37: Merging Art and Science in App Development with Brad Ash of Fruitful

Published May 26, 2020
Run time: 1:00:28
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Building a successful app requires both art and science work in harmony. CTO Brad Ash joins Tim on the podcast to discuss the development of Fruitful, a fertility mentorship service he co-founded with his wife. Brad chats with Tim about the personal story that led to the creation of Fruitful, how difficult it is to supervise yourself when you’re building out the software, the importance of user feedback and focusing heavily on the user’s experience, and how to give users a reason to be excited to use your app.

In this episode, you will learn:

  • How to validate your app without overbuilding
  • How UX proves your app’s value and why you shouldn’t compete against existing user behaviors
  • Why you have nothing to lose by talking to your users
  • How you don’t need to disrupt an industry to make a difference

This episode is brought to you by The Jed Mahonis Group, where we make sense of mobile app development with our non-technical approach to building custom mobile software solutions. Learn more at https://jmg.mn.

Recorded April 29, 2020 | Edited by Jordan Daoust

Show Notes:

Episode Transcript:

Tim Bornholdt: [00:00:00] Welcome to Constant Variables, a podcast where we take a nontechnical look at all things technical. I'm Tim Bornholdt. Let's get nerdy.

Today, we are speaking with Brad Ash, who is the cofounder and chief technology officer of Fruitful. Fruitful is a fertility mentorship service for the one out of eight who experience issues with conceiving children. In this episode, we discuss the personal story that led to the creation of the business, how difficult it is to supervise yourself when you're building out software, the importance of user feedback and focusing heavily on the user's experience, and why more businesses may be working together to improve rather than disrupt as a result of the Covid-19 crisis. So without further ado, here is my interview with Brad Ash.

Brad, welcome to the show.

Brad Ash: [00:01:03] Hey, thanks for having me.

Tim Bornholdt: [00:01:04] I'm really excited to have a fellow technical person on the show here. So hopefully we don't get too far into the weeds, but you never know.

Brad Ash: [00:01:13] Yeah, we can go in any direction you want.

Tim Bornholdt: [00:01:16] Right. Well, why don't we start, I want to hear it in your own words, can you tell us the story of Fruitful?

Brad Ash: [00:01:22] Yeah, absolutely. So my wife and I, we met at work actually, back in 2007 and we hit it off and she then decided to run away to Minneapolis. So I reluctantly stayed in DC for a little bit. We did long distance and then I followed her out here. And we've been here ever since, so we officially moved here in 2010.

Had a great life. We're doing the whole breweries and ball games and living it up. Then eventually we got to the point where we said, let's get a house. Let's do the family thing. Let's start to settle down. And all of our friends were having kids or had kids, and we started trying, it wasn't happening, wasn't happening.

Months went by and eventually we found out that she had an infertility diagnosis of endometriosis, and we were not going to be able to conceive without the help of artificial insemination. So, we went to various doctors and clinics and got prodded and poked and tested, mostly her, and went through this really traumatic process of infertility that we knew nothing about. Most people don't. Why would you? Unless it's something you have to deal with in your life or a close loved one does.

And when we eventually had success and had our daughter in 2018, it was the end of a four year journey that was just a nightmare. It was riddled with depression and hardship and financial problems. And we said, this is insane. There are so many people. One in eight couples, married couples, worldwide deal with infertility, and it's just a hellish thing to go through so alone; it's very isolating, even when you have strong social communities around you. So we decided to build Fruitful, which we looked at other communities out there.

We looked at things like Alcoholics Anonymous and cancer support. And we also looked at dating apps like Tinder and Match. And we said there are tools out there to connect people that are struggling with hardships and give them the support they need and nothing like that exists for this community.

So that's exactly what we built. And we often describe it to people as, Alcoholics Anonymous meets Tender because we take the one-to-one support of someone who is a mentor and who has been through it with someone who needs help and is just getting started as opposed to two people in lockstep going through it together, which adds a lot of competition and other weird social vibes.

So we took that success of the AA model and then we tried to pair it with the technological matching algorithms that are so common in dating apps these days to be able to bring large groups of people together efficiently and create quality one-to-one matches. So that's really how we ended up with where we are today with Fruitful.

Tim Bornholdt: [00:04:31] It's an amazing tool and an amazing service that you're providing. Cause I have close friends and family that are going through infertility, and I hadn't heard of, until we started talking here, I hadn't heard of Fruitful before, and I'm excited to start telling people to hop on that cause I think it's an amazing service that you're offering.

One question I had was, was the idea for building the software behind it, like all the technology componentry of solving this problem of trying to match people up with mentors, was that something that came from you with having a technical background or was it your wife was just like, this needs to be an app and this just needs to exist.

Brad Ash: [00:05:13] So my wife has a background in advertising, creative advertising as a copywriter. She's worked at various firms, building software solutions and other solves for companies that need to deal with this kind of thing. So then I had my technical background with a wide array of app development and website and internal software management.

So we had the skills to be able to stand something up. And I think we, initially we're looking at this as a, we're only two people, and when we started, this was a hobby business on the side. So we need to build something that we can manage with that amount of time and resources, and we need to build something that allows us to efficiently collect all of this information from people and match them that doesn't involve just a bunch of emails and Excel sheets and matching people up on paper. So it was walking that balance in the initial of how do we not overbuild this until we know it's successful, the MVP type model, but also how do we not paint ourselves into a hole whereby we have any type of success and we have absolutely no way to scale, which would be horrible to get picked up by something, have great success, and then you have to tell everyone to wait a year while you go into a development phase.

