity.
In the meanwhile, Sayman has bigger problems than app glitches and monetization strategies: He’s short on cash to finish paying his private high school tuition. Without paying up, he won’t be able to graduate and get his degree. The stakes are high.
Of course, Sayman has an upcoming, paid internship with Facebook for the summer, the respect and attention of one of the world’s richest tech billionaires, an app that’s beating Lyft, Starbucks, and Words with Friends in the app store, and a steely self-resilience that doesn’t show any signs of fading.
“It’s just a stupid app,” Sayman tells me, showing more humility and self-awareness than some of the adult app creators I’ve interviewed. “But the fact that I created something out of nothing and changed someone’s life in a stupid insignificant way is the best feeling ever.”
If I had to bet on it, I’d say Sayman has a good chance of overcoming his immediate obstacles and continuing to change people’s lives, perhaps in far more significant ways in the future.
[Illustration by Hallie Bateman for Pando]