This post is the first in an upcoming series of posts about civic startups. What’s a civic startup? Find out. Code for America recently launched a civic startup accelerator to help promote and “turbo charge” civic startups. We’re accepting applications for the accelerator now through June 1. Apply: codeforamerica.org/accelerator
Jonathan Wegener is founder/CEO of Timehop.com, a simple service that answers the question “What did you do this day last year?” Jonathan loves building technology products and is the co-creator of Exit Strategy NYC. We asked Jonathan a few questions about founding a civic startup. He was kind enough to indulge our curiosity. Here are his responses to our inquiries:
How did you get into tech and particularly “civic” tech, and why did you found Exit Strategy NYC?
I’ve always been interested in technology and from an early age was programming, and building my own computers, and then designing and building websites. We founded Exit Strategy NYC because I got tired of not knowing where to stand on the subway when I got to my home station in Brooklyn. I started writing down the information in the notepad of my iPhone and then realized “this should be an app.” I found someone had done it for Tokyo, and as a book in Toronto, but never NYC. I love NYC; I’ve been living here eight years and I couldn’t imagine that I was the only one who would care about a product like this. So we built it.
What were the challenges of creating and maintaining the app and how did you deal with them? How much success did you have (e.g. revenue, etc.)?
The biggest challenge was getting the data. My sister and I bought unlimited metrocards and spent three months riding the subways with a clipboard visiting every station and writing down how each station’s doors lined up with the train cars. We also had to find and hire designers and developers to work on the project with us. We had a lot of success and made enough to repay our expenses and make it worth our time. We also got articles about the product in New York Times, New York Post, Wired magazine, and a host of others.
Could you talk about your current project, Timehop, and what you plan on building in the future?
We’re building Timehop.com right now. It’s an incredibly addictive daily email that tells you what you did a year ago today, based on your Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Foursquare content. The real time web has given us all rich archives of our lives, but right now they’re siloed in different services and devices. We’re building Timehop into the ultimate digital history experience.
Your blog says you were told you “think too much,” in job interview. You didn’t get the job, but it was the greatest compliment you’ve gotten. Could you provide some more context about the incident, and explain why it was the greatest compliment?
I was interviewing with a startup in 2008. I was meeting their CEO, a very very smart Russian man with a background in data and number crunching and math. We talked for a long while about the job and about whether I fit. Finally he remarked “you think too much” and later rejected me. It was the greatest compliment because it was an incredibly underhanded compliment. He was basically telling me I was overqualified…I can’t think of a better way to get rejected from a job!
And finally, do you have any words of advice for others who want to start a civic-minded tech initiative such as Exit Strategy NYC, or want to use tech to improve gov’t/community?
Be creative and build cool stuff that the community loves!