TestFlight’s Robin Hood Developer

Ben Satterfield founded 23Divide in Los Angeles and started providing high level technical consulting to major media brands. Along the way, his company found the need to deliver apps to customers on the move, and the the legendary TestFlight was born. Here’s Mr. Satterfield’s story about how it all happened and his Robin Hood business model.

Dave Hamilton: I’m here at WWDC with Ben Satterfield from 23Divide Software. Let’s start with the most recent thing and go backwards. You’ve been a kind of a serial entrepreneur — if the term applies. TestFlight. A very cool platform for both developers and anyone who is working with a developer testing an app.

Ben Satterfield: This WWDC is our one year anniversary of TestFlight. The story is actually quite unique. At 23Divide, we had been doing lots of high end consultant work. Big brand media companies and so on. We had just landed a project with Oprah’s team. And we got to a point where we realized that I need the beta on this person’s iPad. First of all, the instructions for doing that are a nightmare — as you know. Secondly, they weren’t around their computer to sync it. You’ve got people who are on the move, have their own planes, whatever. But they want it, they’re ready to go, and show it off at a specific meeting.

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We had spent more time helping them get the app on their devices than finishing the prototype! It was starting to make us look bad. The technology was limiting us. So we spent the entire night before the keynote at WWDC last year trying to deal with this situation. Our CTO is saying, there’s got to be a better way to deal with this.

So. We go to the keynote, we go to a couple of sessions, and we see one that’s about iOS 4 that’s really unique, that talks about something that was not possible to do before iOS 4 and intended for the enterprise. So we go to the enterprise sessions to hear about this thing called “over the air.” I’m in this enterprise session, and at first my expectations are high, but then they’re crushed. But our CTO, Trystan Kosmynka, is already thinking, there’s a way to make it work! We don’t have to break any rules, we can just bend them. By that evening, we’d already built a prototype.

DH: Wow!

BS: So the use-case was this. We have two good friends, Neven Mrgan and Matt Comi. Neven’s a well known designer and Matt’s a great game developer. We go way back. Neven had just got here, and he had a beta of iOS 4 installed on his iPhone, so we get him on chat and we e-mail him this link with a web clip, and he says, “whoa, wait, what is this?” And we say, just tap on it. And it asks, “do you want to install this app?” And he was, like, screaming. He didn’t think it was possible. He started showing this to everyone at parties.

So you see right away, it solved the problem. He’s not at his home base. He’s not with his computer. But I didn’t want this to be a hack, I wanted it to be a real service. So we didn’t release it for months. We’re really a web company that has a passion for building consumer-based products. But this was so dear to our hearts. So we took a step back and thought about whether we were going to dedicate a significant amount of time, creativity and resources to product that’s really for mostly developers. Something would affect their customers, their testers and ultimately help the world build better apps. That was the grand vision. I really wanted us to have a focus and a mission. We took our time.

When we announced the private beta, we got flooded. People were saying, this is impossible! This is truly magical!

DH: Only magical because Apple has put up these artificial walls.

BS: That’s true too! It’s funny because we have these magical products like the iPad and the iPhone, especially the iPad — and it takes away from the magic when you show an iPad connected to a computer with a cable. Thus iCloud. So we were doing that a year ago for developers, and it seems like we still have to do it for developers.

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We’re building a company around it now. We have about 16 employees, and a good chunk of that is going to go over to TestFlight. Our mission truly is to help developers build better apps. And actually, TestFlight is just the start. We have a much grander vision that we’re slowly going to be leaking out. But we’re still doing our consulting work, working with the big brands. We’re working with the Discovery Channel. We’re signed to Creative Artist Agency. These are all fun, nothing to do with TestFlight, but it keeps our hands dirty…

DH: It lets you have to eat your own dog food.

BS: Exactly. TestFlight has been the culmination of many different talents and interests and we’re really excited about how sticky it’s been with developers.

DH: Well, it’s a developer’s dream come true.

BS: It is. It’s magical. It’s like, do you want to install the app? Here it is!

DH: It blew me away the first time I used it.

BS: People think, this should not be possible….

DH: Frankly, [laughing] it should be possible. Let’s be honest. Apple could change this tomorrow. And TestFlight no longer needs to exist. In theory.

BS: From a business standpoint, that’s completely correct. And that’s why … what you’ve seen right now from TestFlight is not really TestFlight. It’s just the nose of the plane. [laughing] There’s a whole body and tail. It’s an airliner. There are plenty of areas that this goes on to affect. For example, and we’re already doing it, you’ll see that we have reports going on now. There’s so much more to the beta testing process. So much to demystifying this black box of beta testing.

