Bottle Rocket Apps: How To Win Over The Toughest Crowd

If you’ve ever read the reviews in the Apple apps store, you know that users love to criticize.

So how does a company build dozens of apps that make it to Apple’s top 100 apps list in such a tough environment?

Joining me is Calvin Carter, founder of Bottle Rocket Apps, which builds custom iPhone, iPad and Android apps for companies serious about mobile.

Calvin Carter

Calvin Carter

Bottle Rocket Apps

Calvin Carter is the founder of Bottle Rocket Apps, which builds custom iPhone, iPad and Android apps for companies serious about mobile.



Full Interview Transcript

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Hi, everyone. My name is Andrew Warner. I’m the founder of, home of the ambitious upstart, the place where hundreds of thousands of people come every month to watch interviews with successful entrepreneurs who tell the stories behind their businesses. So, if you’ve been to the Apple App Store, you know that users there love, love to criticize. With that environment, how does a company build dozens of apps that make it to Apple’s Top 100 List, and do it with all those critics and other people competing? That’s what I want to find out in this interview.

Joining me today is Calvin Carter. He’s the founder of Bottle Rocket Apps, which builds custom iPhone, iPad and Android Apps for companies that are serious about mobile. Calvin, can you name some of the more popular apps? Did I just say something to insult you? There, he’s back on camera.

Calvin: Absolutely. Hi, everyone. I’m Calvin Carter. Some of the apps that we produced that are kind of more noteworthy, apps that we built for Bravo, which is the top chef app; History Channel, the Civil War Today, which was inducted into the Apple’s iPad Hall of Fame. Also inducted into Apple’s iPad Hall of Fame is the NPR app that we did. We’ve done several for NPR, but the iPad app. Also in the IPad Hall of Fame is the Spin Magazine, Spin Play for iPad. We’ve produced over 60 apps, and we focus primarily on those really large consumer brand applications. So, ESPN, ARP, PBS, Disney, TNT, TBS, National Geographic, Discovery Channel, Black Entertainment Television.

Andrew: OK. So, I’m curious in this interview about how you got those companies to partner up with you. And then, what I know is that just having a major brand doesn’t mean that the app is going to shoot to the top of the charts, right? There are lots of big brands who are competing in that marketplace; only few, many of yours, though, do well in the market. And I want to know why they do well and what we can learn from your experience. But, do you also have your own apps, or do you just create apps for other brands?

Calvin: Actually, how we started in the business was by building our own apps. And we started in March, 2008, the day after Steve Jobs announced the iPhone being opened to third party developers. So that was March 6th, 2008. Bottle Rockets founded in March 7th, 2008.

Andrew: That’s pretty quick.

Calvin: Yeah.

Andrew: Were you waiting? Were you one of those people who were waiting for the app store to open up? Maybe had a jail broken iPhone before that and you said as soon as this is real, I’m jumping in there?

Calvin: Everything except for the jail broken iPhone part. You can’t build a business on something that’s illegal, and so we didn’t even think about it. At the time the other option for third party developers was building web apps. And web apps were completely uninteresting to me and others like me. It just was something there that kind of like a couple of games or mainly RSS readers or things like that. But we’re in the business of extreme quality and you just can’t do that with a web app.

Andrew: So what were you doing before that?

Calvin: Before that it was primarily web oriented stuff. So desktop Internet applications.

Andrew: How well did that go for you?

Calvin: The desktop Internet stuff? Oh it’s great. I had a business that I grew with a friend of mine to a fairly large organization that we sold in, I would guess late 99. And then from that point on you know, web just kind of became a living. But it wasn’t transformational anymore. It was in the late 90s and we were there on the forefront of it, a fun and lucky time. But, after that, it just kind of became a job. It just became something that you did until the next insanely great thing came around. And for me that was the iPhone.

Andrew: So we’re talking about somewhere between half a decade to a decade of running a business that’s not transformational. It’s a business but it’s not, well, transformational. How do you keep going at that point knowing how great things could be, knowing that there are those transformational moments that change everything, and you’re not a part of one?

Calvin: Well I was part of one. I was part of two. I was part of the Internet and then the iPhone one.

Andrew: But, in between there was a period there where there wasn’t that and for many people, that point, and I got to say, to me, I experienced this. I had that big huge moment, and then sold it off. Everything was just kind of calm and I felt like an outsider. And I felt like, well, my best days behind me. And for many people, I think at that point it’s easy to give up and move on to something else. Or go sit on an island somewhere, or just get a boring job. You stayed in. How do you do it? Why do you do it?

Calvin: Well I went through the same or probably similar process that you did. Mainly because I feel that entrepreneurs personal identity is so tied to the identity of their business. Whatever that business might be. Whether it’s a sole proprietor sandwich shop, or whether it’s a massive organization. A true entrepreneur isn’t just a person who starts companies. You know, there’s more to it then that. So a true entrepreneur doesn’t know where when he or she ends and the business begins. They’re kind of connected blood and bone to their business. And so for me, you know, when I sold my business in late ’99, kind of 2000, 2001 time frame.

It was kind of hard to know for Calvin to know who Calvin was anymore. He was so attached to that. And so after a while it became, OK, so how can I build? Still be entrepreneurial in an environment that was kind of commoditized and kind of a downturn in the tech anyways. And so for me it was finding opportunities, again, just for me, super high touch, and super high quality. So, super high touch on the customer service side and super high quality on the product side. And you can do that in any industry at any time even if it’s being commoditized, there’s always a place for that. And so that’s the place I was, but the tech itself wasn’t that interesting.

Andrew: Can you give me an example of something you were doing that was high quality, high touch?

Calvin: Oh sure, let’s just take a website. You know, so, you know, I was working with customers that I could actually work with them. I could get to know them and I could get to understand their business objectives. And it became a true relationship sale, versus just I have a widget and I want to sell it a thousand times. So really getting to know the individuals, and then of course the product itself. Honing it and polishing it. Sometimes they use the analogy of polishing the undersides of tables. It’s the thing that no one else is willing to do or can do.

