Interview with Jan Senderek (Popset)
Popset is a photo album app that tells the story of an event with friends.
I interviewed Jan Senderek, Popset co-founder to find out more. This interview is the hundred and seventh in a series of DW interviews. Big thank you to Jan for the interview!
How would you describe Popset in under 50 words?
Popset makes it easy for you and your friends to turn your adventures into photo albums.
What was the inspiration for founding Popset?
My interest in photography started when I was 16 and studying abroad in Japan. I was immediately pulled into the photography culture in Japan, where taking and sharing photos is always a social activity. It’s actually sort of an icebreaker—you get to know people through their photos. When I got back to Germany I had a stack of 25 different photo albums, each one telling its own little story. Since then, I’ve always had a camera on me to capture the stories my friends and I make every day.
Back then, I had to carry a camera with me. Now, smartphones have made us all into photographers. Instagram is great at taking and sharing a single photograph, but one photo is just a fraction of an experience. I wanted to make something that would tell the whole story.
That’s Popset. We wanted to create an app that does three things right. First, we wanted to make it easy to create and enhance entire photo albums Second, we wanted to let friends share their photos in real-time, no more hunting for photos on Facebook or emailing them afterwards. Finally, we wanted it to be able to upload entire albums to Facebook with a single tap.
How did you come up with the name?
Finding a good name is a very tricky thing. It has to be simple and snappy, but it also has to be something that you feel comfortable with, that represents not just your product, but your users as well.
Some people start with a name, but that wasn’t us. We were already several weeks into our beta when we realized we couldn’t put it off any longer. So we locked ourselves in our office for days while we came up with lists of names. Most people probably don’t realize how painful the naming process can be; first you have to come up with tons and tons of words and then you have to try sticking them together. When you find a combination you like, you check to make sure someone else isn’t already squatting on the domain. Even among all hundreds of names we were trying out, Popset had a quality that stuck. It was simple, easy, and it had a slightly onomatopoetic quality—you pop a photo to make a set and you’re done.
How is it working with friends? Had any big arguments!?
You have to do your startup with friends. It really is something like riding a rollercoaster. The ups are really great, but you need friends for the moments when you feel your stomach about to drop out. Those downs are the moments where startups can easily break because if it doesn’t go as expected nothing keeps you together as a team anymore. That’s where friendships come in. You won’t let your friends down.
I couldn’t imagine building a startup around a business relationship. You’re in such close contact, especially during something like YC, that you have to be friends with the people you work with. When things get tough, you need that friendship to fall back on.
At the same time, you can’t let your friendship only be about the work. One of the ways we relieved stress was to find new hobbies together. We never really played basketball in Germany, but we needed something to get us away from our computers and playing ball for an hour or so every other day became a great way to let off steam.
What was technically the most challenging part of developing Popset?
The concept and interaction design were the most challenging things. The idea of a group photo album seems so simple and obvious, yet no one is doing it because it is so hard to get right. But we cracked the code with simplicity, a good single-player mode and great interaction design.
However there were technical difficulties as well of course. What separates us from every other photo app out there is our emphasis on entire albums rather than just individual photos. So it’s been a huge challenge to optimize shooting and uploading multiple photos with the iPhone. But now we’ve worked hard on it and now we have the app with the fastest camera burst mode on the App Store!
How long did it take to put together Popset?
We’ve been a team for quite a while, almost a year now. We worked on a lot of other ideas before Popset, going through lots of failed prototypes and product iterations. The hardest part is getting a concept that’s simple enough that people can understand it right away, but also robust enough that it does something they actually want. One of our earlier ideas was supposed to be a social app that helped people find parties and other events based on photos their friends were uploading. We dropped that idea because it was too unwieldy, but we knew we were on to something with our photo component, and so we decided to build a great user experience around that.
Do you have any new features in the pipeline?
