article Fall 2016

From Ideas to Apps

By Ben Zastrow

What do Snapchat, Eatstreet, and Zuntik all have in common? They all are apps that began as college startups, each one the dream of students who saw an opportunity to provide something new and exciting — and didn’t waste any time seizing their chance. The frantic, ever-changing culture of the startup world has permeated much further than one might expect. Companies such as Perblue, a social gaming company, and Eatstreet, an online food ordering platform, come to mind as two of Madison’s most prevalent examples. It can seem a bit intimidating to contemplate jumping into this maelstrom of all-nighters, funding searches, and the grind of trying to gain publicity, but the two students behind a new Madison-based event sharing app have experienced it all firsthand. Zuntik co-founders and UW-Madison students Liam King and Jake Schieber were willing to share a bit of advice to those who think they might have come up with the next big thing.

The first major step to developing an app is to have a goal in mind, and a list of things that you would like to see in the final product. According to King, professors can be of great help in getting an idea off the ground. They also can assist with an important step of the development process called “pivoting,” which means modifying the goals or features of the app to either avoid an issue or to focus more successfully on a certain user base. For example, Zuntik began as an idea for a more specific app that would promote events for student organizations and other groups within the university. However, the goal changed as King and Schieber realized that student orgs are a difficult group to market to, given the high rate of leadership turnover and the private nature of many of their events. This experience helped them to identify that their product would be better suited to public events such as concerts, festivals, etc., that are advertised to the general population. Pivoting like this occurs many times in almost every startup as they refine their product. “Although it’s your app, the people ultimately get to decide how it’s being used,” says Schieber.

After the concept has been narrowed down and a general outline of the product’s functionality decided upon, the next step is to develop the actual software and coding. This can be a major source of confusion and anxiety, and often leads to the temptation of paying a third party to develop the app. The Zuntik founders discovered that this approach typically creates more problems than it solves because the cost of implementation can begin to add up and often doesn’t produce a high quality product. Instead, Schieber recommends developing the app in-house, which both saves money and allows for much more flexibility. He had never developed web code or mobile apps before beginning work on the precursor to Zuntik but decided to teach himself, and now personally writes all the code. “If you have an idea, it’s really about working really, really hard to do it yourself,” Schieber says. “If you need to find somebody to join you so you can do your thing and they can do their thing, find the other half.” If you don’t have experience with coding, there are several organizations in Madison such as MadVentures that connect students with similar ideas and different skill sets. For example, King is a Marketing and Finance double major, while Schieber is a Computer Engineering and Computer Science double major, so they are able to split up responsibilities accordingly.

After an app has been developed, the best way to bring it to the public is through Apple’s App Store and Android’s Google Play, which both have their own unique way of receiving submissions for new apps. This process can be a bit tedious but there are many tutorials online about how to go about submitting an app to these online stores. One thing that Zuntik uses for its code for the app store is an Ionic Framework. This is a software tool that makes it simple to design an app and later upload updates to the app store quickly as the app is developed and refined.

Following public release of an app, it is time for repeated refinements based on early user feedback to ensure that nothing is confusing the customers. For example, Schieber and King encountered a peculiar issue with their “communities” feature. “No one knew that they had to join at all. We saw this trend of not many people joining certain communities, even though right when you open the app you get a suggestion to join.” King explains. “The suggestion was just too small for them to realize ‘Oh, that’s an action that’s clickable.’ And then we changed it and up went the joins.” Problems like this are sure to come up in any new product, and the key is again to be open to pivoting to meet user demands while keeping in mind a consistent end goal for the app.

Now that Zuntik has been available to the public for a few months, King and Schieber are making plans to introduce their app to other campuses. They are just one example of the many apps and startups that have come out of Madison in general, and UW-Madison in particular. Many opportunities and resources are available here for anyone who is willing to take advantage of them. The unique world of app development has a culture that attracts a wide variety of people and ideas. “It will always be dynamic and changing, which keeps things fun and interesting,” says King. “But at the same time everything will break. There will be something that you completely forgot or didn’t think of, and that’s okay.” It’s certainly a challenging undertaking, but one with a plethora of exciting possible outcomes. “You’re constantly learning and trying to adapt to the situation and that’s just the fun of it,” King says. “It’s one of the most rewarding experiences you’ll ever be able to have.”

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