So there's always a balance there, and we had the resources to be able to go hard on the dev early on. But I do think that anyone needs to consider that balance of don't overbuild, but also don't paint yourself into a place where you're really not going to be able to move quickly when you need to.

Tim Bornholdt: [00:07:04] I love that. I was just writing notes because I love that it's such a fine line to walk, right? Like you're building a tech company, so there obviously needs to be some tech behind it, but you don't necessarily need to run out of the gate with a $500,000 complete package, cause that could be the wrong solution as well.

How did you decide that a mobile app was the right route to go as opposed to like a website or some other form of technology for solving the problem?

Brad Ash: [00:07:37] So we didn't initially. We started as a web only product that would map people and connect them based on their personal contact information, so people were connecting via text, email, or in person. And that was so we could get up. That was the balance that we struck with we need a website, we need to be able to collect information, and we need to be able to have some type of form that puts our information into a database that we can run our algorithmic matching on.

But we sacrificed the user experience to get going, to see do people actually want this as a service that people love. Once we were up and running for a couple of years using that web front end, we were getting great feedback from users. They were loving their mentors and they were happy building great relationships.

But now we were starting to run into the challenges of we have no insight into what people are doing once we match them. And the reason that's so important for our business is that, so you come to us, you're already in a really bad place. You've already tried a lot of things and you've been going through this. We then say, Hey, we're going to give you this great support. Here's a person's info, and that person never writes you back. Now you have been ghosted by someone that you were just promised was going to be there for you, like kick me while I'm down already. So moving to an app, we now have insight into this person is not being responsive, so we need to fix this problem and get out in front of it and we need to cancel this match and get them a new mentor quick. So it allows us to have analytics on touch points and make sure that things are progressing in a way that we have promised. Essentially, are we fulfilling the promise that we have made? So now we have the ability to do that.

We also were sacrificing our mentors' privacy. We're asking someone to be there for a stranger. Oh, and by the way, give them your personal cell phone. And if it doesn't work out, you now have this stranger who has your contact info. That's not a great experience for people we're asking to do a kindness. So by using our app, we're able to protect the privacy of both our mentors and our mentees, should there be a situation where it doesn't work out. And so it was something where we had to iterate there. It was a necessary step that we knew when we did the initial design of this platform that we needed to be on a mobile app, but it was not something we did off the bat, mostly due to time and expense, because that would have been a huge barrier to get up and running.

So I think to, sorry, that was a long winded answer to your question, but this always comes up, do people need to have a mobile app or is just a mobile website good enough? And you'll get a lot of different opinions from a lot of different depths. In my opinion, the mobile app was always something that we knew we needed. We always knew we wanted it and we needed it. And it was the type of user experience that a lot of users, our demo typically being in the 20 to 40 year old range, so we're talking to millennials and gen Z right now, they expect that. They expect that experience. They're on Instagram and Facebook, and those are the type of apps that they're used to using in their daily life.

And really, people are not going to settle for a second rate experience. Why would you bother using it? We're asking you to use the service and then you go through all the hoops and it's terrible. So that's something that we knew was just going to be expected of our audience, and we had to get there, but we had to be strategic in how we got there. And that allowed us pretty long development time for building the app, but we were able to build it kind of on the side without it being a head down focus because we were up and running with our MVP on the website.

Tim Bornholdt: [00:11:44] Were you doing a lot of the development yourself, or how did you actually end up building out all of this technology?

Brad Ash: [00:11:51] Yes, so I'm the sole developer on our team right now, and I've built everything from our cloud infrastructure and all of our data systems to the web and mobile apps. And that's just fortunate due to my background of running dev teams for so many years and having exposure to lots of different technology stacks, and also just a genuine love of problem solving and engineering.

So that is not an answer that's helpful to a lot of people, just, you know, marry a really nerdy dev who doesn't sleep and has ADHD. Great advice. But yeah, I really loved working on all the dev for Fruitful because it's so different from what I'm used to doing, which is more on the financial, like FinTech side of things and just not something I'm passionate about. Whereas this, I got to finally solve technical problems for an industry that I am incredibly passionate about, and that was a huge fuel for a lot of the build out here.

Tim Bornholdt: [00:13:01] Let me dive into that point for a minute a little bit. I've never actually worked for like a big company before. I've only ever done this, basically. But I've worked through this with a lot of different types of teams. We get embedded into all sorts of different projects and things like that. And I wonder, you know, how hard was it being your own supervisor and being your own boss. Like were you really driving the technical side of it yourself, or like was it kind of a partnership with your wife and you were both kind of trying to decide what the timelines were and what the expected deliverables were?

How did you end up doing all of that?

Brad Ash: [00:13:45] Yeah, so the timelines usually worked that she wanted things done on a very specific timeline, and I would chase shiny objects and constantly divert and add scope creep and other things.

Tim Bornholdt: [00:14:00] Sounds familiar.

