How child porn killed my app called YayNay

How I failed at my startup without losing my job or family


Over a period of 6 months, two programmers and I, worked nights and weekends to create, launch and kill an iOS app called YayNay (hot or not for anything). We maintained full time jobs and families while pursuing this effort. Consumer apps are a hit or miss. YayNay was a miss. Read on to learn a bit about our process and how child porn eventually did our app in.

“You don’t almost land on an aircraft carrier”

I came up with the idea of YayNay in the summer of 2013 while clothes shopping with my 12 year old daughter, Maren. Maren would take a picture of each outfit she tried on and text the picture to her friends and ask them simply “Yay or Nay”. I was intrigued, so when I got home that night I did some armchair market research on Twitter and Instagram and found this Yay or Nay behavior to be fairly common.

Observing my daughter and the twitter and instagram behavior had me convinced building a “Yay or Nay” app would be a success because the app would align with existing human behavior.

Creating products around existing human behavior is an idea I borrowed from BJ Fogg, who runs the Persuasive Technology Lab at Stanford. He created a wonderful framework to illustrate levels of motivation against behavior.

With a core idea very loosely verified in the marketplace I was ready to dive in and start creating this app.

How we built YayNay

Brand and Colors

YayNay colors inspired by Adventure Time

I always start at the beginning. the first step I take with any project is to create a logo and a color palette. I can’t move forward unless I am excited about the logo and brand. So, working with Maren, we decided to base the color palette of the app on the amazingly smart and hilarious cartoon, Adventure Time, which also happens to be the the official Hemeon family cartoon. The logo was based on my fuzzy 80's memory of Gleaming the Cube or maybe it was Thrashin’. I don’t remember but i digress...

pro tip: I used this cool script for illustrator to randomly distributes colors across shapes to make the background image in this post and the colored logo to the right.
Initial logo, yays, nays and colors

Design and interactions

After I felt good about the brand and colors I sat down to sketch out the app. My goto tool of choice is Illustrator. Since I had no idea if YayNay would be popular or not, I wanted to minimize the amount of upfront work I did so I built upon established user flows found in apps like Instagram and SnapChat. Why recreate the wheel? Consumer apps are huge gambles, and no one really knows if an app is going to be a hit and align with the fickle trends of users.

I knew I would have to create some somewhat cool looking apps if I was going to convince a couple of solid programmers to build this with me. Designers and programmers are lucky. We can build and test our ideas with little outside investment. I wanted to get the app built and out into the world as fast as possible with zero fundraising.

YayNay v.1 this was the initial flow for the site. View n high resolution

I shopped v1 of the mocks around to a bunch of super-coding-friends. Convincing folks to dive into an idea with you is fairly challenging because the most talented people are always in high demand and are already working on other projects. I was pleasantly surprised when my friends Rich and Kasem agreed to co-found and build YayNay with me, both incredible hackers who worked really hard and were easy to get along with. Kasem built our backend and API on Google App Engine and Rich built our native iOS app. With our team in place, our core app idea solidified we were ready to start building.

Launch

We launched the version below (v3) on December 2, 2013. Around 600 people downloaded the app in the first week, mostly friends and family. We got the word out by sending lots of personal emails, posting to our social graphs and using tools like LaunchRock and Angel list. Our first release to the world was super buggy, but I didn’t care. I was so happy that in four months we had conceived, built and launched an iOS app.

YayNay v3 We wanted to verify friends via your phone number and contacts but abandoned this idea. View in high resolution

Fix all the bugs and iterate some more!

After the excitement of launch wore off we got to work squishing bugs and adding features. We introduced a few tools to our workflow to help triage everything. We formalized our process a bit and used Slack for day-to-day collaboration, Trello to prioritize work and Google Apps for everything else.

Our development cycles were fairly straightforward:

  1. Talk about the biggest pain points
  2. Debate solutions
  3. I would mock solutions
  4. Kasem would create new end points for our API and
  5. Rich would build the feature in iOS.
  6. Rinse and repeat.

To illustrate our process I have selected a few UI elements we used during our design and development cycles:

Update the mark and loading screen
Add a loader and pull to refresh animation
Improve the voting interaction and show who Yay’d and who Nay’d. Download the high res version
A terrible idea that didn’t get built. Forcing users to invite friends to see who interacted with their post. View high res version
Update the headers to include the standard iOS status bar and update the itunes app store graphics View high res version.
We ran a series of Facebook ads. the bottom photo is by Neil Favila neilfavila.com the other photos were found from Stock photos that don’t suck. The facebook ads drove installs, but are expensive.

Launch again. This time for real!

On February 24, 2014 we had completely rewritten the app from the ground up, fixed about a hundred bugs, revamped the UI and added the ability to share posts to Twitter. We were ready to Conquer the world with our new awesome bombproof app.

On new launch day we let our friends and family know (again) that a new version of the app was ready and begged them all to tell everyone they knew. We are very grateful for all those who tweeted and instragramed the app to their social networks. Kevin Rose graciously tweeted a couple of YayNays along with other unsung heroes. We learned very quickly that having just a native iOS app was not enough. People expected a web experience and got frustrated they could not Yay or Nay content via the web and were annoyed they had to download an app just to Yay or Nay something.

Celebrity Tweets are not enough

I thought for sure when celebrities like Kevin Rose and other high profile twitter users shared to their millions of followers we would be swimming in users, get featured on TechCrunch, and the VC fundraising offers would be banging down our door.

Sadly, I was way off. Two weeks after our re-launch we only had 1100 total users, 1079 of whom I’m sure were people I personally invited, bribed or guilt tripped into downloading the app.

