Why I Built a Messaging App as an Exercise in Professional Development

The excitement around messaging and what its future landscape looks like continues to expand. This, in part, is (potentially) fuelled by a chart from Business Insider Intelligence (that everyone has seen by now) that shows messaging apps eclipsing social networks in popularity — a clear result of, and indicator of messaging’s ubiquitous nature.

But ubiquity isn’t the only thing that has been a catalyst in messaging app popularity. Messaging simplifies the complexities behind human interaction. It’s comfortable, consistent, and simple in a world where life is everything but comfortable, consistent and simple.

And lately, the boundaries that differentiate social networks and messaging have started to dissolve. In fact, Snapchat’s Wikipedia page says it’s an “image messaging product”, but the type of software it’s listed as is a “social networking service” — hence the confusing and dissolving boundaries.

My ambitions and curiosities were hungry to learn more about the world of messaging. Aren’t these apps essentially simplified forms of software like AIM, MSN Messenger, and others? What made them so special to be worth billions of dollars and attract millions of users? I knew I could read articles, books, and listen to podcasts that discussed messaging and its future (which I did) but nothing would give me the same understanding as actually building a messaging app.

So that’s what I did.

In mid to late February, I started thinking more about the path I’d like my (young) career to take in the future. It seems like everyone I look up to in the tech world has been involved in a product role at some point in their career — and more specifically, a product management role.

A colleague of mine, Brandon Chu, wrote a great piece on product management and what a minimum viable product manager looks like. Looking at the famous diagram that shows a product manager sitting at the intersection of tech, UX, and business, I knew I wanted to dig deeper into the technology area of product management, knowing that my understanding of data models, APIs, and system architectures was lacking.

I saw that as an opportunity to use this newfound desire to build a messaging app as a potential stepping stone toward a product role — but more importantly, fill my knowledge gaps.

I started to get excited. But the real excitement kicked in when I was struck with a flash of creativity, propelling my thought process forward in terms of what type of messaging app I would actually build.

The idea for Buzz hit me when I was walking to work one day. Every day, there’s so much going on in the streets of Toronto, in cafes I walk past, at the office, in lecture halls, concerts, and essentially anywhere a large group of people congregate. Then, it hit me.

What if I could tap tap into the collective consciousness of the people in my immediate surrounding?

What if I was at a concert and I got a notification letting me know band merchandise was on sale in the back corner of the venue? What if I was stuck in traffic, joined a conversation, and someone sent me a picture showing what was causing the traffic? What if I was at home and wanted to go to a bar around the corner but someone I was chatting with told me it was a 45 minute line to get in? And what if it was anonymous and ephemeral so that people could say what was really on their mind? The possibilities were really endless. The opportunity felt huge.

I knew I couldn’t do this alone, and having someone to help not only fund the project but to bounce ideas off would be tremendously valuable. So, I pitched this crazy scrappy, half-baked idea to my good friend and mentor, Mike Thorpe, who without hesitation, was in. Together, the two of us agreed that if anything, this would be a great learning experience.

I started thinking more about what would make this app different from all the other messaging apps out there. I started thinking more about how it could really resonate with the types of people who were using ephemeral messaging apps. I had a clear idea as to what the interface would look like (mockups above) but needed to work out the flow of the product.

Here’s a simplified breakdown of my thought process when determining how to build a messaging app — how it should be designed, what would make it sticky, and who would use it.

  1. The product had to be something I would actually use. The idea of building something that wouldn’t be on my phone’s home screen didn’t make sense.
  2. It had to be an incredibly simple interface so that anyone who opens the app would be able to understand and use it with ease. Early versions were heavily influenced by Uber and Snapchat’s design.
  3. It had to be group messaging. From my experience on Slack, if you get about five people in a private chat, things start to get a bit crazy and fun.
  4. Each conversation needed to have a sense of urgency to it that tapped into people’s fear of missing out on what’s going on around them — hence the push notifications when someone is around you “buzzin” and the choice to include a countdown timer at the top of each chat.
  5. The app needed an inherent “stickiness” factor. This would be achieved through a simple yet enticing messaging interface that would let people send emojis, stickers, gifs (GIPHY), selfies, and more. Plus, push notifications would help with this.
  6. The name itself needed to be emojified — 🐝
  7. It had to be ephemeral for two reasons. First of all it would help avoid the potential for bullying, and secondly because human interaction is ephemeral so replicating that would be a fun humanizing experiment.