Andrew: What do you mean by polishing? It’s interesting actually. I love that expression, polishing the underside of tables. It shows a care about the details that most people won’t pay attention to. Can you give me an example of how you did that on the web? And this is before Bottle Rocket Apps, your current company.

Calvin: Oh sure. Just take any user experience in which you’re coming into a website and really within the first one or two seconds you’re going to make as a consumer, or visitor to the site. You’re going to make an impression. You’re going to make a decision of what type of company this is. Immediately you bring in your brain, what does this mean to you? You can either send across the message of connected, innovative, influential, or you can send the message of just punching the clock. A lot of times, it’s the very small details. It literally might be down to the fact that pixels attach to pixels in the corner so that when someone looks at something, all they see is this great brand message. They don’t see all the little tiny mistakes.

Andrew: Do you have a specific example of a kind of mistake that you are absolutely going to hammer out? One that drove you nuts because no one else saw it, but it mattered to you?

Calvin: Sure. I’m a big Apple and Macintosh fan. I’ve been a Mac user forever. When I surf the web, I surf on a Mac. Anyone who is on the web knows, browsers interpret what you give them. They interpret it very differently. For me, a lot of times even the customers may say ‘it works fine on my PC or my windows machine, so it’s good enough’. I’m like ‘no, we’re going to make sure this thing works across all browsers’. We’ll go back far enough so that someone who comes the side on a version back on the browser, they’re not going to say ‘oh gosh, it’s my browsers fault’. No, they’re going to say ‘no, this is a bad brand experience’ subconsciously. They’re going to say ‘this is kind of a crappy site’ or ‘why don’t those lines connect’ or ‘why is that word rapid firing?’

Andrew: Got you. Steve Jobs makes the announcement, he says there is going to be a new app store. He’s inviting developers to come out. You decide your going to do this because you’re excited about the iPhone. What’s the first thing you do after that decision?

Calvin: I literally went to Office Depot, and I purchased a box of pencils. Cheap yellow spin top mechanical pencils, cheap pencils, 20 for $3.00. About $3 or $4 worth of graph paper, and literally started sketching apps. Why did I do that? After realizing in March 2008 there wasn’t an app store yet, after all the preconceived notions on what an app is, I and others like me had zero ability to know what that was going to be like. The only thing we could do, is we could understand the device. We were users of the device. I stood in line just like a lot of people to get the first iPhone.

In fact since then, I have stood in line because it’s part o f the process. Also, we didn’t have anything other than a dozen apps that Apple had produced with their iPhone. Remember when I say apps, I don’t mean stuff that was running on your trio 650 in 2006. I’m talking about the level of quality and user experience in polish, in apps that we now understand that are available in many platforms now, but really truly started with the iPhone. That’s really where [inaudible] is that moment. It was a process of how do you build an app? What’s an app interface look like? All of those sorts of things that we take for granted, and now Bottle Rocket is polishing the underside of tables, was what is a table? How do you build something that is a surface that you can do stuff on? It was that base of an understanding, and so that’s what I did.

Andrew: With the previous understanding of how the world looked, you were sitting there with a piece of paper and a pencil, and you were sketching out what you thought the future would look like. Can you give me an example of one of the bad ideas that in retrospect just doesn’t make sense, but back then being with the world being what it was, you thought this has got legs.

Calvin: By the end of 2008, Bottle Rocket produced 9 apps. The important thing there is we didn’t just make 1 or 2, which is what most app developers did, especially the first year or so. It was kind of want it done, hobbiest(sp), if I make one and it doesn’t work, then I better retreat in what I was doing before. I was in, and there was no looking back. That’s an important thing for an entrepreneur. You have to burn the bridge behind you so to speak as you go, or burn the ships is a better way to put it. If not, you’ll always retreat to safety when you’re having a bad day. You have days when you feel great, you have days when you feel horrible. Those days you feel horrible, you need to give yourself no other option then to push forward. Those 9 apps came from a list of 20 that I penciled and sketched. There was one app that I was pretty convinced was going to be an absolute home run. There was one I was one that I was convinced was going to be more of an experiment. And it was the direct opposite in business success.

So, one of the apps is called Overnight, and it was an extremely complicated application that allowed you to track packages from FedEx, DHL, USPS, UPS locations. It was an enormous back-end system, very complicated application to write. And the business success was really not there. It was not successful business wise. Another application that was very simplistic, was a very simplified flight simulator, where all you did was kind of turn the device back and forth. But you flew over this absolutely gorgeous, really well-done and very, very well polished three-dimensional world. Extremely successful.

And so, you don’t really know; but looking back, it was interesting because when I look back on it, why did I think one was going to be successful and the other one wasn’t? And I just assumed that people really wanted this product to track packages, and what not. But I never really thought about the complexity involved in it. And the fact that to stay on top of that, and I wasn’t really emotionally committed to it, but when I started sketching–Wings is the other application, which is the flight simulator–when I started sketching that I would think about it all night. I would re-sketch it; erase, redrawn, erase and I’d re-draw it. And I was just so emotionally connected to it.

What I should have done right then is said, you know, if I’m emotionally excited about this I can get other people to be emotionally excited about this. If I’m doing the other thing, to just fill a gap, to fill a void in the marketplace because, you know, you would think that business users of IPhones would need that sort of utility, if you’re just filling a void, and you’re not putting your heart in that void, it’s probably not going to be successful.

Andrew: I remember at the time that a lot of entrepreneurs thought that the apps that would sell are the ones that are business oriented, because business people have money to spend. Is that part of the calculation that went into creating the package tracking system?