Brad Ash: [00:14:03] It is difficult to manage yourself with projects like these. I'm usually managing software projects, but I also have other people in the room that are checking me. And that was the hardest thing with this build out is I had no one checking me. And that's a really dangerous thing for me because I can run wild and I probably did.

I mean our tech stack is so overbuilt for where we are right now. You know, our whole stack is running on a Kubernetes cloud and could probably handle an influx of 10,000 times the traffic that we're getting. We're using systems like Kafka for message queuing and streaming data. I'm trying to think of all the things we're using, but I know this isn't a very, we said we're not going to get into the technical weeds.

The point is, using a lot of technologies that are very enterprise level for the size we're at right now. And I would say, for better or for worse, the reason we're doing that is because I didn't have someone who was managing the project and saying, we don't really need this right now. Let's put that on the 2021 roadmap.

But it can be really fun to get into those technologies. So here we are. And, you know, fingers crossed if things go well and we explode, we're ready for whatever comes now.

Tim Bornholdt: [00:15:31] Well, yeah, I mean, it is really hard to supervise yourself. And I think that's something, even if you're not a technical person, I think you could probably appreciate that in any sort of role.

You know, like if I was building a house, and I had all the skills to do everything that you could do. It's like, why not put in this super fancy plumbing system and all this overkill electrical in the house to make sure that we can support, you know, if I ever wanted to open a laundromat and have a thousand washing machines going at the same time. It's like there's a lot of parallels there ,and I think figuring out how to develop that skill of focus is something that any app entrepreneur is going to need to know. And it's something that people preach about in this industry all the time is, you have to focus on, you know, what the core of the product is. And it's so easy to just say it and it kind of seems like an empty platitude in many forms, but I mean, that's case in point right there like the stack that you've built out.

It's technically really impressive. Is it overkill? Yeah, absolutely it is. But you never know. And it's also hard to determine, you know, where is that line that's good enough to meet where you are with also projecting that you're going to grow and blow up the business. You also want to be able to handle that kind of load if that ever were to come.

Brad Ash: [00:16:47] Yeah, absolutely. And, you know, if I could do it again, I might've wanted to bring in an outside, like a BA, or someone who could manage the project a little bit, even as a freelancer. Uou know, another good example would be like, you buy a rental property and you start going to Ikea and filling it up and you're like, wow, you know, kind of want to spend the extra 20 bucks on the premium plates and then I want to spend the extra this on the door handles.

You've got to think about every decision, not just in the context of what you want, but ROI and what do your customers need and where's the value. And that can be hard if you don't have someone who's really good at doing that. So that's something that I think anyone can benefit from is making sure that you are at least consulting with, or you have someone on whatever team you're working with to build your product out, that is able to make those hard cuts and to put their foot down and say, this is not a good investment of time or money right now. Because otherwise you do just want to put in all the nice fixtures. That's human nature. We want the nice stuff. So very important to keep that in mind for any project, I think.

Tim Bornholdt: [00:17:58] Yeah. Couldn't agree more. A big part of Fruitful's differentiation is you actually manually review these matches before they're finalized. From like both like a technical standpoint and from a human standpoint, how do you manage all of those connections that you guys are making there?

Brad Ash: [00:18:17] Yeah. So we love that. That's what we call the art and science of our system, and then we think it's where a lot of these algorithmic apps fall short these days.

It doesn't matter whether it's a dating app and you're getting paired with the same people. I know most people can relate to some of these examples. Every time you log into LinkedIn, it's recommending the same person that went to your college that you've never talked to, even though you've said no, I don't want to connect with this person.

You know, you use one of those apps that is doing a dinner recommendation and you spin the wheel and it comes up with Chipotle. I don't want Chipotle again. Spin it again. So these things, they don't really know us. They can figure out and they can get close, and it's incredible what we can do with machine learning now cause sometimes it's scary how well things like Spotify or other apps do know us. But for the most part these algorithms fall short on that human component. And you really need to read between the lines in a way that a computer can't and you need to dig deep on someone's story.

All of the data points might match up for us where someone seems like a perfect match. But if you read into their story, there might be some nuance about religion or a previous trauma in their life or something that's really important to them. And again, that's a really disappointing experience if the computer matches them with someone who doesn't share any of those experiences or values.

So there really needs to be a human check on some of these, especially once you leave that kind of frivolous, what am I going to eat for dinner? And you start entering the world of trauma. You're dealing with something very fragile and important, and we've been entrusted with a task that we take very seriously, and that's why we have always, that wasn't even a technical limitation. We've always known since day one that we wanted to have a human touching these matches at the end of the line. And I don't think that's something that would ever change at scale. We would bring in additional people who are trained and are able to make those matches and finish them off before we would go to an all machine operated system.

I think that's something that a lot of industries could benefit from and sure, it's added expense because people are a lot more expensive than computers, but it's something that users deserve. And it's going to differentiate good services from those that are lacking and that are giving you a repetitive, the same old recommendation engines.