A ton. Users are constantly asking for new things, which is a good sign. However it’s pretty difficult to prioritize. Being heavy users ourselves can bias our perceptions. Obviously it’s important for us to want to use our own product, because that’s where so much creativity and drive originates, but we can’t only build features that we want ourselves. At the same time we love our users and want to keep growing, so every update has to balance those competing desires.
Right now we have a couple of things we’re very excited for. We want to get an Android version out soon, so that even more people can start using Popset. We’re also working hard on developing a full web version so that people who use Popset a lot have an easy way to access, manage, and save their photos on the web or their hard drives.
You have quite a background in startups! Tell us how you got to be where you are now.
I’ve always loved the idea of building new things. While I was supposed to be studying media economics as an undergrad, I started looking for opportunities to work with entrepreneurs in internships and part time jobs at startups. Eventually, I scored my first job as a product manager at an incubator in Germany called Betafabrik. That job gave me a lot of good experience, but I still needed to feel like I was creating things. So during my free time, I started designing websites and taught myself web development and eventually I moved to London to do a Masters in Technology Entrepreneurship and there I started working on little projects with friends which eventually led to Popset.
What motivates you?
Creating something new and watching other people come to love it. Whenever I have downtime, I open our app and browse through my friends’ photos. It makes me happy to see them having fun with something I helped make.
I also need a lot of uncertainty. By the time I signed my contract with my first employer I felt ready to leave again. I need to be in a situation where I don’t know what’s next.
What do you wish you’d have known 5 years ago that you know now?
I wish I’d known then what I learned during the last year of creating a startup. Maybe most importantly, I wish I’d understood how to identify and eliminate noise the way I do now. I think that’s going to make future projects a lot easier and faster.
Has Popset got the feedback and growth you expected since launch?
Yes! We have great organic growth, our users love Popset, and they tell their friends about it. On average, our users open up Popset about six times a day, and they’re also sending in great feedback and ideas for new features. We’re really excited to see a real community develop around our product.
Who would you say is your biggest competitor?
Photos are the internet. Ten percent of all the photos that have ever been taken were taken in the last twelve months. That’s because the internet and smartphones have made us all into mobile photographers. With that many photographers and photos, there are a ton of ways to take and manage pictures. Obviously, the biggest photo apps right now are Facebook and Instagram, so they’re our biggest competitors. However we’ve really found our niche: we believe that when people take and share photos, they’re really making and sharing stories, and we’ve built Popset around that idea. And obviously a lot of people respond to that, because we’re getting so much feedback and growth even though our competition is so big and omnipresent.
What is the biggest hurdle you have faced or are still facing?
When you’re a startup there’s a new challenge every day. Each phase (idea, concept, prototype, alpha, beta, fundraising, team building, relocating, etc.) brings its own hurdles. But that’s the thrill of running a startup.
Right now we’re trying to find ways to engage potential users on the web. Even though mobile apps are becoming increasingly important, people still spend a lot of time in front of their computers.. So the challenge is creating a web presence that engages users and makes them think, “I need this app,” before they even open up the App Store.
If you could only give one piece of advice, what would it be?
While working on Popset the most important thing I’ve learned is to stay focused and think simple. No matter how big your goals or ambitions might be, start with something small. Focus on one problem, solve it, build a great experience around it, and publish it. Pay attention to user feedback, and then move on.
Where do you see Popset in 5 years time?
I want Popset to be the app that captures all of the exciting moments in your life. Think of the connection people have to their old Polaroid cameras—I want our users to feel that way about Popset.
To do that, we need to build a fun company with a great culture and a great team. We need to build a great product that our users continue to get excited about even if they’ve been using it for five years already.
What are you most excited about at the moment?
We have an extremely talented team with a long and wide open road ahead of us. Like I said, it’s really exciting to not know what we’re going to be building in the next three months. There are a ton of opportunities for us to improve our product and expand our portfolio.
Can you convince the reader to start using Popset in under 50 words?
Are you tired of rooting through thousands of photos on your phone just to organize them into albums and find the ones you want to send to your friends? Then meet Popset, your mobile solution for photo albums.
Finished reading? Check out Popset!