Developer Workshop: Crowdstory

Developer Workshop is a series of profiles exploring the current state of the mobile marketplace from the point of view of the software developers mapping out its future. Each profile focuses on a developer with a compelling story to tell, and offers their perspective on what the industry's doing right, what it's doing wrong and how to make it better. Check out our previous workshops on Shazam, InfoMedia, Viigo, Meet Now Live, Shortcovers, Pint Sized Mobile, Geodelic, Spark of Blue Software, Tarver Games, People Operating Technology, Booyah, Bolt Creative, Thwapr, Monkeyland Industries, Rocket Racing League, Vlingo, Advanced Mobile Protection, PapayaMobile, Taptu, GameHouse, Avatron and aisle411.

This week FierceDeveloper profiles social networking vendor Crowdstory.


crowdstory logo

Anyone still seeking conclusive proof of mobile software development's impact on the American business landscape need look no further than the campus of the University of Oklahoma. Last year, the OU Center for the Creation of Economic Wealth kicked off its new Software Business Accelerator initiative by challenging a 10-member interdisciplinary student team to develop a mobile application--over the six months to follow, the students created Crowdstory, a social networking solution enabling users to tether audio messages to specific locations, in the process documenting historical data, live events, consumer reviews or simply humorous anecdotes. Crowdstory users can choose to share their stories with selected friends or the entire network, effectively creating a private or public oral history of the world around them.

A beta version of the free Crowdstory application launched on Apple's App Store in March--a revamped and improved 1.1 edition followed weeks later, incorporating a newsfeed and usability enhancements. In addition, Android and web-based versions are presently in the pipeline. Following Crowdstory's debut, FierceDeveloper spoke to co-founder and Software Business Accelerator project team leader TJ Moen about the challenges facing first-time developers, the importance of user feedback and mobile's impact on academia.

TJ Moen co-Founder and Software Business Accelerator project team leader

TJ Moen on the OU Software Business Accelerator program: It came out of the Center for the Creation of Economic Wealth, which is an internship program enabling students to work with area entrepreneurs and inventors to develop IP. Last summer, the university decided to start creating IP of its own. We're the first team, and I've been the team leader along the way. I've been interested in early-stage tech companies for a while now, and I've worked for the Oklahoma Life Science Fund. But I didn't know anything about the startup world inside the software realm.

None of us on the team knew each other when we started, and no one had worked on real-world software development projects before. But it worked out really well--the basic model behind the program is to bring smart people together and let awesome things happen. When we started, one girl didn't even know what an app was--she's a really smart girl, but she just didn't know. She turned into our marketing expert. That kind of evolution has been really important for all of us.

Moen on the concept behind Crowdstory: For me, the biggest challenge was leading the project. I had no idea what I was getting into. I became a super-active reader, and started to read all the tech blogs. Over time I learned how ideas are formed, and how people identify opportunities. I also saw how companies are implementing location-based services, and how location can make social networking about more than just sharing a message.

The eureka moment was when one of the guys on the team had a funny story to share--first he sent it in text, but when he told us the story in person, it was so much funnier. That's when we realized how important audio is, and everything took off from there.

crowdstory mainMoen on the app development process: We had a motto throughout the semester: The app has to be simpler than a tweet. We wanted to make everything as simple as possible. We're not there yet, but we tried to incorporate simplicity along the way.

We chose the iPhone because the form factor of iOS makes it easier to develop a great user experience. Also, the demographic of the iOS userbase is more conducive to applications like Crowdstory. We didn't have any major issues with the iOS SDK--the biggest hurdle was that we wanted to use the Google Places API, but it's still in preview mode and you have to pay like $10,000 to use it. So we've been using the Gowalla Places database instead. We also used Acunote, which is a simple project management tool for Agile software development. It was helpful for assigning different tasks.

Moen on Crowdstory's launch: After we submitted it to the App Store, we went through a public beta stage, and got as many of our friends to use it as possible. Most of the feedback helped us with bug fixes. People told us when it was crashing.

We also received ideas related to making it stickier, like a newsfeed giving you a look at the most recent audio snippets. That makes it really easy to stay up to date on the content created around you--before, you had to go to a map view or go to a specific friend's update list. The first version wasn't very addictive, because you had to go out of your way to use it. Since the update, we've gotten better usage--people are playing and creating more snippets.

crowstory recordMoen on Crowdstory's future: Right now, we're focused on growing our userbase. But messaging opens up a lot of doors for premium services. We're also in the very early stages of developing a version for Android. But it's not close--hopefully, it will be finished within the next few months.

As of now, the university owns the IP, and the ten of us own a certain percentage. But we're in the process of incorporating, at which point the university's ownership will decrease. And, like all developers, we will continue working on Crowdstory--we're planning to bring on a full-time developer and a business team.

Moen on mobile development as a career path: A lot of people here are very interested in app development as a side project--maybe they're hacking together an iPhone app. But the University of Oklahoma is different--the goal is to make a more entrepreneurial culture, and it does seem like most computer science students are on a more traditional career path, like working in IT for large companies. I don't think many of them are thinking about moving into [mobile app development] as a full-time job.

Moen's advice for aspiring mobile developers: Develop something you're passionate about--something you really care about. There's a huge learning curve, and what gets you through the challenge is really caring about what you're building.