Expert to know: Lindsey Witmer Collins (Q&A Interview)

August 14, 2023

Lindsey Witmer Collins is the Founder/CEO of WLCM App Studio (based in San Francisco), listed on 50Pros as a top 50 firm in Software Development, Mobile App Development, and User Experience.

In this Q&A, Lindsey shares her in-depth perspective, unique background, robust experiences, and insightful tips.

How did you get started in your industry?

I got started in app development back in the aughts, shortly after the app store launched. I’d been in South Africa for a little over a year, and when I returned and saw the Blackberries and iPhones, I was excited. Having been fairly insulated from tech innovation during a pivotal time period, when I came home I felt like I’d time-traveled into the future, and I liked it. I was excited about the fact that we could make our own little tools to run on these devices that everyone was going to be carrying around all the time, and that you could instantly ship a product globally and then iterate on it in real time. Sign me up!

I have a degree in environmental engineering, so this wasn’t my field, but I had an idea. It was kind of like a counterpoint to MyFitnessPal, which was especially big at the time. I was thinking about how we might track and improve our wellbeing in a more holistic sense. You know, if someone greets you at the door when you come home, if you have a good conversation with a friend, etc., that’s going to impact your health and longevity at least as much as the food you eat. I thought that there was maybe too much focus on calories in the health conversation, and that having that kind of obsessive focus might itself decrease quality of life. I was reading and thinking about “wellbeing” in this larger sense, and I had a theory and a concept for an app, and it kept me up at night. I raised some money from friends and family and won a grant to build it.

I thought from there I just needed to hire an agency, so I Googled “how to find an app developer” and found one based in NYC. They were nice guys. They were in New York. That’s got to be legit, right? I had no idea what this process was supposed to look like, what to expect throughout, what to ask for. (I wrote a guide called “How to get software built” that explains those things I wish I’d known.) I was naive, and in part as a result of that, I ended up paying these guys for an app and instead got a flowchart and a few screen designs and nothing more. It was ten full months of waiting until I realized that they weren’t going to come through.

In the meantime, I had investors, and I’d sold real estate in the app to health coaches, and I was accountable to all of them, and I wasn’t delivering. That was a dark night of the soul for me. I eventually hired an independent developer to build the app for me. It got done, but it wasn’t great.

A compelling concept is one thing, but you can’t succeed unless you realize that concept in the best possible way. The most important part of your app’s success is its user experience (UX). Hands down.

I didn’t know how to practice UX then, but I appreciated its role, and I wanted to know it. I created a curriculum for myself. Among other things, I apprenticed with a designer at MIT who critiqued my work freely and mercilessly. My favorite of his design axioms was, “If everything’s important, nothing’s important.” I practiced. I learned. I haven’t stopped since. I love experience design.

At the time, though, I didn’t think I’d ever build apps again. I had such an awful experience working with developers up to that point; giant egos, entirely unreliable. But people knew I’d shipped an app. I got some press around it, and those were early days in this field, so I got calls from other people who wanted to build their own apps.

It was like watching people you really like wade into a stream that you know is full of alligators. I wanted to carry them across. So I shared what I’d learned, and I created ways for them to get apps built at low risk. I didn’t intend that I would end up building an agency, but somehow and eventually, that’s what happened. I built the agency I wished I’d had.

WLCM’s processes, our transparency, and our focus on our client’s experience comes from hard-earned empathy for what client’s are trying to do and the risks they’re taking. I continue to build my own app concepts so I can sit in the client’s chair and work with my own agency from that point of view. I can keep myself grounded in the client’s perspective, and I can find opportunities for us to improve. When you work with WLCM, we’re going to do everything we can to take care of you and shepherd your vision forward. If we’re not doing that, then there’s no reason for us to exist.

What do you like most about your industry?

The vastness of creative opportunities in software is what I personally like best. It is an exciting and unique product category because we can instantaneously ship products globally - and then improve and iterate on them *while they’re in people’s hands*. There are also immense possibilities for what we can create with this medium depending on our audience and the brand personality. It never gets boring.

