A few months after Mobelux launched its Tumblerette app for Tumblr, we got an email from Micah Collins, who managed product development for iHome. He had downloaded our app and loved how he could seamlessly post to his Tumblr account. At the time, iHome was everywhere. You couldn't go into Best Buy without seeing their products. And iHome had three or four of the top 10 selling Apple hardware accessories. Micah’s team was trying to figure out how to build an app that would serve as a digital alarm clock and connect with its new iHome product.
Jeff Rock, my co-founder, and I were still working at ZelTech designing visualization software for government agencies by day while moonlighting as Mobelux in our “free time.” I scheduled this first call during our lunch hour (in a conference room). They needed help building a sleep app to connect to their hardware. The conversation went well. Jeff ended up meeting Micah first as it turned out both were heading to Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference that week. They ended up having a great first meeting which led to an invite for Mobelux to come to New Jersey to meet with them in person. So a few weeks later, Jeff and I flew up from Richmond to meet with Micah and the iHome team.
Their offices in Rahway, New Jersey are about an hour west of New York City. When we got to LaGuardia airport, we thought we could take public transit across Manhattan all the way to Rahway. That's how naive we were. We spent about 30 minutes trying to find the buses in the middle of a rain storm. Finally, we said forget it and paid for an exorbitant taxi ride instead of arriving to our first business meeting soaking wet and late.
When we arrived to their offices, we felt a certain mystique. iHome was a huge company to us. We walked into the lobby and saw all of the products that they’ve made since the 1960’s: Timex clock radios as well as Sound Design and iHome branded electronics. I remember growing up with one of the Sound Design systems in my home and it definitely made me feel a little more unsure.
When we sat down with Micah and his team, they explained the details about how they had been trying to develop a sleep app. It is kind of funny how the work conversation actually made me feel more at peace. There was a sense of calm and excitement that made me feel like we could honestly make their lives a little easier. The way they were building this app just seemed complicated. Not the features themselves, but more the way they were going about it. We listened to them, saw a beta version of their Sleep app and flew back to Richmond with a bunch of ideas. It was exciting as now we were going to pitch not for another company, but for ourselves. They gave us five days to pull an idea together. We reconvened at Jeff’s new house, our first official Mobelux home, and mapped out some concepts.
Tumblr Buys Tumblrette
Our first big business deal came at the end of 2008, which we finalized in early 2009. That was the decision to sell our Tumblrette app to Tumblr. We had tried a couple different approaches with this negotiation and ended up focusing on the relationship as the biggest point of value. We agreed to sell the app as long as we could remain the development team for their mobile apps, which would include iOS, Android, and Blackberry.
So, in February 2009, Tumblr agreed to acquire our iOS app, Tumblrette, which became the official Tumblr app. In addition, Tumblr hired Mobelux to develop Android and Blackberry versions of its app as well. That gave us the budget to hire developers and buy some equipment. Soon after, in March of 2009, Ars Technica gave a thumbs up to our new, official Tumblr app.
With the contract, we hired our first full-time iOS developer, Jamie Pinkham, as well as another developer, Jason Emerick (who is still with us today) to start working on the Blackberry app. With our two new key developers working with Jeff as design and product lead, we officially became Tumblr’s mobile development team. That’s how we began our crazy adventure with one of the fastest growing technology companies in the world.
Jeff and I weren't making any money yet. We were basically feeding the developers to get our products built. And iHome became our first six figure project.
What scared us was that we knew that we were going to have to do some complicated coding with their hardware so that it could communicate with an iOS device. We asked Jamie “Do you think you can do this?” He was the type of guy that believes he can do just about anything. That worked well because we needed to feel like we could design and build it. So, when we went back up to iHome’s office in New Jersey, we pitched our idea for the iHome Sleep app. They loved our approach to the app and hired us.
The Sleep Card
At the time, Apple products were all textured to look like notebooks or pieces of paper. So, we asked ourselves, “What is a textural element that could represent a sleep experience?” Jeff came up with an idea of a sleep card. On the sleep card, users could program the time that they want to go to bed and wake up as well as the music they want to go to bed and wake up listening to. Users could configure and save these instruction cards for future use and in essence were creating a unique sleep experience with each card. iHome’s devices were made for docking iPods and iPhones. So our idea built on that so that you could digitally dock and connect your sleep card.
