Drew Wilson is designer, developer and entrepreneur who builds and sells digital products and services. He has built a multitude of products like Plasso, an app that makes accepting payments easy and KidCam, an iPhone app for parents to allow kids to take fun pictures with overlays of things like monster faces. Drew is also co-founder of Valio Con.
Interview by Cesar Contreras
Cesar: Pencil or pixel?
Drew: I would choose pixel because if you were to measure my time and how often I actually push pixels versus push pencils, I push pixels way more. By pixels, I guess you could also… If you factor in coding, you know, because that requires pixels–it’s even more. I spend more of my time coding than I design just because the fact that–no one’s gonna like this when I say this–timewise, design is easier than development. If you’re going to design a product, the design phase never ends. It’s through the lifecycle of the product but it’s the same with development. To design one screen might take, you know, depending if you’re a single person, it’ll take you a certain amount of time. If you’re a team it’ll take you way longer to design a screen but then the same goes if you’re a single developer. It’ll take you a certain amount of time to develop one thing. If you’re a team of developers it’ll probably take you a lot longer because that’s just how it works when you break up work. It usually gets done not as quick. I guess if it’s something massive, a team’s gonna do it faster but I don’t know. It’s always… development cycles always are longer than design just because there’s more to do, you know. There’s more to do. You can make the interface look really awesome. That’s not really design, that’ aesthetics and they go on top of the design, but the design… how it works, that’s the part of the interface stuff that takes the longest. How to make it simpler, how to make it more obvious, how to make it work towards the demographic, that kind of stuff. That takes a lot of time. Just saying those same exact things with the exception of the aesthetics applies to the developer. They have to do the exact same stuff, except in development, there’s more to do.
Cesar: Yeah, do you consider yourself more of a developer or a designer?
Drew: I consider myself a designer more than a developer even though I develop more than I design. The reason is because that’s what I started out doing and if you were to ask me to work on something for you I would never do the development for you but I might do the design for you.
Cesar: You decided to jump into development strictly because you have all of these ideas that you want to launch. This is my guess, you don’t want to depend on other folks to do it for you. You want to bootstrap everything.
Drew: If you look at, for instance, my website on the top part of the website now I have some of my iPhone apps that I have made featured and there’s three iPhone apps there. Two of them are… I partner with a developer on… my buddy Eric and I made those two apps, KidCam and Bulk Delete together. I have no problem relying on somebody else to do the development work. I prefer it but when you get into situations when I got this great idea I want to build it out, it’s not always easy to find somebody who has the available time who’s good enough and who sees your vision and wants to do it with you. A lot of times it’s hard to find. If you’re just starting out and you don’t know anybody in the industry, you’ve gotta do it yourself. That’s where I was. I was like, I don’t know any developers, I don’t even know what a developer is. “I just gotta figure out how to make this Flash thing work,” you know, back in the day. That’s how it started. “I gotta figure out this PHP thing so I can make a database,” you know? So that’s how it started.
Drew: Now when it comes down to things like… I have this other iPhone app called OffOf. It’s a little calculator app and it’s like do I want to partner with somebody or do I just want to do this myself? It would be a lot faster if I do it myself because there’s really not anything to maintain with that app, you know? However, if it’s gonna be some service-based thing of course if you have the opportunity it’s always better to partner with somebody so that way you can each take a piece of the pie and a piece of the responsibility and it makes it easier on both of you. I actually prefer to partner up with somebody on stuff but there are certain things that I’ll do myself. For instance, Plasso which is a service and I’m doing it all myself. The only reason I’m doing that myself is because it started out as something really simple and then I decided to make it something bigger. I don’t know, I just decided it’ll be fun to do this one on my own.
Cesar: You have so many… I mean, it’s insane how many things you have here. I mean, Plasso–that’s number one. That’s the top app that you’ve built. I want to dig deep into your workflow. You know, how you work.