Tim Bornholdt: [00:20:55] Yeah, my wife actually used to work at Big Brothers and her job was doing match support, like actually connecting the children with, you know, the Littles with the Bigs. And I never actually looked closely at the software they were using, but I do know from talking with her that there's a way that you can automate it, but you can only go so far with automation. Even if you were to hook up some kind of neural network in the longterm and do some kind of crazy matching algorithm to automate it, at the end of the day, there's still just like something human about being able to look at one person's situation and you can just recall and think of, oh this is the perfect person that I saw that could be a mentor, and kind of put those two together. There's just something about that human connection, like you said, that, never say never, like, we don't want to sound like Bill Gates saying that, you know, a hundred kilobytes of memory is, you're never going to need more than that or whatever. So I don't want to downplay that we'll never get to that point. But I would say within our lifetimes, I don't see us getting to the point where, you know, the AI is going to be so intuitive that it's going to be to what humans can do in terms of doing that kind of manual matching for at least the time being.

Brad Ash: [00:22:16] Absolutely. I mean, certainly nothing out there today, even at the highest levels. I mean some of these tools out there that you can use, like Watson and offerings from Google Cloud and AWS, they're incredible, but they only do so much. And it shows and it's very rewarding when we get feedback from users and the email will start with, Oh my God, like you found my twin. Like I love my mentor so much. They completely get me. And we think that's a testament to the effort that is put into those matches, and something that we just wouldn't get otherwise if we were allowing the algorithm to go all out and just trusting it implicitly.

Tim Bornholdt: [00:22:59] Yeah. That's amazing. Those have to be like the best part of the job, is getting those.

Brad Ash: [00:23:04] Yeah. When there's a hard day and you're like, eh, is this really working? You get emails like that, you hear stories and, and that definitely drives you.

We believe that technology is a great tool to add efficiencies. Otherwise, we would not be able to whittle down the volume of mentors and mentees and be able to filter out the noise and create a small pool of quality matches, which is what we need to get to so that a human can even, like their brain can even process the options that they need to match.

So we definitely need to leverage those algorithms and the recommendation engine to be able to make it manageable for a human task. And that's where technology plays a really important role. But that's again, the art and science of those two things working in harmony is really where the success comes from.

Tim Bornholdt: [00:24:01] User experience within an app like Fruitful, I would have to assume, is a huge component to its success as well. I mean, can you talk a little bit about how you think about UX within your product?

Brad Ash: [00:24:13] UX is incredibly important to us and we feel that the bar has been raised exponentially in the last few years, and it's going to continue to accelerate on that course.

When you have companies like Facebook and Twitter that are driving app development, and they have the resources, they have the minds, the money, every other app on your phone is going to be compared against those apps. So you don't need to build the app that has every single feature in it, and you probably shouldn't anyways, we could get to that. But you should focus on what can you build that works really well. And unfortunately, it doesn't matter that you're a small startup because your user doesn't care. They've downloaded your app from the App Store or Google Play, and they expect it to work. They expect it to be fast, not buggy, and they're not going to cut you slack based on the amount of money that you're bringing in every month.

So it's an unfortunate. The deck is really stacked against small companies and it's becoming more so that way. But you need to focus on what you can do well on the UX side, especially when you're dealing with a millennial and down generation, people that have grown up with the internet, people that are used to using technology in their daily life and they expect things to work a certain way.

If your app crashes every time they open it, if they go in and you have a photo sharing app or some type of messaging system, if it's not working as smoothly and cleanly as Instagram does for them, they're going to be annoyed. So we've dealt with that early on. It's really hard with one developer and not a lot of money to build an app that can compete with the likes of Instagram and LinkedIn.

But you have to try and you have to cut things off of the scope in order to do the things that you're going to do well. I would say maybe the exception to that rule is if your app offers something that is just so critically needed. You know, if you're a banking app, I suppose I could go through the hoops of switching my bank, but if my banking app is terrible, I'm probably not going to switch banks. I'm just going to be annoyed every time I have to use their app. If it's a service that you're trying to convince someone is a new thing that they need in their life, you need to prove your value to them. They're not going to give you that benefit of the doubt. So that's really where you need to focus on what UX you can do cleanly and smooth.

And so that's what we did. I went to, this was early on, probably first gen iPhone. I don't remember when the app store launched. I think it was...

Tim Bornholdt: [00:27:03] '08. It was like I think the 3G S or the 4.

Brad Ash: [00:27:08] Yeah, it was definitely around the 3G or 3G S.That was back, I remember the 3G didn't have GPS and you could have Google maps. But you couldn't actually get GPS.

Tim Bornholdt: [00:27:19] I always used the first one trying to do runs, like going for jogs with it and trying to use those apps. And yet it's like, we can estimate your location based off of wifi.

Brad Ash: [00:27:30] Yeah they were using kilometry off the cell tower.

So anyways, when the app store launched, I went to a conference, App Nation out in San Francisco, and one of the examples that always sticks with me, it was Southwest, and Southwest was one of the early adopters of mobile sites. And when smartphones came out and were starting to grow in popularity, they did a full tear down and really was one of the drivers of that mobile first movement that people hear so often nowadays. And they started with, let's not recreate our website on the phone. If I'm someone and I'm on my phone and I'm in the airport, or I'm on a trip, what are the four things that I need to accomplish? Like I need to check my flight status, I need to book a flight, and they cut everything else out. They had, you know, 57 different workflows and they whittled it down to four.

And that is something that has not changed throughout the years. It's still very important cause even though phones are faster and have all sorts of bells and whistles now, it's still a small little device. And our brains haven't changed that much.