Calvin: Sure. I also charged much more for it, because I figured, well, you know, business users are going to spend a lot of money for this sort of thing. In reality, people don’t necessarily want to spend money to do the needed tasks of the day. But people are willing to spend money to really enjoy something, whether it’s to escape something, or to learn something new, or to feel a thrill or an experience that’s not normal for them. That’s really what people are drawn back to over and over again. And I think that’s probably why you see the gaming sector, whether casual or not casual, is a very, very, very powerful part of all the mobile platforms, really.

Andrew: You said you burned your bridges behind you, or actually, that’s a different metaphor. You burned your ships, like Cortez did.

Calvin: Yeah.

Andrew: What do you mean by that? What did you do that kept you from being able to go back to your past life?

Calvin: Oh, the first thing is focus 100% on mobile. There was no additional focus. So, it was a lot of saying, no. When maybe somebody would have a web oriented, or a website project, it was, ‘No, we don’t do that.’ We really have to move forward. We have to move into the new focus that we have. And so, there was a lot of not allowing yourself to get pulled back into a tech you’re trying to move away from, just because it was convenient–or that you have to pay the bills. There has to be some pressure, there. There has to be some discomfort for anyone to move past where they are at that point. If you make everything comfortable where you are right there, why would you ever move? Why would you ever, like, advance yourself? So you always have to kind of set it up, where you’re just a little bit uncomfortable. And so, entrepreneurs, many times they’re the most, I don’t know . . . I shouldn’t say callous, ‘cuz that’s the wrong word, but they are just a little bit off center. They’re a little on edge, you know. They’re a little bit dissatisfied with what they did that day. They’re kind of angry at themselves, as they’re not further along with their business. They’re angry with themselves that they’re not further along with their business. That’s perfect. It is perfect to be a little bit uncomfortable, because as soon as you become comfortable, that’s when you become complacent. And then the other guy just runs right past you.

Andrew: Do you have an example of a time when if you had that fall back position you would have fallen back?

Calvin: Sure. I think any time that you have a fall back position you’re run that risk of falling back . . .

Andrew: Would it have been within the first month? Would it have been after the first year? ‘Cuz . . .

Calvin: Oh, yeah.

Andrew: It would have been.

Calvin: The business became profitable at the end of 2008. We had a very short period of time.

Andrew: That’s very quick, so I can’t imagine that there was any period where you said, hey, I wish I was going back and designing websites. This thing seems to have just taken off right away, like a rocket. No?

Calvin: Well, not the first time. It was a year or so. When your apps first come out and they have that bump, and most apps usually then do slide off, within about nine months I was like, hey, OK, you know what, we’re making money. But then, it was a little bit frustrating to see how quickly app revenue can start to slide, and that’s when it starts to get a little spooky. And that’s when it starts to get a very convenience thing. Well, maybe, we’ll throw a website or two in here to even out our revenue stream.

Maybe, we’ll not do that other app we’re talking about because, maybe, we should pull back. And, maybe, this is the time to sit back and wait a little while to see how other people do. How do we figure this industry out? No, that’s the point at which you just have to go further and faster. When you run out of gas, throw the throttle down. That’s when you need to throw it down because that’s what is going to keep you emotionally engaged in continuing on.

But as soon as you should pull back with respect to a lot of people who also joined the industry when I did, because there were a lot of people and they’re wonderful individuals and still friends today. They’re not in this business anymore. They’re not bad people; it’s just that they got spooked. They got spooked within about that first 12 months when we were all trying to figure things out, and not everything went exactly as they thought. Not every app made a ton of money.

Some apps even lost them a lot of money, myself as well. That’s when they said, well, maybe, I won’t leave my day job, or maybe I’ll do some consulting on the side. Anything you do robs you of energy, and so you have to be really careful as to what you do so that you take that energy and put it into things that really matter. I think that’s happened a lot in the app industry. Now, it’s like everyone is joining now because there’s a perceived feeling that there’s water in the pool. If I jump, I won’t break my leg, at least.

Andrew: What about the clients that you already had? I understand saying no to new work, especially from people who are offering to pay you money is tough. Many people can’t resist it and stay in their old lives instead of giving it up and going to a new life. What about the people you committed to building sites for or to working with? You want to separate yourself from that old life. What do you tell them?

Calvin: What’s really, really important is a lot of people say that, oh, don’t take it personally, it’s just business. Have you ever had someone tell you that before? I immediately get turned off at that. The most personal thing for me is business, and it’s very different than the way a lot of people in the world look at business because, again, I see business as an extension of myself, including my character.

And so, in no way if I was working with an individual and this has happened on some occasions, I’m working with someone and then they had something that wasn’t necessarily interesting to me anymore or wasn’t part of my business plan anymore. You have to make exceptions. I feel you have to make exceptions because reputation is the hardest thing to build and the easiest thing to lose. It is so important that even if you are not going to continue with the service line, you can’t drop your customers. That’s just bad juju that’s going to come back and bite you.

You have to always remember that people do business with people, especially small businesses, especially small businesses that are run by entrepreneurs and that really take on the personality of the entrepreneur. Any transaction with that business is a transaction with the entrepreneur as well. And so, yes, it wasn’t a clean break. It wasn’t like, oh, sorry, you’ll have to deal with that yourself from now on.

It was always important to find out for those individuals that trusted their needs with you. If they had needs that didn’t necessarily align with yours, in my opinion you still have to answer them because that’s how you build reputation. So, there’s a period in which you transition them. You’re honest with them. You find other individuals that are geared up about that, and then you leave it up to the customers how they want to move forward.

Andrew: All right. Here’s the other thing that I noticed, and we’re spending a lot of time in the early days. I promise the audience that we’ll go forward, but this is interesting because I think there’s a lot that you established in the beginning that benefited you later on, like the decision to not have a fallback position.

Here’s the other decision that I noticed that you made. You launched multiple apps at once. Where others might have said, I’m going to launch one, I’ll figure it out. Maybe, I’ll figure it out and never go beyond this one app. I’ll just keep obsessing on this one app, or maybe I’ll figure out the first app first, and then I’ll build other apps. You clearly from the beginning had a multiple app strategy. Why?

