The beginning

My name is Shaan Singh, and I'm an 18 year old from Maryland (the greatest state in the U.S.). I've always been interested in design and how I can apply it to solving difficult problems in a humanistic, empathetic way.

Every year, Apple hosts WWDC, a massive conference for thousands of developers and designers. Students can attend this conference for free by showcasing their technical skills to Apple and winning a scholarship.

In 2014, my first year of high school, I won Apple's student scholarship to attend WWDC for free. At this conference, I learned a lot about Swift, I met brilliant people, and I honed my design skills at Apple's design lab.

In 2015, I won again. Fate? Lucky break? Filing error? Yes.

I look like such a dork.

Building something great

At WWDC 2015, I met a lot of fellow student scholars, including Erik van der Plas from the Netherlands. Erik impressed me with not just his incredible understanding of iOS development, but also his appreciation for the importance of design. Erik was 14, I was 16. We decided to work together on the spot.

The problem Erik and I wanted to tackle was procrastination. We were both terrible at staying focused on our work and got distracted easily (generally by cool technology that we wanted to mess with). Calendars and todo lists only helped us organize our work. They wouldn't help us actually get our work done.

Erik hates this picture. For good reason.

Erik and I knew we wanted to build a procrastination killer. Actually building it was another story entirely. We started with an initial app concept and developed it slowly. We read tons of psychology research about procrastination. Everything we read led to another idea and another refinement to our initial concept.

(In case you're interested, here's one cool psychological effect we researched called the Zeigarnik effect: uncompleted tasks stick in your head much more than completed ones. It's why cliffhangers are so effective.)

Our final concept was simple. You add tasks to a list, such as "Math homework, 40 minutes." You tap on a task to start it. A timer begins counting down, and the pressure of finishing your task on time helps you stay focused and avoid distractions.

After coming up with this concept, we began designing possible mockups and coding the initial logic. An idea for a better experience or implementation would come up, and we'd delete most of what we had and start again. The only reason our final design felt so obvious was because we went through so many other options.

Late stage sketches.
A basic, but working, version.
A mockup of our final version 1 design.

It took two years of constant design and development to finish the app. Erik and I did this in between our high school work. It wasn't always easy. There were a lot of late nights and pressure-filled days, especially during my college application season. But by December 2016, the app was nearly ready.

Bop to the top

Many people assume that launching a product is binary: it's either an immediate success or an immediate failure. In reality, launching was a difficult trek that was just as iterative as developing the product was.

Throughout the development process, the app had been codenamed Time. We ended up keeping the codename. I could tell you that the codename just clicked in our heads as naturally perfect, but really we were just lazy. Not everything is the result of a complex decision-making process!

This was the entire conversation.

We submitted the app to Apple for review and spent two weeks creating marketing materials. You can't just make an app and release it. You have to create a great launch video, design gorgeous marketing images, and build a unique website. And because it's in our DNA to get the details perfect, it's enough work for ten people.

Deep breath. I pressed the launch button.

I just said that to sound cool. Really, I clicked a couple things and dragged a bunch of files to a bunch of places. It wasn't that exciting.

After launching, Erik and I sent the app to all of our friends, we put it up on Product Hunt, and we sent it to a few news organizations. And then...

Like I said earlier, success isn't binary. The rankings were volatile. Sometimes we were high and sometimes we were low. People loved the core concept of Time, but they made it clear that there were lots of bugs and issues that needed fixing.

Because school was still going on, it was incredibly hard for Erik and I to work on emergency bug fixes and feature updates for Time. I would wake up at 6:30am, do my homework for every class the period before, and then work on Time from the moment I got home until 2am. It was a ridiculously difficult lifestyle.

During my last year of high school, I worked on Time, attended class, but also did something else. For half the day, I worked at the University of Maryland and Johns Hopkins Medical Institute on a research project studying how computer vision and machine learning could be used to diagnose autism spectrum disorder.

Since high school, I've expanded this project's technology to more exploratory fields. I've also expanded the medical applications to obsessive compulsive disorder. If you're interested in learning a little more about the technology behind this project, check out Express.

College

In March 2017, I heard from Harvard University that I had been accepted to the class of 2021. Fate? Lucky break? Filing error? Yeah, something like that.

Look closely at the shirt in the first picture. (link to tweet)

For those of you currently applying to colleges and wondering what admission officers want to see: this is it. It's passion for a unique part of yourself that you worked really hard on. This is the essay. Admission officers (and people in general) want to read interesting stories about you. Nobody really cares that much about your awards and grades. Tell a story! If you gain anything from reading my story, I really hope it's inspiration to tell your own. On that note, back to the story...

Since getting to Harvard, I've learned a lot and met some really incredible people. The number one question I get asked about Harvard is, "Do the students fit the stereotype? Are people rich and pretentious?" The answer is yes: there are a handful of people like that. Mostly though, everyone is unique and brilliant in their own way. The biggest thing that surprised me about this school is how supportive people are. It's not a cutthroat competitive environment like you might expect.

Something better

Between March and December 2017, Erik and I quietly worked on something better than Time. Are you ready? Here we go. We are calling it... Time 2.

With Time 2, we've fixed all of the bugs and usability issues people reported in Time 1. We took a baby version 1 app and turned it into a mature, dead-simple-to-use version 2 app.

The original concept that people love stays the same. You put in tasks and when you start one, it's a race against the clock to finish your work. But now, Time 2 lets you plan out your whole week really quickly. You can add tasks for today, tomorrow, or any day in the future. You can add reminders or set tasks to repeat. It's basically a distraction killer + calendar in your pocket.

Building and launching Time 2 was an incredible experience. Everyday someone tells me how much they love the app and how much more productive they've become. I walk into libraries to study, and I see people using my app. Time 2 legitimately helps people get more done and be less stressed. It's incredibly humbling. Learn more about Time 2...

In conclusion

Currently, Erik and I are exploring some interesting new technologies. We built a generalizable object detection system in augmented reality, a mobile-optimized high speed neural network in Swift (unreleased), and are working on something really cool that we haven't yet told anyone about (hint: magnets!). If you want stay updated on what Blue Cocoa does, you can subscribe to our mailing list.

Even though research and development is fun, our main efforts are behind growing and developing Time 2. Based on how excited and passionate our initial customers are, we really think that we have something incredibly useful and successful here.

If you'd like to get in touch with me, you can email me at shaansingh@bluecocoa.com. Though I am not super active, you can chat with me and see how stupid I am on Twitter: @shaandsingh.

Thanks for reading,
Shaan

Subscribe to Indie Hackers

Get notified when we publish new stories from entrepreneurs.