This story starts back in the summer of 2009. I had just gotten my first iPhone 3GS and I was loving it. Think way back: back to the time when Angry Birds wasn’t a hit on the App Store yet. Apple had launched the App Store in 2008, the same year I had sold my previous startup. I was working full-time at a large software company, but I wasn’t very Intuit (into it). I was getting extremely excited about the mobile space and looked into starting to make apps.
On a more personal note, in 2009, I had just gotten married and was expecting my first daughter. I wanted to make an app that she would love and use.
I planned to publish my first app under a company name. My wife and I were coming up with names on our way back from the midwives, where we’d just listened to our unborn baby’s heartbeat. It was a big moment. I thought out loud, “Why don’t we call the studio Tiny Heartbeats?” My wife said that was good, but Tiny Hearts sounded better. She was right.
With the name settled, I started exploring the App Store and using a lot of apps made for children. I grew obsessed deciphering the ingredients that made some apps climb to the top of the charts while I watched others disappear. One of the apps I really loved in 2009 was Live Cams Pro, an app that allowed users to watch live streams of their security cameras on the go. More interestingly, users could view various streams of public live camera feeds at traffic lights, cities, and airports. Live Cams Pro was the #1 paid app before Angry Birds.
It wasn’t the best designed app, but I loved the live cameras of animals at the zoos the most. At the time, I lived close to the Toronto Zoo and went there regularly with my wife (we had yearly passes). My passion for animals made me curious enough to see if I could make the best animal app on the App Store.
When I was thinking of this app concept, I looked at what jobs people might use it for. The main goal of the app would be to educate children about animals in an entertaining and engaging way. As a secondary, but not insignificant benefit, the app would buy parents five minutes of peace and quiet. Children will love it, but parents will pay for it, so it was great that the app could complete jobs for both audiences. The goal was to create an app that kids would love to use, and parents would love to buy.
I was a soon-to-be parent at this point, so I had a good sense of what my target market was thinking and what their pains and interests were. If you’re not your own target market, then you should go talk to members of your market and validate your ideas from there. (You could consider co-creating your product with members of that community. It’ll be challenging, but well worth it. We’ll save that story for another day).
I can’t overstate the importance of understanding your target market. It’s your job to know your target market’s problems, fears, aspirations, and what they want in an app or digital product. It’s not the customer’s job to know what they want. In a way, I was building the app for myself and my daughter — which is why I was in charge of the feature set, the designs, and various other product decisions.
I decided to create a virtual zoo that would fit in people’s pockets — hence the name of my animal app, Pocket Zoo. It was going to educate and entertain children and nature lovers (like myself). I resolved to create the best app to solve that specific problem. We created a beautiful virtual zoo with over fifty animal illustrations. We also curated some of the best animal content online from photos to videos and live cams. We made it educational by creating easy-to-read facts for each animal, which was where we spent most of our time.
How We Built Pocket Zoo
After this idea came about, I just focused on executing. I got in touch with the co-founders of my previous startup, Rob Chia and Mohamed Hashi, and hired them on contract. I also collaborated with two illustrators that I found after doing some digging around. I found a designer friend to help with our branding and video. My wife helped out with content. I even got my teacher friends involved to approve it and make sure it’d be good for children.
In the App Store, design is your marketing. How your app looks will get you in the door, and usefulness will keep you in the user’s phone.
When you understand mobile, you realize what you choose not to do often is just as important as what you choose to do. You can’t cram everything into this little screen. At Tiny Hearts, we try to focus each of our apps to do just one thing really, really well. It’s little coincidence that the most successful apps not only look great but are focused and intuitive.
Back to the story — I wanted to have this app ready for the App Star Awards, and submissions were due either March or April of 2010. In order to qualify for this award, we needed to have a 45-second demo. The App Store awards were started by Oriel from AppsFire and it’s where I was first introduced to the work of Mills and the crew at Ustwo and Jeremy from Tapity — who had both submitted apps to the competition. If we won, Pocket Zoo would be seen by influencers like Robert Scoble and get mentions on blogs like Techcrunch, TUAW and Read Write Web, which meant great exposure down the line. Creating external deadlines is also a great way to rally a team. We ended up being the runner-up, but still received a bunch of press because of it.
