After a 10-year career in journalism, Jack Maddox wanted to explore other job possibilities and become a tech entrepreneur. After working on one semi-successful idea with a developer, Jack decided to go to DigitalCrafts coding bootcamp in Atlanta to learn the skills to build his next idea. Jack walks us through his capstone project, Socialwise, which he is about to launch as a real business! He explains how it works, how he built it, and how his journalism background comes in handy every day.
What were you doing before you decided to go to DigitalCrafts?
Most recently I was at a company called Data Miner, which is a news-driven social media company. But I spent the best part of 10 years working in journalism, at both CNN and Al Jazeera America. I’ve spent a lot of time, in one capacity or another, working in the gathering of information, particularly for journalistic purposes. A large portion of my time was spent gathering information on Twitter or other social media channels.
I had previously tested the entrepreneurship waters, so to speak, with various applications, one of which was a mobile pick-up/matchmaking app. It performed okay and got a decent number of downloads. During that experience I was exposed to the work of a software developer and found myself feeling jealous of what he was able to do, and wanted to do what he was doing. I worked on that app for around 18 months, then I moved back into full-time journalism, and stuck with that for a few more years.
Once I turned 30, I asked myself if I wanted to continue doing what I was doing, and realized I might end up regretting never fully exploring other possibilities. And then I just did it: I quit my job, enrolled at DigitalCrafts, and found myself where I am now.
What was your main motivation for going to a coding bootcamp?
I went in planning to leverage the experience for entrepreneurial ends, but I also recognized the modern-day value of a web development and coding skill set – a skill set that’s applicable to all sorts of jobs and industries. I knew that even if entrepreneurship didn’t work out, there would be other freelance and career opportunities to explore. I genuinely enjoyed coding, and knew – whatever came out of my bootcamp experience – that it was going to be better than what I was doing at the time.
Did you research other coding bootcamps besides DigitalCrafts?
I did spend some time exploring other options. I’m based in London, but I have family in Atlanta. There are a number of bootcamps in Atlanta, but DigitalCrafts is the cream of the crop, as far as I’m concerned. I went on tours offered by some of the other courses, but I just didn’t find them particularly stimulating. Bootcamps aren’t cheap, so it’s important to find the right fit for you.
I was particularly attracted to the fact that DigitalCrafts has an entrance exam. I liked the selectiveness; the fact that it was more difficult to get into, compared to other courses. For me it underlined the level of intensity that they were looking for in prospective bootcampers. And then there’s the full stack curriculum factor. That was very important to me when it came to keeping my options open after the bootcamp.
What was the learning experience like at DigitalCrafts?
It was great. It wasn’t like college; it was closer to being at a Monday-to-Friday job – but always learning. On a typical day, we would spend the first part of the day in a lecture-style tutorial where the teacher would talk us through what we were going to do. Then we’d do exercises and set the foundations for a particular concept. In the afternoons, we’d pivot to individual work, and there would be additional optional exercises to do outside of class. We would follow this curriculum structure for a couple of weeks at a time,then do a mini-project. It was a lot to take in – there was some serious learning. But as with most things: you get out of it what you put in.
How many projects did you work on? When did you begin the capstone project?
There were four major projects, then a capstone and mini-projects. The capstone is completed during the last few weeks of the program. Before the course, I had jotted down ideas for potential applications and businesses, and I was keen to model what I had learned from the curriculum modules on the ideas that I had in mind. As we were doing our React front end project, I used that as an opportunity to build out the front end for what I ultimately had in mind for the main capstone project.
The course is very flexible. What you choose to work on is not constrained by what you’re doing in class. As long as you’re genuinely putting the work in and pushing yourself, you can go for it.
Tell me about your capstone project!
My product is called Socialwise, a real-time Twitter and Instagram search dashboard to monitor your competition and find new customers talking about what you’re selling. I’ve taken advantage of my previous journalism background in social search and combined it with my newfound technical skills to build a dashboard which is suitable for businesses, particularly their social media managers and marketing directors, who are trying to create content and engage with their communities. Those marketing directors are often being pulled in a million different directions, and they then have to learn how to build out search and spend time putting together large decks, which is time costly. So with Socialwise, they can do all of that much more efficiently.
When someone signs up for an account with Socialwise, I put together a deck presenting them with new customers and a competitive analysis. For example, if you were an ice cream vendor prospecting new customers on Twitter, you could use Socialwise to:
Identify real users tweeting about ice cream. If someone tweets “does anyone want to stress eat ice cream with me?” You could reply on Twitter and say “Hey. We sell ice cream. Wanna stress eat some of ours? Here’s a 10% discount code.”
Identify related influencer trends such as #NationalDessertDay and then capitalize on it by offering a promo using the hashtag.
Monitor your competition. Track your ice cream competitors and their media mentions and get visibility into their interactions. If a competitor is having negative experiences, there is an opening for your ice cream brand to swoop in and undermine your competition with a positive experience. Or if your competition is having positive interactions, you can learn from their approach.
Socially listen. This means that you can at all times keep a finger on the pulse of your public brand perception.
Grow your community and take advantage of what’s publicly available on social media, by identifying opportunities for engagement.
