How to create a successful app

App development, Economics
The UK’s app economy is projected to increase more than 10-fold between 2013 and 2025 (£2.9bn to £30.8bn)

The story of BSc Economics student Ziad Al-Ziadi’s incredible success in the ultra-competitive technology industry is reassuringly conventional.

At the 2014 Startup Weekend in London, he meets Rich where the two decide to set up a company together. This is essentially what is supposed to happen at these types of events. So if you have an idea for an app or tech company, you should probably go to one.

From that point the two have grown their idea from an initial concept into a company that hires multiple staff members and has acquired a very sizable investment from over 20 different investors, including the founder and CEO of grenade.com, a professional poker player, a syndicate of 10 Turkish investors, and the Welsh tech seed fund.

So how did it all happen?

App, Economics student

Ziad Al-Ziadi, Economics student

So after you and co-founder Rich met, how did you get the ball rolling on Paperclip?

A couple weeks after we pitched the app we ended up getting angel investment, which is rare considering we were pre-MVP (minimal viable product). They ended up backing the idea and team.

So we started developing the app, which consisted of outsourcing a development team based in the Czech Republic, as we had no choice due to none of us being developers, or having the cash to hire someone. Development is such a core foundation of any tech start up and if it’s not done in-house, it’s going to cause a bit of friction – especially in our case as there was a language barrier too.

It’s a difficult decision though because it’s just so expensive these days to get an app developed domestically. Quotes from UK developers were just ridiculous. So we thought we were getting a really great deal by going abroad. If we could do it all again, I think I would have tried harder to bring someone in-house.

How did you launch the app?

We initially launched an Android Beta, which was a deliberate decision as the app was still a bit glitch-y and needed refinement; the reason was that we wanted to collect feedback on the concept before fully launching the app. People react differently on iOS – their users are a bit more critical.

How was it received?

Ha, well, lots of positive feedback about the concept, but lots of negative remarks about our design. We had underestimated the importance of a good UI (user interface) and UX (user experience) design and prototyping processes, and we had overestimated our ability to design. People told us it was ugly and things like that. So we made the wise decision to bring a designer on board and bring in more developers, which literally changed the dynamics of the app to what it is today.

What is the relationship like with the venture capitalists?

They were really laid back and helpful. You’re not really meant to interfere directly with the start-up, unless you have advice or want to influence something. They typically wanted updates here and there about how the app was doing, number of users, etc. But it’s not really their job to give direct feedback on product development, as this is down to the team.

How’d you get the word out?

The bulk of it was done through word of mouth in addition to several online and offline marketing drives.  We caught a break when we ended up going on a TV show on Dave called Money Pit. James Mansford was the host. We secured £10,000 as a result of the appearance. And despite it being a bit cheesy, it really helped boost our downloads.  

app, paperclip, Ziad Al-Ziadi

Ziad Al-Ziadi (left) with co-founders Rich Woolley and Alan Small.

And how did you get the major funding?

Well our headquarters is in Cardiff, we’re essentially a Welsh start-up, so we concentrated very heavily on building up our user base in that region, as well as the rest of the U.K. We hired a bunch of interns from Swansea University as part of their final year project. And they came up with great ideas to bring their friends on board and to help build up local communities. All of which was vastly cheaper and more effective than running a bunch of local ad campaigns. We managed to grow our user-base, which put us in a much stronger position from which to approach Welsh tech funders. We eventually secured seed funding of a couple of hundred thousand – but I can’t say exactly how much.

So what is the purpose of the app?

Paperclip is a localised market place for people to sell or swap their unwanted stuff. The app also allows for combination offers and bartering. So say you want to put in an offer on an iPad for example, you might offer your phone, a pair of shoes and £200. That on other apps is difficult to do and it can get very messy going back and forth. So we thought it would be unique to facilitate that feature.

And what sets us apart from eBay and Gumtree is that we don’t take a fee off sellers; the localised element; and you can sign up very quickly through Facebook, which for sellers who aren’t doing it as a business but are just looking to quickly get rid of some stuff is really, really beneficial.

We’ve also introduced communities and groups which has been received very well by users. For example, you can join a group for shoes where buyers and sellers for strictly shoes can trade and communicate. It makes the whole selling and buying process a lot more simpler.

Is there anything else which sets you apart?

One thing we’ve done recently is to remove the prices from items. We feel it’s a win-win situation for buyer and seller. It ensures that people who put in unfair prices are instantly rooted out. And it facilitates negotiation between genuine traders on the platform. A lot of users have remarked positively on that new feature.

What’s the most expensive and/or unique item you’ve had sold on the app?

Well definitely the most unique item we’ve had is a 2000 year old ancient coin. The seller put it on for £2,000. In terms of the most expensive, I’m pretty sure it was a speedboat, which went up for around £10,000.

What’s your biggest demographic?

Currently, it’s a wide range of different demographics spanning from students to millennials. We’ve had a really good response from parents who want to buy and sell items for toddlers and babies. 

What’s the weirdest thing that has ever been swapped on your app?

In terms of wacky trades we’ve had, the team have told me we once had two kittens traded for a Samsung phone, which I had no idea about.

How many downloads have you had so far then?

We’re in the hundreds of thousands and are growing on a monthly basis.

Any advice for someone thinking of starting their own tech business?

People think it’s harder than it is, or more complicated at least. Don’t get me wrong – it’s hard work and can be really stressful at times. But most people can do this. I’d strongly recommend attending a lot of start-up/tech events which are held at SOAS and neighbouring universities. This is so you get a chance to meet like minded people who are just as eager as you and possess much-needed skills. From there, you kind of get lost in different ideas and meet loads of different people until a certain idea or cause catches your attention.

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