Robbi Katherine Anthony is a Spokane-based developer whose latest app, Solace, provides a free resource for trans individuals to learn about and track their transition process.
Solace + Crowdbotics
Robbi Katherine Anthony is a longtime Crowdbotics partner – we've worked with her to build multiple apps for her clients in the past. For Solace, she came to Crowdbotics with completed UI and design specifications, but needed a trusted partner to execute her idea for a secure, scalable, free mobile app.
Robbi set the vision and strategy for Solace, while Crowdbotics handled the development timeline and technical implementation. Crowdbotics delivered Solace on a tight deadline ("We should not have gotten the project done on the timeline that we did," says Robbi), and the entire project ultimately cost her a fraction of the amount she had been quoted by traditional development firms.
In 2020, Robbi plans to expand Solace internationally and work with Crowdbotics to launch a new app "within the family of Solace." We recently sat down with Robbi to discuss the process of building Solace, her other experiences with Crowdbotics, and her larger plans for the future of Solace.
Crowdbotics: So, I'll start with a simple question: how many apps have you built with us?
Robbi: We did the Wax Mobile Detailing app, which is a mobile app that sends a qualified auto detailing technician to you on-demand. We did the INBA Directory app, which is a guide to finding LGBTQ+ supportive businesses in the Inland Empire. And then we've done Solace, so we've had three built from the start and then actually launched.
Crowdbotics: So you’re an app development firm?
Robbi: Yeah, so it's kind of two things. One is that I do local development for small- to medium-sized organizations, and that’s Firedove (firedove.tech). And that's what I’ve poured my time and energy into for the last five years or so.
Then I also started a non-profit called Solace. And that's the other app that y'all built, so it's definitely been nice to experience it as a developer and handing projects off to clients and being able to work with you all, and then also be the end customer on a different project and see the totality of the relationship through those two different vantage points.
Crowdbotics: Yeah, those are two distinct use cases that we see a lot of, and you've been through both of them. It sounds like both approaches worked well for your purposes, but has one been a particularly good fit versus the other?
Robbi: I've loved working on my own app, just because I can pour all my energy into it. I'm not finagling with the client — passion projects are just that. And with the non-profit, it's really blossomed into something much bigger.
But in terms of the work experience, it really doesn't change. I just feel like I'm in the trenches with the Crowdbotics team. We usually have some interesting parameters to get around, then we find a way to get it done. And it's just constantly delighting the end user, whether it's myself, my customers, or my clients, or whoever it is. It's amazing. Every time.
Crowdbotics: That's great to hear. I think that feeling of being in the trenches with the people that are building your project gives you a different sense than you get with other services, where you're handing it off, you don't hear about it, and then it surfaces one way or another. With us, you can reach these people. You're collaborating with them. You're talking about issues you're seeing on the ground.
Robbi: Yeah, I remember when I first reached out, and I thought y'all were too good to be true. I was pretty reticent to work. But I got the assurances and took the risk, and it's been interesting to work with such a capable firm that also just sincerely cares about the work we're doing.
Crowdbotics created this really loving wraparound experience for our users, and it's as affirming and as inclusive as it could possibly be.
Especially with Solace, the love and care that everyone has — not just for the technology we're building, but for the end use of it — is unbelievable. I'm not being sold a product; I really do feel like they're partners in our work.
Crowdbotics: So tell me about Solace.
Robbi: The elevator pitch is that Solace is a mobile application for transgender individuals like myself. You can open up this mobile application, create an account, and within it, it has a repository of all these different things you may want to accomplish for the transition.
We have three distinct goals for the user, with the categories being legal, medical, and lifestyle. This gives people like myself the ability to create this list of all the different things they may want to do, access credible information, and find resources to accomplish those goals. Then you check them off, so you can see yourself making progress and ultimately get to a point where you feel that you've completed your transition. And then you can, in the most optimal scenario, uninstall the app and move on with your life.
Crowdbotics: That's great.
Robbi: Yeah, it's exciting. It's first-in-the-world tech. There are a lot of people that tried to make similar runs at this thing before, but never really got it to the finish line. And I think part of it is just the technology part of it, the design, and the fact that it's an app is the thing that really pushed it over the top.
