Inside the app startup Skimble

Expert Barry Burd talks with the co-founder of app startup Skimble about application deployment processes.

It was somewhat happenstance, the manner in which a conversation was struck up with Maria Ly, of app startup Skimble, about how her organization is addressing the challenges of wearable development and IoT deployment in this world of the Internet of Things. It started by tackling the question of "how do you pass the time in a very long waiting line?" Stand quietly? Review the day's to-do list in your head? Check your phone for the latest email? Normally, I might do all that. But one morning last summer, I waited for 45 minutes to get into the registration area at the Google I/O conference in San Francisco. The wait was too long for the usual mundane, time-killing tasks. And with the opportunity to meet other Android developers, I felt compelled to start conversing.

In the process, I met a developer from Wikipedia, two developers from companies in China and one from Poland. I also met Maria Ly -- co-founder and CEO of app startup Skimble. Her company has one of the top-ranked, top-rated apps in the health and fitness category. Here's a transcript of our conversation (paraphrased, for your reading pleasure).

Maria Ly: Skimble is a San Francisco-based mobile health and fitness company. Our main mission is to help you live a more active lifestyle. We do this by leveraging the capabilities of the mobile device because your mobile device is always with you, and one of the big obstacles to being active is access to coaching. We provide multimedia workouts led by expert coaches in a dynamic, customizable and community driven fashion. We work with a network of certified personal trainers who create all of our content -- whether it's a Workout of the Week challenge or a multiweek training program such as Body Blast Bootcamp, the Harvard Health Gym Coach, or even the Fit Mama: Post-Natal Pregnancy Program.

The flagship app, which is available on Android and iOS, is called Workout Trainer. The app provides move-by-move multimedia workouts and custom training programs. It has a community of over 20 million users, and we've already tracked well over 2 billion minutes of exercise to date. It's a top rated and ranked application and one of the top grossing apps in the health and fitness category. We use a freemium model, and we monetize through our PRO+ membership subscription model -- $6.99 per month -- with a seven-day free trial.

What was it like to start developing a commercial app?

Ly: We were constantly learning and adapting. When we first started developing, we did not have a designer. I tasked myself to design all aspects of the app. Not being a designer, it was a challenge. We launched early, and even though it could have looked better, people really seemed to like having a trainer "in their pocket" and we got a lot of great feedback to keep moving forward with the idea.

The first version was really, really basic. The first version didn't even have photos. It had text-to-speech coaches -- not the level of high quality human coaches that we offer in our app now to talk you through multimedia workouts. We had a Minimum Viable Product and simply went from there, iterating. In looking back, it was a great time to get our prototype out and become a market leader early on.

How long did it take between the time you began working seriously on the app and the time when you did your first release?

Ly: It was nine to 12 months. The first bit of content was created at my house with my personal trainer friend, just to prove out the concept. Later I was able to invest in higher production quality for our multimedia shoots and collaborate with a diverse set of personal trainers and fitness professionals.

How did you come up with a name for your company?

Ly: I wanted to inspire people to be active anywhere, without any limitations. At first I was thinking about the name My Ticklist. It's a term for all the rock climbs that you want to do. That was too sport-specific and not evocative enough. Then I wanted Nimble, but Nimble is a real word, and the name and website had been acquired by another company. And then I thought Zimble, but Mr. Zimble was not willing to sell that domain to me. Finally, I thought of my sister's name, Kim, and Kim is like Skim; that's a sport. So I mashed them up and Skimble felt like a pretty cool word. I consider Skimble as a blended word between sky and nimble. Also, Skimbleshanks was the name of the nimble cat in the T. S. Eliot poem. I looked it up on GoDaddy. The domain was just about to expire, so I picked it up on backorder.

How did you get your startup funding?

If your application is popular, you should be updating it on a regular basis.

Maria Ly,
co-founder, app startup Skimble

Ly: This was a bootstrapped operation. We've never taken traditional venture funding. We were able to achieve profitability fairly early on as our users have found value in the service we provide. We're really fortunate to be in this place.

We launched on iOS first. Workout Trainer was becoming a top health and fitness app, so we knew we had something pretty interesting to work with. Around that time, many of the great manufacturers started launching robust Android phones. The growth of Android mobile devices was picking up worldwide. We knew that we wanted to expand into the Android market quickly, so we made plans to launch Workout Trainer for Android in just a few months.

Around that time, I applied to be part of the Rock Health accelerator out here in San Francisco. Rock Health funds and mentors startups in the digital health space. We joined Rock Health during that summer while we were launching on Android. We received a $20,000 grant. The Rock Health business model and the funding structure have changed since then, but that grant was enough fuel for us to really focus on building out our product. We launched on Android in the later part of 2011, and within a few months it was one of the top apps in health and fitness on Android. We knew we had something really good going on. And after Rock Health, we released the tablet version on Android, and so on and so forth. Now it's been optimized for many different form factors.

As a vendor on Google Play, you have a choice for the subscription term, whether it's weekly, monthly, seasonal or whatever. Did you give much thought to this choice?

Ly: We were a launch partner with Google when they released the subscription model, and I think that, at the time, there weren't different options to choose from. Mainly, there was a one-month recurring subscription option. In thinking about normal brick and mortar gyms and the memberships they offer, they tend to be monthly. So the one-month model made sense for our audience. Later, Google introduced a 7-day free trial feature, and we integrated with that too. So nowadays, you can easily sample our PRO+ membership via the 7-day free trial.

Was it a lot more work when you started charging for subscriptions? Here's how I envision the freemium model: When an app is free, you can publish it and then take a rest. People can't complain if they don't like it, even if they see ads. But as soon as you start charging money, you have to constantly feed the system to keep your paid users happy. It requires continuous effort. Am I right?

Ly: Make no mistake, any app that is considered successful is a living and breathing application that is constantly getting updated. And this is critical. Many of our members use the app on a regular basis, and many of them like learning about new ways to move. We put a focus on providing fresh, new content, not to mention developing advanced and really innovative features for our power users.

Even on the free side, you're always creating new content?

Ly: Even on the free side. We want the app to be a great service for anyone. You have free users and you have users who pay, and we try to provide a valuable service to both of them. There are many obstacles to living an active lifestyle, and we do not want cost and accessibility to be a constraint.

So I'm wrong. The way I envision it is that the app's premium part is a machine that has to be fed more than the free part. You're saying is that it's not like that. Both parts of the machine have to be fed.

Ly: Yes. If your application is popular, you should be updating it on a regular basis. If someone discovers your app, they're looking at the messaging, they're looking at the screenshots, they want to see if the app is popular. Does it have a high rating? Does it have top developer status? Ours does. Once a user downloads your app, you take them through a kind of new-user funnel. You try to guide the user through your app from signing up to having such a good first experience they come back for more. In our case, new users may try their first workout or save a workout if they can't do a workout right away. Upon completing a workout, users can rate it for even better workout recommendations. They may also engage in the community and see what training programs we have to offer.

How do you market your app?

Ly: We've been very lucky that we've never actually paid for a user. We don't do big ad campaigns. You probably can't get away with this in the games category. But in the health and fitness category, people are trying to find a valuable service that they can stick with for a while. It's not as fast switching, like playing a game, dumping it and finding a new game to play. People seek apps that help them achieve longer term goals.

When we launched our app, we were mostly discovered through the app stores and through word of mouth. Also, within the application we have a community component. You can connect with other people who might be going through a similar kind of fitness journey. In addition, if you've completed a workout, you can share it on social media. You can challenge your friend by emailing or text messaging them to do a workout that you just did.

Read part two of the Q&A here.

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