ErgBot’s 7 Month Journey from Hack-a-Thon Project to Niche Fitness App with 3k+ Unique Users
and what we’ve learned along the way (so far)
After graduating Penn in June 18', I decided to spend the summer in SF at a coding intensive to learn how to code. The last month of the program, participants work on a group coding project, and compete in a hack-a-thon (24-hour coding competition) the week before to kick it off.
The summer before, I had interned at Amazon on a team called Automated Brand Protection, which uses technology to automate finding fraud on the site. As time passed, this experience had given me an idea of a different process to automate, and one in a very different context. I’d done varsity lightweight rowing in college, and I had come across a task a particular athletic community were forced to complete constantly that could be automated with technology. The problem was as follows:
The Problem (short version)
A task rowing teams complete thousands of times a year could be automated using computer vision technology. Computer vision is processing images for information, in this case text, as bank apps do with images of checks.
The Problem (long version)
An erg is essentially a treadmill for rowing. Erging is a critical part of rowing because teams will usually spend 3 months erging during the winter months. We’d do these practices about 6 times a week, for 12 months a year, with 45 rowers competing in each practice. The results from these workouts are critical, as they show a rower’s exact boat-moving ability. For instance, if the SAT is 30–40% of getting into college, your erg score is 75-80% of being recruited to row in college. On my college team, coaches weigh erg results extremely heavily in deciding who rows in what boat, and thus would record nearly every workout. However, to complete the earlier math, approximately 3240 workout results would need to be recorded during our erg season, and currently, all of these workout results were recorded manually (typing the results out line by line into Excel) by my team and many other teams.
Ergs were recorded on my team, as they were recorded on most other teams, by the coxswains (the people on rowing teams who steer the boats), who after each workout would photograph all 45 erg monitors (where the workout data is shown) and spend 15 minutes writing all 45 scores into Excel manually. Only the newest ergs had a bluetooth connectivity, and as ergs have a long 10 year lifespan, about 90% of ergs in gyms and erg rooms can’t transmit data. More importantly, the erg company’s choice of using bluetooth for data transmission doesn’t work well for their most common use-case, the team setting, as a coxswain connecting to 45 different bluetooth connections would take an absurd amount of time. For these reasons, coxswains find manually logging ergs the best current solution. I saw an alternative: can the technology that bank mobile apps use to process check images into text, also be used in the context of rowing to process erg monitors? What if a coxswain could walk down a line of ergs, snap a picture of each, and have all the data be neatly organized and uploaded into Google Sheets? I have hundreds of erg monitor pictures saved to my phone from college, what if each of these had been automatically processed on taking and stored in a spreadsheet instead? This became the vision for ErgBot.
Start with a Demo
From here, over the course of about a week before the hack-a-thon’s start, I created a very basic version of the functionality that would become the critical feature of ErgBot. I created a Node JS server that, when fed an image of an erg monitor, could extract the text from the image, and was pleasantly surprised with the accuracy and speed of processing. I called my teammate and friend Joe to confirm that this idea hadn’t already been done and get his thoughts on it. Though I, to put it mildly, “was a better programmer than rower,” Joe was an erging master, who’d set a world-record on a erg and even had a part time job repairing ergs in college. After confirming between us and with a few others that no other rowing app recorded erg data at the snap of a picture, we were again pleasantly surprised and decided to go forward with the project. The plan was then this: to create an app around this functionality that would allow users to record erg monitor data at the snap of a picture.
I have worked on a few entrepreneurial projects in college, and this was the first where I had started with a demo. The demo was the critical part in gauging rower’s interest and recruiting others to work on the project, as it gave others a simple way to understand the project’s vision. The demo also allowed us to validate that the critical process for our idea, recording erg data at the snap of a picture, was
1. possible and could be built ourselves
2. could be done in a time-efficient manner, and
3. was intriguing to our target audience of rowers
I showed the demo to two peers in my class, Nadine and Patrick, and we were ready to start the hack-a-thon. That night, we finished a bare-bones version of the app that could take a picture of the erg monitor, process it, and put the user’s organized data in a personal Google Sheet file we created for them on signing up. After this eventful first sprint of collaborative work, we decided to further continue the project for the last month of the coding intensive, and added a fourth engineer, Andrew, to the group.
Work Most (if Not Only) on the Page where Users Get The Vast Majority of the Product’s Value
In the coming weeks, we had to make some decisions to make about how we wanted to attack solving the problem. One decision we made early that allowed us to maximize speed of development while not losing value to the customer was this: spend almost all of our time on the screen that gave user’s the most value, which was the screen where the erg monitors were processed.
To allow users to log ergs as soon as they enter the app, in a SnapChat inspired move we made the main screen a camera view with the app’s navigation starting and ending there. From the main screen, a user could record an erg, be notified when it is processed, and then access that athlete’s workout sheet directly from the main screen.
In contrast, we minimized work on screens other than our home page by using off-the-shelf technologies for the following parts of the app:
Login: We used Google Login, allowing us not to have to spend any time on password storage, account validation, etc.