Crowdbotics: It sounds like a lot of it, in terms of the basic structure of the app, is content resources, and some sort of task or timeline management.
Robbi: I remember when I reached out to Crowdbotics, I said, “You know, it's kind of akin to a bookmarking app, but the content behind it is very different. And, given some of the things we're going to need to do, you're gonna have to be really special in terms of making this a great experience.”
Specifically, I meant the login system and the onboard security integrations that y'all implemented. You really made it secure and something that people feel really good using, versus just kind of accessing a digital textbook. It's very much a personalized experience.
Crowdbotics: That focus on security is obviously important with an app that's this personal to the user. I'm wondering: were there any other specific technical considerations that you knew going in, that we absolutely need to knock this element out of the park?
Robbi: One was, we had a design aesthetic that we knew needed to be replicated pixel for pixel. And remarkably, Crowdbotics was able to pull it off and even make some enhancements throughout the process. I was talking to the project manager at one point, during one of the daily standup calls, and he said, “I hate how your app doesn't have a back button, so I just added one,” and we just started laughing. It was actually a good call, and that was a really big thing.
The other thing that we most recently did is that we've got access to an admin panel in which we can update the contents. And we realized that we were speaking in a very sterile way to our users, especially considering that in the trans community, pronouns are really important.
So we reached out to Crowdbotics and said, “Hey, is there a way that we can create a system where we can add in these tags and dynamically update the content per the user's pronouns?” And I think they got that done in like two days. It was really, really fast, just a blistering quick pace. And it creates this really loving wraparound experience for our users, and it's as affirming and as inclusive as it could possibly be.
Crowdbotics: Are there any other specific wins with the product that you can attribute directly to our team?
Robbi: One really stands out, which was the integration of how people would log into the app. How would they secure their profiles? How would we make sure their information is really protected? That was 100% Crowdbotics. We originally had an idea that we want this thing to be secured with a PIN code or something, but it required a much larger conversation in terms of being able to get it done.
I also see some subtle touches, even in places we didn't expect, like the admin panel. There are a lot of nuanced things that were done, at least in my observation, that made this thing just ironclad. It was a level of thinking that we never tapped into on our own, but y'all took care of it. We can say it’s as secure as it is and not have to be experts and just be trustful. It’s a game-changer on that front.
Crowdbotics: So, given that you have a technical background, I'm wondering: what is your sense of the user friendliness for a non-technical person? Did you get the sense that if your previous clients have been treated the way you've been treated, they would have felt like they were ushered along properly?
Robbi: Oh absolutely. The expertise all the way around is enough to compensate for anyone's lack of technical abilities. Even myself, I've taken more of a backseat in terms of the technical details. At this point, when I reach out to Crowdbotics, I'm really just providing a Sketch file with all the logic wired up, and all the workflows and all that sort of thing. But I'm really just handing it off to you and saying, “Y'all know how to do this better than I do, so I'm gonna let you do that.”
So I could imagine coming to them as a non-technical client, and just saying, “I've got this really great idea. I've got a couple sketches on a cocktail napkin.” And you'll be able to turn something like that into something truly magnificent.
Crowdbotics: In general, are there different ways that Crowdbotics fits into your development workflow? With Solace, it sounds like you're handing off a design and giving very high-level input, and then seeing it come to life. But are there other arrangements that you've had on the other two apps that gave you a different look at how to incorporate Crowdbotics into your production workflow?
Robbi: Yeah, in the first app I built with y'all, I was just kind of learning what this process looks like. As my firm continues to release apps, or we've got customers that are releasing apps, and they're singing our praises, I’ve realized that my capacity to be able to build things is increased exponentially by virtue of our relationship with Crowdbotics. Now, I can really focus on client liaisoning and communicating with them what needs to be communicated.
It's really just trying to shift as much work as I can to Crowdbotics versus trying to re-engineer it myself. It's a pretty thorough integration at this point, and, without it, I don't know where my firm would be.
We’d still probably be making, like, podunk WordPress websites, or, you know, local dentist websites, and now we're regarded as some of the best app developers in town, and our ace up our sleeves that we work with y'all. It's been a complete transformation of my business.
Crowdbotics: That's great to hear. What made you give us a try in the first place?