Calvin: A couple reasons. The first one is it’s important to build a shadow, and part of building a shadow is productivity, output, consistency, mass scale, volume, whatever you want to call it. That’s a very important part. If we put out one app and it was a great app, then we could tell people, oh, we know how to build one great app. But if we put out eight or nine or ten apps and all of these apps are great, whether they got downloaded or not, all of these apps had that special Bottle Rocket polish to them, whether they were a tiny little widget utility or something very complex, like the app I mentioned earlier.

All of them were consistent, and all of them were great, fun to use, and they looked good. Then, it becomes, OK, this a business might make because you can’t just bet on someone’s lucky streak. You really need to see performance over time, consistency over time to get a comfort level. And so, if I went to someone and I could say, hey, look I’ve got nine apps, I’m in this business. I didn’t just build one app and sit back and watch what’s going to happen until I put money or time or energy in the next app. It was just a machine, but a machine that was putting out really, really great quality stuff.

And so, it was important. It was on purpose, by the way. It wasn’t like, hey, we just happened to fall into building nine apps. When the App Store came out that summer, I said to myself, I want to put out more apps than people would expect any one company to put out by the end of the year. I want to stand out as someone who can’t just produce quality, but can produce it very, very consistently and do it over and over again in a growth mode.

And so, that’s why we did it. I call it rope-a-doping the industry. It was basically just hitting it, hitting it, hitting it because you get one cool thing and you’re like, oh, that’s interesting. You get a second one, a third one, a fourth one. They’re like, who are these guys? The fifth one, the sixth one, OK, now these guys are part of that early part of the wave that’s going to define the rest of the industry. That was a very, very important part, I believe, about Bottle Rocket’s success.

Andrew: I see. If I’m understanding you right, was there also a part of you that said, if I have multiple apps in the store, once the app is in there, it’s an opportunity to earn revenue. It’s like having lots of-I’m trying to come up with the right analogy. Was it about just putting your stake in each one of these territories and maybe, locking in some revenue from each one of the apps, or was it just about, we want to get really good at creating apps and that’s how we’re gong to do it?

Calvin: It was really more of the latter. You would think on the surface that it was more of the former, but really it wasn’t. It was really about, we have to learn how to do this. We need to be able to do this over and over again, and frankly early on we were trying all sorts of things, whether it be a casual game with a flight simulator or a business utility, various widgets, voice recorders. We were also trying, frankly, to fail as far as possible.

Andrew: What’s one thing that you learned? What’s one failure that you had that you learned from it, early, early on?

Calvin: Oh boy, the first one would be not assuming that what you think people are going to want is what people are going to want but instead go with your [??]. If I had just focused on apps that made me excited versus trying to be smarter than the consumer and trying to figure it out like, oh, everyone is going to need, for example, a way to track packages, or everyone is going to need one of these. No, it’s really more focused on creating the thing that you would want if you were a consumer.

Frankly, I think that’s how some of the best products in the world are created is when the person creates it for themselves, and then other people like it as well.

Andrew: One of the reasons why I do more interviews than I think most people can ever listen to is because it helps me get better, and it means that the ones that they do listen to are going to be better. For example, yesterday I had a bad interview. I would probably just want to go and run away from interviewing for a week and try to recover my confidence in it and then come back and do an interview. But I had another one scheduled with you, so there’s no room to run. I have to get better, and I have to think, what did I do badly last time? I didn’t structure the interview well.

So, how do I fix it today? Well, Calvin and I are going to spend a few minutes before the interview starts as you and I did. We’re going to structure it much better, and we’re going to go in and go with the structure that we have.

By doing them over and over, I see myself improve, and by doing them faster than most people would, I force myself to improve. Do you have the same experience?

Calvin: Of course. Actually, I can’t take credit for it. Someone a long time ago told me, “Fail as fast as you can.” And the idea is, don’t draw out these failures. Just let them happen, and then, just move on with it. And I think it also helps a lot that I think most entrepreneurs are future focused. For myself, I have a hard time remembering things. I also have, sometimes it’s difficult for me to be in the moment, but I can always be in the future. I can visualize everything tomorrow. I have a hard time, just like, enjoying myself in the moment. And I have no idea what happened yesterday.

Frankly, you know, the only thing that matters that happened yesterday are the things I may have learned from some failures. But everything else is just noise, just story. You know why something happened. It doesn’t really matter. It’s like, OK, what happened? And then, what could we have changed so it doesn’t happen again. And that’s it. Everything else, you just have to let go. And it’s just baggage that if you let it, you know, carry it with you, you’ll eventually just crush yourself. So, just take a couple nuggets, like you did. You have this experience. You determine the nugget you got out of it was, maybe, planning would have been better. And so, the only thing you really took forward into the following day is, I should plan the next one. And really, that’s it. You carry the rest of that stuff around with you, after five or six failures, you won’t be able to go any further.

And as an entrepreneur, failure has to be your friend. It doesn’t mean that you want to set out to fail. But you have to be OK with failing, because you’re going to, every single day have many more failures than most people, as an entrepreneur. Because you’re trying more things. You’re doing things that other people aren’t willing to do, or aren’t able to do. But I think it’s more of the willing part. And because you’re doing stuff other people aren’t willing to do, like for example, you’re willing to do times, or three times as many interviews as someone. And so, you have to be OK with having two times or three times as much failure as somebody.

Andrew: You mentioned something earlier that I’ve got to talk about. You said that you’re not comfortable being and thinking in the moment. You’re much more future oriented. A lot of the self-help books that are coming out today are saying, be in the moment. Be present in the moment. Forget about tomorrow. It’s not going to happen yet. Forget about yesterday. Think about just this one split second that you’re here. You’re doing the opposite. Can you describe what you’re doing and how that’s working for you?

