Goodfellas (obviously)

2015, or the year that we got into Startmate.

Like a lot of Scorsese’s films, I’ll divide this story into three acts. I think it’s fitting.

It’s not nearly as long as Goodfellas, but it’s certainly as gruelling.

This is the story of how my cofounder and I built our product and the trials and tribulations that came with this.

Act 1 — Shifts or v1.0

My partner Josh, and I were super excited about getting into the accelerator Startmate. The programme started in Jan 2015 and the name of our company at this time was ‘Shifts.

The original Shifts logo.

Shifts was born out of a side project that Josh had built, while working at Apple Retail. Retail employees received their schedule from an internal website, that didn’t work properly on an iPhone and you couldn’t even export it to your calendar.

This frustrated Josh and as a result, he built a website that scraped the Apple scheduling data and instead, added it to your phone as an iCal file. He called it Roster Genius. Josh built it for himself, then decided to release it out to his store and then to everyone. Very quickly, it grew throughout Apple Retail and within a year, it was being used by every Apple store in the world. This had all grown organically.

“Legend has it that Apple would send out global comms to its staff, asking them to stop using the website,” Josh told me. From then on, I was hooked.

It was easily one of the coolest things I’d ever heard of. Something he had built for himself, was being used by employees at every Apple store in the world? There was definitely something here.

Fleshing it out

After a few months of fleshing out the idea and a lot of research, we both decided to start putting something together. Roster Genius hadn’t been live for about a year, so we decided to re-launch it, but on one condition — you had to pre-register for Shifts to use it again. We put up a simple landing page, letting people know what we were building and within the two months leading up to Startmate, we had 8,000 shift workers sign up for the app.

What we pitched to Startmate, when we applied, was that Shifts was going to be an employee-driven scheduling app. It was going to empower shift workers, so they could take control of their own work schedules and therefore their own working lives.

A lot of the back end had already been built, before Startmate. This put us in a strong position to launch something towards the end of January. We invited around 900 beta testers to put the app through its paces, before going live, with what we called a 0.9V. This was because we wanted to launch the app without it’s ability to scrape other companies’ schedules. We wanted to see if our users found the app useful in this state. The feedback was about 50/50, so we quickly built the integration, that would allow us to acquire an employee’s schedule.

A screenshot of the first Shifts app.

Our main growth strategy was to find ‘champion users’ at stores, and bring them on as ‘power users’. In exchange, they would grant us access to their schedule, so we could work closely with that person, to create an integration with their schedule. Once this was complete, we would push this out to people globally. It made sense to do this first, with Apple Retail, due to our connections there. Within a week, we built the first version and were ready to send it out.

We woke up the following Monday to this being circulated around the Startmate list…

TechCrunch article about a different ‘Shifts’

Our initial thoughts were, of course, that it was us, but had used the wrong images. After some quick investigation, we soon realised they hadn’t. There’s still some mystery surrounding the timing of this. We had announced that we were launching soon on through our digital channels, showing screenshots of the app. Although different in it’s functionality, they had very similar branding and even the same font type. We didn’t dwell on it for too long and quickly re-branded a week later.

Act 2— Meet ‘Robby’

The email header we sent out to users when we changed our name

We re-branded within a week, with the new name of Robby. Then things went nuts. We had hundreds and hundreds of signups a day.

The activation was going through the roof. 95% of people that registered, added their schedule almost instantly. We also saw that with every store, after the first power user that signed up, then very quickly the whole store would be using Robby. The app was also quickly seeded internationally, through some good coverage we received with pre-signups.

Our first build

One Saturday morning, just after about a week of being live, we received a phone call from the USA. It was someone from Apple App Review telling us that we were violating 4.5.1 of the App store guidelines and that they were going to remove the current build of our app in the store.

This was due to our targeting of Apple Retail customers, with the app functionality scraping their schedules and adding it to their profile. If we removed this, then we could be re-added back to the App store. With a quick workaround, we built a hack allowing users to photograph their schedule, which would convert to schedules at our end.

Coupled with this, we also had lots of queries asking where the app was in the App store! This was obviously difficult to answer, so we shopped a new build in just over a week.

For those that aren’t familiar, with the App store review process, it goes something like this:

  1. You submit a new build to the app store, then wait for four-to-five days, for it to go into an ‘In Review’ process. This is usually when an actual human is testing it and it’s accepted, or not.
  2. An app is normally ‘In Review’ anywhere from 10 minutes to one hour. Ours was ‘In Review’ for seven days. This was a worry.

After the seventh day, we got another email from Apple Legal. This time it said that our developer account had been banned from the app store for good and that we couldn’t submit any applications under that account. This came as a huge shock. No warning, just an email full of legalese and no one we could speak to or contact.

We didn’t think we would recover. So we reached out to our extended network in the US for advice, but no one wants to become the go-to person when it comes to solving ‘App Store problems’ at Apple.

Turn around on advice going forward from friends at Apple would be weeks. We assumed that just setting up a new developer account and submitting a new build would result in the same outcome, so we didn’t go down that path.

A new direction

Luckily, we had built our app using Cordova, so within a few days we had a somewhat ‘respectable’ Android build and also deployed a web version for all those who couldn’t download the app from the App Store.

The Android version was harder to get off the ground, as the experience was difficult to maintain. Different versions of Android with various devices, created a range of nuances and the web version of the app sucked. Try convincing Apple employees to download a non-native mobile app!

Then, the following week, my co-founder Josh told me that he would be leaving the company. After seeing the cease and desist letter, he thought we would never come back and with no iOS app, there was no company in his mind. This was devastating news. I wanted to pack it in straight away. Demo day was about two months away and I remember we only had about 5k users then, but they relied upon us to get their work schedule for the month. Josh agreed to stay on for two weeks to handover development and try ship out a few more features before leaving. Now it was just me.

