Requisite Promotional Stuff:
This article is about my experience making the app, so I want to get all the promotional stuff out of the way up front: I released an app called Ullr! Its a crowd-sourced terrain park conditions app. It lets you see what the park setup is like at any mountain. If you're on Newschoolers, I bet you'd like it.
It turns out that making the app is the easy part. Even though it took me over a year and often resulted in a sleep schedule resembling that of a new parent, it is in one sense easy as a developer to put my head down and write code.
I began that process last October. Having recently moved to Chicago, I was in the market for a season pass and was searching for the best nearby ski hill. I felt like it was harder than it should have been to figure out where had a good park. This experience coalesced with others from back home in NC- I had always wished that I could know what the park set-ups at the mountains around me were like before I decided where to go. Even when I knew where I was going, I always wanted to be up to date on what features were up and know when the park had been reset. It was with these things in mind that I decided to make Ullr.
An early sketch of Ullr
I started out with a few goals:
1. Minimize reliance on resorts to provided data. In an ideal world, resorts and park crews would keep the app updated, but I’ve seen a lot of resort websites where the Terrain Parks page is neglected and I didn’t want my app to be vulnerable to that fate. Hence crowd-sourcing.
2. I wanted it to be useful/interesting to people regardless of whether they ride almost every day or are infrequent park skiers. That’s where the concept of being “King of a feature” and having a photo feed came from. Though it already seems like I may need to revisit those ideas.
3. Support iOS and Android.
4. Automate as much as I could about maintaining and running the app. I’d much rather spend my free time skiing than maintaining an app. If anyone is interested in the tech-stack, let me know. I think it's pretty cool.
I’ll omit the details of the next 14 months. Suffice it to say that I spent many nights after work and weekends in front of my computer in a state that vacillated between flow, exhaustion, pulling my hair out, and nerding out.
Notes about the cloud architecture behind Ullr
I launched the beta program in December, but there was still a ton of work to do. The perfectionist temptation to withhold the app until it was technically flawless was strong. So was my apprehension about what I consider to be the real “hard part” of making an app- marketing, acquiring users, soliciting feedback, and trying to talk with resorts. I know very little about marketing. I’ve had mixed luck even getting in contact with people from resorts. And I worry that feedback I get is skewed by non-response bias. It’s admittedly much easier for me to just keep developing more features than it is to step out of my comfort zone and do those things, so I wasn’t sure if I’d even make a full release this season or not.
In software and in start-ups, you hear all kinds of mantras like “fail early” and “fail fast” with the implication that it’s better to release, fail, and correct for the failure than it is to spend a ton of time perfecting something that users don’t want. I also subscribe to a related philosophy that says, “if you’re not embarrassed of your first release, then you’ve released too late”. With the end of this season looming, I deemed these sayings wise. I decided to make a big push in February and set a release date of March 1st.
The pre-release task board.
The weeks leading up to March 1st were hectic. I was up until 2 or 3 every night tying up loose technical ends, creating listings in both App Stores, populating the app stores with screen shots, arranging ads, and the like. The night before the release, there was an issue at my real job that kept me at the office until midnight. Once we finally resolved it I biked home, opened my computer, clicked the respective “release” buttons on the App Store and Google Play Store, and passed out.
We celebrated the release Thursday night with tacos and margs and I gave myself a break this weekend. I got two awesome spring skiing days in with my girlfriend and a buddy that came to visit. It feels good to be exhausted from skiing instead of coding.
Go skiing with your friends
So how did the release go? It definitely didn’t go viral, but we got a good amount of users on the first day, and have gotten more users each day since. My goal with Ullr is not to be the next big start-up or even the next Newschoolers. My dream is to charge resorts for premium accounts and just make enough money to support my girlfriend and myself and allow us to ski. My shorter term goal is to get some traction and gain some users in what’s left of this season. Then use that momentum in talking with resorts and tweaking the app this summer. Then come into next season really strong. With those goals as measuring sticks, I think I’m off to a decent start.
Moving forward, many of the same uncertainties remain. I still have a lot of work to do in talking with resorts and in making sure that I learn the right lessons from the early-adopting users. I know that next season I need to make a much bigger marketing effort. But the biggest uncertainty with Ullr has been and will continue to be getting people to adopt it initially. It has the same problem that new social-media platforms have which is that there needs to be a critical mass of existing users who are contributing content before the app is useful to others. My hope is that resorts will get on board and help contribute reports, but I’m also considering rewarding users in some way for reporting features.
If anyone has any ideas or opinions or advice, I'm always happy to hear it. Especially on marketing and reaching the right people at resorts. Thanks for the support!