...and what do you dislike most?

Coding processes and products are generally opaque to a non-technical person, so vetting potential partners can be difficult to skillfully navigate. A couple of companies recently came to us about taking over their code from existing teams, so we completed code reviews to figure out what we would be working with and to generally scope their paths forward. Between those two companies over two weeks, we saw some of the worst code of our careers. In both cases, these parties had invested many months and big budgets in that code. They had might as well have lit their money on fire. I’m working now on a series of articles to help non-technical people ask the right questions, see the red flags, and avoid these situations.

What kind of changes would you make in the landscape in general?

Here are the changes we’ve made:

First, we guarantee code quality. In order to do that, we don’t outsource. It’s fairly typical of our industry that dev shops essentially operate as dealers in a giant, global market of developers, which is as profitable for the shop as it is high-risk for the client. In contrast, we’re a small, tight-knit, and longstanding team with veteran experience across the board. As a result, we can guarantee quality.

Secondly, we don’t work at scale. The nature of software is that it needs attention, at every level, throughout the SDLC and beyond launch. It needs a high-caliber team in design, development, management and quality assurance, as well as high-level product guidance to help navigate analytics and make strategic decisions. In order to provide that team and guarantee the quality of that team, we have a relatively small stack that we’re expert in, and we have a relatively small team that grows slowly. Because we can’t provide quality attention at scale, we don’t work at scale.

Lastly, we stick around. We work with many of our clients often from the very beginnings of their companies. These are vulnerable, high-stakes times that require true partnership, care, and attention. Our technical teams work as if they’re inhouse. Our clients have an on-demand team, including a product strategist and designer, through the full lifetime of their companies.

Pumpspotting, one of our clients for seven years and counting, stored inventory in my garage for years. I travel to Los Angeles with my family every year just to hang out with the Brella team. I’m meeting a client’s former product manager in the city on Wednesday after she lands from Sydney; she’s no longer with my client, but she’s now a close friend.

What I mean to say here is that WLCM’s clients are not just clients. They’re our partners, our friends, and luckily for us, our evangelists. For the twelve years of our existence, our revenue has grown every year, with some of our biggest growth happening in economic downturns. Recently, we were ranked the #55 fastest growing private company in the West by Inc., and we just got word that we made the Fast 100, a list of the fastest growing companies in San Francisco by the SF Business Times. We have grown on a marketing budget of $0, no social media, and frankly terrible SEO. The key to growth, for us, has been clients who love us.

What do you wish people knew about software and mobile app development?

I wish people knew how complex the engines are behind the functions they most likely take for granted, like custom search, dashboards, appointment booking, and so forth. Many of the apps we've built seem beautiful but almost cute to someone who might not know anything about app development. But it takes significant expertise to get these tools right, and getting them right determines how successful the app will be, no matter its size and scale. For the owner, getting them wrong will cost time, money, and headache as the app grows. For the user, the app will underperform or break, and frustrate them by standing in the way of the (in their mind) simple task they are trying to complete.

A partner who can get these foundational elements right can make bigger projects easier and more rewarding for all involved.

When you first started, how did you get clients?

When I got started in this industry, it was as an app entrepreneur. The app I launched got press, and people came to me to help them do the same. I hadn’t originally intended to start an agency, but I was passionate about helping people navigate this infamously opaque and often unreliable industry, and that work evolved into WLCM.

...and how do you get clients now?

WLCM has always grown organically and primarily through word of mouth, and that’s still true!

What is the biggest issue that your firm, or firms like yours, face?

The biggest challenge is keeping the main thing the main thing. When you’ve got an app idea, you can feel like a kid in a candy store, and that’s ok. But firms like mine must drill down to the essence of a project — what it must accomplish and who it serves.

