Detroit made its presence known on Super Bowl Sunday in more ways than just the Chrysler commercial. Turns out it was a local company, Detroit Labs, that built out the hugely succssful Chevy Game Time app, which gave away free cars and skyrocketed into iPhone’s top 10 free apps list. Surrounded by the likes of Facebook and Instagram, this was no small accomplishment.
So now that the Super Bowl has come and gone, and things have calmed down a bit over at Detroit Labs, we sat down to talk to Henry Balanon, mobile director and one of the group’s co-founders.
Q: First off, congrats on the overwhelming success with Detroit Lab’s Chevy Game Time app! Were you expecting this kind of response?
A: Balanon: It was always in the back of our minds that we wanted that, but there were a lot of factors that we couldn’t control. There’s always that shadow of doubt: are there going to be enough people using this? For all intents and purposes, all of the expectations that we had and that GM had were far exceeded… in a positive way!
Q:Can you take me behind the creation of an app at Detroit Labs?
A: Balanon: Okay, so it starts off with a pitch to the client or whoever is funding the idea. Starts with a small feature set on paper of what people want to do, and usually those details are very fuzzy. It’s kind of a mash: this from this app, and that from that app, and it’s not quite fleshed out or a solid idea. So what ends up happening is that the creative lead takes the concept and starts making screen mock ups of what the app could look like. It’s a very integrative process, so then you would show that to the client and they’ll start to get ideas…Then all of a sudden 5 comps or mock-ups become 10. So the entire lay out gets fleshed out graphically first along with the feature set. Then that’s when the building starts and that’s when we take the mock-up and programming them into the device and adding any back end web service that might be needed. All the while we get demos out to clients and seeing what they think, then taking their feedback and making changes accordingly. It’s a big loop that keeps going and going and going, literally until game day when it’s time to submit.
Q: Being that this is an incredibly competitive field, what do you think factors into one app succeeding over another? What do you attribute your success to?
A: Balanon: There are a lot of aspects to getting an app adopted. The first is having a great product, which lot of people are able to do… so we did the best we could have done. But then another piece is the marketing, and Chevy did a great job with marketing the app as well, running commercials during the Pro Bowl, during the NFC games and they put them in very strategic places. They headed marketing efforts on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. There was a lot of work that everyone has done and because of that we were successful. There were a lot of people collaborating. It definitely made a splash.
Q: What initially attracted you to mobile app development?
A: Balanon: So I started with a company called Bickbot a few years ago. I started that because I loved using the iPhone and I wanted to make apps for it. It was a new industry. A wise man once told me “You have to get known for something, otherwise you’re going to get known for nothing.” So I really niched myself into that industry and a few years later cofounded Detroit Labs with three other guys there along with some support from Detroit Venture Partners. What I do here is similar to what I did at Vickbot, but at a larger scale. So what were doing with Chevy would have been impossible, but now that we have an entire team dedicated, I feel like we can do anything now.
A: Balanon: If people don’t have experience within app building, I’d say books give a good sense of structure. I’d start with tutorials online too. It’s possible to teach yourself. I mean, I was a programmer before so it was easy for me to pick up, but the community is starting to get strong here around mobile development, so I encourage them to reach out to other mobile developers and learn from them.
Q: Are there any community meet ups geared specifically toward mobile development that you would recommend?
A:Balanon: Yes, there’s a conference a couple times a year called MobiDevDay and it’s all about developing apps. Cocoa Heads Detroit is geared specifically toward iPhones. The Droid Dev group is geared toward Android devices.
Q: How are you liking the Madison Building?
A: Balanon: You know a lot of people come through here, including a guy named Chuck Song, and he’s been to the Bay Area and New York and all over. He says that out of everywhere he’s been, this is one of the best startup spaces he’s seen. There’s great tech energy around here. We have a rooftop overlooking Comerica Park, and we moved here in October when it was very cold, and it’s still cold, but in the spring, the Comerica park crowd and energy will be there and that’s very exciting.
Q: So what can we expect to see in Detroit Lab’s future?
A: Balanon: Right now we’re working on our own apps that haven’t yet been released. We’re continuing to do work for startups as well as fortune 500 companies, but we’re also introducing something called lab time where we’re creating and introducing our own projects. So we’re creating our own apps and hopefully in the next year you’ll all get to see some of it.