Drew: Yeah, for sure, I could shed some light on it. I have many ideas that I want to do and different things that I want to try out. I guess, if you want to hop into my brain, I’m not the only one doing it so I’m not unique in this way whatsoever. There’s not two schools of thought, but if you were to group two things together, you can group schools of thought into one camp that would be if you focus on one thing it’s going to be the best in the world so therefore get rid of everything and focus on one thing only and say no to everything, right? That’s like Steve Jobs’ philosophy. That’s like a lot of people’s philosophy and I don’t disagree with that at all. There’s the other one which is do whatever the heck you want to do, right? I’ve always been in that other camp of just do whatever the heck you want to do so that has led me to making a bunch of things and not really worrying about how much time they’re going to take up. It’s just like I’m going to make this so I’ll just make it and see what happens.
If you were to spend all of your time in the last ten years so like age 20 to age 30, if you spend all your time on one product, you would gain a lot of experience in that one particular field with that one particular product, however, if you spend those ten years doing a bunch of different things, you gain a bunch of experience in a bunch of different areas. Maybe not quite to the level as if you focused on one thing, however, after those ten years instead of ending up being an expert in, you know, this type of product you’re now an expert human being because you have a broader knowledge base and a broader experience base than if you had done it the other way. I’m of the mindset that my life is eighty years or more hopefully and there’s really no reason to get locked down into one thing.
I feel like, you know, if I focus on a bunch of things at once for now that’s fine and then I can move on to focusing on one thing. You’ve got plenty of time in that regard. You’ve got plenty of time to shift between these philosophies. That’s my mindset and that’s why I create so much stuff, so there’s a look into why I do it. The how I do it? It’s like seventeen years… let’s see, how long has it been… 1996 (thinking). Like eighteen years or more of experience of building websites, web pages. If you come across me now you say, “Oh my gosh, you’re doing all this stuff,” right? Well, even if you look at my site I don’t list everything I’ve done. I just list the stuff that’s still online, the stuff I still want to link up. That list goes back to 2007, so that’s seven years ago from now of launching, like, products with the idea of them being products and that kind of stuff. It’s been a while and I’ve gotten better over those years. When I started out developing websites, I only knew HTML. I didn’t even know it I just hacked at it. Then I learned CSS and then I learned, you know, years and years later I decided to learn PHP. I never wanted to do it because I was always into design and the art side and had no desire to code. Out of necessity, I wanted to see some of my stuff come to life. I had to, like, figure it out so I did. I start working on the back end stuff and then I get to the point where I’m getting to security stuff or getting into server infrastructure–that kind of stuff–just on as-needed basis. Like, I don’t really know anybody who could do this without paying a bunch of money so I’ll try it myself and learn it. You learn it and now you have those skills and so when you make something new everything is way faster. Way easier.
Now when I make a new service, or something, I can just do it really quick. That’s kind of why… that’s another way how I’m making stuff so quickly. It’s just because, you know, I’ve been at it for a long time and I’ve been honing my skills for a long time. That’s kind of how. And, of course, I’m the kind of person that just has endless ideas like many of us are and because I’ve spent the time to refine my skills I can take those ideas and see them through. I guess that’s kind of how and previously, like I said, I’ve just been like well whatever I wanna do is what I wanna do so if I come up with a new idea, I’ll take like a week and I’ll just hammer it out, you know, and get it done so I can get to my other stuff. If it does well, it does well. If it doesn’t, oh well. At least I know how to do that kind of stuff.
Cesar: Yeah, at least you’ve learned it.
Drew: Yeah, now I’m shifting and I’m cutting back. I actually just… a few of my sites and apps were acquired so I’m getting rid of those responsibilities which were some of the things I was working on and kind of pairing it down. I really just want to focus on Plasso and this other app that I have that hasn’t released yet called Filtron and focus on those two things. It’s also out of necessity too because I’m going to be traveling the US with my kids and have way less time to work so I’m gonna have to have way less stuff to do. Like I said off the show, I’m actually putting a hold on Valio Con just for this year. It’s gonna start back normal all the years after but just for this year, since I’ll be gone, putting a hold on that too. Really pairing down everything and focusing on those two things that way I can have enough time to spend with my family as well as, hopefully, give these things way more focus since Plasso is starting to do pretty well and I wanna try to take it to the next level.