Robbi: Google brought me to y'all. I did a lot of searching because I was trying to build the app myself for the first project, and it just wasn't going as I expected. It was just a problem of having a real deficit of skill sets.
I didn't want to go to Upwork or anything like that. So I found y'all, I reached out, and honestly, it was just the ability to get on the phone with a real human being 24 hours after that first email. And then there was the trust — I just felt immediately trustful of y'all. I asked myself, “Okay, what do I have to lose? I'm either gonna be a couple thousand in the hole, or they're as good as they say they are, and you gotta trust them.”
Crowdbotics: Well, it sounds like it worked out. Coming back to Solace, I'm curious about any upcoming features or goals for it that you may have.
Robbi: There are three paths forward, and we're going to be working with Crowdbotics on all of them, hand in glove. The most immediate one is that we just got word that we're likely to be awarded a grant in the near future to expand Solace into Mexico.
Crowdbotics: Oh, congratulations. That's awesome.
Robbi: Thank you. So Solace.mx is kind of the next version, and Solace.nz for New Zealand. We've got some partners out there because the content, the information, the resources change so much in a different country. You really need separate silos.
The biggest upcoming feature is that we've got a current section within the app that is a page for news, and that currently links to a little rinky-dink app that I actually built. We'd like to fold that back into the main Solace app. So people, throughout their day, as they're trying to check off their goals and move forward, they can also read the news and see if there's a new piece of legislation that's going to impact them one way or the other, or other news to that effect.
That’s kind of the big roadmap, and then hopefully closer to the end of the year, we can start working on the other app that's kind of within the family of Solace, but very, very different in terms of what it aims to do. And we're calling that Bliss. And we'll definitely be working with Crowdbotics to try to pull that one off, because it’s going to be significantly more complicated from a tech stance, and I need to work with the best of the best. As far as I'm concerned, that's y'all.
Crowdbotics: That's really exciting. I'm curious to know if you’ve had occasion to scale your resources up or down with us at varying points, and what that’s been like.
Robbi: What I can say is that it has not been noticeable, just because I've never had to worry about or manage those kinds of things. I’ve really just got my point people at Crowdbotics and they take care of everything else, so if there was a need to scale the development resources, they've done it on their end.
In December, when we were launching Solace, we were really under the gun for time. I explained the situation to Crowdbotics, and you truly pulled off an incredibly fast development cycle. I don't know the full extent of what resources you pull together to get it done. But by every other standard that I have for this industry and as a technical person myself, we should not have gotten the project done on the timeline that we did.
There's an adage in tech: “Cheap, fast, good: pick two.” With Crowdbotics, it's all three.
We should have failed, we should have delayed until January. But, lo and behold, we said, “We need to get this done by December 31st, 2019, at the absolute latest.” And we were able to launch to our end users on 10 a.m., the last day of 2019. So, y’all move mountains in ways that I do not think I can wrap my brain around.
Crowdbotics: That is so good to hear.
Robbi: I really, really cannot imagine my firm or my current place in life without Crowdbotics at this point.
Crowdbotics: That’s high praise, and it’s meaningful to us. If there's anything else about Solace that you really want to highlight, I would love to hear it.
Robbi: There’s one more thing that's really worth touching on. So, with the other two apps that I've worked with you on, those were through my for-profit enterprise. You know, I'm trying to make money, I’m trying to turn a profit on these things.
Solace is a non-profit. And we don't charge anyone for the app. We don't have in-app purchases. We don't have ads, no data mining, really nothing like that. It's as free as free can be, and especially working with the transgender community, philanthropic funding really isn't there. Donors are harder to come by.
So we really don't have an enormous budget to get things done, and the fact is that Crowdbotics has given us such a leg up and such an opportunity because y'all are absolute cost savers. I cannot find better talent at a more affordable price and get them to move as quickly. We would not have been able to build this product if we went with a traditional, local development shop.
For the price that we ultimately paid, it would cost maybe — and this is a truly conservative estimate — probably 10 times as much, if we went with another firm.
Robbi: Yeah. I got quotes out here that were more than 20 times what you ultimately cost. That's amazing.
There's an adage in tech: “Cheap, fast, good: pick two.” With Crowdbotics, it's all three.