What does it take to launch a successful startup in 2014? The honest answer to that question: not much. The real challenge is to create a startup built to survive the long haul.
Essentially, the idea is to create a product or service that enhances a necessity that can appeal to anyone, which is no easy feat. But designers Jeremy Le Van and Pierre Valade did just that. They left their comfortable jobs at Foursquare, took their idea of revolutionizing the age-old calendar and made it into a reality. After months of late nights and planning, the duo from Europe created Sunrise: a free calendar app redesigned to change the way you experience life. No longer just restricted to iOS mobile devices, the app, as of last month, is available on iPad.
Last week Complex sat down with 29-year-old Le Van via Skype, who opened up about leaving Foursquare, why he prefers New York City’s startup culture over Silicon Valley’s, and creating a philosophy behind a year-old app that’s already reached critical acclaim.
Interview by Diane Cho (@dianecho)
Complex: I noticed that you went to school in San Francisco. Did living in San Francisco influence you to pursue a startup?
Le Van: I’m originally from Belgium. I studied graphic design back home and decided to go pursue something else, something more into the technical and interactive field. I looked for different schools, especially in the US because it’s a lot more developed compared to Europe. I had some relatives in the Bay Area so that’s how I landed in SF. I eventually stayed there for four years. I was a pretty classic student, nothing crazy. San Francisco is the center of everything in technology so I was always trying to keep up.
Did you ever think that you’d be running your own company?
Not at the time. To be honest, my plan was to study in SF and fly back home. [Laughs] But the story didn’t play out that way. I got an opportunity to work in the Bay Area and went through several startups and eventually moved to New York to work at Foursquare. That’s actually where everything started. I was surrounded by entrepreneurs and people trying to start their own companies so I thought, maybe one day I would start my own.
You take the time to do the research on how people behave, how people react and the psychology behind it. That’s something we think is really important. I think we’re one of the few apps who tackle technology through design.
Last year, I read an article from Business Insider regarding your departure from Foursquare and came across the term “moonlighting.” Can you explain what that means and talk about your experience “moonlighting?”
It all happened really organically. It’s not like I was looking to do anything else [at Foursquare] but after a while, I was looking for new challenges. Foursquare is also where I met my co-founder Pierre. We realized that we liked to work together by day so why not also work together at night? That’s how everything started. We started the Sunrise Email Digest [a daily email sent out that had the contents of what your day would look like]. It launched in July 2012 and we got some traction. That’s when we realized that we could fill the gap between being an employee to launching our own startup. So I would say “moonlighting” wasn’t something we were looking to do, it was something that came pretty naturally by just being busy and building projects on the side.
How is the start up culture different in SF vs. NYC?
I would say SF is a bit mellower. People are less stressed. I know it sounds cliché but it really is. From my perspective, in our industry, I would say mostly everything happens in the west coast. The east coast is trying to catch up slowly and that’s a good thing. A year ago, Facebook opened an office in NYC and Twitter just opened one so you will see a lot more companies developing their activities on the east coast.
Do you prefer SF to NY?
I prefer NY. I like New York because of the energy and the fact that you’re able to talk to different people in different industries: fashion, advertising, social media, finance. It’s really interesting to cross through all of those industries compared to the west coast, where everyone works in tech. Everything revolves and evolves around tech and it can be very overwhelming.
What was is about calendars that attracted you to start Sunrise?
Pierre came up with the idea while contemplating his phone. You can say Instagram changed the way we take pictures, Facebook changed the way we message people but the calendar hasn’t evolved a lot. There was a big opportunity to build something around that. There was so much more to it than just building an app. You have to build an entire platform and ecosystem behind it. There was a huge opportunity for us to build something meaningful for people to use on a daily basis.
What about the name?
We wanted something simple. We wanted to be a part of something that people use every morning, something inspiring. And the sunrise is exactly that.
We wanted something simple. We wanted to be a part of something that people use every morning, something inspiring. And the sunrise is exactly that. You get up every morning to the sun. There are a lot of representations behind it, but it’s simple and you can remember it easily. It’s also very organic and natural. That’s also why we came up with the [Sunrise Email] digest. It’s an email that you got every morning at 6 a.m. because that’s supposedly when the sun rises. [The app] was kind of a transition move.