Human nature still works the same way. We interface with human computer interaction, so you need to keep your app simple. You need to figure out what are the key things that a user wants to accomplish.

In our case, it was, we need to provide a better secure experience for two humans to communicate. So we started with the chat screen. We worked back from there, and we really avoided adding too many things. You can easily fall into the trap of my app looks sad, doesn't do a lot. And that's okay if it does the things it's supposed to do really well. There's nothing sad about having a great user experience.

You can achieve a lot of things with design and you can create a lot of positive human emotions through design. So that's important to work with someone if you don't have those skills on your team to work with a person or a firm that can help bring out those great emotion emoking designs. But the feature set, people fall into that trap a lot. They want to add too many things on.

My favorite Simpsons reference to use at work is the Homer car. You let everyone get involved and all of a sudden you have this just crazy Frankenstein monstrosity. So that's something that we focused on.

We started with our specific app with the chat screen. We said, all right, people are using text messaging every day. That's probably maybe the most used app on anyone's phone is the text message app. Let's just start there and let's build something that's not reinventing the wheel. Let's build something familiar.

And we want users to come in and not have to fight against our UX. I think you'll occasionally see a new website design. I remember USA today did this really cool redesign maybe 10 years ago, and it was unlike anything any of the newspapers were doing. It was a completely different layout. It looked beautiful, and the problem was, it just it didn't react in the way that you were expecting it to. And I felt bad for the teams that did it because I bet they ran into a lot of issues with users not really wanting to retrain their brain how to navigate a news website. And I think the same thing goes for any company. If you have competitors, even if you're not direct competitors, your technology is competing against other similar functionalities.

Don't compete against the user behavior that is already trained into people. If someone expects a texting screen to look a certain way, your screen should look similar to that. If people expect some type of calendar functionality in your app, you don't need to sit there and whiteboard, how do we reinvent the calendar? Maybe if you are a calendar app, maybe that's your goal is to improve on the calendar. But if you're not a calendar app, use a calendar that people understand.

So I think there's a lot of things with UX here that we can tend to, similar to wanting to put in all the nice furnishings and finishes on our home. We want to make sure that we're not adding in something that requires the user to do too many mental gymnastics to use. Alleviate roadblocks, alleviate friction, and you're going to have a better user experience. You're going to allow people to get in and work inside of your app faster. So these are things that we've spent a lot of time thinking about and planning and looking through other apps for inspiration.

And it's definitely a step that no one should overlook. And also you shouldn't overthink. I think those are the two pieces of advice on that.

Tim Bornholdt: [00:32:39] Well. Yeah, that's incredible UX advice. I always like to say that, pretty much anyone that uses your app doesn't use it, they're not going to use it in the same way that they use Facebook. Right? Like most successful apps, people aren't in there all day every day. You know, they might like, want to use your app for a specific purpose and they want to get in and out, as quickly and efficiently as possible, so they can get on with whatever else they need to do for the day.

And I think that's one thing that app product owners don't necessarily keep that in mind. I think you get so excited about what you're building and like you said, you stuff in all the features that you can, and you do all these things to really blow up and add all these things and it just ends up creating complexity and confusion.

And it takes away from the core purpose of what you're trying to do with your app, which is, help somebody accomplish a task and get on with their life.

Brad Ash: [00:33:35] Yeah. And there's exceptions to every rule, but in general, you're not going to win an argument against your users. If you think that your blog content is more important than the messages that they're getting from a connection and you want to put that up top because your marketing person is saying, you know, we really want to push X, Y, and Z, they're going to find what they need anyways, so we can bury that down. You're just going to annoy most users. Again, there's exceptions to every rule. Some companies are good at forcing user behavior training, and there's people that, you know, that's their expertise is how to do that. But for the majority of us, go with what your users expect.

For us, we did a lot of focus groups and beta testing. We brought in real users. We talked to them. We sat down with users when our app was in beta, we showed them the app. We walked them through various tasks of, Hey, now log in and send a message.

We figured out what was frustrating, what was working, what's not. And I'd say that you can't incorporate everyone's changes cause they conflict. But for the most part, we took our user's word for it that when they said something wasn't good, even though we thought it was good cause we built it that way, we usually defaulted to what the user said.

And you can't always do everything that your users want to make them happy. There's always going to be limitations and restrictions on that, but you need to at least incorporate that feedback if you're able to touch base with your users and get that because again, you're not gonna win that argument.

You don't have enough leverage unless you are an app that they absolutely have to use. They cannot get around it. You don't have enough leverage. Because people can walk away from your app. It's not hard. It is not hard to delete an app. It's not hard to never open it again. Even if you love the app, there's a good chance that you probably won't open it again.

That happens to a lot of app, so give your users a reason to get excited about coming back to your app. And step one starts with it works the way they want it to work, and it works the way they expect it to work. So at all costs, my opinion is you need to at least factor that into every decision you make, even if you have a good reason to go against it.

Tim Bornholdt: [00:36:03] I'm glad you moved into that topic cause that's where I was going to go next was with user feedback. And it sounds like you obviously embody user feedback into all the decisions you make for Fruitful. But talk a little bit about, now that you have an established product and you've got a ton of users that are using the product, how do you collect and filter through and process and get the overall consensus of what you're trying to get out of your users and kind of turn their thoughts into something actionable that you can actually incorporate into your product.

