Color Wheel – Extending the Flashlight Experiment

If you read my blog post from yesterday, then you are familiar with my iPhone App Store experiment. I built a simple application (a Flashlight), and now I’m trying to improve sales by listening to users and evolving the app – nothing more, nothing less. It’s a flashlight today, but tomorrow it could be anything.

During launch yesterday, A Flashlight! sold 13 copies, probably about half to friends and family who I coerced into buying it. While I haven’t gotten any feedback from real users yet, I did get some ideas from the Hacker News discussion that ensued. A thread full of people commented that the app could be construed more as a rave toy than a flashlight, with its ability to flash any color at any speed, and they suggested I work on syncopating the flashing colors with sounds and other people using the app. So, if I don’t get any more feedback on the matter, I guess that’s what I will probably do.

Beyond the pure experiment of responding to users requests, after I spent a day on Flashlight, I also got interested in applications around images and color and how I could use the Color Wheel UI element I cooked up. So, I decided to create a separate application called ColorWheel! As it says in the app description on iTunes, ColorWheel lets you select colors and then it provides you with RGB and hex values. It also lets you grab colors from photos, type in hex/RGB, email colors, and adjust the opacity of the colors.

Here’s a screenshot of the two apps side by side – as you can see, they are very similar.

So, now this experiment has two forks. On the Flashlight side, we’ll see how response to user requests drives the development of the app and how that affects sales. On the ColorWheel side, we’ll see if my random idea for evolving the Flashlight speeds things up and leads me to a market faster. For both A Flashlight! and ColorWheel!, I plan to just respond to user requests, but I think ColorWheel is a much more targeted app (for designers, programmers, etc.), so I wonder what the difference in their evolutions will be.

As the final step in this experiment, I’m also pushing an app that starts out just as a feedback box. It’s ready to ship to the App Store now, but I’m just wondering what to call it. Blank Slate? Or maybe just TBD if I can get away with that.

My Agile Experiment – A Flashlight on the iPhone

A couple weeks ago, I spent eight hours in XCode, Photoshop, and iTunes Connect, and I submitted A Flashlight! to the iPhone App Store. As it stands, the app is very simple, yet it is also unique among flashlights. You can use a Color Wheel to select a color, and a slider to select strobe frequency. It also remembers your settings between uses. You can view it on iTunes here.

A Flashlight! is intended as an experiment in agile, user-oriented development. I just want to see if a) I can sell any flashlights and b) if I can improve sales by doing whatever users say to do. Today, this app is a flashlight, but I intend to do whatever users request and let this app morph into whatever it becomes. Maybe it will become some weird chimera, or maybe it will become a really tricked out flashlight, or maybe it will turn into an RPG or something.

I chose to start with a flashlight app because they are simple to build and seem to have a natural market on the iPhone – there are 100s of flashlight apps, and even one in the top 20 in the Utilities category. So, these factors make it easy for me to get my app out quick, and hopefully ensure some feedback from users on what I should build.

Either way, it will be fun to see where the natural current of the App Store takes A Flashlight!, and I’ll write a few blog posts about it.

In Search of a Good Idea

I’m a long-time reader and contributor to Hacker News – not the most prolific, but I lurk a lot. When I first moved to San Francisco about 3 years ago, my friends introduced me to Hacker News, Reddit, Seth Godin, and a lot of other influences that eventually drove me to leave my job and found a company.

Hacker News has been a tremendous resource for me. First, it was a source for inspiration, ideas, and philosophy. Later on, when we started building something, Hacker News became a sounding board for ideas, a way to get a critical review of products. And then even later, Hacker News helped us launch and market new software.

Hopefully I’m not being greedy, but now I want something else. I want business advice, and maybe even a CEO. After dreaming and scheming for 18 months, and working full time on this company for 10, my two co-founders and I have finally gotten to what we all know as “ramen-profitable.” In the next of paragraphs I’m going to lay out the history and stance of our business, TrailBehind, in hopes that someone out there has good ideas on what we should do next. If you have advice to impart, please read on, and give us some commentary on HN. If you have really good ideas, don’t need much money, and are interested in leading our company’s business strategy, please contact me atandrew@gaiagps.com.

