During the course of my internship, we built out several products, each catering to different audiences and tackling varied problems. Our goal was rapid iteration—going from idea to prototype to product-market-fit validation in quick succession—rinse and repeat.
My goal for the summer of 2015 was to find a gig where I could both influence product direction and contribute in a significant manner to design and development. I sought out an internship at a small startup (fewer than 10 people) so that I could learn about being a startup founder. Luckily, I found a company that perfectly fit these criteria: a startup in Oakland, CA called Midnight Labs, Inc., which was operating under the name Five at the time. With 7 very talented team members, Five afforded me an opportunity to both have ownership over large parts of the product and participate in early decision-making discussions.
The first product I worked on at Midnight Labs was “Teleport,” an iPhone app that allowed users to join a random voice conversation happening between people in countries around the world. The idea was hinged on people’s interest in tourism and connecting with new people–without the expense or awkwardness.
When I arrived at Five, the core Teleport app was already designed and built, so I was tasked with ideating, designing, then creating a promotional website that would entice visitors to download the app.
What Should I Be Doing?
It was summer in the San Francisco Bay Area and the great weather delivered a surprising problem. On any given evening or weekend, it was next to impossible to know what the cool thing to do was. Sure, one could peruse Facebook events, or listen to radio–but more often than not the must-dos that were recommended turned out to be major letdowns. We wondered: is it possible to curate a list of the best current, local attractions with minimal overhead and great results? There were other contenders in this space like Funcheap and Sosh, but they lacked the kind of experience we believed would really drive engagement.
After validating the idea with hand-curation, the team began to develop an algorithm to automate the process. My task was to use scraping on licensed content in-order to better curate a training corpus. With this data in hand, we were able to develop tools for machine-assisted human curation–which we believed to be the sweet spot in culture driven experiences. I also created a re-usable walkthrough flow for installing enterprise distributed apps that was used for later app deployments.
While extremely engaging and well received, the aforementioned “What Should I Be Doing?” project struggled to actually get people to go out and participate in the events we curated. However, the failure of that smaller product illuminated a much bigger, more promising problem worth tackling: “Where is everyone? What bar/park/event is popular right now?”. While crafting a hand-curated list of events and operating what was essentially a community news service, we realized most people don’t think ahead, but instead just want to know where they should go to have a fun night–FOMO rules all. To test this idea, we iterated on an iOS app that would show dots (or more playfully, ants) on the map representing people at a given venue. These dots would be anonymized, dynamic, and fluid–appearing to be a real-time omniscient view of the world around the user.
To validate the app, I delivered an interactive, data-driven, ant-populated web view of San Francisco essentially emulating the experience that would be in the final mobile app. With this site, we could share the “idea” with users, quickly express the concept, and collect feedback.
The final project I worked on at Midnight Labs, which would become their biggest experiment, was a Slack-like (or really, IRC-like) chat experience.