Seattle’s Zapd came on the startup scene in a big way more than a year ago — boasting an experienced entrepreneur at the helm (Kelly Smith) and a marquee group of investors (Second Avenue Partners, RealNetworks founder Rob Glaser, Zillow co-founder Rich Barton, Madrona Venture Group, etc.).

But even though Zapd appeared to be poised to transform the way people publish Web sites from mobile devices, things didn’t turn out quite as planned.

The startup missed its mark right of the gate, but Smith and crew have bounced back with an entirely new “rewrite” of the service that just got featured in Apple’s App Store.

Smith, who previously co-founded Inkd and ImageKind, gave us the inside scoop on the transformation (many would call it a big-time pivot) at Zapd. That involved plenty of ups and downs — including the departure of Zapd’s CTO and other tough roadblocks. But the team persevered.

Here’s the story in his own words:

“This story really is one of the traditional start-up hardship tales more than it is about a software rewrite.

Zapd 1.0 was strong out of the gate, but I think we came to the conclusion that there is no such thing as “non-social” consumer software.  The first version was essentially a utility. There was nothing human about it.  There wasn’t any discovery about it.

Basically, it wasn’t fun enough.  You couldn’t easily discover other people’s websites, you couldn’t follow other people. There was no social plumbing inside the app at all.  So, it did not stand a chance of being anything remotely close to the “viral.”

This new version addresses most of that.  You can browse and discover other people’s Zaps via the feed, much like an Instagram feed.  You can also collaborate on websites with other people.  Parties, vacations, weddings, you get the idea.  Also, if other people discovered your websites, they can request to collaborate with you, even if they are not your friend.  You get the request and you can either accept or reject it. It is a very interesting way to make new friends around topics of interest.  So, you can imagine going to a Sounders game and starting a Zap.  Other people who are there can
contribute their images from wherever they are and you could, in theory, have a neat littleWweb site with hundreds of photos on by the end of the night.  All those different vantage points. Kind of a neat idea.

Anyway, to deliver on all these new features we were basically talking about a new piece of software. So we knew that the easiest thing would be to start from scratch.  One of the considerations from the beginning however was how we can achieve cross-platform support.  We figured if we could launch on Android and iPhone at the same time we stood a better chance of being successful.  We also knew the Windows Phone was coming and we wanted to be well-positioned for that as well.

So, we did as much research as we could and we decided we had the technical chops to build a highly technical mobile web application. We started out using Sencha Touch and Phonegap.

Sencha Touch is a user interface (UI) JavaScript library, or framework, specifically built for the Mobile Web. It is used to develop user interfaces for mobile web applications that look and feel like native applications on supported mobile devices.  Phonegap served as the packaging wrapper for the app and also allowed us to access native functions on the phone that we needed access to, such as gps, file store etc.

Unfortunately, two things happened.

The first was that we realized that the type of application we were building did not lend itself well to existing mobile web application technology.  Our application needed to be fun. It is not a utility. That meant that it needed to feel slick and smooth or people would be less likely to use it.  If it were a simple online magazine or some kind of simple data retrieval app and there was not a lot of tapping and scrolling involved then things might have been fine.

We spent nearly 6 months trying to perfect the application.  Along the way, we hit roadblock after roadblock.  Beta versions of Sencha really were not ready for release.  Meaning, they were available to us but they probably were not yet ready for prime time.  The phone’s processor and memory capabilities never really afforded us an experience that felt native enough.

We got almost all the way to the end and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars. Finally, just weeks before launch we all looked at each other one day and we realized this was not going to work.  We would have to start over.

I had the dubious honor of delivering the bad news to our board of directors.

On the bright side, everyone on our board has been an entrepreneur and has been involved in the very complex process of building software before.  They agreed that if the experience did not fill solid then we would not stand a chance.

So, we started over.

And then our founding CTO and I decided we also needed to part ways. Not because of the technology choice.  Just because we felt our journey together had come to a natural end. He wanted to move on, and do his own thing.  So right at the time when we were starting over, we needed to find another technical leader.  Needless to say, these were  not fun days.

Over the last six months, we reassembled a team and started the long process of redoing everything.  Several people stepped up over the last year and assumed more and more responsibility.

Brian Fioca founded RescueTime as a hobby with Tony Wright.  He joined full-time and help to reassemble the team along with Elijah Smith who had endured from the beginning.  We added two more people and slowly began the process of rebuilding.

Today, we have an amazing team.  Tony Wright has given us a little time to help
us on next major release of Zapd which will be a full-blown website builder for the iPad.  Several other entrepreneurs and contractors pitched in to help out anyway they could.

Some wrote code.  Some refined wireframes.  Getting this product out the door became a huge group effort with a lot of support from the start of community.  Many of the people who helped out aren’t listed here.

While it is still too early to know how Zapd 2.0 will do in the market, I am nevertheless emboldened by the commitment that everyone has put in and the help we have received from many other entrepreneurs in Seattle.  I think that’s the real story here. The entrepreneur community here knows this line of work is tough and its a real extended family of folks in Seattle who will give evenings and weekends to help out if they can.  I hope I can return the favor.

Here’s how the new Zapd service works:

[Editor's Note: Kelly Smith's Inkd is a GeekWire partner]

Comments

  • Dtrain

    not only is it cool for Kelly to share this much info – Kelly has been the most straightforward, least full of shit dude I’ve had the pleasure to know in the Seattle startup scene. Go get ‘em brother.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Kelly-Smith/573153409 Kelly Smith

      Thanks Dtrain. Much appreciated.

  • http://www.facebook.com/robnachbar Rob Nachbar

    Congrats Kelly! Tried the app and am super impressed. Way slicker than the Tumblr app — and that’s saying something!

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Kelly-Smith/573153409 Kelly Smith

      Thank you Rob!

  • guest

    Coincidence, I just deleted zap’d 1.x from my phone to free up space.

  • http://blog.redfin.com/ GlennKelman

    Kelly Smith is a force to be reckoned with… I’m excited for Zapd 2.0.

  • http://twitter.com/SeattleMcCarthy Kevin McCarthy

    It’s a tough life, this start-up game is. I really appreciate you sharing this much information about your company. I think the wisest thing that you did was to raise over three million dollars in a seed round. Most companies wouldn’t get this many bites at the apple. Good luck.

  • Guest

    This is interesting and the transparency is impressive, but it’s hard for the typical startup to learn from their mistakes and subsequent (hopeful) success. Most startups don’t get a few million in a seed round. Most startups don’t get three tries at their first product (counting two versions of their 2.0). There are alos two things missing from Kelly’s writeup above.

    How is the product useful? It sounds like a way to create throwaway web sites. Do people really wan to do this? Social is a feature, not a product, so what makes it a useful product?

    How do the make money?

  • http://twitter.com/miguelsalcido Miguel Salcido

    No Android version? Lame.

  • Tyler Townley

    Congratulations Kelly and team. I know you all put a lot of long hours into this project and have held yourselves to a high standard throughout this process. Best of luck as Zapd continues to gain support and grow as a community. Looking forward to how far you can take it!

    Thanks for the insider take on your process and your humility/transparency in this interview. Classy.

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