Calvin: Sure. OK. So first off, you can’t just live in the future. But I believe, and this is just what works for me, is you do have to have a level of awareness of knowing where you’re head is at that moment. So if you’re in a meeting, and you need to be present, then you need to have the awareness that this is the time to be present. This is the time. And there are certain cues you can do. You can use breathing exercises. You can focus on your breath. Focusing your breath always brings you to the present.

It’s kind of weird. It’s this weird connection that pretty much everyone experiences, that if they just focus on their breath, for usually just five or ten seconds, they can get into the moment. The catch is that if you’re only focused about the moment you’re never going to start laying ground work for the next insanely great thing. You have to have the ability to live in the future. You have to have the ability to kind of, at least in your heart, feel that you can see the future; ‘cuz you have to see it for yourself. And so, while you might be working on something that’s tactical, or you know, figuring out the last few bits of some really cool idea that you’ve been working on, or obviously working with others that have the obligation of extending that vision into an actual product or action service, that’s when you need to be present. Because you have to be connected with those individuals, to understand what they’re going through and what they’re concerns are so that you can address those real concerns that are happening right here in the present. But you need to be able to, in my opinion, be centered in the future. So, you’re always moving to the next thing.

Andrew: What about this, Calvin? Earlier you said that you were comfortable having failures. When we got ready to do this interview my researcher went back and looked up the apps that you did. We looked up the articles that mentioned you. We researched your past before talking to you today. If you have a failure in the store, and you’re going to PBS, or BET, and you’re asking them to work with you, they’ll go back in the store and see what else Calvin did. And then they’ll see, well, there’s this great app here. But there’s also this failed app over here. Wouldn’t that taint your reputation to have that failure? Because today, everything is public–forever. Aren’t we tainting ourselves with those little failures that we leave behind us?

Calvin: If you don’t own them, that means you’re not genuine. But if you own your failures, that’s a very powerful thing. I feel that you can build a lot more trust, honesty, relationship, et cetera by owning your failures. We all make mistakes, and if you never own them, ever, like you’re not willing to ever own one of your mistakes, you’re basically cutting yourself off from everyone because no one likes that person in the first place.

Andrew: So, the client says to you, a potential client says to you, I understand you want to do business with us. We like here what you did here with PBS. We like what you did with the Seattle Times, but what is this one app over here about finding packages or this other app over there that I don’t even know what the name is. You could end up creating that same thing for us.

You’re telling me you just own the fact that that one was a failure, own the fact that it didn’t work out the way you expected it to and then focus on the ones that worked.

Calvin: More importantly, share what you learned from that. We actually tell our customers that we’re a little different than some of, maybe, their other options that they have because we really are in the app store. We don’t just make apps that other people publish in the app store. We’re there, too.

A lot of times, consulting services can be very isolated and insulated by their clients where all they really care about is making the customer happy, and at the end of the day what really matters is making the user happy. If we can make our customer’s users happy, we’re guaranteed we’re going to make our customer happy. Let’s say we put in an application that every one of our customers thought was really great on the board room, in the drawings and testing, and everything is great. We launch it, and all the users hate it. It’s not going to be considered a good idea any further. It’s going to be considered a horrible idea that we led them into.

But if we can come into the relationship saying, hey, we already have relationships with, I think, it’s 15 million users of our software, we know users. We really, really do know users, and we know them not because everything we’ve done has been perfect. We know users because we made a lot of mistakes, too, and we still answer our support email. We still look at every single support email, and over time we learned, you know what, users don’t like this sort of thing, or you know what, they do like this other sort of thing.

And so, we can come to the table with that failure and that learning from the failure which our clients don’t have to pay for. We already paid for it. One of the other reasons why we produce so many applications is so we can kind of fail faster and get that out of our system.

Then, when I was working with the first customers, that Bottle Rocket started working with in 2009, it wasn’t, hey, I can draw pretty pictures on graph paper, and don’t you know this is going to be great? I could point to things, and they could ask any question they wanted. They could be more educated clients. They could be more educated shoppers, so to speak, because I could take them through and say, yeah, this right here, this didn’t really work out.

Now remember, we tried to respond to our failures, so a lot of things we failed on, we then go back into the store and try to improve on if it’s improvable, but if it’s a mistake, it’s a mistake.

Andrew: So here’s what my researcher, Ari, put down for me in my notes. She said, by the end of 2008, Bottle Rocket released nine iPhone apps while many other developers had only one or two during the same period. 2009, NPR becomes their first custom development client. What I wondered when I saw that is you had so much experience building your own apps, why? Tell me about the decision process that led to working with outside clients and building apps for other brands?

Calvin: Sure. For me, it was very natural. Well, I did come from the custom software, high customer software, high customer touch experience. I just generally love to critically analyze opportunities and then find the different options and then try to find the best option for the person. And so, when you’re making apps, you just come up with an idea, making it and putting it out there and seeing what the users feel and then responding to that and going to the next thing.

I find it very rewarding to do that in partnership with other people. And so, to get to know their business and to then leverage their brand and leverage their opportunity whether it be content or user base or eyeballs or whatever it might be and leverage that to bring some value to the table.

For me, it was quite natural to start working with large firms to provide great apps for them. It’s a really, really fun process of getting to know one another, and as a small company being able to work with large companies. A lot of times we can things that they can’t. One of my guys here is, you know, look in your trash can. There’s probably so much stuff in your trash can that is valuable. And a lot of large brands have massive trash cans with so much opportunity in them, and they need an outside individual, and probably more an entrepreneurial individual, to say, hey, this right here, you kind of take this for granted. But, this is really what people are looking for.

Andrew: You’ve got a customer that you have to answer to, that you have to explain the business to, that you have to be almost an employee of, because it’s so big. I understand the collaboration part that’s fun, but as a business, how did you imagine this would help the company?

Calvin: How does it help our [??]?

