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Making It in Mobile

Success hasn’t left the founders of Albany’s Doctored Apps dumbstruck

by Sarah Sherman on March 13, 2014


“It’s a good thing you have a girlfriend already. I’m screwed,” says Michael Tanski to his friend and business partner, Peter Allegretti, in the midst of a conversation on balancing their hectic work and social lives. Tanski and Allegretti, the men behind Doctored Apps, a company that calls itself a “mobile app idea lab,” say it might be easier to create an app than to find a date.

Allegretti says Tanski could add “boy genius” to his dating profile to entice potential matches. But for all the joking, dating doesn’t seem to be a big concern to the 23-year-old entrepreneur. Right now, Tanski and the 30-year-old Allegretti, both Albany residents, have one focus: Dumbstruck.

Doctored Apps’ newest creation, Dumbstruck, allows users to capture reactions to picture messages. Along with their team of developers and designers, Allegretti and Tanski have opened up an entirely new form of messaging. This is how it works: once a user opens a picture message, the phone automatically records that user’s reaction to the message for six seconds, and then sends the reaction back to the user who sent the original message. The app starts to record about a second before the content is revealed, so you see the person not only when they’re reacting, but before. “The transition can be the coolest part,” Allegretti says.

Recording the moment: Peter Allegretti and Michael Tanski of Doctored Apps. Photo by Ann Morrow.

The message and reaction will automatically be deleted after 24 hours unless it is saved or shared on a social media site. Doctored Apps explains that this eliminates replies like “LOL” or “Awww” from conversations; now we can see and hear genuine responses. Allegretti says it’s a unique experience when you’re able to “see the smile as it actually starts to form . . . hear the person as they’re actually laughing . . . or see someone’s eyebrow start to rise because they’re confused or surprised.”

Dumbstruck, which launched this past December, is growing very quickly, according to Allegretti. At first the guys of Doctored Apps were relying solely on word-of-mouth to get users. Soon after launching, though, local users and friends of the developers were joined by users from small towns in Louisiana and Iowa. How this happened, Allegretti doesn’t know.

They turned a corner when Elvis Duran, radio host of Elvis Duran and the Morning Show, got word of Dumbstruck. Duran’s show, syndicated through Premiere Radio Networks in more than 75 markets across the country, airs weekday mornings. On Jan. 9, Duran told listeners how much fun he’d been having using the app. Describing it as “Snapchat’s cooler sister,” Duran certainly got people interested. Allegretti says shortly after Duran’s mention of Dumbstruck, they were getting up to 1,000 users per minute. Dumbstruck spread through nearly 40 states and five countries. While the Doctored Apps guys say they can’t give a specific number of users because of “investor relations,” Allegretti says they’ve “built momentum,” and are “continuing to roll.”

Dumbstruck has now been featured on NYC’s Z100, at Techcrunch, in USA Today, as well as several other newspapers and blogs. In addition to Duran, there are other celebrities reported to use (and enjoy) Dumbstruck. Among them is Harry Shum, of Glee, who has voiced his appreciation of the app. In an interview with Jefferson Graham of USA Today, Shum talks about the “beauty” in Dumbstruck and how useful it is because “human emotion is all about reaction.”

Making an app takes time. It requires strategy, development, coding, and design. A great deal of technological knowledge is necessary, which is something Tanski and Allegretti are certainly not lacking. Both were enrolled in an informatics Ph.D. program at the University at Albany, but decided to “scale back” in order to devote themselves entirely to Doctored Apps. What’s driving them is not money, they say, but exactly what Dumbstruck is about: response. They say the reward comes from seeing people enjoy what they’ve created. Sure, the money can’t be bad either—they claim to have already banked between $750,000 and $1 million from investors—not bad for some guys working out of a garage.

These investors are essentially making a bet that Dumbstruck will become popular and they’ll ultimately be able to monetize its success. It’s unclear exactly how the monetization of this project would work, as Tanski and Allegretti are limited in what they can say because of a non-disclosure agreement.

Most mobile applications do not generate a profit. As the standard business model moves overwhelmingly toward free downloads, the most common revenue generators are in-app purchases and app advertising. Allegretti hints at another potential source of revenue for Dumbstruck based on the idea that “reactions have value,” but he cannot be too specific.

Tanski, who takes ownership of the original idea behind Dumbstruck, is the technology man of Doctored Apps. While he jokes that his ultimate goal is to meet Taylor Swift, he is content with the idea of simply getting the app into the hands of a lot of people. As a “technologist” in charge of the guys who are programming the app, Allegretti says Tanski is responsible for the “magic” created by Doctored Apps.

