Interview with Kiran Bellubbi (955 Dreams)
955 Dreams is a new age publishing company creating experiences for mobile devices.
I interviewed Kiran Bellubbi, 955 Dreams founder to find out more. This interview is the eighty second in a series of DW interviews. Big thank you to Kiran for the interview!
How would you describe 955 Dreams in under 50 words?
955 Dreams is a new media publishing company that is focused on building magical mobile experiences that will delight its users.
What was your inspiration for starting work on 955 Dreams?
I had built a smaller mobile app development shop called High Five Labs, which released some great products into the iOS AppStore in 2009-10, but I wanted to try something bigger with a larger team to explore, in a more real way, the possibilities of mobile publishing. I met TJ Zark, my co-founder, and Kyle Oba (who was involved initially) at an event, and we immediately started talking about the possibility of building a company that would put the user first and build experiences that would wow our users. 955 Dreams was born the day we decided to build The History of Jazz as our first foray into mobile publishing.
Tell us about your products.
We build the best mobile apps in the world. Each one of them is lovingly crafted in-house by a team of fanatics that actually care about the end product. No compromises are made in the user experience and philosophically we are all aligned with the user. We only build products we would like to use ourselves and each of us at 955 Dreams now is responsible for the quality of the products we release into production.
Last year we released: The History of Jazz (an interactive timeline), On the way to Woodstock and Band of the Day for the iPhone (the iPad universal binary was released early this year).
Go ahead and use any of them. We hope you enjoy using them as much as we enjoyed building them. Band of the Day is free, the others are paid.
All your apps have been featured as an Apple app of the week, four are Apple Hall of Fame apps, and Band of the Day was the runner-up in Apple’s iPhone app of the year. What is 955 Dream’s USP?
Well, we’ve built a publishing platform on top of which all of our apps are built. These apps are quite unlike anything else on the iOS AppStore. We believe in the power of building unique experiences around content to ensure that the user experience makes sense for that piece of content and is not forced in any way. We’re thinking less about how to quickly source content from a variety of sources, and slamming it into one way of accessing it. Instead, we’re constantly asking the question: does this make sense for this piece of content or media?
We also have a very strict and rigorous set of design and product philosophies which we do not bend when things get tough.
In its essence it comes down to this: caring – a lot- about the products that you build. I hear people say this in the same breath as MVP – that is a f**king joke.
How do you promote 955 Dreams?
We have not done much by way of promoting our products through any channel outside the AppStore itself. I’m not saying this as a badge of honour, we’re really quite embarrassed by this fact and have devoted time and energy to think about how to organically and socially expand our user base. With Band of the Day we have had over 600K users in 4 months that have adopted our product, and we’ve added some new members to the team specifically around marketing our products.
How did you come up with the name?
Our first offices were a shared space on 955 Benecia Ave in Sunnyvale. We really liked the space and it was a great place to get started – in the shadows of Palm Inc. – a company that I cared deeply about from the days of Jeff Hawkins and Donna Dubinsky. We promptly moved to a much larger space in Mountain View when HP bought them :)
What technologies have you used to build 955 Dreams?
We have a back end stack that is mostly Ruby and Clojure. We have a ton of proprietary code around core features in iOS that make our app special – in Objective C – and we’re experimenting with things like Lua on the mobile stack.
We have a ton of concepts which never see the light of day in production, but, they might some day.
Who is the team at 955 Dream?
TJ Zark is the co-founder and Chief Design Officer. Chris Stevenson is our CTO. Dan Craft is the Lead Engineer/Mobile Systems Architect. We have an editorial team that builds out the content in all our apps and our dev and design team is filled with really motivated and forward thinking individuals that are making incredible things every day. I’m the Founder, CEO and Product Guy on the team.
955 Dreams has grown to 12 people this year and we’re building out our core back-end platform team as well.
If you want to build great products that millions of people use, and literally change the mobile landscape, you should apply and come work with us.
How do you find talented employees?
We’ve had friends join us in the beginning: TJ’s ex-colleagues and mine are part of the core team. We’ve worked together for years so it’s slightly saner in terms of growing the team from the core crew. Our lead engineer and mobile architect Dan Craft is just stellar and so is the rest of the iOS team – they’ve all now, shipped award winning apps with us and this has given the entire team more confidence.
As we interview people they immediately see the talent in the room and some understand that they can learn from this team about the fundamentals of mobile software development and design and some just want to be part of the madness that is building a company from the ground up.
Philosophically, we’re very different from most companies in the valley – we build for the user first and not to some ridiculous buzz word driven valley mantra like Minimum Viable Product. We work smart and fast till we get it right. There are a ton of high-caliber people that are looking to work in an environment where cutting corners is NOT the norm. We’re that place and we attract those people.
