I'm Mike, the co-founder of Haystack. Welcome to episode four of the Haystack Tech Uncovered podcast, where I'll be chatting with tech leaders, disruptors, academics, and innovators about all things, technology and software development.
To kick things off, I'll be speaking with Dylan McKee. Dylan is the co-founder and CEO of Nebula Labs, a software house operating in the heart of the North East tech scene.
Dylan is considered one of the region's leading names and mobile app and software development is a young entrepreneur and was noted by Apple at just 17 year old for his work developing a mobile app that tells users their height above sea level, which was downloaded by over 1 million users.
This is a really interesting conversation and it was great to dive into the nitty gritty of how Dylan got his start as a tech entrepreneur at such a young age. I hope you enjoy the episode.
I thought we'd basically just kind of dive into the first question really. I've obviously done a little bit of digging on your background and I wanted to speak a little about your first experience as a mobile app developer.
I heard through the grapevine that when you were around 13 year old, that you actually released an app, and it went a little bit viral, something like over a million downloads?
So, yeah, that's pretty much the story if you like, it's really embarrassing to look back on sometimes, but it's quite cool. It was just kind of a lone self-taught kind of teenage programmer.
I'd been kind of, you know, building websites as you kind of do tinkering with HTML and stuff. Then I got an iPhone when I was 13. The 3G, like the plasticy one. You know, it was cutting edge at the time. And looking back, it's just ancient! But it was really fun. I was really into Apple stuff as well at the time and thought you know, I'd love to make an app.
They seem to be the next big thing - who knows maybe it was something that, but it seemed like a really fun thing to do. Grueling and excruciatingly, I taught myself the process, which was totally, totally different to web development. And particularly the kind of tooling you had to build an app in 2009 was really primitive compared to what you have now.
So I think it took me months to put that first app together. Whilst also kind of learning like the language which was objective C at the time, which was a really kind of cumbersome technical language. Had stuff like manual memory management and, um, which I didn't really know how it fully worked at the time.
I just sort of hacked it until it did. loads and loads of kind of early, like StackOverflow was kind of around but not to the level it is now. So trying to use that and then use those forums to get help and get tips and stuff. It was a really arduous process compared to putting an app together now, but also really fun.
The level of faff and effort, because it was just a hobby, made it quite fun to do almost. A proper learning curve, like interesting and loads of things to go and investigate - from reading stuff in one place to another, if that makes sense. So it's really easy to get a real tutorial, if you like, of doing one then another and another, and finally getting the skills together to release something.
At the time the app store wasn't particularly big. So when I released the app, which basically told you how high above sea level you were, based on your altitude from your iPhone GPS. It became far more popular than I ever anticipated, you know, I thought few different people might download it. And within a few weeks of it launching, I was getting reports back from Apple saying you've had 150,000 downloads in Italy alone this week!
I would imagine the altitude and the Italian Alps is far more interesting than your altitude and the Newcastle town center certainly.
Definitely. I was doing it in my bedroom just outside of Whitley Bay, and that was obviously a really flat, boring place to be checking your altitude at.
So there wasn't much to see there, but it really skyrocketed in the Alpine areas, particularly as people started going on holiday over summer. And I just couldn't believe the statistics. Like when I first saw them, I was like, no, this can't be right. There's gotta be a mistake. And then started reading the number, I was like I know I’m young but I can read number that big!
So how old are you at the time?
I was 13. So 13 when I first released it and then all the way through my teenage years kept on doing similar kinds of things, to different levels of professionalism. So kept cracking on with, apps that I had little ideas for or if they were suggested to me like tongue in cheek “wouldn't it be good if” kind of thing.
So did you actually build in any viral mechanisms into the app itself to get that level of traction? Or was it basically just all word of mouth/ I guess app store optimisation?
Absolutely no kind of viral links or sharing or social aspect to it at all, to be honest.
I might have tweeted it cause I've had Twitter forever, so I might have kind of tweeted when I released it. But very little in the way of getting people, who've downloaded it to share it or pass it on. Totally against the grain of how you actually get used an app, which is really weird!
App store optimization, I remember kind of, it was before the app store had official keywords. So you just read reports saying like, put keywords in your description. So I think I did try that and that was about the level of like optimization that I got to. It was a really weird primitive time to be building and getting stuff out there.
There wasn't a lot of the tools that are out there now. Initially it was totally free. I quickly kind of put some ads in to try and make a bit of pocket money. And I remember kind of adopting the Apple iAD network when that was launched in 2010, but that was after I launched my app, like almost a year after. So that's quite a late adopter actually!
So did it, have much stay in power then in that case? I assume it was kind of one of those things like yeah, throw out version one, you put up a few ads and then kind of let it do its thing. Did it stick around on the app store? Can you actually still get it?
You can still download it - it’s nowhere near the popularity it used to be, I think it’s occasionally a top 100 somewhere. So looking back at it, the downfall of it would be quite interesting actually, but I guess it just stopped being that innovative of an idea.
The novelty factor wore off and there were far better apps out there. Obviously the app store really took ground. In terms of the customer base and the fan base, there were some users who would, particularly in the early days, always get in touch and ask for external feature requests and stuff.
As well as loads of annoyed users - emailing being like this doesn’t work, and I'm like, I'm literally 13 in my bedroom, go away. Then from that, that was quite a bit of a fan base around it, I guess. And I put in a paid TLF lane where you could pay like 99p or something to get rid of the ads that a lot of people actually did.
People who I guess were using it, like ski instructors and that kind of thing, that were using it really regularly which is cool.
To find out more about Dylan, listen to episode four of the Haystack Tech Uncovered podcast.