Bottle Rocket’s Founder Calvin Carter

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[cp_dropcaps]B[/cp_dropcaps]ottle Rocket is a multiple Apple Hall of Fame award winner, was named one of the top 10 BestPlaces to Work by The Dallas Business Journal, and was #61 on the Forbes America’s Most Promising  Companies List. They were recently acquired by London-based advertising and marketing company WPP.

Digital Dallas interviewed [cp_special_text color="red" size="normal"]Founder and CEO Calvin Carter [/cp_special_text] to learn how Bottle Rocket got started (hint: pencils and graph paper played a big role), how they landed their first client, what drives company culture, and what lies ahead with the acquisition.

Digital Dallas: You started creating apps days after Apple announced there would be an App Store for developers in 2008. This was completely uncharted territory – how did you know this was the space you wanted to be in, when there was virtually nothing to go off of?

Calvin: The story – it’s a fun story to tell, and it’s a true story – is that on March 6, 2008, Steve had one of his famous keynotes where he held up the iPhone and in this particular keynote he said, ‘I am opening this beautiful device to 3rd party developers’ that he would be shipping the iPhone SDK the following day, and that he would be launching an App Store later that year. [cp_quote style="quote_left_dark"]and so it was Steve’s vision, but I saw it very clearly. And so even though it was very late and it was dark outside, for me it was clear as day that this was going to be something transformational in our lives.[/cp_quote]  So it wasn’t after the App Store launched that we launched our business. It was several months before. So I started the business at 9AM on March 7th, 2008. I was laying in bed next to my wife who was pregnant with our twin girls at 2 o’clock in the morning watching the Keynote stream on demand – they did a delayed stream broadcast back then – and so it was Steve’s vision, but I saw it very clearly. And so even though it was very late and it was dark outside, for me it was clear as day that this was going to be something transformational in our lives.

And obviously I did not know where it was going to go. I could not have predicted on that day where the platform was going to go, where the popularity was going to go, where the devices and the ecosystem that Apple was creating were going to go, but I knew I wanted to be part of it, and I knew I wanted to be a significant part of it.

[cp_messagebox align="left" color="#ffffff" shade="noshade" border="#000000" font_color="#000000"]One of the architects of this transformation is what I wanted to be. And so I did what I could, which was get up the next morning, go to Office Depot, and buy graph paper and pencils, and start to sketch myself apps.Very speculative, very opportunistic. It was nothing more complicated than me saying, “What do I wish my iPhone could do right now?”[/cp_messagebox]

You have to put yourself back in time when there was no App Store, and the only “apps” that were on the device were Mail, Calendar, the Phone App – there were literally 8 screens’ worth of apps. And we’re talking about iOS Version 2 because Version 2 was when they opened up. Now we’re at 7. And we were on a very different piece of hardware than we are right now.

But it was literally sketching apps and sketching ideas. And I sketched something like 20 or 30 so apps. When I say sketch I don’t mean draw 1 or 2 screens.  To properly sketch out an app I would sketch either several dozen or well more than a hundred screens fully annotated with work flows, user interactions etc. and I did that day and night without any pause whatsoever for years. [cp_quote style="quote_right_dark"] To properly sketch out an app I would sketch either several dozen or well more than a hundred screens fully annotated with work flows, user interactions etc. and I did that day and night without any pause whatsoever for years.[/cp_quote]
To build those first apps, because we’re trying to learn and we’re trying to build our own brand Bottle Rocket, [cp_special_text color="red" size="big"]we were in what I called the “building the shadow” phase where you’re essentially casting an impact on to something much larger than your company is[/cp_special_text]. We had really strong ideals from the get-go: phenomenal user experience, visual design, technical architecture, excellence in every area was important from the very first app.

To be able to find people I went on to Craigslist and I posted ads asking “Hey who has downloaded the iPhone SDK.” iOS was not even a word back then. It was iPhone, and that was it. There was no iOS. The response came from various places: a couple of guys from Texas, a couple of guys from California, New York.  It was me pulling together a ragtag of contractors who are working nights and weekends to help build the first handful of apps. And then it went from there.  But that was the early days; the early vision and how we got our first apps out the door.  It set up our company and set up our own brand.

