Building a digital product around what you love: the story of John Kamman

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John Kamman loves food and outdoor activities, these two things drove him to creating Wholesum, an online tool that helps streamline group menu planning: manage dietary restrictions, generate shopping lists, and scale recipes to meet your group size. John has built a digital product on his own, and he wants to tell us how much effort and work is behind it.

John was trained as a scientist originally, and got into data that way. He spent most of his career in the non-profit space science education world. And then, about five or six years ago, he launched the project Wholesum, an online tool that helps groups with food and menu planning.

It started as an excel spreadsheet: it's simple math, how many ingredients per person and how many people and scale up from there. But it wasn't really a scalable solution beyond just one company. So, John decided to make a tool that was more powerful, more scalable, easier to learn, and with a user-friendly interface that the companies could jump on without too much setup, without too much training and start using the same way as excel spreadsheet.

The first thing he started to do was trying to build it by himself. “It just wasn't coming out the way that I had wanted it to be.”

Many people are really talented at making bread, desserts, beer, or building apps, and at some point I needed to learn that as much as I like doing it all myself. It's sometimes better to rely on people who know more than you do.

“There's always some perfect tool that's a little bit out of reach. But as you get closer and closer to being perfect, your goals expand as well. We keep pushing the boundary trying to make more improvements.

When we started this, it was more driven by me, because I didn't have time or financial resources to do a broad market study and to do the user testing and to gather ideas and features. I think the right process is to do all of that homework, and then go to start building.”

When I see an opportunity to make an improvement that will help not just that specific user, but all users or most users, then there's a new feature that comes up.

Wholesum is in a mobile app version too. The app is used only by a small number of users and only for a really specific need.

“I left my full time job of 11 years, I would try to do Wholesum on the side. I'll have to shift from this being my primary focus to a side focus, and my wife will take on more of the work going forward, we want to grow it by ourselves.”

Engaging your first users is an ongoing work for years and years.

The hard part was to build it, all we need to do is build it, and then the people will come. And I was so wrong. You know, that's just not how this works.

“You have to go out and knock on doors and call people, email people and show up at conferences. We had to really work to try finding users and to convince them that it was worth it. We gave it away for free, we gave it to a few organizations that were close to us, in exchange for giving feedback, and we gave them lifetime free access. It took two years before I was happy with the tool on its own. And I was proud of it and confident that this will work for you.”

Two big takeaways from John

  1.        Don't think of this as one discrete development project that will finish, this is a project that you will be working on for many, many years. We might do a new feature that is a more active development for only a piece. Find a development team that you plan to be with for years.        
  3.        Proper organization of marketing and sales.        
“When you are a new business with no audience and no market and no reputation, it takes a lot of work to get your voice out there. That's a slow process, you need to be ready for this.”

If you want to hear John’s story, how he founded Wholesum, how to engage first users, is it still ok when your product or an element of it, is more active or less active, visit our new podcast.