Andrew: Yeah, what was the plan? Is it that you saw that there was more money in it, more users than working with brands, and a more stable business model than going out individually into the app store?

Calvin: Well, stability was not the reason, but it was a happy consequence. But you can’t just get stability by going from maybe spec app store revenue to customer software revenue. As a business, Bottle Rocket now, we have multiple lines that is important to weave together to have a more colorful, if you would, instead of monochromatic revenue stream. But, really, the core reason was, yes, you’re right. I mean, there are all sorts of, you know, if you call them downsides or consequences to working with others, because they have their timeline. They have their budgets. They have their concepts of what they’d like to do, as well. But the upside is much more. And I don’t just mean the financial upside. I mean the experiential upside. To be able to work with amazing brands that have amazing content is so rewarding.

It’s so much more fun for us as designers and architects and developers to work with something that is exciting and interesting content, because at the end of the day, content a lot of times is really where the power is. Taking NPR, for example, what would I rather work with, a local radio station or a national public radio? Regardless of the number of individuals that are listening–it’s like 26 million regular listeners to NPR–it’s also the content. The content is great content. It’s much more rewarding to do that. So it’s really not necessarily about how much is this person going to pay me to produce the work.

Andrew: I have that NPR app. That’s you guys who made it? Is there one NPR app only? The one that lets me play local stations.

Calvin: There are several NPR apps. We produce the only official NPR apps. We’re produced three so far. In 2009 we released the NPR for iPhone, NPR News for iPhone. In 2010, I guess it was 2010, we released NPR Music, and then also on the day the iPad released we were ready with the NPR for iPad.

Andrew: OK. I mentioned earlier you’ve got big companies, and I wanted to know how you landed them. How did you get NPR back in 2009 as a customer, when you didn’t have all those other brands to show them and say, hey look, you can trust me?

Calvin: Sure. Obviously, we became close with NPR over the years; done a lot of work with them, wonderful individuals–very direct, honest, open, and so are we. So we really connected in the way we approached our business. We didn’t just show up and say, OK, what do you want to put on the screen? Tell us so we can go back and do it. It was very much a consultative, I don’t like that word, but it’s a good word to use, because we sat down and we said, Well, this is what we would like to see. We were also willing to stand up and say, I’m really not sure that’s a great idea. I don’t feel that’s the best use of your brand. I think we can do more, here. I’m not going to just do it, just ‘cuz you told me to do it. I want to sit down and talk about it, because at the end of the day, our name is on this thing, too. And we want this to be the best of whatever it is we’re producing right now. And so, for I believe NPR really got an understanding that this was personal to us–just as personal as their business was to them. And I think that’s many times when you have the best partnering relationships, is when each person is coming to it, feeling very emotionally connected to their part of the equation…

Andrew: How do you get in the door with companies like that? I feel like every few years, there is a brand new technology that big brands want to be a part of. It was cable television years ago, and Disney needed to be a part of that. Then after that, it was the web, and Disney so on, all the others wanted to be online. Then mobile comes around, they wanted to be mobile. Tomorrow it might be some kind of mental computer that you just stick behind your ear and it interfaces with your brain. I’m going to want to do business with Disney because they’re going to want to be on that device. I wouldn’t even know how to open the door, I wouldn’t know how to get the right person. You’ve done this multiple times, how do you do that? Teach us.

Calvin: The nine apps that we first came out with, with the consistency to cross all of them was a big part of it. Because of that, and article was written because of us, our design process, the fact that we still us pencils today, every single project we do today, we still start with pencil and a piece a of paper. We started to become known for things, and that’s a very important part of building your shadow as a small organization. You can’t be all things to all people. For us, we were really great designers of applications. Because of that, websites that were coming up that would cover apps, would be like’ wow this isn’t just one app, this company has produced ten apps, or five apps, or six apps at the time’. We became known as one of the only players serious about this long-term. Others just wanted it done. We started showing up on the radar screens of the platform, of websites that covered 148 apps, started looking at a lot of applications.

Andrew: Let me let the audience in on how you and I got to be. I want to know how this happened years ago. You and I got to meet because, Wendy McAllen works at your company who does marketing and brand strategy. I’m looking at her emails she sent me, and she asked if I would be interested in having you on. It was a good fit and I asked, and I said I don’t see how it fits, help me understand it. She did a great job of helping me understand how this interview would fit in it. Now that we are a half an hour into the interview, the audience agrees that this interview is a perfect fit. I wouldn’t have seen it with out her. She helped me think it through and plot it out. Did you have someone like that in the beginning? I can see the importance of it. You didn’t, so…

Calvin: Myself.

Andrew: It was you. There were lots of people who created apps, not as many apps as you, but there were people who created apps. There were people who created something special about them, nobody knew their names. That wasn’t enough to get others to pay attention to them. What did you do in the beginning that got brands to hear about you and to know who you were?

Calvin: We had a specific process that we really…

Andrew: How did you share that process with the world? How did other people know about it?

Calvin: A couple things. First off, we put our names in all of our apps. {Inaudible] an app so, oh I don’t know who made that app. Every time you launch a bottle rocket app, you see the bottle rocket name. The second thing is the volume app. The third is quality applications. The fourth one is just that really consultative sense. I’m not really sure. I know that when we went up against others to win the business in P.R., there was a total of 12 that they spoke with, so us and 11 other groups or individuals. What we did is, immediately show to them that we had a process, we’ve done this before, that we’ve learned from those mistakes. We were really getting to understand their brand, and I think they resonate with the fact we understood that this app was a brand experience.

Now if your question is just mass appeal, how you get noticed in the first place, being there early on was very important. We socialized, we were WWDC, we were at various tech talks, we were plugging in, we were part of the community, we obviously used the web, not as marketing but we used it there so that when you did go to the bottle rocket site there was a site. There were many applications. There was a section for process, a section for methodology, it wasn’t just like look at my apps, aren’t these cool? They were like how do we build these things? What do we stand for as a company? We published our process. We change the process all the time we published our process.

