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From Hackathon To Market: New App Teaches Chinese Calligraphy

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Watch the video for Chiu-Ki’s developer story of starting up Monkey Write at a hackathon.

By Chiu-Ki Chan (Founder & Developer, Monkey Write)

AT&T recently interviewed me on how I built Monkey Write from a hackathon prototype to a full business. This got me thinking about the wonderful adventure I’ve been having in the past few months.

When I left Google to go to startups, I did so because I wanted to grow beyond coding, to get a holistic understanding of how products are built. Great products need more than just technology. What is the secret sauce? It took me a year and a half as a startup employee to realize the truth – there is no secret sauce.

There are theories and conjectures, but the only way to build a great product is to experiment. With your own hands.

Even in a very small startup, I was only marginally involved in product development, since my primary role was programming. After a lot of thinking, I decided I wasn’t getting what I wanted out of my startup job, so last September I did the crazy thing: quit my job. Without the next one lined up. Or an idea what I was going to do next.

The Startup Idea:

After I left my job, I attended many tech events. The theory was that if I feed enough data into my brain, the subconscious part would eventually figure out something. I was rather surprised that my business idea came out of something relatively straightforward: a hackathon.

In late October, I went to the AT&T mobile hackathon in San Francisco. There were many sponsored APIs, and I chose to write something for the HTC Pen because I wanted the prize – a JetStream tablet.

The funny thing is that the constraint actually sparked my creativity. Instead of everything under the sun, I focused on making a compelling app that uses the pen stylus, and readily came up with the idea of Chinese writing. I hacked a prototype in 6 hours, presented, and people loved it.

Building The Product:

The positive feedback at the hackathon encouraged me to explore this as a viable business idea. It took a bit of time to convince myself. The tipping point was the moment I came up with the freemium business model – have a free base app with a limited number of characters, and generate revenue with module downloads. This is in line with my initial goal of growing beyond coding. Now that I have a reasonable business model, I feel much more comfortable writing the code.

The major technical hurdle was gathering the character data and devising a grading algorithm. It took me a month to figure that out. Once that was in place, I knew I had the technology to power the app. I built out the rest of the app, and started user testing. It was super helpful to put the app in front of fresh eyes, because the initial UI was not obvious at all. It took me another month to refine it.

At this point the app was functional, but ugly. I told everyone that crossed my path that I needed a graphic designer, and ended up hiring a friend of a friend. I have never worked with freelancers, so it took a while to spell out my requirements and expectations. The graphic design took another month, but it was totally worth it. The beautiful artwork made the app much more engaging.

Launch:

I gave myself an arbitrary deadline to launch in January, but it did not become real until AT&T approached me with a marketing opportunity. They invited me to demo my app at their Chinese New Year celebrations in SF Chinatown on February 11, 2012.

I wanted my app to be available on Android Market by then, which meant I had a week to finish up the app. The tight deadline really helped me prioritize and implement only what I needed for launch.

Next Steps:

The launch was just the beginning. I am implementing lots of improvements to the app while doing business development at the same time. I am reaching out to local Chinese schools to see if they would be interested in custom workbooks that aligned with their course materials. I have never done business development before, so this is a bit daunting, but also very exciting.

I am very happy with my decision to go solo. I enjoy the creative freedom immensely, and I am learning so much. There are times when I got overwhelmed with all the different hats I’m wearing, but it brings me so much joy to see people play with Monkey Write and simply cannot put it down. It is a lot of hard work, but also very gratifying.

Watch Chiu-Ki Tell Her Developer Story:

This post was originally posted at Square Island.

About the guest blogger: Chiu-Ki Chan worked at Google as a software engineer for over six years, and spent a year and a half at two startups. She went independent last year with her own mobile development company. The first title is Monkey Write, an app for learning Chinese writing. Follow her on Twitter at @chiuki.