The story of Explain Everything
For many years, Bartosz Gonczarek and Piotr Sliwinski shared a hobby of making funny (and often absurd) audio podcasts. They thought about filming them as well, but the budget to make movies that visualized their wild ideas (e.g., space aliens, large explosions, monsters destroying whole cities) was cost prohibitive. The only plausible way to capture their ideas was to make simple cartoons, similar to Terry Gilliam’s cut scenes between Monty Python sketches.
An app concept appeared in Piotr’s head in June 2008, when a colleague from his corporate job showed him a cartoon that he had made.
This was the spark that inspired me to finally try filming our podcasts as cartoons! I downloaded a number of animation apps for the Mac and PC, but they were very difficult to use and everything took a long time to do. So, I decided to build my own animation app, one that could record movement as a ‘puppet show.’
After only a week, Piotr had a working proof of concept. It was a simple Mac OS app that had a funny face object which could be moved around an empty, checkered window and have its movement recorded. It was quite cool, but a lot of work was needed to make a properly functioning app from this proof of concept. After several months, this project was barely progressing. Having a full time job, Piotr did not have much time to work on it.
In September, 2009, Bart and Piotr were driving to a concert and talked about Piotr’s animation app project. Bart said, “If you don’t have the time to do it yourself, hire a computer science student and let him finish the project for you.”
Piotr hired a programmer and, together with him, worked long nights while establishing what needed to be done and how to do it.
We were meeting every week in person and working every day, communicating on Skype. They were fantastic long hours and we regularly stayed up until 2 am.
I was always saying that our ideas — and we had many — lacked a business component. At that time, we had formed a small company, a virtual assistant startup, together with a high school friend. Piotr joined us partially, and we were only meeting every now and then. However, he was always showing me the progress of the app.
At the end of 2009, there were rumors floating around about Apple reinventing the tablet. A tablet seemed like an ideal device for an animation app, so Piotr took the risk and ported the Mac app to iOS. It was developed further, but he was only able to test it out on an iPod Touch since they were still waiting for the iPad to appear.
The iPad appeared in April, 2010, and it was then that Bart increased his involvement with the project.
The virtual assistant idea had not been progressing well, but I saw opportunity with the animation app. I designed the front screen and I had a lot of ideas about the frame editor and the graphic design of the app.
It took them another 5 months to polish up the app and prepare it for the submission to the App Store. By then it had a name – PhotoPuppet – and had a lot of features that are in the current version of Explain Everything.
I remember my trembling hands when at the end of September 2010, I was uploading the first PhotoPuppet to the App Store. I could barely sleep the night when it finally got accepted. I knew that it was impossible, but I dreamed about waking up a millionaire – or at least having thousands of downloads the first day.
Unfortunately, PhotoPuppet got only about 50 downloads throughout the entire month of October.
The app was too expensive, too difficult to use, and looked too odd. We did not target it at any particular audience.
I was working three separate jobs to keep up with the company’s expenses and Piotr was moonlighting for months, trying to promote PhotoPuppet while spending his savings.
I was looking all over the Internet — Google, Yahoo, Bing, Twitter — for anyone who was interested in the app or was using it.
What Piotr and Bart didn’t know was that on the other side of the ocean, an ambitious and tech-savvy educator from New York City named Reshan Richards was looking for something similar to what they were doing.
In about 2006 I was introduced to desktop screencasting software and I started combining it with an interactive whiteboard. At the time, doing a screencast required a somewhat clumsy setup. As soon as the iPad came out I saw it had a touch screen and a microphone (at the time it didn’t have the camera) so I thought, “Oh! Here we go, this is gonna take all of the clumsiness out of the screencasting process and make it super easy to do.” I started a blog just to explore and write about apps that weren’t necessarily designed for education but that were really powerful. I wanted to document how to appropriate the best elements of well-designed apps to make them in traditional learning contexts. When I discovered PhotoPuppet I thought, “Oh my goodness! Somebody’s doing it!”
On one serendipitous day, Peter found a single tweet leading that lead to a blog post that Reshan had written about PhotoPuppet and its many features.
I immediately emailed Bart and noted, “This guy will kick ass, let’s give it some time.” This time I was right.
That was the start of their working relationship.
By this time, Piotr and Bart started working on an improved version of PhotoPuppet (PhotoPuppet HD).
We assembled a better team and hired a graphic designer to make graphics for us. We created a unique “paper-like” interface. We added new features (e.g., you could cut out a part of your mouth on a photo and make it move in a Southpark-like fashion).
PhotoPuppet HD was released in March, 2011 and while it sold better than the original one, it was nowhere near their expectations.
At that time we’d spent most of our own money and we were really close to zero on our bank accounts. We tried to sell a third of MorrisCooke to our friends for $10K, but no one was willing to buy. Everyone looked at us like we were crazy.
While all of this was going on, they continued a dialogue with Reshan. They communicated over email and via Skype.
I wanted to make a screencasting app whose animation and action-logic was just like PhotoPuppet, but redesigned for education with a different user interface, additional tools like drawings and shapes, and a slide structure for storyboarding.
The three of them were working on similar concepts simultaneously but from different points of view.
Initially, we considered creating a special version of PhotoPuppet for Reshan as subcontractors, but our innovative animation engine behind it had been very expensive to make and Reshan could not afford to license the software, so I had a different idea. I proposed to form a partnership. I figured out that in order to succeed, we had to set a shared goal. Reshan would be able to make the app he envisioned and we could further work on our unique animation engine, sharing expenses and revenues with him.
It was quite straightforward to partner with Reshan as they immediately understood each other. He completed the team’s skillset by adding his abilities and background.
Looking back, this turned out to be the perfect blend of hobbyist enthusiasm, technology and education.
I remember the first moment when Piotr approached me on the very beginning with a concept of the app and I said, “Oh this is pretty powerful but I don’t know how we can use it or where it’s gonna be useful.” But this is the way the ideas evolve. Piotr had something in mind, then we added a component to it, then the technology came, and then Reshan’s ideas. At the end, you have Explain Everything that can be used in education and beyond.
On August 19th, 2011, Explain Everything was approved by Apple. Reshan shared the news with his network and several influential educators and bloggers began to tweet and write about it.
The app had a very good initial reception. It passed 10K downloads in 4 months. Then it passed 100K downloads in 1 year.
We have seen an increasing download pace ever since and currently the download rate is about 100K per month.
At the time of writing, Explain Everything has been downloaded by almost 4 million people around the world.
We have been constantly updating and improving the app since the very beginning (and occasionally bringing back features from PhotoPuppet), so this is also one of the reasons that iPad users have been choosing Explain Everything and using it daily.