TrailBehind, Inc. – History

My girlfriend and I first dreamt up TrailBehind hiking through the woods about two years ago. I don’t know if computing or hiking is our favorite thing, but it’s close either way. We started the company intent on making a great hiking website – we weren’t quite sure what that meant, but we knew it was tough to find good information on the web, and we didn’t really like any of the community sites out there either.

The result of this was www.trailbehind.com – a mixture of a hiking search engine and social site to help people “find great places to hike.” TrailBehind.com is a moderate success – it gets about 300-400 visits a day and helps us market our new products, but we haven’t worked on it in months. It was enough to win us a $25,000 fbFund grant and secure about $35,000 in other angel funding to get us started, but the internet is a tough market, especially for a niche media product with nothing to sell. So, eventually we turned to the iPhone platform in search of revenues.

Our first iPhone product, TrailBehind, launched last May and earned us a few thousand dollars. TrailBehind basically took TrailBehind.com and brought it to the iPhone, selling for .99 a piece. It was built by our first hire (Feb ’09), and a person I consider to be one of TrailBehind’s co-founders even if he came to the party a few months in – my friend from college Tim Bowen.

Finally making some money was a great morale boost for us, but it still wasn’t enough to keep the lights on. With that in mind, we took another look at the Navigation market on the iPhone and concluded that we needed to address a broader market – not just hikers and climbers and bikers, not just people who spend a lot of time in the woods. We needed a product that people in the city would use – people who run, people who drive, and people just walking around. And so, Gaia GPS was born.

With Gaia GPS, we wanted to build on the unique search capabilities and map overlay capabilities from TrailBehind.com, and incorporate features we knew there were a broad demand for – specifically GPS recording, offline mapping, and related functionality. And that’s where we are today. Gaia GPS launched almost a month ago, and it’s now one of the top 20 apps in Navigation. We now have loads of feedback from users, we are pushing steady releases, and sales and our ranking are climbing. Besides Gaia GPS, we also have our original TrailBehind app, and also Gaia Maps and Gaia Places – which are individual features of Gaia GPS as standalone, less expensive apps.

Today and Tomorrow

Besides just pushing releases and trying to generate some press, we are anticipating more incremental growth in our sales. We now have (in review by Apple) an international version of the app, which is quite a large percentage of the market for GPS apps. We also have in review the “Lite” version of Gaia GPS, which seems to be a proven strategy for selling more apps. So, as far as survival goes, I think we’re there. We still have about $15k from our investors in the bank, and we’re cash flow positive, so that number is now slowly growing. The three of us live a very affordable life, sharing a cabin in Truckee, grocery bills, and keeping expenses to a minimum.

What I am sort of at a loss for now is how to make an order of magnitude improvement in the business. We intend to keep working on Gaia GPS and climbing in the Navigation category, but this app alone will never be worth more than a couple million a year, and it won’t be worth more than a couple hundred thousand next year. I yearn for more.

Pretty quick here, we need to figure out what else we can do. We’ve been working a lot recently – once you launch a product, there is a lot more to do than just code, between talking with users, marketing, keeping your books, and all the day-to-day administrative trivia of owning a business. But, soon we’ll add a few more features to Gaia GPS, iron out bugs users report, and get that product down into a steady release cycle that doesn’t tax our resources completely.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what that next project should be. The major candidates are as follows:

  • Gaia Quest – Develop a game built on top of Gaia GPS, based on exploration and map-making. I have drawn up a rough sketch of what this game would look like. 
  • Military Applications – Build a military oriented version of Gaia GPS. Seek grant funds to from DARPA and similar. I have started to discuss this with a DoD contractor and a VC contact from one of my board members, and this seems like a real possibility, but a big divergence for us. 
  • Work on Search – Use the runway provided by our iPhone revenues to re-focus on our efforts to build a geographic search engine. This capability is perhaps the most unique thing about all of our products – aggregation and presentation of geo-data. However, it was sidelined because we needed to make money, and we had no clear route to monetize this. 
  • Other Mobile platforms – Build Gaia GPS for new platforms, such as Palm, Android, or Blackberry. Seek marketing incentives from these platforms to migrate the software, otherwise this is probably not a reasonable path for us right now. 