Countdown to demo day

We were now about five weeks away from demo day. I’ll skip a lot here as not much happened. We tried to plant some seeds at non-Apple stores to get some traction with the Android app, but it was difficult with such a small time frame. A week before demo day, we submitted a new iOS build, under a new account and it got in. The day before we sent out a new invitation to download the app, almost everyone re-downloaded the app and we had something in the store for investors to look at.

The Demo day went well, but we were a US company wanting to raise in the US, so we knew we needed a US lead. (I might just add the day before we flew out, we got booted out of the App Store again) I considered not travelling to the US, but thought if there was ever a chance to fix our problems with Apple, it was now and what better place than San Francisco (SF)!

Our networks of stores as they started to grow. The bigger clusters are Apple stores.

The first week in SF, was about 30% Startmate activities, 30% getting over the jet lag and another 40% adjusting to StartupHouse (this is where we stayed during our trip and that’s another blog post in itself). We weren’t in the App Store and we were taking investor meetings, while having to explain our situation. It was a shitty icebreaker, but an icebreaker nonetheless. We managed to get some advice from a friend of a friend at Apple. It was time to re-brand, again.

Act 2 — Hello ‘Atum’

Atum

Within a week, we had re-branded and sent a new build to the app store, which was accepted, so our users downloaded the new app.

We got off to a good start, with some notable seed VC firms that were interested, but like any solid round, we needed that lead. I had been lucky enough to meet an Angel investor, Sandy Kory, who was part of the Startmate community and had been making some really great introductions for us. These investors loved the story, loved why we’d started the business and were excited about the traction we were getting inside Apple, but at the same time saw it as a huge risk.

Come back to us in when you’ve sorted all this out with Apple.

Basically a soft no. It was a catch 22 situation.

The app was ticking along nicely, user growth was strong and retention was great, but I was waiting on that one email from Apple.

A chance situation

As my time in the USA came to an end, it looked like a good time to do a soft launch at home in Australia, or here in America. Uncertainty about our situation with Apple was taking its toll, but a chance situation on my last day in SF, put a positive twist on things.

A partner at a seed Venture Capital firm I’d been introduced to, but never had the chance to meet, found a time to see me, on my last day.

We met, I pitched and within 30 minutes we were talking terms.

It seemed too good-to-be-true and way too fast. Alarm bells were ringing.

He asked me when I was coming back. Well, I wasn’t going to, but I certainly was now!

I flew back to Sydney via Hong Kong to see my cousin for one night and ended up almost dying whilst coming in to land. It was the most absurd thunderstorm landing I had ever experienced and we almost crashed, but that’s another story.

I returned home to an email from Apple informing us that we’d be removed from the store for the third time. After everything we’d been through, I was almost relieved. I wanted to sort this once-and-for-all. Who was the best person to sort this? Probably Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO. So I thought, “fuck it, I’m just going to email him directly”.

Like his predecessor Steve, Tim has a public facing email address. Rather than the usual fanboy-type email, mine was going to be different.

Tim Cook reading our email asking if we could be let back in the App Store

My email explained our situation and stating if he knew how much his retail employees loved the product, then perhaps we could sort something out?

A golden response

Much to my surprise, I got an email replying that a couple of Apple top dogs (certainly not Genius Bar employees) wanted to arrange a call!

This was exciting. More people were added to the email stream and it seemed to be escalating, with a strong internal interest from Apple. But you know what happened?

They canceled. The day before the meeting, with no explanation!

What a huge blow and another one to add to the already exhaustive list.

At my wit’s end

Now, I was tired and ready to give up. But by some miracle, we were back in the App Store!

So it was back to communicating with investors. I needed money and fast. I was exhausting savings and three credit cards. But I worked out that I could get around three months runway, plus flights and accommodation to SF and one week in New York, to close the round.

I had nine meetings, over the two weeks with VCs and most seemed interested. Now, this was on the basis that our lead was in for $800k, so it was really only domino money. It was obvious that I had to get the first lead over the line, so the others would follow.

By the end of the two weeks, I had $600k USD pending their full commitment. Although, I had a feeling the lead was becoming a bit flakey.

When we had first spoken, they were massive fans and now they were saying they wanted to do priced equity. Conversations would start as though we were meeting for the first time, while others were more like, “we’re leading this round and we’re in for $800k”. It was odd, but I pressed on.

It was getting to the end of my two week tenure and I really needed a term sheet from our lead. Email replies were scarce and I was getting the feeling that they were fading. I was invited out to a boat trip with the whole team on my second-to-last day. Surely this was to close the deal?

Well, it’s a long story, but I was sent the wrong trip details and it actually never happened. And I spent four hours in the harbour waiting…

While our lead stopped responding to emails, I had to be honest and inform the rest of the round know that the deal didn’t appear to be closing.

There’s another blog post on what happened after this, but this one is already long enough. We tried to sell the company to a few buyers, but no one really wants to buy a company when it’s on the way out.

To get a sense of how fast this happened, this all unfolded in about 6 months.

So, after all this, what am I doing now?

I’m living in SF and working with a world-class team on a new way to interact and manage your finances, backed by the best investors on the planet.

I might also note that the above is not advice. This is not advice on how to deal with Apple, flaky investors, or losing a co-founder; it’s simply the retelling of an experience. Advice through proxy of experience is dangerous.

What I do hope, is that this inspires people to join an accelerator they’re skeptical about. Or perhaps, to keep at it that extra six months, making to the next milestone.

Shameless plug below:

Twitter: https://twitter.com/samelliottsam

Thanks to Dean McEvoy and Samantha Wong for helping with drafts.