Everything must spring from this purpose. With all the dazzling features out there, it’s easy to forget that technology is never the point, it is the means to an end. An app isn’t just a bunch of features bolted together. It helps someone do something, and it succeeds or fails solely on this merit.

What changes have you seen occur since you got into this business?

This is a giant question that may be obsolete by the time I even finish answering it, but the global adoption of smartphones has changed the world.

It’s increased competition in the app marketplace, and businesses have come to run on a huge stack of apps. This introduces the challenge of variability and integration. These apps must work with one another, and they must work across a hugely variable range of environments, devices, languages, and OS versions.

Smartphones have practically become an extension of our brains. People expect the ability to manage their lives through their phone. That’s why UX is so critical.

What changes do you foresee occurring in the future?

Of course, AI has made its debut, and it’s only a matter of time before AI becomes even more integrated into our technology and our lives. There are already AI apps that can take a week of to-do items and schedule the times for when you should work on what. Stuff like that is just the tip of the iceberg.

Another big change will be the further propagation of IoT, and making apps that interact with connected devices in a whole new slew of industries and use cases.

For one, IoT stands to revolutionize many industries that are typically behind the development curve, healthcare being just one example. Developers will have to work within technological and compliance realities.

Who do you see having a competitive edge in the future in this space?

Entities who understand that the digital experience they provide will be compared to every other experience the user has, not just with competitors. Winners will be those who are ruthless in making sure their app is insanely usable, reliable, and resilient.

AND those who have an exact focus on the user and what they are trying to accomplish. To quote Peter Drucker, “There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.” Many development projects, I think, lose sight of this truth.

If a company was looking to hire your firm, or a firm like yours, what questions should they ask themselves as a team before approaching you?

While our initial conversations will help to clarify all of the following, it’s helpful if they come into the conversation with alignment on the goal and scope of their project, and it’s useful for us to understand and discuss their timeline and budget expectations and constraints.

Internally, it should be clear who owns the project and has the final say. Those stakeholders should be prepared to participate in the project throughout its lifecycle.

When a company is interesting in hiring your firm, how should they approach you and how should they do business with you?

There’s no wrong way to approach us. Fill out the contact form on our website or schedule a call, whatever works for you! We’re great at meeting clients where they are, and we want them to enjoy the experience as much as we do.

If someone were thinking about starting their own agency in dev, what advice would you give them?

I’d advise them to work with people they like and work on projects they like, and to be more obsessed with the work than with growth. You’ll do your best work when you believe in the project.

Beyond that, work in good faith, and be truthful. There are a lot of non-technical people with good ideas (I was one once), and it’s important to shoot straight with them and fulfill your end of the bargain. They’re leaning on you for your expertise and guidance, and that deserves respect and honesty. The project management, communication, and compassion elements of the process are just as important as the development side.

WLCM stands apart because we are passionate and practical, and we do things right, even those that are invisible to the client. We go the extra mile to understand our clients and help them realize their vision. We do our projects with them by keeping them in the loop and setting them up for success in whatever comes next.

Finally, what would you like to publicly share about your firm or agency?

Over the past decade and over a hundred apps, our veteran team has worked in nearly every industry, with clients who range from major state health systems and international best-selling authors to Silicon Valley startups and European medical device companies. We pride ourselves on bringing the best of both worlds - originality and precision - for on-time, on-budget delivery of gorgeous software.

Our apps have won national product awards, been named “Best in Class” by the App Store, and sat in the top twenty - out of hundreds of thousands in their category - for years. They’ve earned feature placement by iTunes and on Apple TV’s Planet of the Apps and been named a “World-Changing Idea” by Fast Company. They’ve been praised on the pages of Oprah Magazine, the New York Times and Vogue; and, hopefully, made the world a little better.

We’ve accomplished this through an intentionally small, tight-knit, and longstanding team. We only take a handful of projects each year to ensure we can provide the personal, high-touch service our clients deserve. That means sweating every detail, every time. We can’t do that at scale. So we don’t.

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