Brad Ash: [00:36:41] Yeah. So we love our users. Anytime that we get unsolicited feedback, we put that into a file. Every time that we make a change, we'll go out to a random sampling of users. We'll do online surveys. As I said, we've done inperson focus groups where we will again, randomly sample a collection of different populations within our user base and bring people in to sit down with them for an hour.

There is no end of value you can gain from the people that have decided your service is valuable to them. You've already convinced them that whatever you are providing to the universe is important to their life, enough for them to give you the time of day. So why not listen to those people. You exist because you provide value to them, so if you're not getting that feedback, if you're not talking to people on a regular basis, then why are you here? We don't build these companies to serve our own needs. I mean, sometimes we do, but we're not going to be footing the bill to operate the company.

And there's no end of tools that you can use to have these touch points. Some of them are free; some are very inexpensive. And most of them just need time and planning and, you know, need an Excel sheet and the list of names and you can go through and you can email people and, you don't need to set up any type of fancy thing to start getting user feedback.

So we did that from day one. We will always do that. I think it's pretty cliche now for companies to say, you know, we love our users. We care about our users. There's some companies when you're hearing that from a company that produces some type of task management software, I'm sure, I bet they do like their users. But in our case, we actually went through this infertility process and that was the driver for our company. So there is no question about the sincerity of I don't want anyone else to go through what we went through, and I'm going to do everything I can to make that experience better. I think our users know that, and they're maybe willing to give us more feedback than some other industries or apps, where you don't have that personal connection to it.

But I still think even when your app has less of a human kind of personal emotional connection to your users, that doesn't mean that you still can't have that type of connection with them for gaining feedback because again, they have given you validation that your service is something they want to devote time and or money to.

So talk to your users. You have nothing to lose from talking to your users. You have a little bit of your time, but really the worst thing that happens is you create a survey. You talk to some users, and you get feedback that doesn't help you, you don't want to use, and you don't use it. It's a very low risk. The reward is you get amazing insights into something that your team is not talking about. You find out that you think your roadmap should be headed down this path, and all of your users are expecting it to go in this direction. So that's a pretty easy decision to make if you're able to get enough data that's statistically significant on that front.

So talk to users, doesn't have to be a big thing. You know, send out some emails. Just start talking to them, no matter how.

Tim Bornholdt: [00:40:28] I can't tell you how many times we've worked on apps where you can tell the founders that actually do have that. Maybe not every founder has the type of a connection to their product like you do. I mean, like you said, a task management software, maybe there's somebody that's super passionate about managing tasks, but it's hard to like, compare that to somebody who's dealing with what you guys went through. So I mean, it's important to have, even if you don't have like a hardcore connection to the founding of the product, at the end of the day, it's like the cusp of the founders that are talking to their users and the founders that we've seen that are actually going out and trying to listen and learn about what they can do to improve their product, those are the products that ended up being successful. At the end of the day, you don't have to have the same kind of connection that you guys have to your tech, to your projects. Like if you have a task management app, you can probably still get a lot of useful feedback by going out and talking to your users and actually collecting that data and those insights.

And I think also, like you said, it's not like you have to necessarily involve and incorporate every single piece of feedback. Cause not everything that you hear is going to apply. Or it might be like very, very hyper specific to one or two people. And that's not necessarily worth including, but I think, like you said, it's more often than not, whenever we've gone out and talked to users, we've been completely blindsided in a positive way by a feature that none of us even thought about. And that's the feature that ends up, you know, kind of taking the product and the company to the next level.

Brad Ash: [00:42:06] Yeah. Absolutely. We don't use that many apps in our daily life. It feels like we do. But if you actually were to go into something like, I know on iOS, you've got screen time, or I'm not sure there's an Android equivalent. There's not a lot of things that you're regularly using. In your workday, you're probably using, you know, a limited number of things. In your personal life, using a little bit of number of things. So the fact that you want to engage with users and they respond to you, you might not be in their tier one inner circle, but you're in their tier two. You are now talking to a group that has decided to bring you into the fold of their life, which is a pretty small pool. So that says volumes just getting the response from people back. I mean, how many surveys or other things do you get for companies that you signed up for the thing you don't use it or used it once, you're probably not responding to those. So do not devalue the fact that that is your core audience. Those are great people to talk to, and you should value any time that they're willing to give you.

Tim Bornholdt: [00:43:17] This will be my last question. I watched the story that PBS did on your company and there was a really interesting point that your wife made at the end where she said, you know, we've impacted, like it had like a flip up Facebook likes counter and she made a point on there something to the effect of, you know, we've impacted 3,200 people's lives at this point. And if that's all we ever do, then I'll consider this company a success. And I would assume since then, you know, things have continued to grow and evolve.

I wonder now that we're a little bit further down the road, what does success look like for you and for your wife and for Fruitful in general?

Brad Ash: [00:44:02] Yeah, success to us is continuing to help this community. But beyond this community, and it is a very large one, we've seen that this model of pairing the available technology, taking inputs, matching people together, finishing those off by hand and providing one-to-one support, we know that it works. We are seeing almost all successful stories back from our matches. Unfortunately you do have a few bad eggs though, but yeah, we see that the model is working and this is something that we can use to support other communities. We can use it to support people in whatever they're going through.