Issues with the core idea of the app quickly surfaced. Finding friends was difficult, users only had something to Yay or Nay every few days, people just were not incentivized to actually Yay or Nay each others content.

But the worst was yet to come.

Child porn was the last nail in the coffin

I woke up to the following notification from my friend Daniel.

Daniel Burka @dburka sounds the alarm!

I logged onto the app, and there was a comment on a picture of my 5 year old son from @boylover it said “Sexy”. But he really meant to say my cute, innocent 5 year old boy was sexy, like a sex symbol. I reluctantly clicked through to see @boylove’s profile. On his profile he had images of young boys posing in inappropriate ways. I was disgusted and angry at the same time and bummed I had not thought about how to protect our app against child porn. The child porn was the last straw and I decided I was done with the app right then and there.

The child porn was the last straw and I decided I was done with the app right then and there.

We took action as fast as we could by deleting his account, comments and posts and reported him to Apple. The child porn incident just added insult to injury. Our app had been live for almost 4 weeks. Prior to the child porn incident we were seeing significant drops in user acquisition and usage. So while we were trying very hard to get new users, along comes the the child porn monster to rob the wind out of our sails.

You don’t come back from child porn

We either had to build in spam filtering, better flagging and monitoring and ship these out asap or kill the app to prevent further abuse. The child porn incident, combined with declining lackluster user numbers and outside familial forces we made the difficult decision to kill the app and remove it from the app store.

Nearly 6 months of work vanished with the click of a button.

Learn from my mistakes

Startup ideas are mini experiments trying to find market fit before time and money run out. In our case, we decided to cut our timeline short and did not see enough user engagement to justify continued development of our app. Hindsight is 20/20 so here is a list of things we could have done differently.

  1. Test your idea before building. I could have easily built a keynote prototype and shared with 7 of Maren’s friends. I think I would have discovered early on the importance of sharing and finding friends in the app and could have prioritized these features above all else. I would have also discovered how much my daughter and her friends hate getting a “Nay” on something they have posted.
  2. Mobile web before native. A mobile web version would have allowed us to build a mature API and quickly iterate the core idea. A mobile web client would have also been much easier to share than testflight.
  3. When building native iOS, your first version has to be super solid. Our first version of the app had so too many bugs. But we felt we needed to get at least a few hundred users on to really test the app properly. Even though we told people our app was pre-release, they didn’t care, they still got frustrated and deleted the app. Whatever you ship to the app store should work as flawlessly as possible.
  4. Build on existing social networks. Right from the start we should have built the ability to sign up via Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. Building on these social networks would have made it easy to find and connect to friends. Initially we wanted to build a graph based on your cell phone number and contacts and perhaps we should have stayed the course here (seems to be working for Secret).
  5. Post out to social graphs to spread the word. Allowing users to share posts to Twitter, Facebook and Instagram would have increased our exposure (obvi). Things like Twitter cards, Facebook Open Graph and wonderful Instagram hashtags all would have been wonderful to leverage.
  6. People need an incentive to help each other. Sites like Stack Overflow and Quora reward those who give answers though up votes and karma. Opinion apps like YayNay lack enough incentive for a user to participate because voting “Yay” or “Nay” takes too much work and people hate to work. We only work when we can see a direct benefit to ourselves. For YayNay to gain traction, we would have to figure out a way to give a user direct benefit for their act of Yaying and Naying.
  7. Build around basic human needs. Humans are self-motivated and use apps in general to stroke their ego, push their agenda forward, #humblebrag, or to receive some form of direct benefit. We post and share to social media so others can tell us how amazing, lucky and incredible we are. We inhale the flattery like a drug and the ecstasy of micro-fame we feel is addictive and empowering. The most addictive apps play on our base human need to be accepted and loved.
  8. Don’t underestimate timing and luck. Everyone doing a startup is making huge sacrifices, but they are not the only ones. Their families and loved ones also make huge sacrifices while their S.O. toils away on their dreams. My personal goal is to be successful with a startup while keeping my family in tact (this is much harder to accomplish than it sounds). We hit a point with YayNay where we had used up all the deposits of family credit and were about to go into significant relationship debt.
  9. EDIT: Plan to track & fight abuse. As @yoz points out, next go around we will build community tools to better deal with abusive posts. We naively thought abuse is something only large scale apps and sites have to deal with.

For now, YayNay lies at the bottom of a code repository. Maybe at some point we resurrect and pivot on the idea, but for now I am enjoying getting reacquainted with my wife and kids.


YayNay lived longer than most goldfish. #winning

By the numbers

  • 1 — the number collar bones Kasem broke biking
  • 134 — number of hours Rich was in the hospital helping his mom fight cancer. We hate cancer.
  • 6 number of months we worked on YayNay
  • 5 — versions pushed to the app store between Dec 2013 and Mar 2014
  • 1463 — total number of users when we killed the app
  • 1 — number of child porn accounts we kicked and reported
  • 22 — number of pounds I gained burning candle at both ends
  • 625 — Total YayNays posted
  • 13,516 —Total Yays
  • 4,251 — Total Nays
  • 1,150 — Total Comments
  • 7500 — amount of money we owe to lawyers, servers, and taxes
  • 4 — number of VCs who were interested in working with us
  • 2 — number of daughters who were bummed we killed the app

I hope you enjoyed this post and perhaps there is a nugget or two you can apply to your current project. I would love to hear more about what you think, feel free to reach out to me via twitter @hemeon or feel free to shoot me a note at marchemeon @ gmail