Andrew: Interesting actually. I never would think that describing your process would help anyone help a company, but I’m feeling like maybe I should do that here with the interviews. Maybe the people who are listening to us, if there’s a process that they go through that somehow feels like magic to the rest of the world, if they describe it, it will show the world that their experts at it, and show the world that they care about the work that they put into the work that they do.

Calvin: Sure. Even if it’s logical, even if it’s just like the other guy’s process, still tell them. That actually is still a very important part, and if you have any artifacts of the process, for us it was easy because we could show pencils. Frankly, there’s a lot of power to these things. This sort of thing right here, where this is four strings, this is of the Discovery Channel iPad application. So, being able to do that really makes people feel comfortable, like “OK, I know what I’m getting into. These guys have done this before, I can almost see them doing this for my company, and I can almost see my pencils now”. “Now I really want to get my pencils, let’s get started”.

The other thing is, it’s not too much to bite off.

We, by having the pencils, there is almost an instant gratification, so for people listening, there’s some part of your process, or your [??], or your solution, that you can offer as a taste, do it. I don’t think you should necessarily do it for free because free is worthless and that’s just how it is. On a sharing, we get asked a lot to submit an RFP with designs and layouts, and pretty much a lot of the work done.

Then, they’ll pick one, and then whichever one they’ll pick, they’ll pay to actually produce it. We’ve never won any of those deals. Not a single one. We’ve never won, but we do win deals based on our history and our portfolio, so why is it we don’t win those things? Because we can’t put our all into them.

It’s like putting your worst foot forward, “oh just do something quick so that we can satisfy the RFP”, it’s better to respectfully decline, or, be honest , get on the phone and say if this is going to disqualify us, we understand and we appreciate the opportunity. We hope that if you see the work that we’ve done, and you talk to us for an hour or two about our process and how we approach these things, we hope that you’ll feel this is a genuine process.

We hope that you’ll respect the fact that we wouldn’t take from our paying customers, the time that they’re paying for, and use that to go out and try to get other business. You should be honest with your customers and take that precious time that you and your staff have, and invest it on the customers that you’re working with. Not on necessarily on going out and getting other customers.

Andrew: How about one tip for anyone in the audience, who wants to start doing business with big companies. With the kinds of companies that they might have admired for years, and they want to do business with today, what’s the best tip you could give them?

Calvin: Well, first off, is you have to either know their business because you researched it, which is not as genuine as just knowing it as a consumer. It’s really hard. Let’s say you and I are both trying to get Nike as a customer. You’re a total Nike fan. Everything you own is Nike, you’re a runner, and you use Nike Fit, and you really understand the consumer experience, if you really do, you’re going to be really hard for me to compete against, because I’m not a Nike fan, and I don’t use Nike Fit, and I don’t have a lot of Nike clothes.

If someone on my staff did, and if Nike’s listening, and I do have someone on my staff, then, I now have just as strong of a competitive edge as you do. If you are, let’s say, trying to break into big brands, let’s say that’s the position you’re in, you’re trying to break into working with big brand companies. One thing you might consider is going after brands that have a need that you can fill and you are truly passionate about.

We have lost business to companies that might not have been as capable as us, but we understand later, that the owner of the business wasn’t just a massive fan of that brand, and I totally respect that because at the end of the day, a lot if it becomes passion about the brand.

The business we’re in is all about brand experiences, the apps that we build, yeah they’re apps, but they’re really brand experiences. Mobile is becoming frankly, the most relevant brand experience that consumers are having these days with the brands they know and love. And so, that is probably one way, if you’re kind of trying to break in to the brand business, is look at the things you already love.

Andrew: I mentioned in the intro that people in the App Store can be harsher viewers, harsh critic. In fact, I’ve got some, and I don’t know where my researcher got this, but I’ve heard you said, ‘Look, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read a review that went something like this. I like the app. It has tons of great features, and I would give it five stars, but it’s missing X feature, so I’m giving it one star until they fix this.’

Calvin: Mm-hmm.

Andrew: That’s just, you’ve created a great app, perfect except for this one thing, and now you’re getting dinged. How do you deal with that? What do you do about such a tough customer base?

Calvin: That is very frustrating for us to hear. But that is that individual’s opinion, and they feel that the only way they can send a message is by giving it one star, because we may not have listened if they had given us four stars. So let’s say you’re going through your business and you’re looking at all the things that are just off a little bit. Maybe you let that slide, but then you find that big problem, and you focus your time on it. It’s kind of the same as the squeaking wheel gets the grease thing. So, when you read something like that, it’s frustrating to hear, but then we say, well, you know, he’s trying to drive a point across. And frankly, it worked.

Here we are reading this one-star review, and if out of a lot of apps and a lot of reviews maybe we’re just hitting the high points–what are the five stars; what are the one stars? And if he had, maybe, graded it more accurately, like a four and a half is what I would have graded it based on his comments, maybe we wouldn’t have looked at it. So what we have to do, and this is very, very hard to do, as a business it’s difficult to do, we’ve got to look at those reviews and then try to find the commonalities.

Andrew: The common elements, you’re saying. Sorry, the connection just dropped out there.

Calvin: Yeah, the common elements. So, if we see a lot of overlap in a particular area, [??], that was one of the features in the road map. User feedback is extremely important, especially in apps. Apps are, I don’t like to call them an iterative process, because in our business it’s, you know, we put the best stuff out that we know at that time, when we put it out. But, then we learn about our failures. And then we learn about other opportunities that are available with our clients and additional content, or what users like or don’t like. And then we iterate from that point. So it becomes part of an apps road-mapping process, to incorporate user reviews and user feedback.

