In 2016, Emily Franz-Lien was ready for a change of scenery after graduating from the University of Manitoba with a Statistics degree and a minor in Computer Science. At that point, Emily had been in University for five years and needed a break. Lee Klimpke, her boyfriend, had an engineering job and was also ready to try something new. They started talking about finding a way to travel and work online at the same time.
“I remember Lee’s dad saying that this is just a pipe dream and you’ll never find a way to work online and live in these tropical countries your whole life,” she says.
But, Emily and Lee were young, hopeful and lucky to not have any debt. They decided to give it a try, going to South-East Asia to learn how to make Android and IOS apps while travelling.
Their first app was an add-on for Overwatch – a multiplayer video game. They put it up on Reddit and got a few hundred downloads. However, they soon realized that it wasn’t going to make enough profit to sustain their lives.
“I think that most developers get this idea that if they build something people are just going to download and use it,” Emily says.
Emily and Lee weren’t worried about turning in a huge profit. They were just hoping to learn through trial-and-error. They created a few more apps, the last of which was a location-based chat app. In the app, a map would show with little emoji for popular locations. A chat bubble would pop up when you clicked on an emoji where you could chat with people at the same location.
“We thought it would be this next big thing before we realized for these kind of things you need to have a budget for marketing,” she says. “We were struggling to figure how we were gonna make money from it.”
They were in Bali and had been travelling for about 10 months when the constant moving around started getting to them and they decided to go back home.
“It’s exhausting travelling and trying to see all the stuff/trying to figure out all this new stuff and what we’re doing all the time,” Emily says.
In Winnipeg, they began freelancing in app development via UpWork and Kijiji. They worked part-time on a community-based app called Everything Filipino for a client. They also joined North Forge Technology Exchange’s Meetup Group to network with other local entrepreneurs.
It was through this meetup group that Emily and Lee met their current partners, Daniel Fayle and Myles Hiebert. Daniel was looking for a developer to partner with on a location-based app and heard that Emily was also working on something similar. He sent Emily a Facebook message asking if she would be interested in meeting him for coffee.
Emily and Lee met Daniel and Myles. They weren’t working full-time at the time and collaborating seemed like a good idea. They agreed to help build the app Daniel and Myles were working on.
Due to some issues, they didn’t end up making that app but the four of them soon launched a Wi-Fi marketing business called Chekkit. Through Wi-Fi Marketing, they helped businesses build loyalty programs through Wi-Fi login pages and text messages. After using the Wi-Fi at a local business, the program they built would send a text offering a coupon for the business.
Daniel and Myles managed the sales, marketing and finances for the business while Lee and Emily managed the IT. Their first client was now defunct Winnipeg bar, The Pint. The manager at the time was an early adopter and open to trying this product.
“He didn’t know that he was the first one,” Emily says with a laugh. “We didn’t tell him that.”
After they installed the hardware for it, they would all go to North Forge’s workspace in McDermot Avenue and watch people logging into the Wi-Fi in the back-end.
“It was cool to see something that you built actually be used somewhere,” she says. “That was a very first time experience for Lee and I.”
They managed to get a few more clients but scaling the business proved to be harder than they’d imagined. Hardware like routers and plug-ins had to be physically installed and maintained which required manpower and a budget.
They came across a business idea that would add value to the Wi-Fi marketing – a text marketing component where customers could text a buzzword to receive a coupon and receive a request to leave a review for a business they visit. They soon learned about the value of Google reviews for service-based local businesses like dentists and lawyers, and decided to change the business model to concentrate on review generation.
They built a program that sent out review invitations to customers via text and started seeing a lot more success. Over the last year, Chekkit evolved to phase out Wi-Fi marketing and add such new features as a website chat widget to help generate leads. Working with only software reduced the operating costs and issues that came with hardware. The demand and results generated from this product were high.
“The problem with a lot of business, especially dentists, is that people don’t usually think to leave a review on their own,” Emily says.
Chekkit helps with that by encouraging users to leave an authentic review right after they use the business. This in turn, improves the business’ visibility on search engines and generates new leads.
Emily says that the key to building a successful business is having the courage to try networking to find people who could make good partners. Emily and Lee built several apps before creating an economically sustainable product.
“When you’re starting out, you’re just kind of going and there’s a lot of stuff you don’t know but if you don’t take a leap of faith and try, you’re never gonna know anything,” she says.
Emily advises young, female entrepreneurs to find and work with people they trust. She thinks it’s important to build a community of people that share similar interests and motivate you to succeed.
“I would not have been that motivated and gone off if I was just on my own,” she says.
For Emily, it was her partner Lee, but there are many different avenues. A childhood friend or someone you network and connect with can work as long as you have a supportive and trustworthy relationship.