Sunny Uppal From Apple Music's Planet Of The Apps Talks About The Startup Life

We recently got a chance to sit down with Sunny Uppal and Arianna Chiriff, who teamed up to create Tracks -- a fitness app for watchOS that was recently featured on Apple Music's new original series, Planet of the Apps. On the show, app creators are given the opportunity of a lifetime. If their concepts are chosen by entrepreneur advisors Jessica Alba, Gwyneth Paltrow, Gary Vaynerchuk, or will.i.am, developers will be mentored on how to pitch their app to Lightspeed Venture Partners for a chance at real funding. 

Hey Sunny. Congratulations on the show! So tell us, how did you decide to become an app developer?

I was a music major, and used to be in a band, but one day my dad said, "Why don't you try programming?" I was like, "okay, maybe." Then there was this pivotal ad that will.i.am did for code.org and he was talking about how coders were today's rock stars. I was really interested into that and it fit with the vibe I was in at the time so I thought, "Yeah. Hey, let's do this. Let's go learn to code and let's go start programming."

Give us an overview of what your app does. 

Basically, it's a way to tap into motivations that you already have. There's already tons of apps out there that motivate you ... There's already tons of apps out there that show you how to exercise. They show you how to do fitness and they say, "You should do this exercise to gain these abs," or "You should do these exercises to have toned muscles and arms," and stuff like that, but there's not a lot of apps that really focus in on that core element, which is getting people motivated to go and do these exercises in the first place, and that's what we really want to hit as our key goal with this app.

Making sure that being motivated to do fitness is fun. By making fitness fun, we're looking at fitness from a different perspective than a lot of apps are today. A lot of apps just take it as a given that exercise is hard, and you're going to have to be, "No pain no gain." Why do we have to talk about that all the time in terms of, "Man, it's going to suck to workout. It's going to really be a chore to workout." Why don't we look at it in from a different angle, "Hey, you're going to get rewarded for this if you do the workouts. You're going to have new characters. You're going to have new badges and attacks. You're going to be able to socialize more if you do this." You drive the focus from the pain point and drive it towards how we're solving it and driving it to make sure people are interested in the fun aspect of it.

How did you meet your co-founder, Arianna?

We met in the most low-tech of ways. Once I started coding there was a competition at school that I wanted to enter. I needed a designer, but didn't know how to find anybody on campus who was an Art major so I literally just put up a piece of paper with pull away tabs that had my contact information. I was just like, "Hey, let's go be part of the competition. I'm a programmer. You must be an artist. Let's go." Then it just started from there.

We won second place in that competition and we thought, "Hey, we could really make this work. We could make apps on our own. We don't need a competition to tell us how to do the next thing." So we made another app, and that app got featured on the App Store. That was a game app called Bouncy Buzz Blastoff. That was the first time that we had any sort of success.

The whole process of making that app only took about four months, and it really set this dynamic between us. She has this creative force and she's not just going to say yes to everything that I'm throwing at her. She's going to have her own voice and have a direction when it comes to art." Because we experienced that success, we wanted to continue to build apps, and that eventually led to us appearing on Planet of the Apps.

What's your background, Arianna?

Arianna Chiriff

Arianna Chiriff

Arianna: My background is in art. For as long as I can remember I've always loved art. I don't remember when I started drawing, but I guess it was just something that I found myself to be really good at, hopefully. I enjoyed it a lot. In terms of the game animation industry, I found that I could produce ideas really quickly, which is something that people look for. I felt like I could hone that and ... I wanted to join a team.

I told myself before college was over that if I saw an opportunity, I wanted to go ahead and take it because I never knew where it was going to take me. I saw the poster that Sunny mentioned, and I was like, "Man, there's already one tab pulled off. Damn, I have to get on this. I need to email this person right now. I'm not going to let this get away." I emailed him and that was it.

You mentioned the idea of coders being the next rockstars. Is that ultimately what motivated you to go down the path you did?

I didn't think the intention was to just be a rockstar from coding. I didn't really think that was actually a possibility. I honestly just thought, "Hey, this is actually really cool." Making music and coding are actually very similar. When you think about the process, you have to work in a team, which is your band or, your development team. 

In music, there's lots of things you can learn. There's like, "Oh, I'm learning to play guitar. I want to sing," or "I want to be involved in the business aspect of it." All that kind of stuff. There's a lot to learn, and that's similar to coding. At the end of the day, you're putting your things on to an Apple platform, iTunes Store, App Store, what's the difference? It's like it's the same job. It was just like a natural progression into a different creative medium.

What was the actual inspiration behind building a fitness app?

I'm a WWDC Scholarship recipient so I got to go to WWDC for free last year. During that time, I saw that there was a huge push for health and fitness at the conference. I thought, "Okay, I've never done this. This is a new challenge," and on top of that, SceneKit, which is a 3D development technology for iOS was coming to watchOS where most of the push for health was directed towards.

We thought about how can we merge our expertise, which we already had from the last game, and 3D development on this new technology that's right about to come out for watchOS, and make it about this growing trend in health and fitness? It was all these things coming together. We saw this huge problem, which is actually not staying fit or what reps you need to do or anything like that. To us, the biggest problem the workout in the first place.

At that point, what I really remembered was that my dad used to motivate us as kids in this really interesting way. I wanted to play video games. It's very simple, kids play video games. We used to have a swimming pool, and my dad made a deal with me that for every few laps I did, I would get a few more minutes playing video games. I was like, "Why don't we just make an app out of this same concept," and it all merged together. 

