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There are millions of apps out there. Many are very successful, but most are not. What are the steps taken by successful app makers that distinguish them from unsuccessful ones? In addition, many people have ideas for an app but don't know where to begin. What are the steps you need to take to create a successful app? As part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Robert Steele.

Robert Steele is the Founder, Chief Executive Officer and Chairman of Thumzup Media. Prior to his current role, Robert served as CEO of two publicly traded companies, Quintek, which provided business process outsourcing services to Fortune 500 clients like Amgen, FedEx, GMAC and Ecolab (NYSE: ECL), and Rightscorp, a software company that searches the Internet for copyright infringement. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Electronic Engineering and Computer Science from George Mason University.

Thank you so much for joining us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to "get to know you" a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your 'backstory' and how you grew up?

Being born in Virginia and having always been a technologist at heart, I learned to program a computer at eight years old, and by the time I was 12, I purchased an Apple II and started building computer game controllers. In fact, I had lunch with Steve Wozniak, my idol at the time, when I was a teenager.

After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in Electronic Engineering and Computer Science from George Mason University, I created one of the first PC-based GIS systems (Graphical Information Systems) for the Fairfax County cable television system. This system was one of the first times utility maps for an entire county could be edited and maintained on PC-based technology. 

Since then, I have served as CEO of two publicly traded companies. One provided business process outsourcing services to Fortune 500 clients like Amgen, FedEx, GMAC and Ecolab (NYSE: ECL), processing more than $1B a year in accounts payable transactions for Ecolab and scanning more than 30 million pages of loan documentation for GMAC. The other developed software that searches the Internet for copyright infringement. To date, more than $1B in civil judgments have been awarded to copyright holders based on the case law that resulted from this technology.

Most of us have been around a lot longer than apps have. What were your hobbies and interests in your youth before anyone knew what an 'app' was?

I have always loved outdoor activities since I was a child. I belong to a hiking club and go most every weekend. I am also a musician and actively perform and write music. I play the keyboard, guitar, and vocals. 

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?

At 25 years old, my business partners and I had 30 employees and many major clients in the computer-aided design space. I used to think it was imperative for potential customers to understand what computer “bits and bytes” were. I eventually learned that what I think is essential to a customer may often not be important.  Over time, I have learned to ask questions and find out what is important to our customers.

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I tend to meet two types of app developers; people who are passionate about app development and technology and people who started an app because they saw it as a means to solve a problem. Which camp would you put yourself in, and how did you arrive there?

I am a bit of both, but the drive to make technology that improves people’s lives is my main motivator. I love the process of building technologies and companies, but the core solution that the Thumzup platform brings to people is what drives me to put in the time and energy required to make it successful. With Thumzup, I am excited about building a community that rewards everyday people for helping brands and businesses get more customers.

What kept you motivated to develop your first minimum viable product, and how have you kept your momentum since then?

I genuinely wanted to make a way for everyone, not just a couple of huge gatekeepers to benefit financially from the massive digital advertising spending occurring everywhere around the world. I also thought it was challenging for businesses to go through big advertising conglomerates to market their products and services to the masses. I am a technical guy and find buying digital ads from big companies complicated.

With Thumzup, we’re democratizing the advertising industry, much like Uber did for transportation and Airbnb did for short-term rentals. We’ve developed a cost-effective way for businesses to advertise their product, while at the same time enabling virtually everyone to earn money by making qualified posts on their social media accounts about the products and services they love.

Can you tell us a bit about your app? How does it help people? What do you think makes it stand out? What are you most proud of? 

We’re the only platform we’re aware of that not only allows brands to directly connect with consumers, but also pays the users cash for their advocacy – not points or some virtual currency – for making qualified posts on social media about the products and services they love. 

At Thumzup, we believe everyone’s voice has value. We’re helping individuals earn extra cash to help pay their bills, support their families, and live better lives. We have already had users say that their extra income from Thumzup has directly improved their monthly food budget. At the same time, Thumzup helps businesses empower their growth by incentivizing customers to become advocates. Instead of their advertising budgets being sent to conglomerates in New York or Los Angeles, the vast majority of the ad spend stays with customers in their local communities to help foster their growth.