I wish that we had the bandwidth and capacity to be doing something now as we're all dealing with this Covid-19 outbreak because this is absolutely a trauma that everyone is going through. People's brains are physically changing right now. And there is a lot of really great research that you can read from therapists and psychologists talking about this. But there are communities that need support and support is something that.I'm happy is getting the attention now from the medical community that it didn't for so long. And these generational traumas that are baked into boomers and gen X and even on down are starting to fade away.

And this concept of, just push it down, it'll go away. We don't burden other people with our problems. Therapy is for depressed people or for people with issues. These things are starting to melt away. We're seeing a ton of the self care and these other industries popping up. Unfortunately, a lot of them are just trying to take advantage of the wave. But regardless, we are seeing that the impact is being made into serious fields like medical fields, and we're hoping to have an impact in that front where we can talk to certainly doctors in the infertility community, but ultimately a broader field and make sure that things like stress and anxiety, which are absolutely contributing factors to medical outcomes, are taken seriously, and these are part of the holistic treatment of patients.

And that's why we partner with a lot of medical professionals. We did so early on in building our app. We have multiple professional, medical, therapists and infertility doctors that we consult with regularly. And are on our board. We want to make sure that this is not just another tech solve, a company that is out on the fringe of, or disrupting an industry I guess is a better way to say it. We don't want to disrupt anything. We want to improve something. There is great medical care happening specifically in the world of infertility, but in other areas such as cancer, there is so many people working to solve the medical side, whether it's pharmaceuticals or treatments and surgeries. There is a lot of work being done and these people are doing incredible work at improving the outcomes of horrible things that we have to deal with with ourselves and loved ones. But there is not enough being done on the mental side, on the trauma of stress and going through hardships in any treatment.

And so we hope that that's something we can start to change the narrative on and we can actually push to have that baked into the care of people worldwide and make sure that we're taking care of each other and we're taking care of ourselves and we're getting all the things we need to live our happiest and fullest lives.

And that is where we think Fruitful can have the biggest impact worldwide is helping to change that narrative and pushing for better patient care.

Tim Bornholdt: [00:48:13] And I just love the fact that you said you're improving and not disrupting, because that's something that if you go to like any startup event, either around here or you look at anything out in the Bay area, anywhere, it's like everyone's always trying to just disrupt and blow things up. And there's kind of like the chasing after VC money and everything. That's what everybody in that arena wants, is to just disrupt. And I'm glad that, you know, there's a service like yours that is improving and helping to make people's lives better and giving people things that they actually really need, especially at a time like this.

I was talking with some of my friends the other day too, and I was just thinking how grateful I am that I can talk with my friends, cause if this was, like you said, like my parents' generation, like my parents are boomers as well, and it's like my dad wouldn't sit and talk about his feelings to his friends, you know, or tell them that they're having a bad day or anything.

Brad Ash: [00:49:07] But it doesn't mean he's not going through things.

Tim Bornholdt: [00:49:09] Exactly. That's my point is like, at least my generation and my friends are able to have conversations and have an outlet and I just feel bad for my dad, and I try to talk with them as best as I can. But yeah, it's like there's just a generational thing that we're all kind of trying to help each other out and some generations, just that's the way that they were raised as you just shove it in and bottle it up and don't let it come out. And it's not healthy and not helpful at this point in time.

Brad Ash: [00:49:38] Yeah. I'm hopeful we're baking empathy into everything we do now. So I'm hoping that trend continues. And yeah on the disrupt thing, I mean, it's a great, it's a dramatic buzzword. It definitely perks up ears like, Oh, I, you know, I want to be involved with the next X, Y, and Z, even though, you know, being the next Uber, the next We Work is what you want to be touting these days. There is a lot of great work out there in any industry and to try and say, I'm new here, I'm going to come in and I'm going to start from scratch, which to me is what disrupt says, I'm going to flip this thing on its head. That's not what everything needs. Things need tweaking. They need polishing. We didn't come this far as a civilization by starting over. Every time we improve upon, we iterate. And so that applies to your apps, that applies to industries.

And, with us, I'd say maybe our biggest competitor would be therapy and we love therapists. We work with therapists. We use therapists personally. Therapy is fantastic. So why would we want to replace therapy? We don't. We want to add tools. We want to hone and refine.

Not everyone can afford to go to a therapist. Period. Most people can't afford to go all the time. So what are you doing on the inbetween? I mean, that's great that you're getting your support once a month, but there's 29 other days of the month where you're feeling terrible and you need a little boost.

So there are ways to refine and improve in any industry. And I think that's another key piece of advice is you shouldn't see yourself when you're entering a new vertical of being the bad guy. You're not the new person coming in that other people want to smother and put out of business. You can find ways to work with the people that exist in your industry.

I know that's not applicable to every single customer, but it certainly applies to a lot more. If you really brainstorm and think about what do we do that's a threat, what do we do that's a benefit, and how can we work with these other companies and have some type of symbiosis whereby everyone's winning?

Because a lot of times those answers are there if you really just frame what you do well and what they do well. Not everyone has to be a Swiss army knife and handle every task. I know that's often a goal of companies is we want to be the X of certain industry. But usually you don't start there. You usually start by doing one thing really well.

