Amber will be speaking at Úll 2013. Use this link for €100 off a Regular Admission ticket.
Amber Reyngoudt is the co-founder of Skull Ninja Labs, a products company bootstrapped with consulting for iOS apps, out of San Francisco. She is currently busy working on their latest product, Wallabii, a mobile social shopping tool.
I meet Amber in Founder’s Den, in Soma. It’s the epitome of the SF Tech Elite machine: a member’s only office space, premium rent, invitation only. There’s a 6 month maximum lease: this is incubation only. Skull Ninja’s 6 months was up last month, but their logo is still on the door. The office is tiny: enough to house two small desks and a whiteboard squeezed in to the back. This is the San Francisco startup dream.
“My name is Amber Reyngoudt. I am an entrepreneur and an engineer, primarily an iOS engineer.”
It’s super interesting to me to hear anyone describe themselves as an entrepreneur first: indeed it’s a subject close to my heart that I’ve written about before. I start wondering what being an entrepreneur means to Amber. The word alone stirs up so many images: startups, money, deals, investment, invention, wealth, success. Success!
“I would say I’m still growing as an entrepreneur. I don’t think I’ve hit the successful point of being an entrepreneur yet.”
There’s a nervous laugh that maybe hints that Amber feels like whatever success is for sure, she feels like she’s on the right track.
“Part of that is being independent, indie. Building your own products. Having a co-founder. We do most of the stuff ourselves. Even all the design. There’s a lot of work involved. Delivering it. Getting users. There’s a lot more than just building. There’s a lot involved. It’s not easy. It’s actually really tough at times”
There’s a definite pride in the independence, and whenever we touch on what success means, that’s always part of it.
Amber has already had a long career building consumer software. Before moving to San Francisco, she lived in LA, where she was a development manager at MySpace for four years. Managing various teams including the mobile team for a year.
”That’s where the whole kick of being interested in mobile came from. Then, as you know, it was being at the top and then it was a sinking ship, so I became pretty unhappy with things, nothing was in my control and things we were building weren't seeing the other side of the door.”
While she was at MySpace, more or less being handed work and getting it done, she had an epiphany.
“A friend hit me up and said ‘What are you doing? What are you working on? Do you have any side projects?‘
“‘YOU SHOULD BE DOING SIDE PROJECTS! Are you even coding?’”
That was the moment that she decided it was time to change, to get out of the corporate beat and to go indie.
”At the time I wasn’t even coding any more, I was just managing. My colleague there, my co-founder now, he wanted to do iPhone apps too. At that time, social apps were super hot, so we spent nights and weekends prototyping and coming up with ideas, until we got our first iPhone app. We both decided it was time to leave MySpace. There wasn’t much going on in LA—Now there’s actually a scene—so we decided to move to San Francisco because it seemed like the place to be.”
It’s a story we hear a lot, and it has worked for many companies before it. I think of GitHub, who’s founders came to San Francisco from the midwest, and Heroku, who also came north from LA. Things happened fast for Amber too.
The progression is clear: a grounding in corporate software development—her first job out of college was at Intel—a period in the hottest, then not so hottest social network, and recently a strong desire to build products, to have a sense of ownership.
“When I got out of school, I was very much: ‘Tell me what to do and I’ll go do it.’ and I was very content with that. Over time, developing my skills and coming up with my own ideas, wanting to be in control.”
Something definitely changed.
”I feel like the last few years is where I’m very connected to the product. This is mine. These users are playing with something that I’ve made. Previously I was just building a small feature on something. You feel ownership of that code, but not the whole product. Now it’s definitely way more rewarding. Not all of it, but a good piece of it.”
The desire to build her own products let Amber on a whirlwind journey that she’s only recently coming down from.
“That’s when I created Skull Ninja Labs and I started picking up and doing contract work. It didn’t take much time. We had an iPhone app in the store and we put up a company website. We got here and started networking right away which is pretty important. There’s a lot of really brilliantly talented people in San Francisco.”
Putting her name in the right hat gave her a break that others might only dream about. A chance meeting with one of the poster boys of the Web 2.0 movement who was looking to start something new.