Cesar: Do you think that you’re just getting started. I mean, do you feel like you’re just hitting the tip of the iceberg or do you think that you’ve already kind of passed that and you’re ready for… you’re starting to…
Drew: I don’t think that I’ve just started now. I think I’ve been in it for a while…
Cesar: Yeah, you’ve been doing it for like 17, 18 years but…
Drew: But, yeah to kind of play off that, I do think that I’m just getting started in the sense of building companies and so I made… I’ve had other companies before. Had many different… at one point I’ve had five corporations going at once, which is insane. I’ve had a lot of apps and I made money and I lost money. I’m at the point now where I feel like I’m just getting started with, like, hopefully building a company that’s gonna be something that lasts. Something that everybody uses and that kind of thing. I feel like I’m just getting started in that respect. Before, I feel like I was someone… not as a hobby, but just building things that I wanted, right. Even what I said, if you listen to early interviews, I just build things that I want to exist. I feel like I’m just getting started into a different phase where I’m gonna be building… it’s kind of weird to say “businesses” because there I was building businesses before but, I don’t know, I guess just focusing on and taking things that are ideas or small businesses and making them bigger.
At an old age, do you see yourself still working in the web space? Are you interested in other things?
Drew: My goal is to make a lot of money and not really work that much. That’s not going to be realistic for me because doing this web stuff, making things, is like what I like so if I didn’t call it work I would call it hobby. I’d still be doing it. I don’t want to be the kind of person, for instance, like Steve Jobs who’s got a butt-ton of money but is still up at 2:00 am every night working his butt off… and not that it was all in vain, I would say he made Apple super cool and all that kind of stuff, whatever. He’s gone and it’s doing fine without him so did he really need to do that for his entire life? Well, maybe for him he did but I don’t know. Obviously that’s what he wanted but I don’t want that kind of stuff. If I want to make much money, of course, yes but I don’t want to do the same thing my whole life so what I want to do is make a bunch of money and then fund and produce movies. I want to make… movies is one of the things I want to do.
Cesar: Awesome, so you want to dedicate a lot of time to that afterwords. After this phase, I guess you could say.
Drew: Yeah, one of my documentaries is on Netflix and what I want to do from there is get into, not documentaries, but actual narratives and movies that you would go see in the theater. I want to do, like, sci-fi thrillers not horror, so…
Cesar: That’s awesome, man! That’s really cool and congratulations on those other projects being acquired. That’s amazing because it allows you to dedicate more time to what you really want to dedicate your time to and, you know, it’s a little bit of financial backing too, so…
Drew: Well, not really, no.
Drew: No. It’s hard to… business get bought, they don’t get sold, right. With that being, someone comes to you and wants to buy something it’s very difficult to shop your company around trying to sell it. Most companies, even large ones that have a large amount of users… they say “we’re shutting down.” The reason they say they’re shutting down is because they try to sell the company. They try to have someone take it over even for free but no one would so they just shut down. So if you can not shut down and if you could have someone take over what you did… that means, obviously, it’s interesting enough to someone else to try it out too. I consider that super awesome because I’ve shut things down before and when something gets acquired maybe there’s no money exchange but you keep equity or you work out some other deal. I think that’s awesome that someone can do that because that means you made something… obviously you weren’t the one who was able to make money out of it or didn’t have time to or whatever it was. For me it was just I didn’t have time to… but it’s valuable enough to somebody else that they think they can make money out of it so I think it’s cool. The first product that I made that got acquired was an advertising company and I sold it for cash money but I didn’t actually get any cash because the company itself still needed to pay out advertisers for that month because we paid advertisers every month and so that money we had to pay out advertisers was the same amount we sold it for so we gave it away. That wasn’t a bad thing whatsoever, you know, it was a good thing.