What does your typical day look like?
Typically, I wake up around 7am and read the morning news on my iPad and iPhone. I then answer some emails and try and exercise a little bit before spending some time with my child, who is 14 months old, and my wife. I walk my dog while I walk to work, around 9:30am, and start my day on my desk at around 9:45am.
I’m walking around constantly between the various nooks and corners in the office either jumping into product or design sessions or attending standups with the tech team or in a company-wide standup in the mornings.
I do like to speak to people that we are doing business with on the phone and I sometimes find it strange that few people like to talk on the phone. I’m on calls for at least 2 hours a day with potential hires, investors, partners and sometimes labels and artists.
We have lunch together everyday at our offices. This is a time to unwind and catch up informally with everyone at 955 Dreams. Sometimes we talk about product – those days we eat less :)
I try to keep meetings to a minimum and then work through ~6:30pm when I head home to family. I used to work late into the night when I would code more and now I see myself reading and writing more post-dinner and trying to constantly think through a product thread – either with notes or scribbles.
I sleep by around 11pm-12am and the next day rinse-repeat.
How were you able to keep the app under 20 MB (so users can download it over 3G)? Was this technically the most challenging part of developing 955 Dreams?
That was challenging and it was one of our core product principles so we couldn’t compromise on it. The first release I remember quite clearly the team submitting a binary ~18.6mb to the AppStore and when it actually hit the store it was 20.7mb – this was a shock to everyone on the team. We had worked so hard to keep the binary size under 20mb and the AppStore release process adds an extra 1.5~2mb to the binary to secure the binary.
That was for an iPhone version only – our latest update is ~14mb and is a universal binary. We’ve learnt from some of our early mistakes.
The challenge isn’t so much getting a smaller binary size for the app but preserving the user experience at a lower binary size.
How long did it take to put together 955 Dreams?
It’s been a long road and I don’t think I can compute how long it has taken to put it together. As the Founder and CEO I think of 955 Dreams as a product and it is very much in its infancy. Hopefully, we’ve built something that has added a new perspective to the mobile eco-system and as we continue to grow the team we will be introducing new things which will redefine 955 Dreams again and again…
Do you have any new products in the pipeline?
I don’t like talking about products that are not live. There’s so much to experience in the products that we have pushed live that I could talk about them for days on end.
Any plans for Android?
The Android device count currently in the office is 7, i.e. 7 experimental devices where we’re looking to see how 955 Dreams can make a meaningful impact. Unfortunately, most of those devices do not support Ice Cream Sandwich – Google, you need to fix this.
What do you wish you’d have known 5 years ago that you know now?
Building anything of value takes perseverance and an iron will. Build with integrity and dedication to the user and you will at some point succeed.
Where do you see 955 Dreams in 5 years time?
In 5 years, 955 Dreams will be known as the company that redefined daily publishing on a massive scale on mobile devices. As a company that truly cared about the intersection of type and media and defined what users should expect from a daily mobile publication. If we deliver on the vision and promise of 955 Dreams as we understand it today we would become a really influential company in mobile computing.
Has 955 Dreams got the feedback and growth you expected since launch?
Honestly speaking I would say we’ve done OK. The growth we’ve seen has been good but our team can do a LOT better.
Who would you say is your biggest competitor?
We’re in the same space as Flipboard, Pulse, Zinio, Pressly and a host of other smaller startups. We’re not, however, an aggregator like a lot of these startups and we have differentiators that become evident when you pick up our latest app, Band of the Day, and compare us to any of these neat startups.
What is the biggest hurdle you have faced or are still facing?
I would say it has to be around growing our team in a methodical manner. We have a lot of interest from candidates looking to work at 955 Dreams and we want to grow the team, but at the same time stay lean and nimble for a little while longer. Saying no to top talent is tough and adds a level of complexity that we are now adjusting to. Also, finding younger talent directly from universities is close to impossible because of the Facebook’s and Google’s of the world being able to engage students throughout the calendar year with large hiring budgets.
What are you most excited about at the moment?
Band of the Day! It is the fastest growing music app out there today. We’ve added 600K+ users in 4 months and it is such a wonderful way to find artists and learn about them, their motivations for creating their art and really get to dig into music again. It works both on your iPhone and iPad seamlessly and is designed beautifully. We feature one artist a day and you can listen to full play songs and read reviews and bios which have been written by our editorial team, you can also participate in a social dialogue with the artists directly from within the app. It’s just an amazing product and we’re improving it everyday!
Can you convince the reader to start using 955 Dreams products in under 50 words?
We build with you in mind, first and foremost. Each product is built with great care and attention to detail and we’ve enjoyed building these products and we hope you enjoy using them everyday.
Finished reading? Check out 955 Dreams!