What sort of businesses is your tool designed for?
What Socialwise does already exists in one form or another. You can pay thousands of dollars for big ticket companies to do this, but Socialwise is more focused on smaller, medium-sized businesses who already have enough on their plate, and cannot spare the time, nor afford to hire someone to do it for them. Socialwise gives these companies the chance to leverage my social media consultancy experience.
What technologies did you use to build the project? Did you have to learn anything that wasn’t covered by the curriculum?
The DevOps side of this deployment was pretty difficult, I won’t lie; it was more of a learning experience than I expected. The main thing that I had to learn that wasn’t covered by the curriculum was WebSockets. In order to have posts populate immediately, I needed WebSocket connections to my back end.
You connect to the Twitter streaming API using a WebSocket, but because that is very expensive, I set up my own back end for it. I basically replicated the way that Twitter does it by setting up WebSockets on my back end and on my front end.
That’s the thing about coding: you quickly learn that you don’t really know anything until you encounter it. While the curriculum covered the breadth of what I needed, when I encountered a need for a specific application of a concept, that often became a learning experience because it meant learning in depth. That said, DigitalCrafts gives you the tools to figure it out.
What was the biggest challenge in building Socialwise?
Data migration, because there are many steps involved. You’ve got to process data with all new account sign-ups; move it to the database; move it from the database to the back end; then in the back end, make a request to Twitter; bring it back from Twitter; write it to a database again; pump it into a websocket, then move it to the front end, and eventually render it.
When you’ve got to move it around so many steps, you’re hoping that it stays in the right position, and you can end up killing yourself over why something isn’t working. Then it ends up being a really quick fix. I’d say that was the main challenge on this.
What has been your timeline for creating and launching Socialwise? Are you ready to accept clients?
I quickly realized that the application I originally built out as my capstone was fine for a single account, but would not be fit for multiple accounts. It has taken a decent amount of time to make the application scalable. I took a short vacation immediately after the course, but I have been working on it since. I’ve probably spent two to three months working on it.
It’s pretty much ready. I’m currently accepting beta applications, and I’ll probably begin accepting paid clients shortly because it does seem to be working rather nicely. There’s a certain pressure that comes along with accepting money from people in exchange for your services. For example, you want to make sure that it doesn’t crash the first time that they use it, creating a bad experience.
What are your hopes and plans for the future of Socialwise?
To be able to turn this into a stable, profitable business that provides me with a decent salary and expands to the point I’m able to employ others. At the moment, it’s just me working on this full time. There is an ongoing conversation with one person I’m considering bringing on board to assist with our marketing efforts, and I do have a couple of people with whom I can consult who work more on the marketing side of the industry.
But, who knows what’ll happen. I often think about it like this: consider how many customers your local store needs to stay profitable, and consider that number as a percentage of their local population and how many people they have to hit in order to be successful. Then compare that to what I’m trying to do: focusing on predominantly online customers worldwide. The percentage of the overall marketplace I need to hit for Socialwise to be a profitable business, is miniscule compared to what a brick-and-mortar business requires.
I spent a lot of money on the course and missed out on money by quitting my previous job, so I want to dedicate my attention – at least for the next few months – solely to this project, in order to give it its absolute best chance at success.
How has DigitalCrafts given you advice or support in launching your own business?
DigitalCrafts has been great so far. My instructor, Sean, is still always available on Slack and we’ve maintained a relationship. Just last week, he and I went out together for a burger. I’m probably pestering him way too often with all my questions. DigitalCrafts has also been supportive in terms of trying out the app and giving me feedback. So they’ve been good and I hope that it continues.
How has your background been useful in getting you to this point?
I’ve unsuccessfully launched an app before and in that process, I learned a lot about how to prioritize where my time is spent. I also learned that B2B was probably going to be a lot more sustainable in terms of profitability.
As for the value of my journalism experience, it’s simple: if I didn’t have it, I wouldn’t have been able to build Socialwise. There are many developers out there with the skill needed to technically engineer this. Then there are those in journalism who can deftly navigate search to find leads and breaking events in real-time. But there are very few people who have both skill sets. I spend a lot of time listening to podcasts that talk about people who leverage their expertise in one arena to create success for themselves in another. I’ve found NPR’s How I Built This, Indie Hackers, Startup, and Akimbo all to be useful podcasts.
What has been your biggest personal challenge on this journey so far?
One of the major fears that I ran into is one of unknowingly neglecting to do something that I ought to. Building an exhaustive list of everything that I needed to do was helpful. But the biggest challenge was getting myself out there, building up my own social accounts to attract a good customer base.
What advice do you have for other budding entrepreneurs considering going to coding bootcamp to build their idea?
Do it. The most important thing to remember is that there’s no use in sitting on the sidelines. Putting your neck on the line is a bold step, but a necessary one. More practically, if you do have an idea, write it down or try to talk to someone who’s already well-versed enough technically to help you identify the components necessary for what you’re hoping to build.
Also, make sure that the skills you’re going to require are catered to by the bootcamp course you plan to take. Be sure to take full advantage of your course. Use your course projects as opportunities to build out something that you can make use of at a later date.