Killer app

IN an old episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, the cast of the iconic Seinfeld TV show get together for a reunion.

The year is 2009, and we learn that George Costanza has made a fortune by developing an iPhone app called iToilet, which tells you the location of the nearest public restroom. Sadly for George, he loses all his money by investing it with the king of ponzie schemes, Bernie Madoff—a cautionary though hilarious tale for technology entrepreneurs who hope to hit it big by creating the next killer app.

Of course, the thought that even a loser like George can strike it rich by developing a phone application isn’t all that far-fetched these days, with smart phones outselling PCs since 2011, and with our growing obsession to share everything over the Internet. All you need is a good idea and the determination and skills to pursue it.

For 24-year-old Garrett Gee, a Filipino-American now based in San Francisco, that meant being able to start his own company with two school buddies in Provo, Utah, while he was still studying industrial and graphic design, computer science and entrepreneurship, and playing soccer at Brigham Young University. His idea: using mobile transaction technologies such as QR codes (similar but more versatile than barcodes) to connect the real and digital worlds.

At a recent roundtable discussion organized by the US Embassy in Manila, Gee shared his story and some early lessons he learned after scaring up $1.7 million in initial funding from the likes of Google and other Silicon Valley investors.

“When I first came across QR codes about a year ago, I thought it was brilliant. I thought it was some sort of magic that information was on a piece of paper and now it’s in my phone,” Gee said. “I thought it was so cool that I decided to do a little research on it.”

What Gee found was that while the QR technology (invented by a subsidiary of Toyota of Japan) was versatile, applications that used it were poorly designed and difficult to use.

“You had cool technology but poor design, so my goal was to create a product that was as beautiful and simple to use as the technology was brilliant and cool.”

In early 2011, Gee and university friends Kirk Ouimet and Ben Turley founded Scan Inc., and created two products: a Web site (http://www.scan.me) that could create customized QR codes for individuals and companies, and a free iPhone application that could read the codes.

The application grew far more popular than Gee expected.

“I remember the day Scan went live in the Apple App Store and I took a picture of it so I could show my friends and jumped up on a table at a party telling everyone there to download my app. And I was very excited because I got 12 people to download my app, thinking that’s not bad for one night.”

The next day, however, Gee and his partners found that 2,000 people had downloaded the app. The next day, it was 5,000, and by the end of the week, 10,000 a day.

By the end of the year, it became clear that Scan would overshoot its modest goal of 1 million downloads by a mile. Today, the company has 10 million users in 77 countries, and made the application available on Android devices as well.

The application’s popularity made it possible for the “three young kids from a small town in Utah” to generate $1.7 million in seed money in exchange for 20 percent of the company. This, in turn, has allowed them to hire more people and move to a fancier and more strategically located office in San Francisco.

Gee had three lessons to share from his first year as a technology entrepreneur: be yourself, do what you love, and develop real skills.

“Be yourself. Potential investors would look at me and say, ‘Omigosh, you’re just a kid.’ So in some meetings, I tried to act more experienced than I was, and they could see right through me and turned us down,” Gee said. “They were more likely to say yes when I was true to myself.”

“Do what you love,” Gee continued. “This is the most blessed part of this experience because while my friends and family think I’m working 24×7, I feel I have not worked a day in my life because I’m doing what I love.”

Finally, Gee urged budding technology entrepreneurs to develop real skills.

“This is near and dear to me. Do your best to develop real skills because that’s your plan B,” he said, recalling how he honed his skills as a freelance Web designer before starting Scan Inc.

With more enthusiasm than any hardened cynic might curb, Gee also encouraged local startups to pursue their dreams.

“[Information to build] 99 percent of the skills we needed could be found online. All you need is access to the Internet. If you want to build something and sell it to the world, you can do it. Nothing I’ve done can’t be done by a student here.”

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