Cesar: Well, the advertisers got paid…
Drew: Oh yeah, it wasn’t anything shady like that. It was just… as far as I’m concerned it was freaking awesome because the people that are using those apps will be supported even more than they were with me and then the product will be going places and I get my time freed up and more time to focus on other things. It’s, honestly, more than I’ve hoped for when I started something… I just assumed that if it doesn’t go anywhere it’s just gonna shut down and not go anywhere if it stays alive beyond me, it’s a bonus.
Cesar: This is something I’m really curious about. How do you plan your day? Are you an early kind of guy, waking up super early and you start hacking away or start working on a project? Do you have a set schedule?
Drew: I am not a planner. When I wake up, I usually know what I have to do the first thing in the morning because I was working on it before I went to bed and I hadn’t finished it so I had to wake up and finish it. That’s normal. That’s, like, how every day is. I don’t plan whatsoever. I’m not an early riser by choice but I am because we have kids so my wife and I share mornings to get up. I get up one morning and she gets up the next, I get up the next, she gets up the next. Except when there’s times when I have to stay up literally all night long and work on stuff then she’ll get up in the morning and two and three in a row or something like that but I go to bed late. I think my normal bedtime is probably, like, 1:00 or a little later and more recently it’s been like 3:00 to 4:00. On the mornings that it’s my morning to get up, I get up when the kids get up which is usually like seven or a little before and in the mornings when I sleep in it’s usually like, till 9:00. Yeah, I usually start work everyday at 10:00 then work until 5:00 when I get off and then hang out with the family and the kids and then when they go to bed, my wife and I watch a show or something and then I’ll work again until the wee hours.
Cesar: Until, like 3:00 or 4:00 now, right? Nowadays…
Drew: Yes, yes….yeah. When I was launching… getting Pictos ready for launch it was so much work to do. It requires it.
Cesar: And it’s only you for that project.
Cesar: Do you have have… not an ideal person but is there someone that you feel is sort of unreachable? Who is in a position where you’d like to be, that you’re just going for that?
Drew: Yeah, it’s hard to answer that question because the kind of person that I would like to be wouldn’t really be the kind of person that’s like a celebrity in the spotlight, I guess. I guess for me, like, business-wise I would go to Elon Musk and Richard Branson the most because they both do a lot of stuff, you know. They don’t just do one thing. Richard Branson’s awesome. He’s like, “Oh let’s make a mortgage company, oh let’s make a space company, oh let’s do this.” It’s freaking amazing. He does it all under one brand where as Elon Musk does it under different brands but that to me is super cool and that’s what I would like to do. I would like to do that. Just to come up with a bunch of different ideas and a bunch of different things. I wanna get into movies and and I wanna get into bio tech. Those are the two things I want to get into.
Cesar: That’s awesome. What got you interested in that?
Drew: Just because I’m like massively into science and all aspects of it and I’m into the future and sci-fi. Bio tech, for me, is the most immediate advancement that we could have. FOr instance, getting rid of the idea of raising animals just for their meat and the need to raise the entire animal just for the meat where we could just grow the meat, which people are doing right now. That kind of stuff. Also on the disease side, I think it’d be super killer to go into a RiteAid and pick up a little product, like, that’s named Am I Sick or something like that and you just spit into it and it tells you if you’re sick and what you have and that kind of stuff, you know. Just being able to detect germs and viruses on a very low cost level, you could make something like that. So there’s a lot of little things like that that I would love to do so we can improve our health as a species and improve our outlook on the planet and all that kind of stuff, so I want to get into that and I also want to make sci-fi movies.
