The Origin Story — Part I

For the third post in our blog, I thought it’d be a good time to talk about the history of Zonder, and how this awesome journey began. Origin stories have been all the rage for a few years, so let’s jump on the train.

The road to Zonder began in March of 2017. I had just spent an amazing week vacationing in Los Angeles with my sister, Demi — my first trip to sunny California in 25 years of living in the United States. As it turned out, a week was far too short; I’d probably only seen a third of the places that I wanted to see in Southern California, and there’s definitely many cool places that I haven’t heard of yet. The last few days we drove a Mustang convertible around town while the temperature was about 86 F during the day, and still comfortable at night.

After we landed back in Detroit, we were warmly greeted by freezing temperatures and cloudy skies. But that wasn’t the worst of it — a brutal storm had passed through the area two days prior and knocked out power to the entire metro, causing thousands upon thousands of downed lines that would take over a week to repair. Our neighborhood was one of the last ones to regain power, 6 days after our return.

So there was no power, and therefore no internet. Computer use was limited, not to mention the house was a balmy 35 degrees indoors. The austere conditions gave me a lot of time to sit around, think, and miss our adventures in Southern Califronia. After a few days, I had an inspiration for a little seed of an idea that would eventually become Zonder that could bring this same joy from our travels to even a trip to the grocery store. I called my sister, who had returned to university as quickly as possible (to avoid the whole freezing while sleeping type of thing).

We developed the idea together over the next few months, slowly coming up with an application that we felt users might want to use. In May, I quit my full time job in order to… take a vacation. We’d actually booked a trip to Morocco a few months ago, and so we went. We figured that it’d be a good learning experience for our travel-based venture as well.

To keep a long story short, it was an amazing trip to a beautiful and unique country; a crossroads between the West and the Middle East, and between European and African culture. We explored the cities of Casablanca, Marrakech, and Fes, each of which had a distinctly different culture and feel. They were a modern economic centre, a bustling tourist and vacation destination, and finally an insular Islamic city that still retained vestiges of its medieval origins.

The Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca is the tallest mosque in the world at 690 ft tall.

We also took a tour through the countryside and desert of Morocco with our personal guide and driver. Mohammed took us through idyllic small towns, breathtaking gorges, and huge rolling sand dunes. Through these amazing two weeks, we discussed our future travels as well as ways we could make traveling better. Not just for ourselves, but for all types of travelers. The idea was now starting to take on a more defined shape.

Immediately after our flight home, Demi had to go to Ohio for her internship, with a power company in the area. This would later prove to be a blessing, as she met Noah, our third co-founder, there.

After the three of us met up in July and discussed this idea, which we were almost ready to start. Our main resource at this point was enthusiasm — we still hadn’t created any concrete business structures, software, or even a business plan yet. We were just overly excited about an idea, and discussing different achievements and awards we could include for our users.

Over the next few months, we continued brainstorming and revising Zonder’s features (this is definitely becoming a recurring theme) and starting to think about how we might program those features. All told, probably hundreds of man-hours were spent working on all the features you’ll see in April.

I had been attempting to learn Java for programming in Android for a few months, but when our team decided to use React Native in September, I decided my efforts would be better spent elsewhere. For everyone who’s not familiar with mobile development, React Native is a framework developed by Facebook whose greatest strength lies in allowing developers to make apps for both Android and iOS at the same time. In North America, both devices have close to 50% of the market, so choosing one over the other would effectively cut out half of our users — a huge problem for a social app. In other regions of the world, it’s not such a big deal, but we aren’t very confident in our remote marketing skills in Europe and Asia early on.

One of our first screen concepts

We also knew that we needed great artwork for our app, to make it into something that people would love to look at and use. Our badges needed to be beautiful and distinct. In August, we hired Hunter, our art director, and started to work on the different visual styles we wanted to incorporate into our app. As our team started to get going, and development got underway, I almost stopped our progress in its tracks by taking a week in Colorado, followed by a month-long vacation….in Italy.

To be continued in Part II.