The Developer's Journey

October 15, 2015 • Blog Post • By Atlantic Re:think


  • App developers Mahdi Shariff and Diego Gullo discuss the ups and downs of their latest project

Follow inveterate entrepreneur Mahdi Shariff and software engineer Diego Gullo as they experience the dizzying ride from hackathon to investors

The journey of all app developers, which they will tell you feels like a lot more than a thousand miles, begins with a single step: a great idea. After that, the thrill of discovery gets mixed up with all manner of challenges and setbacks, followed by vows to press on through every obstacle, all while continuing to develop the concept and hone the app. The pivotal moment comes when the developer pitches the idea to angel investors.

What follows is the beginning of one such journey.

In June of this year, the developers behind a business intelligence app called Newsense, joined a 24-hour hackathon in London's Silicon Roundabout, a tech cluster located in the city's Old Street area. The team had formed on the spot, strangers before that day. Diego Gullo, a software engineer, wandered around to impromptu groups of developers and programmers - think pick-up basketball - until he met Mahdi Shariff, who proposed an interesting idea.

"I said, 'Let's do it.' We grabbed a desk, and there we went," says Gullo, 36, an Italian immigrant who welcomes the opportunity to work with people he doesn't know. "If you stick to a routine and your usual comfort zone, you might not be learning as much as you would if you tried other things. At a hackathon, I get challenged to progress in a very short amount of time."

Neither developer was unfamiliar with the quick thinking that a hackathon demands. Gullo had long dreamed of bringing an app to market, which is one of the reasons he goes to hackathons. The closest he got was when a team he had joined took fourth place for a web widget that aggregates travel reviews.

Shariff, the son of Sri Lankan immigrants, had shown signs of entrepreneurship since childhood. At 11, he bought and resold candy. Two years later, he started a business selling mobile phones, which ultimately paid his way through college. While there, he founded a careers blog for fellow students. After graduation, he worked briefly at a parenting startup and also helped create a platform to connect professionals to volunteer opportunities.

Midway through the competition that brought the two together, the team suffered a setback, one of many that developers face. The app just wasn't working as conceived.

Armed with what Shariff, a 25-year-old polymath, called "negative know-how" - what you learn after things have gone wrong - they brainstormed and pulled an all-nighter toiling at their laptops, and the next day they took the top prize: a chance to get a spot in an accelerator program sponsored by AngelHack, which organizes and hosts similar events around the world. Among the most anticipated rewards are the introductions AngelHack makes for the developers with entrepreneurs, technologists and investors.

But that was only round one. They still had to compete against other AngelHack winners for the chance to travel to Silicon Valley, where they would have the opportunity to pitch their app and make connections.

After the AngelHack competition, Shariff's four-person team dwindled to two. One member of the team moved to Beijing, and another just moved on. Shariff and Gullo stayed with the idea, spending nights and weekends crisscrossing London for late evening meetings over kitchen tables and late-night conference calls to Silicon Valley, where the accelerator program is based.

After his day job researching mergers and acquisitions at Ernst & Young, Shariff's second shift as an app developer begins. The sticky notes and posters on the walls of his room - a step-by-step guide on how to get PR, a list of advertising technology companies in China, world maps and a Polaroid of Kristo Kaarman, chief executive of TransferWise, a peer-to-peer international money transfer business - reflect that identity.

As it evolved, Newsense became a research and due-diligence tool that would enable investors and other interested parties to get the latest business, PR and financial information about a company with a simple, but surgically precise, search. Target customers included investment bankers and professional services firms that need to research a company and benchmark it against competitors. At its heart is an algorithm that helps users find and analyze the most important metrics by crunching metadata on sentiment, the reach of called articles and influence of the source - all in real-time.

According to Shariff, the pace of invention has sped up with the help of technology such as GoogleDocs to share their work; Slack, a project management tool; and Hewlett Packard Enterprise's IDOL, which enables developers to do quick searches and index data intelligently to find valuable information. With IDOL, he says, "it's about plugging it in and building a new product and proposition. There's something intrinsically rewarding about going from an idea to something functional. It's about taking a concept and refining it to solve a key problem for a specific group of users."

Over the summer, Shariff tested the Newsense concept with hypothetical users, sending links to colleagues across Ernst & Young to analyze which features would be most relevant, which they disliked and what it would take to make them switch from existing solutions. Meanwhile, Gullo started implementing that feedback into the app. He praised HP's API, which is an interface through which developers can perform actions stored in a library of programming code. An API is like a menu at a restaurant: customers order a hamburger, but don't need to fry the patty or cut ingredients to get their order delivered to their table. Likewise, by using an API, developers don't need to program all the steps to perform a function.

In the weeks leading up to "decision day" in late September - when AngelHack competitors find out whether or not they're going to Silicon Valley - Gullo began worrying that the team wasn't strong enough. They needed more people to broaden their skillsets and spread the workload. "I haven't managed to clone myself yet," he said wryly.

But by then it was too late. AngelHack's technologists, marketers and investors base their selections on team performance, or how quickly they have progressed outside the accelerator program.

Gullo says he was disappointed but not surprised when he learned their team was not going to advance in the accelerator program, missing out on training in sales pitching and demonstrating their product to potential Silicon Valley investors. By then, he felt he had exhausted himself by working on Newsense while continuing his day job as a contract developer for a travel company.

For now, Gullo plans to turn back to the travel-review widget, but he hasn't given up on Shariff's idea. "Newsense is worth keeping in mind," he says. "There are a few important aspects, but it's going to be a second-level priority. We'll proceed with baby steps, as opposed to accelerator steps."

Meanwhile, Shariff will devote more time to an idea he has for an advertising technology startup in China called qll Biddingx, which allows users to buy online advertising across video, mobile and PCs in real-time. In pursuit of that dream, he has traveled to China six times in the last 18 months, but he hasn't given up on Newsense either.

"Entrepreneurship," he says, "is about taking rejection well."


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