My father chased a dream around the world. He wanted to breed and train racehorses. In England, that was a class-based occupation, like much of their society in the 1960's.
So, in 1970, he went to Western Australia, with his wife and two young sons.
Fifteen years later, my younger brother decided to go back to England. He didn’t bother becoming an Australian citizen before he left. It seemed like a waste of $75 and time for a teenager who regarded himself as Australian. Family connections interested him, along with many craggy mountains. Having fallen in love with climbing as a sport, Perth and environs was boringly flat.
He stayed too long, lost his Australian residency, and settled down to raise an English family.
My parents soon faced the common dilemma of grandchildren on two continents. They also had older friends and family back in England and so decided to return, at least for a few years.
This gave me the experience of having young children who were trying to maintain a relationship with remote grandparents.
My daughter was old enough to remember them and to enjoy chatting on the phone. It was still a scheduling hassle at times with the 8 hour time difference but Grandma was flexible. She could take daytime calls from a little girl before bed.
My son was too young to have built up a relationship before their departure, so the calls were of little interest. There was no other connection possible apart from the phone.
Memories of these times came back as I refined Touchgram. I wasn’t inspired by them in the early days. As I talked to potential users about connecting remote family, I had a sudden rush of deja vu. Maybe, I had a way for a 3yo to connect with the grandparents he didn’t remember.
So, where did the idea for Touchgram start?
Marriage counsellors often teach touch exercises for couples to connect. Coaching simple exercises seemed like something that you could manage with an app. It just seemed a bit of a niche market.
I mulled over touch-for-two aka t4t and played around with graphics technology for fluid touch response. This was a side-project whilst working on a CAD product in my day job. It was more thought than code.
Sadly, in 2011–12 I had a lot of time to think, if not to actually program. My father had died two years earlier. My mother still lived on their farm but was often very ill from fighting chronic leukaemia. I spent many hours driving back and forth, with time to think out loud and record on my trusty iPhone. I had a lot of verbal design notes for a something gestural app. Mum died in 2012 and dealing with that and selling the farm blew all thought of side-projects away.
After the layoff, I went back to all those verbal notes I’d recorded. I had worked through lots of scenarios out loud of who might use an app that was about touch and reacting to touch. Iterating on the idea of how to make this more general, I realised it could become a messaging app.
Instead of two people playing a touch game on one phone, they could message each other.
In January, 2014, I went to a Founder Institute coaching event on how to pitch a product. A lot of people encouraged me to take the Touchgram idea further. A messaging app that somehow sent touches appealed to many.
I went through the Founder Institute, graduating with much-refined ideas in August 2014. Lots of work to turn that into a decent prototype followed, then my co-founder quit.
I’d agreed with my wife that if we couldn’t launch by June 2015 I’d go get a job. So I worked for Realm, remotely with their Copenhagen team for a couple of years. By early 2017, the Realm project I was on had a solid 1.0 release and costs of a patent on Touchgram were starting to mount. We had to either abandon the money spent or push it to market.
I left Realm and started the painful journey of turning a mothballed, two-year-neglected prototype into a real product. See the technical story for more details on the how and why of this.
There were no major life events influencing what happened from here on.
I’m a slow learner — it took talking to a wide range of potential users to realise that grandparents were a great target market. That was embarrassingly familiar — I backed into my own story from hearing others. My daughter got married during this time, so I may become a digital grandfather myself. At least she’s in the same city.
Touchgram was eventually launched on the app store in September 2019. There have been steady releases since, working towards the full product dream. Soon, we will have a version with an inbuilt store where you can get free and paid art from artists around the world, to make up your own messages or customise premade ones. Think of these as greeting cards with touch — I’m still sentimental.