What did (and didn’t) work in app launching – London Cyclist

What I’m listening to as I type: Days Are Gone

Way, way back when both me and the web were younger and altogether more excited about each other, I believed the internet would deliver The Dream Job. That one you do from your laptop sitting on a hot beach drinking something cold.

I was thinking about that when I spoke with Andreas Kambanis over Skype at the weekend. If anyone’s realised the promise of the web to deliver dream lifestyle plus dream job, it’s him.

AndreasKambanisAndreas started the successful London Cyclist blog straight out of uni back in 2010. That led him to launch a string of apps, starting with Bike Doctor, and all of that led to him building his business as he travels from Vancouver to Antartica, and back again.

When we spoke, he was in sunny Buenos Aires (“My favourite place so far – it feels like Paris, with cafes on every corner”) and I was in storm-battered Tutbury.  (Three cafes, doesn’t feel anything like Paris).

He told me running his business remotely has worked just fine:

“The biggest problem has been my laptop power failing in Buenos Aires. If I’d been back London I’d have just hopped on my bike to the nearest Apple store, buy a cable and then come back.

“Here I visited three different Apple stores and none of them had the cable,  so I had to get on a boat to Uruguay to buy one!”

Aside from power fails, finding a wi-fi connection can be an issue (“Now I just use Airbnb and rent an apartment with private wi-fi”) or he makes use of his 3G stick and phone (“crucial in Peru when we were launching the London Cyclist app“).

He launched the blog as a hobby first, while working in his first job after graduating. Launching his own business was “always in the back of my mind.”

“I wanted to do my own thing. I was working for a company for a year but it was a graduate job and I found it very frustrating.”

He picked cycling as the topic for his blog because he was cycling to work every day and saw there wasn’t much online about cycling in London.

Getting the domain – londoncyclist.co.uk, was important for search traffic then: “Back in the day it was very important what domain you had – it’s less important now.”

As the blog gathered views, he started contacting other cycling sites and blogs and monetized the site with affiliate product links.

It took me about six months to be earning about $3k a month. Then my first big breakthrough was round about the time Apple brought out the iPhone 3GS. Immediately it was clear that this was a real opportunity – with the iPhone I could have everything inside an app.”

His first foray into apps was Bike Doctor, which teaches cyclists to fix their bike.

“I contacted a developer with the idea for Bike Doctor. He did the coding and I did the marketing and brought the audience. It was a 50/50 partnership.

“The app went to the top of the category for sports apps in the UK – it did really well straight out the door.”

His next app – London Cyclist, was less successful with sluggish sales.

“I hired a developer this time and spent around £2.5k making it and got that back within a few days.

“But I quickly realised that London Cyclist could only grow to a certain stage. I made the assumption that other people would want what I wanted [in a bike app]. Secondly,  I assumed that iPhone was the right format.”

His market – his London Cyclist blog followers – just weren’t that interested in the app: “If the London cyclist doesn’t download the app, whatever I did I wouldn’t move sales very far foward.”

Andreas has written here about his decision not to invest more time and money in trying to push that app forward, but  said it was a valuable lesson:

“But with each failure you learn a lot, so now I know about creating an app that’s got location data in it and I can use that for other ideas I’ve got.”

He was already traveling by the time the London Cyclist app launched, having set off on his journey in February 2013. His next app, Caveman Feast, was also created and launched as Andreas crossed continents.

Via a contact of a contact he was introduced to Abel James, who runs the very successful Fat Burning Man blog, podcast and brand based around promoting the Paleo diet.

Andreas suggested the app idea to Abel and designed and launched it. On day one of launch it had had 8,000 paid-for downloads and got into the iPhone top ten:

Top 6 app in the Apple App Store

The key had been to partner with someone who brought his market with him. Abel’s Fat Burning Man podcast gets over 500k downloads a month.

Paleo expert George Bryant of civilisedcavemancooking.com, was also involved and recommended the app to his 90k followers. By the end of launch day, the app had made back its £7k developer cost.

“Partnering with other people that have followers is key. Making an app yourself is really hit and miss. In the past we’d have had to contact all the major media outlets and find out who to talk to and chase them.”

That pattern – of working with ‘names’ to build apps, is where Andreas plans to take his business this year.

“A lot of very successful people are very busy so that’s where I come in and I manage the whole process. I take their content and four to six weeks later I deliver the app and the launch strategy.

I never launch an app and hope for the best, I always have a plan for how to get it out there.

“A digital agency in London would charge you around £100k to produce an app but you could do it for £7-8k but you need the strategy. I really think through the app and the visual mapping of the content.”

His next app is due to launch early March. It’s a 14-day juicing challenge, again working with a ‘name’ partner. Like Caveman Feast, it’s about people  building new health habits into their normal routuine.

“I’m really interested in the intersection between psychology and healthy eating so I’m interested in how we can bring thoughtful design in an app to make healthy living easier.”

This year, he expects to take someone on to manage the London Cyclist blog fulltime while he concentrates on building his app business. But does he think about where the tech is going – what he does after apps?

“Yes. Especially in the tech world everything changes and its really tough to stay ahead. I think wearable tech is next and we’re already looking at that and looking at using Google Glass for the recipe market.”