So, I guess I’m just unsure what to do. As is the common Silicon Valley attitude, I have come to believe that ideas are mostly worthless, and execution is king. But while we have managed to execute a few products and make a few dollars, I’m grasping for a good idea. I wonder what to do next. I wonder how much to focus on incremental progress for Gaia GPS. I wonder if we should be aiming to go from making $70,000/year to $200,000/year. Do I shoot for a goal I know I can reach, or is it time to double down and shoot for the stars? Maybe you have a better idea than me.

Please Help

If you go on Hacker News and you are a business guy with a great idea but no software development expertise, you will get asked poignant questions and probably laughed out of the forum if you come looking for hackers to help you execute. Hackers believe that that it all boils down to the software. This is only partially true. All of you idea men quietly lurking in the shadows of HN, this blog post is for you.

Today, my company has plenty of hackers. We all program, led by Anna, who is a truly gifted (and pedigreed) hacker. But we lack vision I think. Today, I need advice, strategy, and ideas. I have discussed this heavily with my board and co-founders, but I’m still not sure what to do.

Before I came to the Valley, I thought of myself as an idea-man, but today I think I know myself a bit better. I’m pretty good at accomplishing a goal, but I’m not so sure I’m great at deciding what goal to focus on. I have a business degree, but I’m not sure I have the requisite flare for marketing. Give me a feature to build, a bug to fix, or even a reporter to call and land a story, I can do that. But if you ask me what’s the next thing TrailBehind should be working on, I fear my ideas aren’t correct. Maybe once I started to lose respect for the strength of the “idea,” I lost the ability to have good ones. Recently, I’m thinking that what I need and have undervalued is a good idea.

So, I guess that’s the end of my rambling. I’m hoping that someone out there can set us on the right track. If you want to know more, if I left out some important details, please ask away on the HN comment thread, and I’ll try and fill in the blanks. If you have ideas or commentary on the state or direction of our business, please post those.

Also, if you think you might be able to steer this ship to grander adventures, drop me an email at andrew@gaiagps.com. There’s a lot of stock to go around, but not much money. Maybe you can change that.

Gaia GPS: Great Topo Maps

One of the best features of the iPhone app I have been working on is the topo maps we include. Gaia GPS is the only app to provide these iPhone topo maps, and they are beyond compare.

You can get lower resolution topo maps via other apps, and even the high-res USGS maps from the Topo Maps application, but none of these maps have the same detail that Gaia GPS provides.

Gaia is also cool because it lets you do iPhone offline maps, for when you don’t have an internet connection.

Fixing the App Store with Measure of Credibility

iPhone apps live and die by the reviews they get, and it’s an extremely competitive market, filled with people lusting after stacks of cash.

To be an iPhone programmer these days, you better have some friends, or some “marketing” dollars. If you don’t, you might succeed, but you are going to be at a marked advantage to both the teams that know lots of people with iPhones, and the companies with dollars to hire PR firms to juice their rankings.

Having PR firms, friends, and family boost your ratings is absolutely pervasive in the App Store, and not just in the high-value games category. However, I think there’s actually a pretty easy way to fix a lot of this, or at least make it harder to cheat.

If you are a savvy iPhone App buyer, then before you trust a review, you know to click on the reviewer’s name and see what else they have reviewed. You know that you have to be particularly mistrustful of five-star reviews, and that if you click a name and that’s the only review the person ever left, it’s probably not sincere.