With that in mind, I started with looking at different apps similar to what I was looking to build on AngelList to see what their technical stacks looked like. After gathering some information, I checked a few different developer marketplaces like Crew and Gigster to see how much it would cost to build a messaging app— but they were a bit out of my budget.

I then headed to Upwork and posted the job. I received more than 52 pitches from developers all over the world. In the end, I chose to work with a small team of developers in Russia who barely spoke english and were in a different timezone. But their portfolio was rock solid, and they had good reviews. I figured once they completed the majority of the legwork, Mike Thorpe could take over from where they leave us with the source code, and we could reverse engineer their work to get a better understanding of the frameworks and technical stack they used.

So, the developers got to work just like that. Within about a week, I had a very broken but working prototype. A week after that I sent them a design I made that I wanted to be implemented into the product. Within a day, the redesign was done. And just about three weeks into the building process, I had a working prototype that was about 85% complete. Friends I invited to test the app with me using TestFlight loved it. An outstanding number of people said “Wow, this is actually really cool”. In fact, I even attended a few networking events with angel investors, spoke on the phone and met with a few venture capitalists and mentors to get even more product feedback — they all loved it, but of course were hesitant to move forward in any sort of official funding capacity due to the fact that I am unwilling to quit my day job.

The overall response and excitement showed that we were onto something big.

Below you’ll find the pitch deck I put together in the form of a product brief (because that’s what product managers understand) so you can get a better understanding of the types of research that I did early on, as well as some of the progress Buzz has made since March 13, 2016.

Buzz — A fun, simple way to chat with people around you anonymously. After ninety seconds, the chat is gone forever.

Problem

It’s already possible to connect with people around the world, but we still don’t connect with people around us.

Why messaging is important

We know messaging apps are shaping the way we communicate. In 2019, close to 100 trillion messages are expected to be sent through messaging apps. On top of that, 3 of the top 10 apps in the App Store are actually messaging apps. If we take a look at the types of people using messaging apps, 49% of smartphone owners aged 18–29 use them, 41% of which use ephemeral messaging apps (like Snapchat).

Buzz sits at the epicentre of all of this, and the potential market is massive in size.

We know that there are billions of smartphones worldwide (2b+) with more than 39 countries having more than 5% smartphone penetration. More than 30 billion messages are sent every day across mobile devices with apps like WhatsApp, and in-app purchasing was a $45 billion market in 2015 alone.

Competitors haven’t been able to find a happy medium between anonymity and chat

If we take a look at the landscape of anonymous messaging apps and social networks, it doesn’t look so good.

Yik Yak ($400m+ valuation) has fallen in app store rankings and popularity after removing anonymity from its core function. This is largely due to the fact that they’ve been consistently labelled as a “bullying app”.

Whisper ($200m+ valuation) lacks an element of messaging in its entirety.

Secret ($100m+ valuation) ceased operations due to its lack of ephemerality.

Early value proposition proved to be incredibly successful

Prior to putting the money and time into building my idea into a product, I decided to run some Instagram advertisements to a landing page with a clearly articulated idea. As a result, I was able to collect 301 emails from students attending Ryerson University, OCAD University, and the University of Toronto.

The Instagram ads resonated with the audience, accruing a total of 336 likes and more than 170 comments reaching more than 10,000 students in less than a months time.

Our prototype is ready for beta testing

The app is built for iOS using SWIFT. It’s integrated with Google Maps, Facebook, Quickblox, and Fabric. We’re using Mixpanel for in-app analytics, and Hockeyapp as our testing environment.

If you’d like to sign up to play around with Buzz, I’d greatly appreciate it. You can do that here.

This is just one of many exercises I plan on completing in this space. I look forward to continuing to close my technical knowledge gap as I attempt to learn more about product.