When director, producer and screenwriter Sanzhar Sultan set out to make a mobile app, he knew it would be a change in his creative process. What he didn’t realize was just how different that process would be—and how far it would take him as he learned.
Wotson, the movie review-based social media platform Sultan launched some nine months ago, has made waves among movie lovers and investors alike thanks to its unique concept and impressive organic growth. But what is now a full-fledged mobile app started as little more than a sense of frustration with the movie industry and an idea for how it could be better.
“Pretty early in my film career, and as an avid moviegoer, I became frustrated with the movie critic system, especially the binary Rotten Tomatoes rating.” explains Sultan. “It seemed like these aggregators, and some of the critics, would give people a reason to not see a movie, even if they might otherwise enjoy it. So many films are affected by this. And how is that good for business? How is that good for the film industry?”
Sultan wanted to find a better, more democratic model for movie recommendations, and he thought a social network might be the answer. After all, he reasoned, the best recommendations come from people we know—so why wasn’t there an Instagram for movie reviews?
Sultan started to work on his idea, cobbling together a basic design prototype to showcase his concept. After coming home from a day of shooting or working on a script, he’d spend the evening building wireframes, placing icons, and getting his vision down on a computer. The nights got longer and longer, and soon enough, he partnered with a cofounder, creative designer Emma Wernham, and together they built a fleshed-out prototype.
Together, the pair raised a modest amount of seed funding with their prototype. That’s when Sultan found Rootstrap—and when his approach to the entire project shifted.
“When we first raised money, we had some, but not enough to build,” recounts Sultan. “That’s why I feel like we lucked out when we found Rootstrap.”
Rootstrap is an LA-based development agency that takes a slightly different approach to app development, breaking the process into two separate phases: discovery and development. Development is when the coders actually build the app, but discovery is structured as a standalone, pre-development product workshop aimed at clarifying the requirements and design of the product.
“We use this two-phase structure because it helps prevent product bloat and ensure that product owners are focusing on building the right features first,” explains Ben Lee, CRO of Rootstrap. “And for Sanzhar, I think it helped him get a better understanding of the app development process before diving into the full build.”
In Discovery, Sultan and Wernham worked with Ben and his team to comb over the concept they had, brainstorm new ideas for features and functionality, and shape that work into a finalized “development backlog”: a collection of all the features needed to build a full version of the app. That was all well and good—Sultan had spent plenty of time brainstorming on scripts and movies.
But once the project moved into development, Sultan’s history in the movie industry started to interfere.
“In movies, you work on a thing endlessly until it’s absolutely perfect, and I was coming at it from that mindset,” he says. After 10 weeks of development, they had a working v1.0, but it was far from complete. Coming from their background, Sultan and Wernham’s instinct was to keep working on it until it was perfect.
“But Ben would always say to me, ‘Sanzhar, with an app, you want to release, and you want to release often,’” Sultan explains. “That really helped me understand how different the process is – with a movie, once it’s out, it’s done. But with an app, the release is just the beginning.”
So against his instincts, Sultan and his team pushed the first version. And despite being unfinished, the response surprised them.
They didn’t run advertising on the initial release, instead opting to get family and friends to download and try the app. This meant there wasn’t a big rush of downloads on release day, which surprised no one. What did surprise them were the usage statistics.
“We had maybe a few dozen people join in the first few days,” says Sultan. “But their engagement was fascinating. Within hours there were hundreds of movie tags coming from those users—I think the average was around 30 tags per user within a day of downloading the app.”
If you’re not familiar with mobile apps, this is an impressive rate of engagement. And despite the fact that they ran no marketing or advertising, the app’s user base began to grow.
“I think that’s what made me really understand we were on to something,” Sultan explains.
But once again, Sultan has had to retrain himself to the process of app development as distinct from making movies.
“It’s really important not to drink your own Kool-Aid,” Sultan says. “So I’m always reminding myself to look at it objectively and keep searching for ways to improve it.”
And improve it they have. In the process, they’ve improved engagement, usability, and on-boarded thousands of new users—again, all without running a concerted marketing or advertising campaign.
“This has honestly been one of the biggest lessons for me, that an app is never finished,” he explains. “We’ve probably launched 20 updates and new versions since first going live, and we’re still barely at the beginning of growing the platform.”
Now, Sultan and his team are preparing to put a heavier focus on intentional, rapid expansion. Wotson is currently in the process of test marketing, which will help decide the strategies they’ll use to scale.
“We’re almost a year out from the release, and it feels like everything’s been building up to this,” he says. “It’s really exciting."
It’s been a long journey, and Sultan has had to learn a lot along the way. But as different as an app and a movie may be, there are still some things that stay the same.
“The process is different, yes, but it’s funny—it still feels like a creative act,” he explains. “The way you go about making it, bringing it to life, that’s different. But it’s still your baby.”
This article is presented by T1.