I have been working on building up my main business for the past four months, since November 2015. The idea is to build a web app in the health and nutrition space.
My target audience are people who are interested in maintaining a healthy lifestyle but don’t have enough motivation to conduct any serious research in the field, neither do they have time to cook complicated meals that are often recommended by the natural health community.
From Idea to Action
Although I started actively working on the app four months ago, the idea was born even before I quit my job last summer. While I was at home working on other projects, I was doing a lot of research and thinking, to allow the foundation of the app to take shape.
Since the first version of the app will be mainly focused on cooking healthy and easy meals, I was also actively testing out various strategies in my own kitchen.
Trying to live the lifestyle that I want to incorporate into my app proved to be incredibly valuable. By trying my theories in practice, I realized that my initial idea had flaws and I had to switch the course of action several times, and re-evaluate the main vision of the business.
At the same time, I was going through an internal process of self-discovery, and that in turn influenced the direction of the business idea.
Wireframes for the App
Once I knew what I was going to build, I started drawing wireframes of the app’s main functionality. That was a fun activity, and didn’t take much time.
Before starting with the wireframes, I spent a lot of time considering what tool I should use to draw it. I researched the most popular tools on the web, both free and paid versions, and in general spent way too much time on this task.
Based on my research, and previous experience using this tool in my former jobs, I came to the conclusion that Omnigraffle was the best tool for the task. Omnigraffle is a Mac-only diagramming tool that has a beautiful UI and that creates great graphics. All the other tools looked like child drawings compared to the graphics produced by Omnigraffle.
I installed the trial version of Omnigraffle, played with it, and was considering paying for the license. But, at the last moment, I decided that it was stupid of me to pay the hundred bucks for something I may only need to use very occasionally.
Once the app is built, nobody ever goes back to the wireframes. A wireframe is like an outline that an artist creates before drawing a painting: once the paint has been applied, the outline is neither needed nor visible any longer.
So I made the smart decision to save the money and went with Pencil – an open source wireframing tool that I had used for simple projects in the past.
It turned to be a great decision. The actual wireframing work took only one day. Since I had spent several months thinking and planning the app, I pretty much had all the functionality laid out in my head. So when the time came to get it on “paper”, it was very easy.
Skipping the Design
Normally, the wireframing phase is followed by a design phase, where the bare blueprint of the app transforms into how the UI is going to look in real life, with colors and shapes.
Since I am not a designer, I decided to skip this step altogether. Instead, I used a UI framework – Foundation – that gives you the basic UI elements that are already looking presentable. The only customization that I did at this point was to apply a custom color theme to the app.
By skipping the design step, I saved a lot of time. The app is looking pretty good anyway, and I can always go back later and make design updates.
Building the App
Next, I spent about a month building the first part of the app: the part that is going to be free to use for everyone, and that will hopefully wake up the interest of the users to sign up for the main service.
The main part of the app, that will be a paid subscription service, is part of the second phase, and is planned to be launched at a later point.
Since I am a software engineer, I enjoyed this building part a lot. By working for myself and building something from scratch, I had the luxury of choosing the technologies of my liking and not having to adapt to existing frameworks.
I had a lot of fun, learned and implemented the latest technologies, and tried to make the app robust, fast and ready for later adaptation to mobile devices.
By choosing this road, I may have spent more time than necessary on this phase, and I may have over-engineered it some. I have justified this time as an investment in the future: hopefully this solid foundation will make later adaptations faster.
I know that in case of new startups, time to market is very important, and it is usually recommended to ship the first version of the product as fast as possible, even if it has flaws. By choosing the slower path, I deliberately broke this “law” and allowed myself to indulge in the engineering phase longer than necessary.
Marketing and YouTube
Before jumping into building the main part of the app, the part that will eventually be a paid subscription service, and decided to spend some time on marketing work. There is no point having a great app if no one knows about it. So I needed to start building a community around the app.
I don’t want to spend money on advertising, since I personally don’t believe that it is the right way to promote a product. It is my personal belief, and I want my business to reflect my personal values.
I have decided to use social media instead, but only focus my efforts on one social channel. Based on my experiences with the fashion website that I was working on before, I learned that getting traction through social media can take a long time and requires a lot of effort.
So instead of spreading my attention across multiple social channels, I decided to focus on building a YouTube channel for the app. I know that video content creation requires more effort than, say, just writing blog posts, but I believe that video has an advantage over written blog posts.
Video is more appealing to the audience than written articles: it is easier to watch a short video than read a long article (in most cases). And since I will be writing my scripts before recording the videos, I will have the transcript of the video that I can easily transform into a blog post.
As of today, I have recorded an introduction video, that I have to edit and upload into my channel.
This is where I am today. I have launched a useful tool that my audience can use for a quick health assessment, and I have a small promotion on the site that prompts the users of the upcoming app and asks them to sign up for updates.
I have started a Pinterest account, and a YouTube channel. I am still working on some technical tweaks to the app to make it more robust without spending more money on hosting.
In the process, I have realized that everything takes about 3 times longer than planned. At least for me. When there are no deadlines it is easy to loose focus and get sub tracked with other projects. I was fully aware that this would happen: I have read about it and I have seen this happening to other people. I consciously allowed myself to work in my own pace, without the stress of the pressing deadlines. After years of work for traditional employers and their hectic schedules, I treated myself to this freedom to work on what I want, the way I want.
But, the time has come to create a schedule and set some deadlines for this project.