May came around, and my daughter was born (May 10, 2010 to be exact) the same week that my app was submitted to the App Store (May 5th). I launched Pocket Zoo in the store and did a bit of outreach later that month. I just had a baby, and was still focused on the product, so I didn’t have a chance to do marketing and outreach earlier before the launch. Pocket Zoo debuted at the end of May, and hit a bit of a lull. Fortunately, Apple featured it in June, and the app gained a ton of traction. It made the top 50 paid apps and was the #1 Education app for a short time. Pocket Zoo also subsequently got featured in The New York Times, which lifted its traction again. Wired Magazine also called it a “must-have app.”
More importantly, I got several emails from people of all ages, all over the world — parents, grandparents, children, and teachers. They loved the app and spent hours watching animals on Pocket Zoo. They left awesome reviews, which inherently is a huge reward. If I had to choose, I would rather hear from real people using my apps than any award, accolade, or press coverage. (No disrespect, obviously.)
Taking The Leap
After my daughter was born, I started my parental leave. As that was wrapping up, I had a choice to make — either to take the leap and keep doing apps full-time, or to go back to my day job. I made enough money for my family to survive, so I was in a good position to quit my job.
This decision is different for people in different situations, with different risk tolerances and aversion. When the Pocket Zoo iPad app came out, I knew there was no turning back. I quit the big company.
That’s not to say it was an easy decision. A few months after deciding to do apps full-time, Pocket Zoo wasn’t generating consistent revenue, and my bank account started feeling it. (I’ll talk about how I solved that problem in the section below, where Pocket Zoo evolves into Tiny Hearts studio.)
Here’s a major reason why I left: I knew that in order to succeed, I’d have to take the app business seriously. Even though apps might seem like fun and games, you can’t win if you come to it lightly. Building an app can be a hobby. Making a living from apps is not. Think business, not apps. You can’t be a Sunday developer and be in business. Apple says in its review guidelines:
Pocket Zoo’s initial momentum continued after I quit my job, and I had more time to make the most of it. Although I did marketing late, Pocket Zoo was inherently compelling for Apple and the press to loved it. These influencers wanted to share it with people. The decisions I’d made with product, and design, came to make order-of-magnitude differences in word of mouth marketing.
At the time, Pocket Zoo was also very unique: new things get news. Even though Pocket Zoo was very niche — for children and animal lovers — it was still unique and new. Today, there are millions of apps out there, so it’s more difficult to be unique and new. Don’t get discouraged. There will always be room for more good apps. There are also lots of new ideas out there, and there are lots of new ways of doing old things.
From Pocket Zoo to Tiny Hearts
I’d mentioned my original intention to launch under a company name earlier in this piece. From the get go, I knew that I would need a studio in order to make apps for a living. I couldn’t rely on just Pocket Zoo or any other one app, I needed to diversify.
The studio model fits my DNA well, because my brain doesn’t like to do one thing. I wanted to make different things. I knew I wanted to create something else after I launched Pocket Zoo. I would go on to launch a game, an alarm clock app (that hit #1 in its category in the App Store), a fitness app (that was featured in an Apple commercial), and an iOS keyboard (that peaked at #2 on the paid apps chart). I followed my curiosity as I hopped into these different categories, but it was also great to learn through experimentation.
Throughout the years, I figured out other ways to make money with Tiny Hearts. Some collaborators had great ideas but lacked mobile expertise, so I would work with them to bring their vision to life. The cashflow I got by providing services work for big corporations, start-ups and non-profits made bootstrapping a bit less stressful. It empowered us to be less reliant on investors and fluctuating app revenues. Most importantly, we got to learn a lot from projects that fulfill and excite us.
Today, Tiny Hearts is made up of over a dozen team members and contractors working on our own products and products for clients. Our motto at Tiny Hearts is to make people’s lives better in small, meaningful, ways.
You can find a lot of Tiny Hearts’s DNA, in terms of processes and values, in Pocket Zoo. We eventually had to put Pocket Zoo to sleep (another story for another day), but it will forever remain the foundation that we built the rest of our apps and services business on.