The unique thing about this opportunity is that it made Mobelux one of the first iPhone app development companies to connect a mobile app to a hardware device. Communicating through the dock connector is something rarely needed anymore because of Bluetooth and other wireless technologies. At the time, it proved to be one of the most challenging aspects of the project. We ended up working with teams in China, New Jersey, and California in building the app over the next several months. The experience was invaluable.
David Chartier, an editor at MacWorld, described it as “iHome+Sleep, a unique new “social music alarm clock” iPhone app that integrates with a new line of personal stereos. iHome+Sleep offers some really interesting features, like “Sleep Cards,” which lets you set different alarm templates with their own time settings, sounds, and alerts. You can set advanced alarm repeat intervals like “weekends” or “every other day of the week,” and wake up to a list of what your Facebook and Twitter friends were up to while you were snoozing. If you aren’t up for socializing first thing in the morning, you can also wake up to headlines from your favorite RSS feeds. You can even create a list of automated tasks, such as auto-posting to Facebook and/or Twitter that you’re going to sleep, or reminders to brush your teeth or read before zonking out.”
A Little Irony
On top of starting Mobelux and working full-time at ZelTech, I photographed 22 weddings for my photography business in 2009. I also shot around 50 portrait sessions. In total, I took over 92,000 photos that year. My wife, Ellen, was my photography assistant and we were raising our son, Will, who was a one-year-old at the time. We were living in Newport News and wondering, should we move to Richmond?
Now that we had a couple developers in Richmond, it felt right that we should look to grow and base the business there. Jeff’s wife Emily had started her residency in Richmond and a new software culture seemed to be emerging that we felt like we could be a part of.
Looking back, I find it pretty comical that while designing and building iHome’s Sleep app, I wasn’t getting much sleep. I was suffering from cluster headaches at the time. Just imagine getting between three to ten severe headaches a day for several months. They usually came at night and have deservedly earned the nickname “suicide headaches.”
I think a lot of people look at the opportunity of growing a business as something they’ll do when life is convenient, when they’ll have more time or less stress. The reality is that the work didn’t feel like work. It was creative, empowering, and exciting. Raising a family and changing diapers kept me sane and grounded. Our creative efforts gave me a new passion for life.
We delivered the iHome Sleep App and showed iHome that we could execute on our promises. With that project in the can, iHome asked us to submit a proposal to revamp its website. This was actually a tough decision for Jeff and I to make. We had started Mobelux to build mobile apps, not websites. This decision would change our focus as a company. But the challenge of it seemed too enticing, especially since Jason, our new BlackBerry developer was an even better web developer.
And once we met Eddie Wilson, we realized we now had the perfect designer.
Businesses, like people, evolve. In a little more than a year we had evolved from two guys with an idea into a team with two killer developers, two amazingly talented designers, and me. We also had two great clients with Tumblr and iHome.
What We Learned
Are there things I wish I would have done differently? Yeah, of course.
I should have pushed for getting paid in Tumblr stock during the acquisition of Tumblrette. We were cash-starved and needed computers along with operating capital. Besides, taking equity is always a risk. Hindsight is 20/20 and we should have at least asked. I also wish I would have learned how to network better. At that time, we focused so much on Tumblr and iHome that I didn’t stop and look for the Mobelux growth opportunities that I should have. This is always a balancing act, but greater attention to marketing, networking, and growing our relationships could have resulted in additional clients.
On the upside, we learned many lessons that still define our company: spending time face-to-face is critical when designing and building software. Even though we worked from home on personal laptops we found meeting in coffee shops and at our homes to be invaluable. Every time we got together, it left us craving a place where we could share and brainstorm in person.
We learned that shipping a quality product is the only option. That set the mentality and the backbone for our company. It is especially hard when you don’t control all of the variables. Yet we found it is possible as long as you keep pushing yourself and those around you. Tumblr became a top-rated app with millions of daily users. Our iHome Sleep app ended up being used for over eight years and was used with dozens of different products. And the core tenants of the website platform for iHome are still in use now nine years later. Those signal the qualities of well-built and well-designed products.