I also noticed that the Sunrise App changed from its original image to something much simpler. A lot of your success has come from having such a clean and vibrant design. Why have you focused so much on the design aspect and where did you find inspiration for your icon?
We wanted to make the calendar fun. We felt like the calendar right now is so boring and feels very corporate. Our experience at Foursquare also came into play because Foursquare is a lot about making it fun, checking in, lots of icons—they’re very playful. That’s one of the aspects we wanted to bring into the calendar—making it an enjoyable experience so you feel delighted every time you use it.
Yeah, definitely. During my research, I came across Pierre’s blog and I noticed a lot of references to Steve Jobs. I know he had a huge influence on using design as a tool to take technology to the next level. Is he a huge inspiration to you guys?
That’s a very deep question. [Laughs] Essentially, the essence of why we built Sunrise is because we wanted to build something we believe in. We wanted to build a philosophy the way Steve did. We wanted to empower the user in a way that people could be sensitive to those types of things. We’re trying to create little experiences. One of the people that we respect a lot is Steve Jobs but I would say that almost everyone in the industry would say that. So beyond that, we relate to how people think at IDEO, a design consultant company. If you want to design a new toothbrush or design a new soap dispenser, they will do it for you. They start by doing a bunch of research. We see things the same way. It’s really a mindset. You take the time to do the research on how people behave, how people react and the psychology behind it. That’s something we think is really important. I think we’re one of the few apps who tackle technology through design.
So how do you maintain that balance between keeping your app simple enough to use and also having a lot of features?
That’s tricky. You really have to analyze what is vital to your product. We’re still trying to tackle a lot of issues but we’re also trying to focus on a really specific experience. I think having one goal helps the app remain simple. That’s also how we felt about Foursquare. Foursquare is about recommendations, but it’s also about friends, and the gaming aspect. At one point, they had a hard time focusing on one thing so they had to take a step back. We learned a ton from the mistakes they made and how we wanted Sunrise to be. We’re always trying to ask ourselves, is the app still easy to use?
I noticed that you guys have been releasing videos. For someone who watched them for the first time, I got a sense of tranquility. Almost like, check your calendar daily but also feel calm while you do it. Appreciate what’s ahead. Is that what you were going for?
Exactly. I’m glad you’re saying that because that’s exactly the message we were trying to communicate so it feels good. We wanted something very simple. It’s definitely about the app but it’s also about remaining calm and making it easy- something that used to be boring, make it fun, making it look pleasing.
The most important part to remember is that a startup is a human experience. You better make sure you’re working with the people you want to work with.
How much has your staff expanded and what’s a typical day like at Sunrise? Do you guys hang out?
We’re a team of 7 now. A typical day is pretty quiet. We all have our tasks we need to work on. We try to do weekly drinks with the team or weekly dinner. We’re trying to keep everything personal because that’s something we learned from working at Foursquare. When I joined, there were about 60 people and then they grew to about 150. Growing really fast in a short amount of time is something that really hurts the company because everything becomes impersonal. The human aspect is really important.
What is the best advice you can give people who are trying to build their own company?
The most important part to remember is that a startup is a human experience. You better make sure you’re working with the people you want to work with. I went from meeting Pierre to meeting other people we hired, who are fun and enjoyable to work with. Try to work on an idea that you are most passionate about. Too often I meet people with ideas that sound cool on paper but they’re either not executing them well or they’re not as passionate as they should be. That’s another reason why startups don’t necessarily succeed. People aren’t excited enough.
What’s the future hold for Sunrise?
It’s bright. [Laughs] It’s pretty exciting to be honest. We just reached 500,000 subscribed users on the service and today we’re at 600,000. And that’s just with iPhone and iPad. We just launched our iPad app and in a few weeks we’ll be launching our desktop version. Later down the road we’ll tackle Android. There’s a lot more coming soon such as trying to connect your calendar to other services like Zipcar and Ticketmaster. There are a lot of opportunities for us. We also want to tackle more partnerships with companies and build a calendar that’s more connected, as it should be in 2014. But we’re most excited about our space and seeing things evolve.