Embrace feedback. Even if you think you know what users want in your app, embrace feedback to build it into something great. At Zutobi, we’ve used feedback obtained by thousands of users to add features that we had not even thought of, such as more modular courses and changes in the gamification system.
As part of my series about the “5 Things You Need To Know To Create a Successful App or SaaS”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Tim Waldenback.
Tim Waldenback is the co-founder of Zutobi Drivers Ed, a gamified e-learning platform focused on online drivers education available in the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, Germany, France, and Sweden. Before starting Zutobi, Tim co-founded another e-learning company focused on language learning.
Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I’ve been heavily involved in e-learning for the past 7 years or so. I’ve long been an advocate that online education can and should be much more informative and fun than traditional in-class education. I strongly feel that one of the major issues with e-learning up until recent years has been that many of the large education companies have treated online as just another platform to present their material on, rather than use the platform to transform the experience into the next level. From the start, these experiences have led me to push Zutobi into becoming a transformative online drivers education experience that you just can’t get in a classroom.
Something a bit more personal that most people find interesting is that I co-founded Zutobi with my brothers David Waldenback, Leo Waldenback, Lucas Waldenback, and Joel Waldenback. It’s uncommon to create a company with family members, but our different competences have fit together very well. Plus, we can get straight-to-the-point during discussions the way only family members can.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led you to think of the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
It was when one of my co-founders, Leo Waldenback, saw a story about teen driver fatalities that the idea took root. We realized that a huge chunk of road accidents are due to driver errors, meaning they could have been avoided if the driver(s) had been properly educated on how to behave on the roads.
At that point in time, we did not yet have our minds set on creating a company, but the incident led us into discussing innovative ways to educate drivers. The more research we did, the more we understood how driver’s education as a niche is stuck in the early 2000’s. Sure, there are many companies selling courses online. But, we could not find a single company selling gamified courses that actually tried to take advantage of the benefits of online education — such as gamification, individually adapted courses for each student, instant feedback, videos, and much more.
We quickly realised that we could re-define drivers education just like Duolingo has re-defined language learning.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
When we first launched the app we didn’t have the initial traffic and traction that we expected, and acquiring new users was harder than we thought. This was a very trying time, but we got the drive to continue from our firm belief that our core product was far superior to our competitors — we just had to continue tweaking the product to satisfy our users even more and keep trying to get more users to try it. Eventually it worked.
So, how are things going today? How did your grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
Things are going really well. While COVID-19 negatively impacted our growth for 2020 due to the extensive lockdowns in place, we’ve still seen a huge influx of users during the past year or so.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
One of the funniest mistakes to look back at, which was not fun at all at the time, is when I spent 6–8 hours to earn 4 cents… and got us temporarily banned from displaying Google Ads in the process.
It was back in 2018 and we were trying out a new system of displaying ads in the app. To check that each ad displayed correctly and in the proper place, I had to check the individual chapters in each of our courses — which I did by spending all night on my phone going through our courses. When I had finished my arduous task, I went to bed.
I woke up the next morning from a call from one of my co-founders who was furious because Google had banned us from displaying ads. Apparently, Google believed we were intentionally watching ads in our own app to make money… and they had banned us and frozen the payment of all 4 cents of ad-revenue that I had collected throughout the night. Luckily enough, the ban lasted just 30 days.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
It’s pretty clear to us what makes Zutobi stand out. Our app is gamified to make it fun and easy to study, and our courses are split into bite-sized chapters that work for the mobile environment. For some reason, the drivers education category of apps and websites had been stuck with boring courses and layouts for a very long time — which we have successfully changed.
We began to notice how our app stood out through reviews early on, but the defining moment was when a School for Children With Special Needs in Oregon contacted us to help them set up their in-person classes using Zutobi. They had tested several alternatives and found that our gamified courses with bite-sized lessons worked best for their teens. That was proof to us that we had created something that truly worked.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
I think the most important aspect of starting a company and not “burning out” is to do something you really enjoy. You’re likely to spend a huge number of hours on your product, so you have to enjoy doing it.
