UX Designer Starts Up Mobile Publishing House, Builds Top Apps

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By T.J. Zark (Co-Founder & Chief Design Officer, 955 Dreams)

I am co-founder and Chief Design Officer at 955 Dreams, a mobile publishing house with some amazingly successful titles we created last year. How this all happened is a bit unusual. I met a guy in a parking lot. It’s true. I met my co-founder in a parking lot and two meetings later we were up to our ears making incredible experiences for users!

It started for me late in 2009 when my partner took a job with Google and I found myself in Palo Alto, having moved my design business. I had been designing UI and UX design on high-touch, media dense projects for many years, leading projects for companies like Coca-Cola and Capital One. I loved what I was doing, but found I missed having other humans to interact with everyday. I made myself go to local events to meet some new people.

One evening, I landed in a parking-lot-turned-party-spot at an event for a design firm. I remember wishing I knew just one person. I MADE myself talk to someone. Being the luckiest person I know, the guy I picked was as bright and alive as a crack of lightning.

Kiran Bellubbi was making mobile apps and what he showed me revealed his vision, passion and commitment to excellence. I think my first words were, “I’m in. What are we going to do?”

Kiran began to talk about the mobile landscape and what could be done on the tablet platform, specifically the iPad. At our next meeting, we immediately began to sketch out ideas for The History of Jazz, now in the Apple iPad Hall of Fame. 955 Dreams was started a few weeks later in October of 2009. I let go of my clients, dissolved my business and sold off my domains. All in. Full commitment. Succeed or die trying.

I say all of this because I think designers and developers who consult often miss incredible opportunities. They either don’t take the risk when a real idea or exceptional individual comes along, or they try to keep a foot in both worlds.

Because I believe that the quality of the people you work with determines your outcome, I had no trouble making the commitment and fully moving forward. My design and production skills were perfectly suited with my co-founder’s product and development skills.

The Jazz app was built in about 10 weeks with just 3 people and was quickly Apple App of the Week. As we launched into another iPad title, On the Way to Woodstock, we began to add staff and took some funding from 500 Startups and Kapor Capital. Mitch Kapor and Dave McClure were great sounding boards for us as we refined our strategies and ideated the product line.

I will say emphatically, every person you add to your startup ecosystem should be carefully considered. Whether staff, advisor or investor – every voice in the room will make a positive or negative impact on your trajectory. We had investors with a great love for the technology, and our products specifically.

Because of the success of our iPad apps, offers came from all corners to create products for big brands. It was all quite seductive. It took careful consideration and discipline to not be distracted by the lure of partnerships.

Our most important decision to date was to create the first legitimate magazine for the iPhone. It would be a daily, mobile publication for music discovery – Band of the Day.

We hired additional writers and developers, worked with record labels, sourced hundreds of bands, designed an incredible UX, carefully crafted the platform and launched Band of the Day on September 11, 2011. On September 15th, we were App of the Week.

By December 2011, we were named App of the Year Runner Up, named by the New York Times as one of the Top Ten Apps of the Year and now in the Apple Hall of Fame. User adoption is through the roof and we are excited about the direction of this fascinating daily mobile platform; the Band of the Day iPad universal binary ships this month.

My best advice for other founders is to be fearless, refuse to compromise on quality and surround yourself by the best humans you can. Onward!

Editor’s note: Got a question for our guest blogger? Leave a message in the comments below.

About the guest blogger: T.J. Zark is Co-founder and Chief Design Officer at 955 Dreams, mobile publishers of titles like History of Jazz and the first daily micromagazine, Band of the Day. Prior to 955 Dreams, she created immersive user experiences for clients like Capital One, Coca-Cola, McDonalds and many more. While very involved in actual pixel-by-pixel design, she is also immersed in staff development and the practicing the principles of leadership that allows people to realize their full potential.