By Jennifer Wong (Founder & CEO, Alt12 Apps)
I was five months pregnant when I decided to launch my startup Alt12 Apps in late 2009.
At the time, I was working at Gracenote, a music technology company, leading their marketing efforts. Sony had acquired Gracenote a year earlier, and while I had spent the last five years helping the company grow, at that point we were clearly in post-acquisition transition. The fast paced, wear-many-hats days gave way to steering committees, knowledge-based projects, and the usual awkwardness of corporate growth and process. I was getting bored, and worse yet, uninspired. So I began to think about what was next.
Pregnancy and Starting Up: Expecting and the Unexpected
To be honest, launching a startup was a bit unexpected, but my pregnancy had brought new life in me, literally and figuratively. It inspired my first product.
I was a typical busy working mom-to-be and self-proclaimed tech geek who lived by her smartphone. When I found out I was pregnant, one of the first things I did was search for a pregnancy app. I was really disappointed with my options. The apps that existed were developed by men that didn’t seem to grok, in both design and features, what a pregnant woman wanted or needed.
Even more disappointing was how few apps there were for women in general. With women fast encroaching as the leaders of social networking on the web and mobile devices, I was in disbelief that the app world didn’t have more to offer women like me. At that moment, I realized I could help change the mobile landscape for women and I would start by supporting one of life’s most special moments, pregnancy.
The initial design came naturally by looking at what was essential to me during my pregnancy. I had a pregnancy journal to hand write notes, a couple of reference books for health information, a few photos of my growing baby bump on my phone, a chart ready to time contractions on the big day, and access to my online group of other birth club moms for advice. I relied on all of these things during my pregnancy and yet the experience was so disparate and disconnected. I knew I wanted to connect the dots and have all of these features captured in a very simple, easy to use app.
Together with my co-founder, also my husband, we set out to create the ultimate pregnancy app. It was challenging at times because my wishlist was huge, the hardest part was committing to the minimum viable product and avoiding feature creep. But we stayed true to one goal – create an app that would help me track, capture and share my pregnancy journey.
The Birth of a Product: BabyBump
When it quickly started climbing the charts on all platforms, we knew we were on to something. We’d brought the latest smartphone technology to pregnancy, an area largely neglected before BabyBump was released, but in my mind, most certainly deserving of all the conveniences smartphones had to offer. Now women could snap weekly photos of their belly with their phone and watch a slideshow of how it changes, track their moods and symptoms, have their phone vibrate as they count kicks, and Twitter and time their contractions as they are on the way to the hospital.
But we weren’t done yet. While I was proud of our first version of BabyBump, I was bothered that we still hadn’t integrated the critical feature I needed most — access to an online group of women just like me. There was a reason why it wasn’t in our first release. Creating community groups from scratch seemed a bit out of our area of expertise. Neither of us had any experience building a community from the ground up and it seemed that a better solution was to find a partner.
From Rejection to Innovation
We reached out to a handful of popular women-focused community websites, but in the end they all turned us down. Not surprisingly, they had mobile initiatives of their own and had no interest in a partnership. In hindsight, rejection was the best thing that happened to us. Not only did it force us to do it ourselves, it motivated us to do it better and make innovations in the mobile group experience.
One of the first critical decisions we made was to build it natively into the app. There would be no web pages wrapped in a mobile browser for us. We felt strongly that it would compromise the experience. We wanted our users to feel deeply connected and engaged with the community, sharing their experiences and photos. We made it easy for users to share photos, create polls, and create and moderate private groups all within the app.
While the rest of the world seemed determined to create enormous social networks, we were focused on how to make it smaller and more meaningful. I wanted to fill a void that Facebook left open for me –- the ability to meet new parents like me and to only share with close family and friends. I wanted context, common ground, discovery and privacy all at the same time.
In the end, what we had succeeded in creating was an all-native, mobile community for pregnant woman. Today, our community groups are thriving with users sharing a post, poll or photo every four seconds.
BabyBump’s rising success instilled more confidence, but most importantly, it inspired me to believe that women and their families should be able to connect at all memorable life stages, from pregnancy planning to parenting and beyond. Two months after BabyBump, we launched Pink Pad, a health and fertility app.
I was inspired to create Pink Pad after being surprised at how many non-pregnant women were using our BabyBump pregnancy app. Some of the most popular community groups were Trying to Conceive and Fertility Issues. It seemed only obvious that we build a prequel to BabyBump to serve this group of women. We again went all-native and baked device notifications and reminders right into the app from the beginning. We built in the same native community groups so women could connect and share advice on health related issues.
The Next (Life) Stage
Today, Pink Pad is one of the category leading health and fertility apps on the iOS, Android and webOS platforms.
I’ve been amazed on how far we’ve been able to take this company with such a lean team. We started at two and have grown to five. We’ve launched two category-leading apps, each on three mobile platforms and have acquired over 1 million new users in 2011 alone. We’ve succeeded in creating one of the largest native mobile social networks of women in the world.
We’re completely self-funded, organically growing, and profitable just three months after launch. We have traction and revenue. While I’m proud of what we’ve achieved I find myself at a crossroads. Our third app is a month away from launch, targeting an even larger demographic of parents. Like our other apps, this one uses the technology we carry with us every day to capture and enhance the most precious moments of life. And yet, as I always do, I find myself wondering if it’s enough.
Are we doing enough for our audience and could we do more? Should we raise capital so that we can grow more quickly and deliver more of our vision? Or will fund-raising distract us from product delivery, at a time when swift execution in the mobile space is critical? They’re never easy questions. They’re the kind that probably do not have a single right answer. In the end, as a company, we keep our heads down and keep producing apps and we tell ourselves we’ll revisit the questions again “after just one more”.
We’ll see, just one more app, and we’ll see.
About the guest blogger: Jennifer Wong is the Founder and CEO of Alt12 Apps, a publisher of women and parent focused apps. The company name comes from the keyboard shortcut alt + 1 2 which produces the female symbol. Previously, Jennifer was the marketing director at Gracenote, a subsidiary of Sony. She holds degrees from UCLA and the California Culinary Academy, Le Cordon Bleu. Follow her products at @BabyBumpApp and @PinkPadApp.