It's Friday morning, February 15th, 2019.
I open up my web browser and type out the following email:
Hello,<br><br> We just messaged on a different email chain (about my dog Sonny) but I wanted to send you a note about a project my wife Bri and I were interested in.<br><br> We'd love to help you improve the registration process for dog park licenses! I'm a software engineer, and she is a product manager with experience building these sorts of things. We would do this on our own time, for free :)<br><br> We'd love to chat in person with you (or someone on your team) if you could spare 15/30 minutes. Does this strike any interest in you?<br><br> Thanks - looking forward to hearing from you!
It was a shot in the dark. I expected a prompt "No thank you," if any response at all.
What I didn't expect was that this email would take us on an eight-month adventure in starting our own business, releasing our own product — and that it wouldn't actually be free 😱.
I've been a professional web developer for nearly a decade.
With each passing year, I find myself scratching an itch to become an entrepreneur. Why not put my skills to use building something that could bring me and my wife passive income?
I've tried and failed to create products before. From an educational developer screencast site to a Snapchat story sharing app, I haven't been short on ideas.
Well, sort of. These "sparks" of ideas are both the easy and the challenging part. Easy because I can say, "Hey that's a great idea!" But challenging because it's likely that the idea won't make me any money.
One source of inspiration has been Indie Hackers. This online forum features a lot of other entrepreneurs who focus on profitable side projects. Not big-time, investment-bearing startups. Most of these stories involve the founder starting to build something during nights and weekends.
One lesson I've learned from these stories has been to launch a product with a paying customer on day one.
This sounds logical, right? But it doesn't fit into the "start-up" narrative, where people build products (Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat) without any paying customers FIRST, and figure out ways to make it profitable LATER.
Plus, finding a paying customer before building the darn product requires skills that a lot of developers don't have: communication, sales, marketing, and product strategy.
I knew that if I were to ever seriously build a product that would make us passive income and — heck — potentially allow us to quit our day jobs, we'd really need to have a paying customer first.
In spring of 2019, Waukee opened its very first dog park. As dog owners, Bri and I were super excited for this and couldn't wait to get there.
The City of Waukee is already tech-savvy. We can pay our utilities online, register our pets' annual licenses online, and make Parks and Recreation activity registrations online.
So we weren't surprised that the new dog park would have an online registration option.
However, when we pulled up the site to register our two dogs Luna and Sonny, we were dismayed to find out that there was an entire PDF of instructions:
I hopped into the activity registration software being used for the dog park registrations and plowed forward.
Unfortunately, there was no designated flow for dog park registration. Had I not been paying attention (such a rule-follower), it would have been easy to miss a step and apply for a permit without attaching the proper materials.
After creating each of my individual pets using the same fields you would normally use to register children for summer activities — including cell phone number and emergency contacts — I gathered my proof of rabies distemper vaccinations and clicked Submit.
A couple days later, I got an email from an employee at Waukee Parks and Recreation informing me that one of the documents I had provided the city was invalid.
I searched through various veterinarian receipts and invoices and finally found the document I needed. But I couldn't help but think: could there be an easier way?
Dog park software isn't a buzzword I'd heard thrown around in the Indie Hacker community. A cursory Google search led me to believe that nobody else was actively pursuing this.
This usually means one of two things:
Market research turned up nil for existing products specifically catered to dog park management.
Note; The bulk of related software we found was crowdsourced "dog park finders," many of which had been abandoned. They probably didn't start with a paying customer!
I'm an optimist, so I'm willing to bet that dog parks are a relatively new market. Between 2005 and 2010, the number of dog parks in the 100 largest cities in the US increased by 34 percent, and I can only imagine that number has remained steady if not increased in the last decade.
This actually wasn't the first time Bri or I had thought about building something for our canine friends.
In 2017, we launched a pro-bono redesign of AHeinz57, a local pet rescue and animal shelter. This was a valuable experience in working with the local community and putting our skills to good use.
This is one of the drivers for us to pursue building dog park management software: combining passions (dogs) with skills (software development).
With that, we decided to stick our necks out and see if Waukee Parks and Recreation would be interested — aka see if there was a market fit.
A couple weeks after I sent my initial email, we sat down with a folks from the Parks and Recreation team at the public works building west of town.
From our perspective, we didn't have much to lose if they weren't interested. Bri and I have been part of big client pitches before at ad agencies where your performance crucial to whether the agency landed a big contract. This meeting didn't feel that way — if anything, it was more of a meet-and-greet and informational session.
After chatting for a bit, the administrative assistant who was handling the bulk of new dog park registrations dropped this information: Of the nearly 40 applications they had received online, every single one had been incorrect or incomplete. This required her to email each applicant, individually, to tell them what was wrong and how to fix it.
Every. Single. One.
They told us they were expecting north of 500 dogs to be registered for this new park, and that this problem wouldn't be going away any time soon.
In that moment, we found our market fit: not to be the fastest-selling, high-profile software-as-a-service in the world; but to be a useful piece of software to make lives easier.
At that point back in February, I was convinced I could whip together some quick software to meet the needs of the city.
It's simple, right? Just a plain database structure with a pretty interface? Maybe a few weeks of work on the side?
Oh, my dear sweet boy. If only you knew what was in store.
The following months would mean learning to start a business from scratch, scuffling with insurance plans, scratching our head with payment vendors, seething with anger over state correspondence, and sorely wishing we had an accountant.
But we had a spark. And I can't wait to tell you all about it!