”There’s luck too. Early on, I happened to be in the building we’re in, and it was the launch party. This was two years ago. Before I knew it, I was emailing a few days later with Kevin Rose. It was like ‘She makes iPhone Apps‘ and ‘He needs an iPhone app’ and that was how the whole Milk thing started. It actually started as a contract project. A month in, Kevin was like: I’m going to start a company, come join me!”
The Kevin Rose connection was a complete roller coaster. After 8 months of development, using his massive network base, Amber and the Milk team shipped Oink, a social discovery tool for iOS. In just four months, the app was launched, reached 100k downloads and was featured in the app store 4 times.
“It was exciting. In the first week we got a ton of press. It was just me and my co-founder as the iOS engineers, and we had one backend engineer. We started getting press. We hoped it wouldn’t crash, that it actually scaled. It was a rather complicated product. The feedback was good and bad, pretty good for the most part. The challenge was that once you launch, you get all this excitement, but where do you take it next? We were trying to figure that out. I don’t think we really thought through the viral loops and how to keep people engaged. A lot of that was ‘Let’s get this out and get users’. The reality is that until you get content and users, things feel kinda dead. That was our biggest concern. We just wanted content.”
Oink was born out of the novel approach that Milk brought to the table: build and ship quickly, and kill things that don’t meet metric targets. Amber, however, felt that this approach was a bit rash.
“My personal thought was that the problem was that Oink turned into a rather complicated product. It needed more time to live to really see if it would turn into something. A product like that would need a year. If you’re going to take that approach, they need to be very very simple products that don’t take eight months to develop. Something maybe that takes a month, that’s the most minimal viable, just a few features, super simple. But it’s gotta be useful. It’s hard to make simple things. At the end, you wouldn’t know it, but Oink had like fifty screens. There’s a lot going on there.”
After just four months in the app store, Kevin Rose decided to join Google, Oink was discontinued, Milk was dissolved, and Amber decided to recommence work on her own products back at Skull Ninja. I wonder what lessons Amber is taking with her on this new adventure.
”Well, I’m not building a simple product! I am taking the approach that it‘s complicated, and then we’ll pull features, pull features, pull and pull until it seems to be simple enough that users can easily catch on and not question too much, that you don’t need too many coach marks to get through things and get through flows. But that’s not easy to do. Our biggest challenge is going to be user acquisition, marketing, getting people in there to use it. It was very easy when we had Kevin and we had money. The whole approach is very different from what we had before.”
The team at Milk was small, but it was also well resourced, with financial backing and extra people to help out with building the software.
”I was working with an amazing designer, Daniel Burka. He’d hand me a photoshop file, push pixels, do animations until we felt like it was right and it was good to go. Now I’m making all of this stuff on my own and trying to get friends and family to go in there and play with it and try it out and get feedback from people that I do know who are very good at this stuff. Most people are glad to help if you don’t take up too much of their time.”
From the world on a plate to a daily grind, things have changed a lot for Amber. Is there anything she’d rather be doing?
”It’s up and down. It’s a roller-coaster. I think the most rewarding part is when you actually have the product and people are using it and you’re getting feedback and they like it. That’s a sense of accomplishment and that’s quite rewarding. I feel like right now this is what I want. It is challenging. It is tough. You just need to be able to roll with it and deal with it. It’s a learning experience. All this stuff is experiments. You gotta learn from them quickly.”
It’s obviously all very early stage. Experiments, throwing interfaces away, getting feedback from friends and family. There’s an endgame there, but for now the building and the validation that she’s on the right track are their own reward.
”The next milestone is a private beta by the end of the month.”
Amber’s focus is squarely on the next step. I wonder what the longer term goals are. ”I’m always so in the moment of what I’m building. There’s a point where you get it out there, and if you can’t get the first 100 users, the first 500 users, the first 1000 users. There’s some point where you’re like, alright, this isn’t going to work, we’ll get rid of it, and we’ll do something else. And maybe in the meantime, do some contract work or do advising stuff. As an iOS engineer, there’s always something you can jump in to.”
I come away with the feeling that Amber is happy with where she’s at, determined to carve a place for herself over the coming months and years. San Francisco is definitely the place to do it, and she’s worked hard to build the skills, connections and experience needed to build successful commercial software. As we part, I wish her the best of luck, and I get the sense that I’ll be seeing her name behind something successful very soon.