People love fairytale stories of successful app developers, here’s another one from Barbara Ximenez, co-founder of Shutta
Had it not been for Vietnam, it’s very possible that the idea for Shutta would never have been born. When James Shimell, my co-founder and the original creator of the Shutta app, and I visited Vietnam for the first time in December 2012 something magical happened.
For the past five and eight years, respectively, we had been working in the south of Spain, in an area of Europe that was particularly badly affected by the economic downturn. James was working as an IT manager for a real estate application software company, one of the very few companies that, in fact, benefited from the crisis. I had, somehow, managed to keep my own company, specialized in strategic management software solutions, afloat through the worst of things, but business was tough, and the general atmosphere around us was depressed and worried.
In stark contrast, Vietnam was vibrant and alive, buzzing with possibilities and filled with people with both dreams and the passion to pursue them. Three weeks exposure to this palpable energy was like therapy; first it revived us, and then it inspired us. Within three months of our first visit, we returned for a second dose of Vietnamese inspiration, and by September 2013 we were both knee-deep in all sorts of projects outside of our regular day jobs. Looking back, I feel that Vietnam showed us that, regardless of the hardship that surrounds you, staying active is the best way to stay passionate. What’s more, this constant activity, having the drive to continuously develop, will naturally create the right conditions for a eureka moment to strike.
For Shutta, that moment happened on a beautiful, sunny day on a beach, at the first ever Festival of Colours beach concert in Tarifa, Spain. The blindingly blue sky and pearly white sand provided the perfect contrast for the bright-colored chalk plumes that the audience would throw up every hour, but it proved impossible to capture the perfect moment in a photograph. And so, the idea for a photo-from-video app was born.
It took James a few months of weekend and evening work to develop the app, which, at that time, was just a tool to extract a photo from a video without compromising the resolution compared to the original videoframe. The software company that James was still working for was considering options for an offshore development house and by the time the app was first released to the App Store, we were settling into our new home in An Phu An Khanh.
Shutta remained a side project for another year, as James got busy establishing the software development house for his employer, and I set about winding down my Spanish company after another year of stagnant growth. The working day in Spain did not start until mid-afternoon in Vietnam, providing the perfect opportunity to spend the mornings attending intensive Vietnamese language lessons at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities. I signed up for the classes because I believed that living in Vietnam would be more interesting if I could understand what was going on around me. In hindsight, being able to understand all the Vietnamese paperwork that I have to sign every day, makes the time invested in learning the language even more valuable.
During that year, the behavior of the small userbase of 7,000 Shutta users around the world taught us a lot about how we could refine the app, how to make it more useful and, most importantly, more fun. Several iterations later, Shutta had evolved from a mere tool into a full-blown app with photo-editing functionality and an integrated social network. Spurred on by the enthusiastic support of family and friends, we decided to take the plunge, put our app to the test and find out whether there was a future for Shutta beyond the fun side project it was.
I’m not sure if we were insanely ambitious or just endearingly naïve, but we picked the first tech conference that was coming up as our launching ground: TechCrunch Disrupt New York 2015, one of the biggest tech conferences in the world. I think that once the booth tickets were bought and the trip was booked, the prospect of spending this much money to launch a bootstrapped app, just to go unnoticed in a sea of other start-ups, some with serious funding or celebrity backing behind them, frightened us so much that it kicked our preparations into full overdrive. We researched everything about the event, we approached every attending member of the press for a meeting or interview weeks beforehand, we had press releases ready for every possible outcome of the conference, we set up all our social media, populated it and got lots of interaction going with our ever-supportive friends, we made a promo video, we had stickers and t-shirts made for give-aways. By the time the conference opened on May 4, 2015, we knew more about the who’s who and what’s what of the event than the event crew.
The Irish say that luck is nothing more than preparation meets opportunity, and this certainly has been true for Shutta. The conference led to a little press attention, our social media amplified the little buzz that this press attention created; this led to what was then significant user growth, which in turn led to a feature as Best New App in the Apple App Store and ultimately to receiving investment offers. I had been working full-time on Shutta since a couple of months before the conference, and in January 2016, having received funding and set up our headquarters in Hong Kong, James was also able to leave his day job. About a month later, we opened the doors to Shutta Vietnam, where all our tech development takes place, and we have been based in our office-with-a-garden in District 2 ever since.
Today, the app itself is unrecognizable compared to the original version. Our team of developers has turned Shutta into a slick modern app with a smart content delivery network that ensures our users can use the app as smoothly as possible. The popular photo contests that we used to run through our social media pages have been integrated into the app, and these Shutta Missions have become an important feature for a significant part of our userbase. Unlike the Instagrams and Snapchats of this world, you can’t survive as a start-up in Asia without a clear path to revenue, and through missions we have been able to create a revenue model that doesn’t depend on bothering our users with unsolicited advertising in the app. Brands pay us to organize photo contests that generate content that fits their brand image, and our users get the opportunity to win high-value prizes—everybody wins.
When we first saw one of our users refer to themselves as a Shutta Missionary, it sparked the whole creative chain of events that is leading us to the next evolution of the app, due to be released any day now—in Vietnam only for the moment, although the roll-out to the region will follow before too long. Knowing we had users who would eagerly await the Friday announcement of newly-opened missions, to then plan their weekend around hunting for the perfect winning photograph, we realized that we could offer these missionaries many more ways of making the real world around them a fun playground. We could literally gamify reality in such a way that fit naturally into the existing app. In the process we could also offer our brands one of the most sought-after marketing goals: to measurably connect the online and offline customer journeys.
We are only just approaching our second anniversary, but it feels like we have lived several lifetimes over the past two years, and there are too many lessons learnt to recount, but here are some of my favorite realizations:
Allow your well-laid out plans to unfold organically; being open to being wrong about your assumptions and willing to change accordingly allows you to continuously have mini-eureka moments. Surround yourself with a core crew of people that are as bought in as you are, that share your passion, and encourage them to bring their own talents to the table; you will depend on them when the going gets tough. And pitch to clients more than you pitch to investors; they are the safer and often quicker route to a positive cash flow and longevity as a business.
The work is never finished, you are never done. Your users want constant renovation, your clients have ever-changing demands, and tech itself changes so fast that you are on a constant quest to stay on top of the game. You have to be some sort of crazy to get into this start-up life, but, if you are going to do it, I still believe that there is no more magical place than Vietnam to keep that fire in your belly alive. And trust me, you’re going to need a lot of fire. γ