Jumbo Startups: Cymbal and Downtyme
Students Creating and Launching Smartphone Apps
by Alexandra Erath, A16
This article is the second part of a two-part series focusing on Tufts students developing smartphone apps.
The surge in smartphone use and demand for mobile apps has lead to an unprecedented number of students developing and marketing apps for mobile devices. What's fueling student interest in launching apps? "College campuses are full of energetic, enthusiastic and smart people in an almost 'closed system' that helps students connect," says Josh Wiesman, a lecturer in Tufts Gordon Institute's Entrepreneurial Leadership Studies (ELS) program. Instant feedback also facilitates app development. "A group of students can quickly distribute their app to 30 or 40 people for testing, people who are likely to fit the demographic of their target customers," says Wiesman.
Two such apps launched by Tufts students this year are Cymbal, which allows users to share their favorite songs, and Downtyme, an app that helps users connect with friends based on their location and availability.
Cymbal, a social music discovery app.
"Cymbal attempts to capture a moment in someone's life via music," says Gabe Jacobs, A15, who along with classmates Amadou Crookes, A15, and Mario Gomez-Hall, A15, created the music app Cymbal as a social music discovery platform that provides an updated playlist of users' "friends" favorite songs.
"We believe a song can represent you in the same way that a profile picture can," Jacobs explains. "Cymbal will give people a new form of self expression."
The idea for Cymbal came to Jacobs in October 2014. For four years he had posted one song a day for listeners to explore on his music blog, Lower Frequencies. He believed most music websites overwhelm users with too many new songs and artists. "I thought, 'Everyone should have a way to share their one song of the moment. I'm not the only one that has good musical taste,'" Jacobs recalls.
Jacobs and Crookes, both computer science majors, had previously collaborated on class projects, and Crookes quickly joined Jacob to develop Cymbal. Soon after, Gomez-Hall, who studies engineering psychology and human factors engineering, joined the team as Cymbal's designer.
The team meets daily to determine the functionality Cymbal requires, and to consider how a user might approach their app. "We try to get into the minds of our users," says Gomez-Hall. "For example, will they want to share their current song with their Facebook friends? Will they want to add a song to a Spotify playlist?"
Over 200 Tufts students are currently using a beta version of Cymbal, providing feedback about the experience, and sharing ideas for new features. The team hopes to officially launch the app in May. "If this app does take off, it would be because of the Tufts community," says Jacobs. "The supportive atmosphere here allows all of us to build upon each other's strengths to create better products," Gomez-Hall agrees. "Students are always checking in, asking how much longer they have to wait for Cymbal, and telling other friends about it because they're excited to be part of the new community it will create."
Cymbal designer Mario Gomez-Hall, A15, and app
developers Amadou Crookes, A15, and Gabe
In addition, Wiesman has given the team feedback on the usability of Cymbal—what needs to be added or improved—as well as business planning advice. The trio plans to meet with ELS lecturer Gavin Finn for guidance in developing a marketing plan. "Everyone is really excited," says Gomez-Hall. "And that just gets us even more excited."
With several influential bands interested in promoting Cymbal on social media and friends in the music industry helping the team connect with investors, the Cymbal creators are optimistic about their app's future. If they can secure venture capital funding, the team will continue to work on Cymbal full-time after college.
Their advice to other students interested in entrepreneurship is to work on creating a solid team. "It's important that you like the people you're working with," says Gomez-Hall. Gomez-Hall also advises future entrepreneurs to work on any project—an app, a website, a business—they have the chance to. "No matter how small or niche, the people getting noticed and succeeding in the startup world are the ones working on projects on their own," he says. "Even if it's small, it's useful for you to learn how to work on a team and build a product," he adds. "It shows you're really passionate, that you'll code all day in school, and then go home and work on programming some more," Crookes adds.
Like other startup founders, Cymbal creators caution that their path is not for the faint of heart. "To do this, you've got to have faith," Jacobs says. "You've really got to believe in yourself and your ability to execute an idea."
Nikki Dahan, E15, is the app designer for Downtyme.
Nikki Dahan, E15, is the designer for Downtyme, which helps users connect with friends during their leisure time. Downtyme suggests friends available to connect with based on their calendar availability, GPS location, and relationship to you.
Dahan, a human factors engineer, first became involved with Downtyme in September 2014, when co-founders Luke Sorenson and Barron Roth, engineering students at Boston University, invited her to join the Downtyme team. Dahan liked the idea. "I thought the app would solve a problem so many busy individuals face," says Dahan. "There are a lot of apps for maximizing work productivity, but not for maximizing time with the people that matter."
The team meets frequently as they are always working to improve their product. They use Slack, a web application to manage their online conversations, and Dahan often posts her designs to Slack so everyone on the team can critique them. Dahan says she enjoys the demand of working with a company while juggling schoolwork. "I love designing, so I don't really feel like I'm working when creating screens for Downtyme. Since most of my coursework relates to design, this year has been very enjoyable for me."
Dahan creates visuals and interactions for the app based on what users would intuitively expect to happen. "I work with project leads and engineers to design what the user is going to do and how they're going to do it." Dahan planned the flow of Downtyme's different screens, such as the home screen and a unique time selector screen, and how the user would be able to move between them.
Downtyme helps users connect with friends during
their leisure time.
Although Downtyme has finished beta testing and the team has recently launched an updated version, Dahan's work is far from over. Based on feedback from users, she will improve the framework she has built. "Design is very iterative," she says. "You can always make a good thing even better."
While Dahan says she has always known she wanted to use her skills to help people, it was her experience at Tufts that led her to design. "The human factors classes have helped me tremendously in terms of thinking about the user, and especially in being able to back up design decisions with researched data. I also have learned techniques to acknowledge that my own perspective is limited," she says. "I have to try and imagine how someone else might use my app."
Throughout her time at Tufts, Dahan has enjoyed her time working with Downtyme, but also values her internships with companies such as Microsoft, Red Hat, and MITRE. Going forward, she says "I will always want to work on something interesting that matters to people, in environments where I can continue to learn and grow."
Read Part 1 of Jumbo Startups: Piinch and SpotLight