Approximately how many users or subscribers does your app currently have? Can you share with our readers three of the main steps you've taken to build such a large community?

We just exited our beta test phase in late November, so we are still in the early stages. We are growing quickly, with a more than 500% increase in advertisers on our platform in less than two months in our initial rollout area of the Westside of Los Angeles.

We have taken three main steps:  

  1. Using street teams to educate both users and advertisers;
  2. Online visibility on social media;
  3. And a billboard campaign starts going up at the end of January, which should increase awareness with both users and advertisers.

As we move toward a critical mass of local activities, we expect local user adoption to grow virally as more potential advertisers and users become aware of Thumzup. To this point, we have had advertisers sign up with us after seeing Thumzup in action at a neighboring store. Our goal is to ensure that both advertisers and users have a great experience, so they keep returning to Thumzup. People are posting about our advertisers every day. If you google #thumzup, you can find lots of posts. We are thrilled to see how great many of them look.

What is your monetization model? How do you monetize your community of users?

Thumzup generates revenue by taking a percentage of the money given to us by advertisers to pay their brand advocates for making qualified posts. Thumzup succeeds when our clients and users succeed – that’s always been the model that makes the most sense for us. We aim to capture a significant percentage of the tens of billions of dollars the 31 million small businesses in America spend each year on advertising. If we do so, we believe Thumzup could reach “unicorn” status.

We believe in keeping it simple. Uber is simple. We have a straightforward way for brands and businesses to pay people digital cash to post about the brand or business on social media. We have an effortless way for someone to get paid to post about brands and businesses they like. Now we scale it regionally, nationally and globally.

Can you tell our readers about the most unconventional tactic you've used to test, market, or gain feedback on a product? What did you try, what was unique about it, and what was the outcome?

I would say that the core of our value proposition, connecting advertisers with their fans so they can pay them for their social media posts, is, in fact, unconventional and is in of itself the feedback. What I learned from the previous technology companies I founded is that sustainable, steady growth should be the goal. We’re taking the time to incorporate the feedback we get from our community, ensure our systems and backend can scale, and market cost-effectively to ensure we’re maximizing our resources. 

What are some of the strategies you have used to improve your products and build on their success?

We’re always listening to client and user feedback, especially through our street teams in the areas we operate in and incorporating that feedback into our product to ensure we’re best serving our stakeholders.

Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a very successful app? If you can, please share a story or an example for each. 

  1. Identify a problem you want to solve for the next decade of your life.
  2. Find a co-founder and early employees whose skills complement your own and who are willing to work as hard as you are to build a successful company.
  3. Find investors with experience building startups who share your vision for the long-term potential of your company and ask for sufficient money to build the product and run operations for at least a year. 
  4. Listen to customer feedback and constantly iterate on your app to ensure it best addresses the problem you’re looking to solve.
  5. Start small in a limited geographic area with a limited client base and a limited feature set, to get the product and systems right before you aggressively expand. This will save a significant amount of time and resources.

If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

If there is something I could do, I would empower people – which is what Thumzup is doing. We are empowering people. We believe that your voice has value and want to help billions of people get paid for that.

We also believe in the democratization trend you have seen with Uber, Airbnb, Robinhood and even crypto, where people want to be part of the story and share in the rewards. That is why we are financing the company in a manner that almost anyone can invest. Usually, only well-connected large investors get access to the high potential returns of companies at our stage. On our website, almost anyone can click on a link to invest directly in Thumzup and benefit with us financially as we make this a global movement.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Visit one of our advertisers and get paid to post! Download the Thumzup app on the Apple Store or on Google Play! Our website, ThumzupMedia.com, has excellent information and is regularly updated with our latest news.  If you google Thumzup, you will see press releases, video testimonials and even social media posts from our users.

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By Hannah Clark

Hannah Clark is the Editor of The Product Manager. Following six years of experience in the tech industry, she pivoted into the content space where she's had the pleasure of working with some of the most brilliant voices in the product world. Driven by insatiable curiosity and a love of bringing people together, her mission is to foster a fun, vibrant, and inspiring community of product people.