What was that process of getting on the show like?

We saw this website that had an open casting call for developers who have apps at least in the beta stage to come and show their apps off. We looked at the website and we didn't know if this was real or not because we thought, "Does Apple have shows or real original content. Is this a real thing?"

What really made us believe it and take the next step of submitting our application was an event we went to in Venice with more information on Planet of the Apps, and will.i.am was there. I didn't actually go up to him and say hi or anything, but he was there and we we said, "Okay, well, it's definitely legit. Let's take the next step now." 

What advice do you have for young entrepreneurs like yourselves? Any tips, best practices, or general learnings from your experience?

Arianna: If you see that poster on the wall, call the number on it! Anything that I think might be an opportunity, I feel like I have to jump on it, because you never know where anything's going to take you. You don't know, and it's fun. It's just fun to be surprised, like, "Wow, look where I am now." It's great. Don't be afraid to take risks.

Sunny: Yeah, absolutely, adding to that idea -- there's a lot of people who have cool ideas and want to take it to somebody, but they don't actually have that will power or volition to actually go and do it. At the end of the day, if you think you have a great idea, if you think you see a great opportunity and you know this is what you want to do, then go for it.

Don't say, "Maybe I'll do it someday," or, "Maybe I'll do it when I have enough money." That's the whole point. That's the whole struggle everybody talks about. It's like, "Their kids only do it because they have enough money to do this." No. The first app we made, we did in an 8x4 ft. room with no air conditioning in the middle of summer. Our whole budget was maybe like less than $500 for anything. Art, apps, coding, everything included. Nothing outside of that. In total we did it and we were featured on the app store. If you have access to the internet somehow from a library or your laptop, you have the resources. Go learn the skills to get your idea out there.

Great coders are today’s rockstars.
— will.i.am

Arianna: I think it's very important to be working with other people because they have insights that you might not have. You'll be happy to hear these ideas or have that back and forth arguing, but will end up in you guys figuring out something that you never thought, you know, "Oh, I never considered putting that in our app." I think that's very important. Ask questions. 

Take us back to the episode of Planet of the Apps, Sunny. What was it like doing your elevator pitch? 

It was one take, which is pretty insane. You always hear the stories about having your pitch ready to go at a moments notice because you might actually be in an elevator or a situation where you have to pitch right there and then. You have to know exactly what you're talking about.

I don't think I was as nervous just going down the escalator because I felt prepared, but at the same time, I thought to myself, "If this machine stops for a second, or one of the judges was looking at me a certain way and I didn't just didn't feel like they were vibing whatever I was saying, then it could have thrown me off.

The funny thing is, during that whole process, I didn't have my glasses on so I couldn't actually see anything that was going on. It sort of took a little bit of the stress off. Will and Jessica Alba and Gary and Gwyneth, they all just looked like blurs to me when I was standing in front of them getting advice. I was hoping that I was making eye contact.

What are some of the lessons you've learned from that experience? 

It taught me a lot about where I fit into my own business. Am I the person to go and pitch? Am I the person to stay and do the coding? What parts of this business can you have someone else on your team to do? Is this where you want to see yourself? All these kinds of things are questions that you have to ask yourself going into this process.

So how's the launch of the app going?

It's going good. We love all the feedback we're getting. Not just the good reviews, but also the ones that may be more critical, because they're actually helping us develop a better application. If we look at those reviews and we took them as like, "Oh my God. [00:19:00] I failed because somebody says my app sucks or something." No, who cares. The whole point is ... They actually have enough interest in the app to write something about it.

The feedback is usually like, "It's missing this," or "I really want to see this. If it had this cool feature. If it was simpler to understand," or if it was this and that. That's all helpful to us. At no point am I thinking like, "Man I'm so bummed out about ... I got one bad review or 50 bad reviews." I'm just like, "Wow, this is like free testing. This is getting people involved in our story." Getting people to be interested enough to have an opinion of something is not easily accessible. It's almost a luxury for some people to say like, "I had enough feedback to make an informed decision about where I wanted to take the product next.

I love it. I love every process. Maybe some of the apps on the show were further along in their business, maybe [inaudible 00:20:20] apps for like two years, we launched the app two weeks before our episode aired. We only got a little bit of time to really see like, "Oh, maybe there's an issue here. Maybe we can correct this." Given that we're very new, I feel like we're right in the spot where we want to be. We launched, we had people interested in the app. We had enough of that working for people to give us feedback on what they want to see next. I think that's really crucial for us at this point. See what works and what doesn't when we get a rating on the app.

What are the next steps for Tracks now that you've launched the app?  

With Tracks, we have some really great ideas as to where to take the content. There's a lot of different types of foxes, trying to make it more social. How do we make the battles more engaging. These are all things that we're going to be tackling in the next iterations. I think the one thing that Lightspeed was really interested in was the social angle. What they had said was that if we wanted to build a brand faster and on a budget, then it makes that social element super critical and key to that sort of success."

If we can make sure that the social element of our game and of our app is really driving people to engage their friends that will help us take the app to the next level much faster. I think we've already got a lot of content in there, and we're going to keep creating content because we're creative and we love putting in new skins and new things people can do in the app. Making sure that our users are invested in Tracks comes down to making sure that the social experience is on point.

Do you have any plans beyond Tracks?

We're creatives and so we want to keep creating and not stop ourselves from thinking about more ideas within the space. Within the same formula in the vain of making something that usually seems like a chore or something that you have to do or something that's mostly utility into something that's entertainment and fun. Looking at things from a different angle.