From Side Project to 25 Million Downloads

In December 2011, Ryan Hanna was a coding beginner with an app idea. Over the next five years, his workout app, Sworkit, scaled from side project to full-time venture. Ryan is now a VP of Product and Engineering at the company that acquired his startup. Here’s his story.

How I got started with coding

After leaving the Army, I worked as a network administrator. I didn’t know the first thing about web programming at this point. I wanted to learn to code to be better at my job, and possibly start down a new career path. I’ve long been driven to be more than a consumer of applications; I wanted to create something of my own. I tried to learn with books, videos, articles, you name it. They helped me get started, but nothing quite clicked. It wasn’t until I found Codecademy and committed to Code Year that I found the learning tool that worked for me — and it worked wonders.

Building my first app

As Code Year drew to a close, I wanted to use my new skills to build something of my own. I started a side project to cement and apply the knowledge I’d learned with Codecademy. I didn’t want to build something for the sake of building it — I wanted to create something that I would use, too. That’s where the idea for Sworkit came from.

I often found it difficult to fit a workout into my busy schedule, and once I did have the time, I didn’t want to spend more time looking up new workout routines for the time, space, or equipment constraints I had. So, I combined my fitness knowledge from my U.S. Army Officer days with my technical experience from Codecademy to create an app to fix that problem. The app, Sworkit, provides flexible workout routines for people of any fitness level, wherever they are, and for any amount of time they have.

One of the key features of the original Sworkit is actually adapted from one of the earliest lessons in Code Year! The third project in Code Year was to create a virtual dice game, which required this line of code:

In Sworkit, I used a very similar function:

The first version of Sworkit was based on what I learned in the HTML, CSS, JavaScript, and jQuery courses on Codecademy. I first built a website and then used Adobe’s PhoneGap platform to convert the website to a native app. I never thought I’d be able to build an app on my own, and I certainly never thought it would take off like it did!

How Sworkit took off

After I finished a version of my app that worked for me, I wanted to share it with other people with similar goals. I posted it to a few blogs and websites, and I sent a tweet to Lifehacker that said, “Have you seen the new fitness app Sworkit? It has a lot of Lifehacker fitness mentality —”

Lifehacker replied — they loved it and posted it the next day. Thousands of people downloaded the app. I was shocked by how popular the app became and completely humbled by the praise it received. Just a few months later, I released a paid version of Sworkit.

At that time, I first shared my story on Codecademy. I had hit 130,000 downloads, but the best was yet to come. Thanks to my success and experience building Sworkit, I was able to transition from a systems engineering job to a mobile apps consultant, all while keeping Sworkit running in my spare time. Eventually, Sworkit scaled to the point at which it was too big to run part-time, so I took the plunge and began to manage Sworkit full-time!

Hitting new heights

After Sworkit downloads climbed into the millions, I got an email from two people I’d met at a conference, Ben Young and Greg Coleman of Nexercise, asking if I’d be open to selling Sworkit to their company. Nexercise was an established fitness app that allowed users to log fitness activities retroactively or in real time to work their way towards prizes. I got along famously with Ben and Greg, so it was a fantastic opportunity! We went ahead with the acquisition. Nexercise bought and merged with Sworkit and I joined Nexercise as their VP of Product and Engineering.

It was together with Ben and Greg that we all realized our shared vision: we wouldn’t just help busy adults, we would help kids, seniors, and even patients reach their fitness and rehabilitative goals by making an accessible and easy-to-use platform that encourages and motivates people to succeed.

From there, we grew the team, pitched on the TV show Shark Tank, and hit 25 million downloads. The American College of Sports Medicine even named us the #1 Best Fitness App on the market (rated on safety, stretching, progression, etc.), and at the time of this writing we’ve achieved profitability as a business. To date, Sworkit has helped people complete over 50 million workouts. It’s all come full circle because now I co-organize and coach web development at a non-profit called Codebar, and my story starts the same place every time I tell it — all of this is thanks to Codecademy.

My Advice to Others

If you want to be a developer, try to build something that will be useful to you. Codecademy teaches you everything you need to get started and it’s up to you to keep going from there. Not every app idea is going to wind up being like Sworkit, but they don’t have to be — you’ll learn so much from everything you make that your work will keep getting better. Build that app idea that you have, or even develop something that has been done a million times before. Take the training wheels off and just keep building. If you’re going to use it, other people will probably use it too. Keep it simple at the beginning, work with your users and find out what they want, and funnel out from there.

Starting out, you won’t know how to do half the things that you need to do to make a successful app, but you’ll figure it out with patience, effort, and by asking the right questions. A not-so-secret fact of life as a developer is that we actually do this all the time; looking up solutions to our problems is all part of the job. You’ll hit walls and struggle to get your code working, but, with time, you’ll reach the “aha” moment when it suddenly comes together. If you get that rush of adrenaline and that sense of pride from building things like this, then you’ll probably enjoy being a developer too.

Sworkit is available for free on iOS, Android, and the web.