Spreadsheets: Instead of building our own page to show users their workout data, we used the Google Sheets API to print, store, and display workout data. Each new user got their own Google Sheet file, which was accessible form the app’s main page and a link sent to their email.
‘How To’ Page: Instead of spending time styling a page with directions to the app, our ‘How To’ buttons simply takes users to a Google Doc file in our app with directions.
These short-cuts allowed us to concentrate almost all of our efforts on where users could get the vast majority of their value: the main page.
Do the Development Yourselves using Widely Used, Open-Source Technologies with Free Online Resources
(skip this section if you aren’t interested in the technical aspects of the project)
One of the aspects of this project I’m most proud of is that we did 100% of the app development ourselves, which turned out to save us more money than any other decision we made. We used React Native for the app’s front-end development and Node JS for the backend server, both of which had an immense online followings and a plethora of free online resources and sample projects to learn from. Though we did come up against many roadblocks, because these frameworks were so widely used, we could Google our way (though sometimes painfully) though issues that came up along the way. We finished the first version of our iOS within 3 months, and added three new engineers we’d met at the coding intensive, Eva, Kavi, and Bailey, after that to help with launching Android and future iOS updates.
Create Demo Videos — They’re Free to Make and Very Effective in Showing a Product’s Value
Instead of paying for a slick promotional video about ErgBot’s story and uses, we decided to do something much cheaper, lower effort, and I’d argue much more effective. We made a series of demo videos instead. They’re extremely simple to make: we’d boot up the app and just screen record a demo. We’d use screenshots of PowerPoint to communicate text information, record ourselves talking, and use iMovie to put everything together and publish it to YouTube. The results were videos that quickly and directly showed rowers the benefits of using our product, without the fluff or interviews that curse many other promotional videos.
Some of the Best Marketing Channels are Free or Cheap
We were able to build up a 900+ email list before launch using the following free or cheap methods:
Effective Free Marketing Methods: Reddit, Facebook Groups, and other Online Communities for a Product’s Target Market
One of the most successful ways of distributing our demo videos to potential customers was simply by posting them to online communities that centered around rowing. We posted these demo videos to r/rowing (28k users) and the Facebook page ‘Buy Trade Rowing Gear’ (11k users), and community members were able to quickly and easily see the benefits of using ErgBot. These methods also allowed us to interact real-time with potential users. In one particular case, when we posted a demo video that used names of the US Olympic rowing team as placeholders, we were surprised when two of the Olympians themselves, Matt Miller and Henrik Rummel, commented on the post itself to express support.
Effective Cheap Marketing Methods: Paid Promotions on Instagram Accounts Catering to your Target Audience (the more specific the better)
Instagram, intuitively enough, is the most effective way to market apps, as the user is already on mobile and can transition straight to the app store if they’re interested. We created mobile-friendly versions of our demo videos, and reached out to rowing instagram accounts and rowing meme pages (yes, you read that correctly) to see how much sponsored stories of our demo video would cost. Due to the specificity of these pages, most came back with surprisingly reasonable asks for price per story, and we were impressed with the engagement from pages’ committed followers. In one case, we paid for a promotional story from a popular rowing meme page, and found afterwards that we’d paid only 33 cents / email for each person who’d signed up for our email list after seeing the post.
Build an Fanbase and Test through Instagram, the Free, Engaging Way to Communicate with Users
Once we’d built this 900+ email list, we realized we needed a more consistent way to communicate with potential users. We created an Instagram for ErgBot, and emailed the link to our email list saying they could track the app’s progress their. On our page, we kept potential users engaged with demo videos, launch updates, testimonials, rowing memes, etc.
When it came time to test our product, finding testers was easy, as would just make our Instagram bio our testing link, and post that our product was ready for testing. Over 300 participated in our iOS beta, and we found that Instagram was a fantastic way to communicate directly to users as well. At one point we posted a poll “How is ErgBot Beta? Let us know your thoughts!” which prompted a lot of helpful feedback. Users continued reach out with questions, comments, and ideas, and we used those conversations to both understand which parts of the app should be improved and identify the most requested new features.
Where ErgBot is Now
ErgBot launched on iOS in October and Android in February, and we’re at 3,468 accounts created. To give you a snapshot of usage, 231 ergs have been recorded through ErgBot in the past 7 days. We are now primarily focused on growing our user base and implementing a monetizing strategy through serving rowing ads and building a subscription service. Our ‘holy grail’ is a seamless team workout tracking experience through ErgBot, and we’re still working hard towards this goal each day.
Huge thanks to everyone who worked on ErgBot with me: Joe Ebner, Nadine Malek, Andrew Rossi, Kavi Munjal, Eva Killenberg, Patrick Combe, and Bailey Siber.
Thanks as well to Penn Lightweight Rowing, and my former coaches Colin Farrell and Tyler Nase.
I’d also like to thank Horizons School of Technology, the coding intensive where much of this story took place.
My name is Ben, I’m a Business Analyst at Amazon and live in Seattle. If you have questions, comments, or just want connect and talk about rowing or entrepreneurship, my email is firstname.lastname@example.org — feel free to reach out!