The second tip to avoid burning out is to avoid being a perfectionist. Get your product out there as soon as possible, even if it has flaws. Let the market decide if your product is good, and then make all the necessary changes once you can see what works and what doesn’t work. We’ve spent countless hours on features we thought would be instant hits with our users, when in truth it appears no one really cared about these features except us. Don’t make the mistake of getting into what we at Zutobi refer to as “developer hell”, which is when you develop features for the sake of development.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
The most important people are without a doubt my co-founders. Due to all the uncertainty in a startup, I can recommend to everyone that you do it together with people you trust who bring energy into the project.
I’d like to especially mention David Waldenback, who has been relentlessly pushing for us to expand into new markets and focus on taking advantage of our momentum. Without David, our company would be considerably smaller and focused on just a few solid markets. He has proven to be right on most, if not all, of the defining choices when it comes to expansion, business model, and company culture.
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. Approximately how many users or subscribers does your app or software currently have? Can you share with our readers three of the main steps you’ve taken to build such a large community?
Since we launched in June 2018, we’ve had roughly 3 million downloads on iOS and Android, of which the majority of our downloads have come in the last year. Each month, we have around 200,000 users taking the driving courses in our apps or on our website (which we launched just this summer). The three main steps that worked to build a large community within our niche, and that other entrepreneurs can follow, are:
- Find the key users. Find your key users early on in your journey so you don’t waste time, resources, and money on promoting your product to the wrong users.
- Promote organic growth. An amazing aspect of accumulating a large user-base is that you will eventually begin to grow organically. If the product is good enough, users will eventually let their friends know, and so on. Make your users feel ‘wow’ and they will recommend it to others — word-of-mouth is especially important if your target market is teens or young adults.
- Build something unique. For people to rally around a product, your product has to be better than the competition. At Zutobi, we implemented an idea of gamification inspired by games into a niche that was far lacking in innovative ideas. Find something about your idea that makes it “pop”.
What is your monetization model? How do you monetize your community of users? Have you considered other monetization options? Why did you not use those?
Our goal has always been to provide proper drivers education to as many people as possible, so we decided early on that Zutobi would not lock people out from quality courses, regardless of their monetary situation. Instead, we implemented a freemium model which allows us to provide a number of benefits to the users that are able to pay, while our non-premium users have ads displayed in their courses.
A few years in, it’s clear to us we made the right decision. By using the freemium model, Zutobi has been rocketed into a leader in the field of drivers education in several of our key markets, something I do not believe would have been possible if we had locked our courses behind a pay-wall.
Obviously, the freemium type of approach is difficult early on for a start-up as it relies on scale to make it profitable, but we were fortunate enough to quickly gather a large user-base that permitted us to continue on with the freemium model. Hopefully, we can continue with it in the future as well.
Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a very successful app or a SaaS? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Build the right team The most important aspect is no doubt to build a great team that you can work with. Look for people with skills that complement yours — the first few people that join your company will create the culture and potential success.
- Embrace feedback. Even if you think you know what users want in your app, embrace feedback to build it into something great. At Zutobi, we’ve used feedback obtained by thousands of users to add features that we had not even thought of, such as more modular courses and changes in the gamification system.
- Become experts in your field. The best way to make sure you succeed in your field is to become an expert or leader in your field and work from there. If you don’t, your app or SaaS will likely end up just copying others instead of being a market-leader. I’ve personally spent an absurd amount of hours learning driving theory to make sure our courses are spot-on.
- Don’t give up. Your product won’t be perfect in the beginning, and it’s possible people won’t even use it at first. But use that initial period to tweak the product into something better — and you may end up with a smash hit.
- Find the niche that works for you. Don’t enter a new market just because it seems people are earning money. For each success, there are hundreds of failures. Get into something that you can do well, and get into it early before there is lots of competition. You’re likely to spend thousands of hours on your company, so make sure it’s based on a solid idea.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Well, I am rather unknown personally but the Zutobi platform has a huge reach, especially in the United States. I would probably create a movement to expand on the idea of driver safety, and try to change the fundamentals of the driver education system. As it is now, new drivers have a tendency to learn the bare minimum to get a license, but not enough to become a truly safe driver. It’s human to put in the least amount of effort possible, so the change would have to be in creating a more robust testing process that forces new drivers to learn more than just the essentials in order to pass.
By changing the approach to how we educate new drivers and adding an emphasis on safe driving practices to the driving test, thousands of lives could be saved each year in the United States alone.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
You can find me as a guest writer on the Zutobi blog or other social media.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!
Thank you for the opportunity!