The company, established in November 2012, tested the waters of the social-media-app world with a “location-based social network” called Mappit. What they were aiming for with Mappit was to provide users with a way to find out what was happening around them at any given point—like a free TV on the side of the road just a few blocks away. By using Siena College students as guinea pigs, they discovered that it was perhaps too big an idea and something they weren’t quite ready to tackle. During this process, however, they came up with Dumbstruck, which they were surprised didn’t exist already. They spent a few weeks developing a simple prototype for it and started testing it out with their friends. Originally they were just doing it as a side project, they say, but quickly realized there was something there.

Allegretti, whose background is more in liberal arts, didn’t come with the idea of Dumbstruck—but he did come up with the name. Getting his team to agree with him, he says, was not an easy task.

“I had to convince these people for so long to use that name,” he says. “No one wanted to take that name. I loved it and everyone hated it, but we ended up using it.”

Allegretti argued that “Dumbstruck” was more personal than something like “Reaction Chat,” or other “stiff” names that were being suggested. In a final effort to decide on a name, the guys of Doctored Apps put the possibilities into a hat.

“I may have cheated or I may not have,” Allegretti jokes.

Tanski adds, “It was his hat.”

Ultimately, the team settled on Dumbstruck, which was a “small victory” for Allegretti. A victory he probably celebrated over a nice Scotch, as he often does at the end of a long workday.

In the “really bizarre world” of the social-media industry, Allegretti says, “we’re in a unique situation, because reactions are so valuable.” He insists that everyone—companies, brands, musicians—want reactions to their content. And Doctored Apps is no different. This is what drives them and what Allegretti says is critical to an entrepreneur’s success: “You have to have a serious drive in order to work 16 hours every day for months and months on end. . . . It has to come from within.”

"We're in a unique situation because reactions are so valuable."

While ultimately they may be striving for the type of success people like Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Linkedin’s Reid Hoffman have found, they know takes a lot of work. Allegretti quotes Hoffman when talking about the risks and unknowns facing a startup company: “Building a company is like jumping off a cliff and building an airplane on the way down.”

Hoffman’s analogy is accurate, Allegretti says. “You’re stepping into the dark. You have to believe that other people are going to want to use what you’re building. . . . You never have proof that it’s going to be a large business or make money.”

It’s a risk Doctored Apps is willing to take. While startups can cash in on a good idea by selling the company, that is not their focus right now. They are focused on gaining users. They want to see people using it and enjoying it. They feel satisfied knowing that they gave something to the world that it didn’t have before. “It enhances communication,” Allegretti says. “It’s a powerful thing.”

Portio Research estimates that by 2017, nearly 4.4 billion people will be using mobile apps. It’s a “crowded space,” Allegretti says, but it’s one they’re excited to be a part of, though it’s not always easy. “It’s tough,” he says. “It’s very hectic. It never ends. . . . Like one day you could have a new competitor that no one in the world knew about yesterday.” What keeps them going is that the “potential is so great,” and the reward of seeing other people enjoy what they’ve created is priceless.

Both Tanski and Allegretti say they are doing more or less what they’ve always wanted to be doing. Tanski always wanted to work with technology, and while a younger Allegretti wasn’t sure exactly what he wanted to do, he knew he never wanted to work in an office or for other people. “I never thought about it as being an entrepreneur,” he says. “I just never wanted to work for anyone else.”

Another part of the appeal of Doctored Apps is that no day is ever the same. “Things change so fast,” Allegretti says. “Something huge could happen in five minutes that’s going to consume the next 12 hours.”

Just days ago, the pair traveled to Austin, Texas, for South by Southwest (SXSW), which features original music, independent films, and emerging technologies. The conference describes itself as “the premier destination for discovery” and attracts a lot of startup companies. It provides a great space for young companies to expose their product and (hopefully) gain some interest. At the conference, Doctored Apps revealed a new feature of Dumbstruck: the ability to play a video message while simultaneously recording a video. This capability is something no other app has.

It was an exciting challenge for Doctored Apps to conquer, and one they were anxious about revealing to the social-media world. Allegretti says that Doctored Apps was sought out by numerous investors, startups, tech influencers, and startup accelerators while at the conference. “Dumbstruck was extremely well received,” he says. “We left with a much more recognized brand. . . . [And] ended up on a list of the top three or four hottest startups at SXSW.” This is exactly what they were hoping for.

When they go to sleep, Dumbstruck. When they wake up, Dumbstruck. Allegretti and Tanski insist the app is always on their minds. When asked about life outside of Dumbstruck, Allegretti says “I don’t even think there is any outside of this now. None of us are thinking beyond this. . . . We’re so engulfed in it.”

As for keeping a balance between work and social lives, Allegretti simply states, “It’s not balanced.” But the guys seem perfectly fine with that. Tanski says, “We enjoy it, obviously. We wouldn’t do it if we didn’t enjoy it.”

But are they stressed? Overwhelmed? “Only if you stop to think about it,” Allegretti says.

Then he adds, “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.”