Behind The Click: Sheena Allen Turned Curiosity Into A Mobile App Business
Favorite read: The Startup of You by Reid Hoffman
Recent read: The Lean Startup by Eric Ries
Favorite websites: Mashable, Facebook, LinkedIn and GlobalGrind
Most inspired by: My friends and family.
One quote that inspires you: “It’s hard to beat a person who never gives up.” – Babe Ruth
Sheena Allen wasn’t always into technology. But when she realized she’d need it to turn her idea into a reality, the now 26-year-old jumped into action, building her first app InstaFunds. Allen is the founder of Sheena Allen Apps, which powers six apps that collectively have three million downloads to date. Her story has grabbed the attention of directors Nora Poggi and Insiyah Saeed and the duo will feature her story in an upcoming women in tech documentary, She Started It.
MadameNoire spoke with Allen about her growing business, lessons learned and what’s next for Sheena Allen Apps.
MadameNoire: How did you get your start in the technology space?
Sheena Allen: It was completely random. I had a random idea for an app after leaving Walmart one afternoon with my college roommate. I had no idea how to do an app or anything dealing with technology.
MN: What inspired you to create Sheena Allen Apps?
SA: This all started from a random idea and then it became a passion. When I created that first app back in college, I didn’t think Sheena Allen Apps would be where it is now. My first app had about 50 downloads the first two months. If anything, this was going to be a hobby on the side until I went from 50 downloads of my initial app to 6,000-plus downloads a day of another app owned by the company.
MN: What steps did you take to get it off the ground?
SA: I designed my first app [InstaFunds] using Microsoft Word, which has absolutely nothing to do with designing mobile apps. But I truly had no clue what I was doing. What I did know was that I had an idea and I wanted to get my idea out to the world.
I designed the app and I went searching for a freelance developer. I eventually found someone, got a loan from my dad and walked through the process with the developer. I designed the app; I tested my own app and all of that. Once the app was completed, the developer sent me the coding and I studied the coding. That first app was definitely not an overnight success story, but it was the best teacher.
MN: There’s been a huge push to not only teach school-age children and teens to code, but adults as well. How’d you learn to code?
SA: The coding I do know comes from studying coding of previous apps I have had developed by freelancers, and also using tools such as Code Academy.
MN: What are your three tips to running a successful mobile app company?
- Don’t hesitate on your idea. If you do, you’ll look up and someone else will have developed that app, have it in the App Store and successful.
- Don’t be afraid to fail. It may not go as planned, so if you do fail, do so quickly and cheaply.
- Mentors. The first year and a half of running my company, I did it all alone. I felt no one wanted to help me. I felt that no one believed in what I was trying to do. Once I reached a certain point, I finally reached out to some people and some of those people are my best mentors.
MN: Your suite of six apps has garnered over two million downloads and been used by celebrities. How’d you find out they were fans of your app?
SA: The most popular app I have now that is being used by celebrities and brands is PicSlit. As far as me knowing when PicSlit is used, either they’ll leave the #PicSlit hashtag in the caption, or I have even had some actually reach out to me. Before 49ers wide receiver Stevie Johnson deleted his previous IG, his entire Instagram was using PicSlit. He reached out to me and said how much he liked the app and [that] he thought it was dope what I was doing. Whenever people like K. Michelle or Trey Songz, or anyone, does the banner on their Instagram, I will usually get someone who tags the PicSlit Instagram page or my personal IG page.
The feedback is good and bad. Some people love the creativity of it, but I’ve also gotten those ‘thanks for ruining my timeline’ comments via social media and email, too. I just love the fact that people appreciate it for what it is though. That’s the beauty of it. Be creative. I’m a kid from a small town in Mississippi. Anytime I see someone use any of my apps, famous or not, I’m just appreciative.
MN: What’s the best business advice you’ve ever received or given?
SA: When I speak to students, I always make sure to tell them: ‘Don’t focus so much on being the cool kid because a lot of times the cool kids end up being the broke kids.’
MN: There’s been a lot of conversation around diversity in technology, especially since big name tech companies such as Google, Facebook and Twitter released their problematic diversity data. As an African-American woman in tech, how has your experience been in maneuvering through the space?
SA: It hasn’t been easy. You come into this industry with two strikes already against you. I’m a woman. I’m African American. So in the end, you have to work overtime to prove yourself. I will say that my first mentor was a white male and I don’t think he cared that I was black, blue, or orange. He cared about teaching me and guiding me on how to build a tech company.
MN: What’s next for Sheena Allen Apps?
SA: We are doing some major upgrades to three of the apps. We will also be adding multiple apps over time. We are at six now, but over the next two years, I plan to add three to five more. I also want to hit, at minimum, five million downloads by the end of 2016.
Most importantly, I want to establish a Sheena Allen Apps office in Mississippi because that is where this journey started. So many kids and young adults, especially in the African-American community, feel that you can only ‘make it’ through music or sports. Having an office there where people can come and work for a tech company—without having to move to Silicon Valley, Seattle or New York—is very important to me.
I have also started on my next startup, so right now it is just all about focusing and building. The end goal is to do something that no one has ever done.
Allen will discuss building a successful mobile at The Phat Startup’s Tech808 conference in Washington DC on June 6 at George Washington University. For more information, visit Tech808.