So, if Apple has any interest in getting trustworthy information to App buyers, then they could simply list the number of reviews a person has submitted next to their name. Instead of a review “by andrewljohnson” they ought to have the reviews show “by andrewljohnson (2).

Some might argue that Apple already helps establish credibility by letting users rate whether they found a review to be useful, but this system only contributes to the problem. As it turns out, if you have 30 people willing to write reviews for you, you also have 30 people willing to downvote the bad reviews, and upvote the cooked reviews, so this system ends up reinforcing the fraud.

I do believe in the end that the good apps end up on top – most fraud strategies end up being unsustainable. However, they do lead to some dollars ending up in the bad guys’ pockets, drained from the bank accounts of the less capitalized companies, where a few dollars matter the most. Most importantly though, a lot of consumers get duped into buying crappy products, even if the rankings come out right in the end.

Adding a Third Monitor with DisplayLink USB to DVI

My genius girlfriend and co-founder Anna figured out how I could run another monitor off of my Macbook.

Typically, a Macbook Pro can support two 24″ monitors through a splitter, or one 30″ monitor because 30s use dual DVI. However, you can also buy a USB to DVI converter from DisplayLink, and run a 30″, a 20-24″, and the laptop screen itself concurrently. Here’s a picture of my setup:

In this rig, the 20″ monitor actually runs on the CPU, not the GPU on the graphics card. When I am resizing windows on the 20″ screen, it can react a bit sluggishly, but it works perfectly for my purposes since I just keep non-programming browser windows over there.

A Wonderful House Near Joshua Tree

I recently had a chance to stay at the Moonway Lodge, and it may very well be the best vacation rental near Joshua Tree. This was my first trip to JT but not my first vacation rental, and I can’t remember a house that I more thoroughly enjoyed.

The building we rented had two nearly identical bungalows side-by-side, with a courtyard and pool fenced in between them. The place advertises it sleeps 6-8, but I think you can pack a few more in there, particularly if the weather is nice.

There were five of us on this trip, and two of us opted two sleep in the beds outside by the pool, two took the big beds in the bungalows, and one took the aptly named Heaven, which is a cool and breezy room upstairs, between the bungalows.

You can tell that the Moonway Lodge is a place the owners themselves enjoy and understand. Too many vacation rentals try to wow you with nice upholstery and modern appliances, but the Moonway Lodge actually had the things I wanted. Speakers to hook up iPods, that broadcast throughout the bungalows and courtyard. A pool that reaches 9 ft., which is a real gem in the desert. A vast expanse of desert to wander into. Wifi. And even a Wii!

If you have a few days, I heartily recommend a trip to the Moonway Lodge, and you can stop and see Joshua Tree while you are there. It’s just a few minutes away.

Refreshing Firefox From, And Other Thoughts On, Emacs

When I’m working on Javascript or Django templates, I often want to test a change in the browser (usually Firefox), which entails refreshing.

As it turns out, it’s a pretty simple matter to do what I want, using just a couple of lines in my .emacs file, and a plug-in a piece for emacs and Firefox. This fine fellow lays out the steps on his blog. However, just to clarify his instructions a bit and spare you from a pitfall that hung me up for a couple of minutes, take note.

After you install MozRepl integration in emacs, it won’t start up until you open a javascript file. If you don’t start MozRepl or open a javascript file before you try to ctrl-x p, or you will get this error:

“Symbol’s function definition is void: comint-send-string”

Maybe I should need to test less often, but until then, this tool is going to be very handy. Here are some other improvements I’d like to make to my emacs:

  • figure out how to store the state of tabs/buffers when I close emacs
  • get lines numbers to show up on the left
  • autocomplete file opening, Quicksilver style, without needing to enter directories and tabs
  • aquamacs spawns tabs for auto complete and such… I wish those would automatically close
  • get javascript to color properly in HTML templates
  • also, django template coloring would be a nice bonus