Thanks for talking, Andreas!

Thanks, Andreas!

What didn’t work – Geomium

What I’m listening to while I type: B.R.M.C.

Ben Dowling is one of those bright, young entrepreneur geeks that Cameron gets super-excited about  [er, that doesn’t sound quite right. Ed]

At 28, he already has one web-tech launch behind him and is currently working on at least two others. That first web-tech project, Geomium, was the one I spoke to him about – after he replied to my tweet call to tell me he’d definitely worn the t-shirt!

tweetWhat I found especially interesting talking with him was that the reasons he gave for why he felt Geomium had, ultimately, failed were ones I recognised from my own experience. In particular, the need to stay focused on your original concept, especially when you’re at that point where funders are biting. Anyway, background first.

Geomium was a social app focused on location. Developed by Ben and co-founder Michael Ferguson out of six months of conversation, prototyping and brainstorming that started in the summer of 2010. 

Mike (left) and Ben. Picture - The Guardian

The two hadn’t worked together before Geomium but had a shared interest in location and in the excitement being generated in 2010 around what location could add to social networking. Ben said:

“Initially, the  idea me and Mike had was very social, just around people and what they’re up to. But we thought, if we just have people then we need the critical mass of people and how can we get people to use it until we have that critical mass? So it was always location based – chatting but with people nearby, location was critical.”

Remember that Summer 2010 was when location was still pretty new. Foursquare had launched  at SXSW the year before – as did the rival it beat, Gowalla. But these were then US-centric and, while there was plenty of work and excitment around location, the space in mid-2010 was still pretty open.

Ben and Mike raised £33k of Angel investment, enough for them to give up their day jobs and concentrate on launching Geomium (as an iPhone app and website) and to start looking for the next stage funding that would make the difference between go and stop.

The product was getting good press and interest from VCs. But by Dec 2010, the Angel cash that had kept them working on it fulltime on had pretty much run out:

“We needed to raise more money around December 2010, Jan 2011. We were slightly unsure what to do with it [Geomium] at that point so originally decided to take on other projects and keep pushing this forward, but it’s really difficult to do it when you’re not fulltime because you get distracted and it’s not a priority.”

It wasn’t just the lack of funds that was impacting on the project at this point, but the pressures that come with the pitching process itself, particularly how the desire to reflect the VCs’ interests can add to that loss of focus.

I remember my own, increasingly desperate, pitching phase and how that hunger to get a funder on board would affect what I thought about my product, and I began reflecting what I thought the VCs wanted. Ben said this had been “a huge problem” for them too:

“We were pitching end November through December [2010] and in January we were part of Seedcamp pitching to five VCs at once. Before that you’re pitching to about one a week and getting feedback from that and so you change the pitch, and then the next week you do it again and get feedback and change it again.

“Then the next week at Seedcamp you meet different teams and they all give different feedback but there was always a common thread. By the end of it you end up with their personal passion, one will say one thing and the other the opposite – although it’s not relevant to us they just say it to everyone.

“But afterwards you realise a side point, not their main point, is a common thread that they all made and that’s the important bit.”

The “important bit” in Geomium’s case was to stay focused:

“They [the Seedcamp VCs] said by bolting more and more onto the product we might think we were making it more compelling but we were actually confusing users.”

For Ben and Mike, the space Geomium was competing in had filled up since they started 12 months earlier. Their response to that had been to add more features to their product:

“The initial idea was to focus on people but then it was “how to we do more? I know, let’s add events and deals.” There were lots of different apps coming onto the market that offered each of those parts but we decided to add them all: “Let’s add this, let’s add this. Oh, someone else is doing that; let’s add that too.” So you end up doing a mediocre job of lots of things rather than focusing on one thing and being the best at that.”

The pitches failed. The guys didn’t raise the extra funds they needed to progress Geomium. Ben summarised what they felt had gone wrong:

“When we first started it was obvious it [location] was going to be an interesting area but 12 months later, when we were looking to raise money, the space had really filled up. It had become increasingly competitive and a lot of the investors wanted to see some serious traction. We had good traction but not at the levels they liked to see and the reasons for that are because we did too many things.”

Ben started working on other projects as lead developer. Some apps, including BusMapper, but  mostly working for another promising start-up – Lightbox, an Android photo app  (has $1.2m VC investment and is currently in Series A fundraising round). Mike returned to the US and is now working on another location-based project – appthegame, with new partners.

Geomium is still running as an events listing website at www.geomium.com (the events route being one the guys had started to focus on towards the end), but Ben “pulled the plug” on the original website and mobile app at the start of December 2011.

But, as Ben explains himself on his blog coderholic: “Failure isn’t anywhere near as bad as you think it might be. Even when everything goes wrong, it’s actually OK.” (Incidentally, this BusinessWeek feature makes the point that ‘failing is actually OK’ in multi-million-dollar businesses too).

So, if Ben was mentoring newbie start-ups at Seedcamp 2012, what would advice would he give them?

“I’d say focus on one thing and do that really well instead of doing too many things. I think it’s a really, really common thing startups get wrong is to think the one thing we’ve found isn’t good enough, so let’s add more stuff. But really you need to focus on the one thing.”