I just recently moved into the SF Outsite location (professional co-living/co-working house), and while here, I found myself going through a bit of nostalgia after a recent conversation. While I'm writing this post to the public, I'm doing this more for myself as a reminder to regularly reflect back on life because it's shockingly easy to forget. 💭
I was chatting with someone at the house, going through the normal background "what do you do" answer, diving into my love for software and product (UI/UX). I was then asked "do you think you could launch a product on your own?" and I paused to take a few seconds to actually think about it "hmm, could I?" ...I then smacked myself over the head with my mouth wide open, absolutely dumbfounded, realizing "wait... I have... how in the hell did I forget such a huge part of my journey?!" 🤯
Something that I was once so proud of and identified deeply with, that engulfed my day-to-day for more than 2 years and thousands of hours, was barely even a thought 6/7 years later.
Story Time (The Opportunity) 📖
Back in 2013 (I was 20 at the time), BlackBerry was launching a new phone and operating system (called BB10) to combat iOS and Android. It was entirely new, built from the ground up, and it was incredible... The one thing lacking: developers.
To get developers onboard, they had a killer opportunity. Willing to develop for BB10? We'll send you a free BB10 Dev Alpha device (worth something like $700) more than 6 months before the phone would even be publicly released! You just had to prove that you're a developer and submit an idea for the app that you're going to build.
The App Idea 💡
I wasn't an app developer, I didn't have an app idea, but I so badly wanted the device. My friend Jeremy was doing it, but he was a developer... So I asked him how tough it was to build an app and his response was "just give it a shot, you'll figure it out".
With no idea of what to build and a looming deadline, I thought of the one thing I knew how to do (build websites), and thus came my first (and only) idea: "Web Design Cheat Sheet". I submitted the idea with the rough ethos of teaching people how to learn web design. Fingers crossed 🤞 and a few short weeks later, they somehow approved it and shipped me an alpha device!
It was just then that I realized I actually had to start building an app... I genuinely didn't know what mess I got myself into.
I downloaded the IDE on my computer, I read the developer docs, I looked at the example apps, and I spent weeks and months trying to learn QML and C++.
I will admit, I leaned heavily on that friend: "Hey Jeremy, so I'm trying to pull web design blog RSS feeds and display it within my app as a list. Any idea how I'd even begin solving that problem?" And he helped. He always helped, taking a break from the app he was building to help me get unstuck, time and time again. (Seriously, thank you Jeremy - only you know how truly helpful you were.)
The Conference 🛫
I got an early version out just as BlackBerry's annual developer conference was starting, and with that, I got invited to attend their BlackBerry Jam Developer Conference in Orlando, Florida as a developer, all for free! (Again, pretty sure Jeremy helped pull these strings a bit).
It was my first ever conference, I was introverted, shy, and nervous. I didn't really know anyone, but I saw other app developers there recording interviews by all of the big BlackBerry blogs, and I knew that I had to take advantage of being there and do something because very few people knew about my app. It was super niche, and had somehow gotten about 30 reviews and a couple hundred downloads, likely due to people being curious and the market not being being very crowded (I was maybe one of just a couple hundred apps that existed at the time?)
Time To Get Some PR 📢
I was sweating and shaking, trying to muster up the courage to finally say "hey, any chance you could do a blog post about my new app?" ...waiting in anticipation... "Yeah man, of course! What'd you build?" and then the cameras started to roll:
I was nervous, my voice was shaking, I didn't feel like I deserved to be there "I'm not a true developer" I thought to myself, but I mean "fake it until you make it" was what I repeated to myself over and over.
In a moment of feeling a mixture of pride and adrenaline, I mustered up some temporary courage to go over to the two largest BlackBerry blogs in the space to ask for a similar interview (CrackBerry & N4BB).
I remember leaving the event and going back to the hotel room and just refreshing the blogs over and over, anxiously waiting for the article to post. It finally did, and the comments started rolling in. I just laid in there, refreshing the page and responding to each and every message from my phone. People actually cared about what I made... Wait, am I a developer?
What Happened Next? 🤔
I had gotten to the point of having a few thousand downloads and just around 100 reviews (with a 5-star average rating). I was on to something, but the market was so niche that even at an exceptionally high conversion rate, it wasn't enough to justify building additional sections. In addition, I had the constant opportunity cost of time in the air as I was also trying to build a web design agency and going to school during this time.
The BlackBerry 10k Commitment 💸
It was at this time that BlackBerry upped the ante and introduced the "Built for BlackBerry 10k Commitment" program. If your app was built in native Cascades (QML & C++) and you sell at-least $1,000 worth of the app within 6 months of the program launch, then they would pay the difference between $10k and what you sold.
The clock was ticking down, I qualified for the program, I just needed to build a paid section to the app and sell. $1,000 seemed accessible based on my current user-base with $4 in in-app purchases available.
With just 4 weeks left, I hit $1,000 in sales! I was ecstatic, that meant I made $10k, right? Wrong. It was $1,000 minus taxes/fees/and BlackBerry's 20% cut, so that actual goal was closer to $1,400. I was mortified. What a waste, I couldn't believe it.
In addition to that, they sent me a limited edition red numbered Z10 for building a Built for BlackBerry certified app and for accomplishing the 10k commitment. A device that I still have in my room in a box (and was selling for around $1,500 at the time).
All-in-all, Web Design Cheat Sheet had hundreds of 5-star reviews, tens of thousands of downloads, and I had finally felt that all the hard work paid off. I was an app developer. I launched a product. I did it all myself.
And that brings me back to where this all originally started:
Do you think you could launch a product on your own?
I mean yes. Though how could I have forgotten the wild ride?
Where Are Things Now? 🚀
Well, BlackBerry officially killed off BB10 in 2017, deprecated the BlackBerry App Store (no new apps could be added), and they killed off the in-app payment system. Thus, my app was in a state of purgatory. If you had previously bought the app, you would have access to all the features but no future purchases could ever be made.
With 30,000+ downloads and 730+ 5-star reviews, and seeing the writing on the wall with BB10 in 2015, I asked my good friend (and old podcast co-host of 2.5 years) to do a final video overview of Web Design Cheat Sheet to show off what the app evolved into:
And that's my story. I encourage you to think back on your own journey and re-appreciate some of the moments that were once meaningful, but now forgotten.