On touring the US for a year:
Drew: I’m super excited for it. Going to make a blog and all that jazz so people could follow along, because, you know it is unusual for people to drop their normal life and head out on the road to be a nomad for a year but I think it’s worth it because we work digitally. We work online. We work remote. We as an industry, of all the humans on earth, have it pretty easy and have the ability to get up and go. And also, it’s really fun to get rid of all your stuff and have almost nothing…
Cesar: That too, right…
Drew: Yeah, it’s so cool to see all your stuff go and be like oh my gosh, I’m free!
Cesar: Are you gonna get rid of a lot of desktop that you use to do your work.
Drew: Yeah, so I’ll get rid of everything. I just bought a fancy desk, so I’m going to keep that in storage because we have our photo albums, all that kind of stuff that we’re gonna keep in storage but a super small storage space just for that kind of stuff and then my desk. The other thing that I’m working on is Filtron. That has been a whirlwind and hopefully it’ll be out soon. The iOS app has been done for a few months now. I’m just… we’re finishing up the Mac app and get it–release them together. Because it’s been so long I want to give us the best possible chance for Apple to feature us ’cause that would be pretty key—and they like it when you do Mac and iOS so hopefully they like this one, it’ll get featured and do really well. It’ll be really fun.
It’s an app for creating photo filters, so like when you’re on Instagram and you tap, you know, you take a photo and then you tap a filter you’re like, oh I don’t like that one. You slide over, you choose a filter and you flip through ’em, you know? Well, those filters–Filtron is an interface to create those things. Just like other photo filtering apps, you have a bunch of toggles and switches. You can edit your photo and make it look all cool and then you can save those edits that you made as a filter. Then you can name it and it goes up on your account on the web and then in the app on the Mac app and so anyone can go and browse filters that anyone has made and download ’em and use them for free. It’ll be cool. So, it’s kind of the same idea as Instagram where you can share your photos, but except, instead of sharing photos you’re sharing filters.
Cesar: Can’t wait for that, man. Sorry my throat… (clearing throat)
Drew: Shortly, after we launch, we’ll be adding videos so that way you can take all your video and apply filters to it. And you can apply multiple filters to a single photo so you can grab, like, five filters from different people and then change their intensities and then mash up to get the exact look you want. It’ll be cool.
Cesar: Awesome, and if there is one piece of advice that you would give. Anything that you would advise to someone that, I don’t know, would like to follow your footsteps and create…Ok, here we go–bring their ideas to life.
Drew: Yeah. I would say…and this probably doesn’t even have to be held down to that definition of bringing ideas to life, but I would say buck the trend. I would say do what you want to do. I think when you get into this industry they’re very focused on following the trade routes, you know. Following the paths that were set before them and the funny thing is if you look at someone who’s kind of radical or doing awesome stuff, they’re usually people who created a path or who made a way to do something. They started a mini industry. They started something. They didn’t follow paths so if you want to be like them don’t follow their path and don’t follow any path. Just do whatever you want to do because that will make you more happy and that’s… life’s too short to worry about being big in the industry or to worry about following a path to success or a latter run to success. Just do whatever you want to do because that’s really what it’s all about, you know what I mean? It’s about your life. It’s not about just work. Even though work is most of everyone’s life, it takes up most of your time while you’re living on this planet. You can make work whatever you want it to be. I would say just buck the trend and do whatever you want to do. There’s no shortage of ways to do this and ways to do that. Top ten ways to be more productive, that kind of stuff. There’s no shortage of that kind of stuff and if you want to get into that, for sure, go ahead. Those articles never end and therefore your search will never end because there’ll always be some new way to be productive. Instead of following that, just do whatever you wanna do and don’t worry about being productive. Don’t worry about getting your company set to raise money early on before you even start. Don’t worry about that stuff, you know. Just make what you wanna make and do what you wanna do and you will have time throughout the course of your life to make yourself ready for VC—to be more productive. You’ll have that time as the years progress. I’d say don’t worry about any of that stuff. Just have fun doing what you want to do.
Cesar: Thank you!