In 2016 I had an idea to create a city-based family tourism app. I first thought of it when trying to find an innovative way to engage my children with their local city, Cambridge, and all the exciting sights it has to offer. I thought ‘how can I get the kids off their phones and interested in their surroundings?’, and it occurred to me that, instead of taking away the technology, I could instead create something that would use the technology effectively for family adventures in Cambridge.
I wasn’t aware of a city guide or app that was tailored towards parents and children, and so with a background in software and having been on a number of writing courses, I set out to research the local area and to write stories for a guide that would appeal to families – making sure to use a friendly tone, to tell jokes, and to put activities in such as challenging children to find particular things on the way, or when they reached a destination.
I also wanted to provide really useful information, such as restaurants or cafés that are really geared to welcoming families; where parents can go to find baby changing facilities; and which outdoor adventures would suit little legs, and so on.
It was fairly straightforward to put together an initial app. I developed the structure, then worked alongside graphic designers to develop the look and feel, before launching an early version of the app – named YoYo Let’s Go – on the app store in February 2017.
In the first six months the app was downloaded 200 times which was really fantastic and I received such positive feedback, such as how there was nothing else like this for children that focuses on local heritage. However, having estimated that there was a potential 450,000 users annually, I wasn’t sure beyond the thousands of flyers I had been distributing around Cambridge how to take the app to this bigger ‘waiting’ audience.
It was at this point I came across Signpost2grow, which provided with me 12 hours of consultancy around growing the business, through which I developed the business model, realised the need to register with Companies House and HMRC, and attended bookkeeping courses. I learnt about some of the essential steps I would need to take that I hadn’t previously thought of, and the experience was really helpful in formalising my business approach and formulating a marketing plan.
In July 2017 Signpost2grow put me in touch with the team at REACTOR, and I attended one of the Concept Development Workshops, which provided opportunities to develop and practise intense three-minute pitching; to refine the business model canvas; and to consider for the first time whether applying games theory would enhance the app. This was really interesting as I recognised that there was an opportunity not only to include a game as an add-on to the app, but to actually incorporate elements of reward, challenge, and levelling up into the core app – to encourage return visits, to influence behavioural change and so on. I also applied for REACTOR funding – which is available jointly from the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) and Anglia Ruskin University. The process of applying for funding was useful in itself – I needed to get quotes from multiple organisations to work with me on implementing game mechanics into the product - this also enhanced the look and feel of the product in order to make it more professional, and progressed the product to the second stage of development with improved navigation and structure.
The team at REACTOR is always happy for people to go along to events to chat about ideas and offer advice, and the tips that the team was able to provide and the networks that grew were also invaluable – in terms of identifying who locally might be available to offer help and advice on the app’s development and, essentially, to consult on developing the gamified element of the app. Unlike the usual video games the designers had worked on, where the game element is the entire basis of playing, we had to find a way of incorporating game elements into the app that would encourage engagement with physical surroundings, not just with the app itself (which is how most traditional games boost the time players spend gaming).
The funding was approved, which gave me the ability to pay the team at Polygon Treehouse to develop the app and, by July 2018, we had a Minimum Viable Product. The most valuable element of REACTOR’s support has to be the help in defining my product through gamification. Furthermore, the reputation of the REACTOR project and its team gives projects like mine a real stamp of approval, which has been incredibly helpful.
From this point I was doing a lot of pitching events to try to secure funding to take the app to the next stage. The business model had been to give the app away for free, but I was receiving feedback from funders that this might not be the right approach. I was still in touch with REACTOR and in September 2018 the team directed me to Innovate2Succeed, part of Innovate UK and delivered by Exemplas, which offers support in taking existing businesses onto a mentoring scheme if they are perceived to have the capacity to grow. The first piece of advice I received was that the app could remain free, but that in-app purchases would offer a stronger business model. I also further developed my IP, and worked on increasing access to markets and scaling the app up from a focus on Cambridge, to a focus on other cities.
REACTOR also introduced me to academic support from Anglia Ruskin University. I was able to work with travel and tourism academics in an advisory capacity who helped me to develop the concept of the app from something that works for families, to more broadly being something that can help tackle nationwide issues of over-tourism in cities like Cambridge. Through this academic support, I discovered that there was little research data about the behaviours of city visitors; quite a surprising fact bearing in mind that cities like Cambridge receive a huge portion of their income from tourists and tourism. So we are now considering how to use gamification to ‘level out’ visitors to attractions across the city and encourage visitors to make trips to attractions that are off the beaten track by looking at visitor behaviours and incentivising particular behaviours through the app – for instance, identifying not only the more well-known destinations like the Sedgwick Museum, but also the graffiti on Mill Road, which also forms an integral part of our city’s personality.
I am now going through a number of rounds of funding applications with Innovate UK, applying for Heritage grants and Research & Development grants, and the support received from all of these business catalysts has been really helpful and encouraging. The next steps for YoYo Let’s Go, once I have secured additional funding, will be to create different user profiles within the app and to add more elements of gamification; prompting children to look around, or giving adults items that they have to remember, or making the screen go off so that everyone has to collaborate to find the next destination. I also hope to establish new trails with different themes – for example environmental trails, or seasonal trails, or topical trails such as an ‘Eddie Redmayne’ trail or a ‘Science’ trail.
I’m incredibly grateful to have received all the support I have from REACTOR and the other business catalysts. It’s only through the provision of expertise and advice in these ways that people like me can have an idea one day and, in just a couple of years, have developed an MVP ready to pitch to business investors.