Digital Dallas: So did you just have an intuition that the App Store and the apps you’d be creating would be something bigger? How did you know to build that shadow? Did you have previous experience with other businesses that you were able to leverage?

Calvin: None of that worked into it. Yes, I had started and ran businesses before so I’m sure that that experience helped me in building this business. Yes, I was an entrepreneur and came from a long lineage of entrepreneurs…so I was predisposed to that sort of thing…I’m sure all of those things helped.  There are lots of little things, it’s never one thing. [cp_messagebox align="left" color="#ffffff" shade="noshade" border="#000000" font_color="#000000"] But at the end of the day I just wanted to do it so badly. It was just a passion, and then a drive.[/cp_messagebox]

Frankly, I’d still be doing it right now even if there was no business around it.  It would morph into some sort of a hobby. It was just a very genuine love for this thing. It might sound strange but that’s exactly what it was. All of that other stuff probably helped but it wasn’t like that at all. It was just something that I love and I just wanted to do it. I feel that you have to do the things that you are driven by passion to do, and this was the thing I was driven very passionately to do.

Digital Dallas:  How did you end up making the move from that to ragtag team of developers that you found on Craigslist and building apps for Bottle Rocket to landing your first big client? Was that the plan when you  started putting this together?

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Photo Courtesy of Dallas Business Journal

Calvin: Yes. Previously I’ve always been in some sort of technology enabled user experience type of thing…I was kind of predisposed to the providing services to others because I’ve done that in various other technologies from most of my career. I love working with clients and I love working with brands. I love the variety of working on lots of different things.  There are some people who really they focus on one product and one thing and they just perfect that and that’s phenomenal.  For me, I really like the diversity of challenges, the new challenges that are afforded to you when you help someone figure something out for them and their customers. Then you help someone else figure out their unique issues for their unique customers. I was predisposed to doing that.

It was early 2009 when we had the opportunity to meet and to propose to NPR. NPR was our first customer other than the App Store stuff. That’s a pretty great customer to start with! We also had a portfolio of work. Remember that we had those 9 apps in the App Store. It mattered – the quality of that portfolio, the consistency of that portfolio. This is months after the App Store was out – Bottle Rocket had 9 apps in the app store. I have no proof to tell you if we had more apps than most, or if we had the average number, but I could pretty much guarantee that we were probably in the top 1% of companies that had multiple apps in the App Store.

Most app store publishers back in 2008 were what I call “the one and done” or “the one hit wonder” set where there are examples of highly successful first apps out out the gate in 2008 and then you say “Wow what’s the other app that person did?”

Well, that’s a great question – what is the other app that person did? No one knows. [cp_special_text color="red" size="normal"]But we were in it for the long run. This is not an experiment, this is not a quick something in the App Store, play it safe keep the day job and hope it works out. No; this was like: We’re all in.[/cp_special_text]

So when we were pitching NPR we had some really great skill sets and muscle that we had exercised and built up in that stub year before we met NPR. First off we had a portfolio: 9 apps in the marketplace that they could use, they could see that they work, they work very well. The visual design was great, user experience was phenomenal. Because we have at this point probably sketched over 30 apps (because not every app with sketched we built), we had built up a really strong muscle in understanding and capability of quickly ideating in a low-fi way.

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Courtesy of Macworld UK

We build high fidelity products but we do it in a low fidelity way – pencil and paper – which, by the way, we still use today. Visit us at our office and you’ll see pens, pencil, paper, white boards, markers etc. We use a very, very low-fi to high-fi approach.

We were able to very quickly visualize our thoughts so we could pull NPR into brain storming sessions very quickly. We can be talking about something at 3pm. They can see sketches at 5pm. We can have a meeting at 6pm over a night. They could have another set of sketches and then it just kind of goes from there. We were speaking from experience because we had put apps out in the market in so many different areas: games, news readers, whatever. We were able to say “Well you know what? We tried this and it didn’t work over here so we pivoted and it worked over here.” Even though it was only a handful of months we had a portfolio, we had a process and we had the experience in an industry that had no experience and I think that made all the difference in the world for Bottle Rocket.

To learn more how Bottle Rocket made the jump from 1 client to making it to the iTunes App Store Hall of Fame 4 times, check back for Part 2 of our interview with Calvin.

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