But you’re absolutely right, it’s so interesting how, you know, you go out and spend $30,000, $40,000 on a car, and you don’t send it many one-star reviews. You might say, oh, you know, it’s almost a four, four and a half; frankly, I think it’s because people don’t want to admit they’d spent a lot of money on a mistake. When you pay next to nothing for an app, you get very critical very quickly. It’s very interesting. There has been some research that, I think is conflicting; we can’t really rely on it, but there’s some research saying that apps that charge more usually get rated higher.

Andrew: Actually, I’ve noticed that myself. Apps that cost more get better ratings. I don’t know what that is. Maybe as you said, they pay a lot of money, and don’t want to let the world know that they made a big, foolish mistake. Also, it attracts a different quality person; someone who’s not looking to ding a company. Here’s a final thing that, and I wish I’d brought this up earlier, but I want to learn about it so I’m going to squeeze it in here at the end. I’m about to interview Eric Reese again. And this is the guy who talks about the lean startup methodology, of understanding your customers, of creating a minimum viable product, of then iterating on that product, and so on. You can’t do that and don’t do that with the brands that you have, and still you create great products for them. How do you do it without dealing with this system that we’ve seen work for so many other people, the minimum viable product, and iterative system? How do you get it right so quickly?

Calvin: Well, again you know, we had a lot of runway in which we were making the mistakes on our own dime. You know, the whole 2008 and first part of 2009 was us getting through a lot of those mistakes. And so, that was probably our iteration. We were getting things out. We were learning from our mistakes, and then reacting to them. But by the time we started producing work for our customers we had a lot of those mistakes behind us. We had learned from them; we had produced processes to not repeat them. We produced best practices. So for us, getting out and just kind of being scrappy. And putting things out and then learning from them. Getting behind them. I really dislike it when, when companies just like put things out into the market that they charge money for and then they drop the ones that don’t work out for them. That, that’s just really difficult to build, you know, customer continuity and a reputation. If you push all of your cost of learning onto your customer.

I think it’s just kind of a thing for me. That I want to pull a lot of that cost of learning into myself. Because, if not, I didn’t have any pain from that earning, and without pain I can’t really experience how big of a mistake something was. So I have no problem with, you know, the lean starter. I’m big on just being lean and mean. You know, not spending a lot of money on stuff. We didn’t raise any money to start Bottle Rocket. It was all organically grown. We probably could have grown faster if we had a C capital. But we also probably would have been very wasteful. Because we had that cushion. Without the cushion we had to make every decisions count. We had to make every day count. Every new hire count. Every new project count. Because of that we just got more personal with the decisions we made.

Andrew: All right. Let me read a quick email from one of the viewers and then I’ll give people your website again and tell them to go check out the website and make sure to thank you over and over for doing this interview. So I’m going to read one. I don’t know if I read this one before. This one is from Mike Colby [SP]. He’s a premium member who took the sales course recently. I started doing courses recently. I brought back past interviewees and I said show us your computer screen. Walk us through the process you take to do what you do so well. And Mike says, Andrew awesome job in the latest master class on closing the sale. I picked up a few tricks that reinforce a lot of what I already do, which is fantastic. Well done with the video tips, it’s one of the best yet, keeps up the good work. So Mike Colby thanks for taking the course and I’m glad that you’re seeing some results. Premium members, it’s right there on the website,

Calvin I’m doing a little bit of sales here. So I’ll tell the premium members, if you already have a premium account, go to and get it. If you don’t you can sign up for it and get the sales course and lots of other courses, taught by proven entrepreneurs who come back after doing interviews to teach you. All right. So having said that, I’m still learning how to do a quick plug at the end of the interview. Having said that, let’s come back to this interview and say this. Calvin, this feels like a great interview. I’m telling you that sometimes I feel like a guest have it and I think the conversation that you and I had before the interview really helped. I think the fact that you have someone as great as Wendy on your team who can help think through this process, really help. I’m grateful to you Wendy for the back and forth emails. And for people who want to check out the website, it’s And is there a particular part of the site that they can go to to see maybe your process or maybe get a sense of how you work?

Calvin: Sure. Yeah. We’ve got a section called Labs on our site. Then I would probably also go through, probably just go to the client list to kind of see the types of companies we work with. Check out the blog if you like. We put a lot of things about our company up there and new apps that come out. We’re also dedicated to charities. We have, you know, our monthly charities are up there as well, that we get behind. So you just got to peruse the site. It’s not that big of a site but every bit of it is, you know, an important part of our story.

Andrew: All right.

Calvin: And I would like, if you don’t mind, can I say just one last thing?

Andrew: Yeah. Hit me.

Calvin: I’m big on just doing what you love. You got to do what you love and you’ve got to do on purpose. So just think about what is your gift? You know, what gets you excited? Play along and when you go to sleep even if you’re tired, you’re not worn out. You’re still excited. You can be tired, just physically tired but mentally excited. That’s the thing that you need to do, every single day. The success, the business success, the clients, all that stuff will come. If you’re being true and you’re doing the thing that you really love. And it doesn’t even have to be cool. I mean when did cool become so important. You know, Screw cool. Do the thing that you love. It doesn’t have to impress your friends, impress your parents. But it does have to be something that you love to do. If you stay true to that, everything else will work its way out, it really well.

Andrew: And that’s another thing that I love about the interview with you. It’s just full of actionable, useful information, but also inspiring. There’s so many times as you were talking that I wrote down notes thinking, my audience is going to love that. My audience is going to love how you didn’t go back and leave yourself the option to go back to client work for example. They’re going to love the approach that you took to creating multiple apps and learning from them and failing in public.

Another thing that I got, another piece of feedback that I got from the audience is, give the name of the guest again. Because sometimes people don’t remember, or they’re driving. Or, because they just didn’t think of it before they connected with you. Now that they connect with you they care. Who is this guy again? So I’m going to say the name again at the end. Calvin Carter of Bottle Rocket Apps. Thank you again for doing the interview and thank you all for watching. Bye.

Who should we feature on Mixergy? Let us know who you think would make a great interviewee.