Similar to your app, you need to focus and you need to pick what that is and you need to help people. Don't do this alone. I mean more than just financial help. You need a good team and you need help from other people because we don't have all the answers. As smart as any one out there is, you don't have all the answers. You lack experience in certain things. And you're going to make mistakes. So you need to bring in good people. You need to surround yourself with good people. You need to be open-minded. You need to learn that your ideas are terrible. Maybe sometimes they're great, but you need to be open to both of those things. And I just think it's important and maybe we'll come out of this horrible situation that we're in, and so much trauma around the world is happening right now and who even knows what the fallout is going to be with so many people out of work and losing loved ones. And how do we come out of this with maybe a better attitude of lifting each other up and working together?

And maybe that is something that's able to come out of this as a more collaborative experience of, how do we solve problems together? How do we fix things or prevent future things from happening by identifying the players in our industry and working with them to build better solutions for the people that need them? I don't know, maybe people will go back to business as usual and everyone will be fighting over the same pie, but hopefully there can be some lessons learned from some companies that we are better together and we're able to really move forward as a whatever problem we're solving with more help.

Tim Bornholdt: [00:54:21] You mentioned breweries before and that was something I wanted to talk about at the end, cause I'm a huge craft beer fan myself, but that's something I see in that industry all the time.

My wife works for a brewery and it's amazing how often brewers will just call each other and say, you know, Hey, I'm running into this issue with this. Can you come and help? And it's like the amount of help that other breweries give to each other has been an inspiration for my business cause there's not a whole lot of app development shops in the Twin Cities. I've met pretty much every single development shop that's around here. And I really don't view many of them, I don't see them as like direct threats. I really see that there's a lot of work to go around, especially in software. And I see that there's plenty of opportunities that a project that it doesn't fit for us and it isn't a good fit for us, we can hand off to somebody else that I know is really good at projects in certain industries or at certain, you know, budget sizes or whatever.

I think that's probably something too, like we were talking, about having the attitude around therapy changing. I agree with you. I'm optimistic and I hope that after we get through the other side of this crisis we're going through, I hope that more industries and more businesses can be collaborative.

I always like to say you're standing on the shoulders of giants, no matter what industry you're in. And I think that we can all, you know, whatever platitude you want to say, like, whether it's a rising tide lifts all boats, whatever it is. I think working together, there's certainly competition that needs to happen. Cause at the end of the day, there's, you know, someone gets the contract and someone doesn't, but that doesn't mean we can't share knowledge and we can't work together to help each other grow and improve.

Brad Ash: [00:56:15] Yeah, absolutely. I learned that lesson early on in my career working in financial publishing, and I would hear about these conferences where all of the competitors would come together and would have these round tables and they would talk about what they're doing and what their marketing strategies are and what's working and what's not.

And as young in my career, that struck me as so odd. I'm like, why are people giving out the recipes. And it really is for that reason because everyone pushes the industry forward, everyone starts to grow, and you're able to pick up what other people are doing and add it into your secret sauce. But I've always kept that in my mind as, if an industry like financial publishing, which is relatively boring, and usually lumped in on the more greedy side of things that are out there consumer facing, if they're collaborating and everyone is working together, there's very little reason that that can't be happening in any industry.

So again, you have to brainstorm with your team, put up on the board, what are your threats, what are your strengths? What do you bring to the table? And find those things that you can work with others on. Because I guarantee that you have some of them and you can certainly play those up when you're talking to your competitors.

Tim Bornholdt: [00:57:41] Well, Brad, this was a wonderful conversation. I really appreciate you coming on the podcast today and talking more about Fruitful.

How can people find out more about your company and about you and get in touch.

Brad Ash: [00:57:51] Yeah, absolutely. FruitfulFertility.org is our website, and that has all types of information for both mentees and mentors, how the platform works. You can sign up on the website, you can also download us from the App Store, Google Play by searching Fruitful Fertility.

You can also sign up on the app. So that's kind of pick your poison. We are there for anyone that is going through infertility and needs help. We are there for anyone who has been through infertility and wants to give back to this community, wishes you could go back in time and give your past self some good advice.

We are there for, if you have loved ones, friends, family, anyone that is going through this. Most people, they're not looking to hear that it's going to be okay or to just relax. That's very important to remember. They're looking for you to listen to them and they're looking for support, so you can certainly point them to this resource if you have anyone in your life in need.

Tim Bornholdt: [00:58:57] It's an incredible resource. Like I said, I'm definitely going to be sending some of my friends and family over there, so thanks again for all the work that you do. I'm really glad to hear that your story ended up being successful and that it turned into you giving back to all these other people, and I wish you continued success here on your journey.

Brad Ash: [00:59:15] Thank you very much. It was great talking to you.

Tim Bornholdt: [00:59:18] Thanks to Brad Ash of Fruitful for joining me today on the podcast. You can find out more about Fruitful by visiting FruitfulFertility.org.

Show notes for this episode can be found at constantvariables.co. You can get in touch with us by emailing hello@constantvariables.co.

I'm @TimBornholdt on Twitter, and the show is @CV_podcast.

Today's episode was produced by Jenny Karkowski and edited by Jordan Daoust.

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