For example, you’re giving your betas to all these people, so we’re going to give you report cards on these people. So, they got the e-mail, but didn’t install it. Or they installed it, but they only used it for a minute. So we want to focus on this phenomenon of people signing up and getting this precious resource. Precious in that Apple only allows 200 UDIDs. So we’re gonna help you create a list, an, ah, deadbeat list. It creates transparency.

We announced that we’re going to put out an SDK this week. That’s a really big deal. You put a few lines of code in the app and the world opens up. Automatic crash reports. A feedback system that includes feature requests. We’re getting a much richer dialog going. We’re adding markers. Detection. Analytics. So all of a sudden, we start to become this really robust development platform. It’s really a testing platform. You get to be really serious about building better apps. It goes way beyond over the air distribution.

And somebody mentioned to me, what about Android? We’re not against using Android. It really is kinda sexy.

DH: But you’re not allowed to say that here!

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BS: What’s interesting here is that they don’t have that problem of UDID restriction. You just tap a link in an e-mail, put it in your drop box, and it’s all good to go. But if you think about it, a service like TestFlight is more valuable — due to the fragmentation issue. You’re not testing on all these devices. How can we help the developers understand the problems on all these different devices?

What we’re doing is helping create the rational developer. Who can decide based on data that’s been collected. And think about how they’re going to update their product. Or release their product. So I think we’ve identified a couple of tent poles on what it takes to build a better app.

So several things that come into play … number one is debugging. You want to be able to fix your app. Number two is listening to your customers. You don’t want to depend on those misguided ratings on iTunes. There’s got to be a better way. Number three is watching your testers, analytics. They say one thing, now let’s look at the analytics and see how it’s really performing. And finally, number four is iterating with a purpose. We want to take all this data that’s been spread out all over the place and add some intelligence to the process.

Then the whole thing creates a community. We’re here to help. We’re accumulating data about the kinds of things that all developers see. And it all starts with the SDK so you can dive deep and see all this data. So that’s what we’re doing.

DH: It’s great.

BS: And, in turn, we get to put this in big apps that have big impacts, like the Discovery Channel and see how people us it. It’s a very good proving ground for us. And it keeps a roof over our head as well.

DH: That couldn’t hurt.

BS: And that’s been the biggest question here: “Are you guys gonna start charging me? And is it gonna be traumatic when you do?” Or, “Why aren’t you charging me? Are you selling my data to some spam company?” No. Of course not. That’s against our terms of use and privacy policy.

My goal from the beginning has been to help ease this pain. The fact that we’re doing this for developers all over the world is a sense of pride for me and the company. We don’t want to stop there. We don’t feel like an indy developer should pay for that. It’s almost like, we shouldn’t be in this situation.

DH: But we are.

BS: But we are. Here’s a fix for it. Now the powers that be could flip a switch so that isn’t a problem anymore. But our goal has always been about building value beyond that. And working with the community to offer services that are much more valuable.

We have major, major brands, pretty much anybody doing anything big in mobile at all, that are using TestFlight. So my story is a bit of a Robin Hood story. These big companies don’t have a problem paying a good chunk of money a year for what is essentially an executive, pro level service. Why not let those companies pay the way for Joe developer in college who has just two apps. I really don’t want to charge him. I could say, here’s something of value, It would be very rational. I’m going to put a sticker price on it. But I’m trying to do something bigger here. The price just gets in the way.

DH: You can also look at it this way. Joe with his two apps probably isn’t going to see that it’s worth paying for this. He might be able to afford it, but perhaps he can’t wrap his head around paying for it. But he might work for a big company some day. [Both laughing.]

BS: Some day, we might identify a pro level version. But we haven’t clearly identified those elements, so I’m not going to rush into it. I want as many people right now using it as possible.

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DH: It sounds like you have the cash flow from the rest of your business coming in…

BS: Yes. It’s all very exciting. And we’re getting inquiries from investors. That pretty much validates what we’re trying to do for the community.

DH: Investors can force you to look at returns faster than you might want to.

BS: Right. Plus we’re in this new era of development. It’s not the wild west of the web anymore.

DH: There’s a Sheriff in town.

BS: There’s a Sheriff. And all the stakes are in the ground. And it’s all about: what side are you on? Facebook? Google? Apple? Think about the Web apps we had. What happend to the good old crazy days? They’re just about all gone. The playing field’s been set. It’s a new way to play. So if you’re an entrepreneur, a developer, you have to take these things into consideration. I’m not saying it’s bad. This type of experience that Apple’s defined is obviously phenomenal. It’s not without challenges, and I have some scars to show for it, but we’re having great fun. And doing something big in our own way.

DH: Ben, thanks for spending time with me.

BS: My thanks to you for reaching out to us.