Space might seem out of the realm of possibility for most of us, but one man has made it his mission to make information much more accessible to the masses. Meet Tim Isenman, iOS developer and founder of Pocket Rocket, the fan-favorite app for all things SpaceX. We speak with Isenman about his career’s arc from film in Los Angeles to video game development to programming in Japan and how he plans to take us all to the moon — or at least as close as we can get to it.

1. You started off in the film and television industry. How did you go from that to working in tech?

My first ambitions were to be a writer and film director. I had early opportunities to work on some movies but the last TV series I was involved in didn’t work out. I found myself at a temp agency looking for work and they offered me a job which they said wasn’t film-related but was “creative.” It turned out to be for a company called Riot Games. They were making League of Legends, which at the time was gaining a lot of momentum.

I didn’t know much about League as I had stopped gaming for a few years to work on film. But when I went to visit the office, I met some very kind and helpful people. That was vastly different to film which, from my experience, was more cutthroat and toxic. The initial role was as a facilities assistant temp. I was literally completing tasks such as cleaning the kitchen, restocking the coffee and building desks for people to work on. After eight months, the role became permanent. And one day the vice president of the HR department sat me down and asked me if I had a desire to work on other things besides fulfilling catering orders. They knew that my background was in production, that I had built a strong rapport with the wider team and ultimately saw my potential to do something else at Riot. The people I really admired at Riot were the game producers because they wore so many hats, from being strategists to leaders and charismatic communicators. So I chose to work in a production team and was taken under the wing of a producer whom I really admired.

2. What was it about working at Riot Games that solidified your pivot?

Seeing how software was being made compared to film was refreshing to me. You have this magical ability to ship something, just like releasing a movie. But the next day, you can change a scene if you want to. All you do is redeploy some code to a server and then all of the sudden, your story can change. It had these properties that film didn’t have, which had always terrified me. You release a movie once and it’s out there forever. But with software the conceit is that it can always change and it should. I fell in love with that.

The defining moment for me was after Riot Games was acquired by Tencent. The little bit of stock I received from when I was hired to clean kitchens was liquified and was around the same amount as my student loan. I paid everything off with that and for the first time, felt free enough to be able to make more risky career decisions.

After Riot, I went on to work in Silicon Valley and tried my hand at venture capitalism and more product management which I was slowly beginning to dislike. I found leading teams without actually contributing directly to the product depressing. I became more fascinated by engineers as they were the ones building things that gave tangible value. I started learning software little by little and then stopped working entirely for seven months to move to Japan. This was when I started studying programming full-time and began to establish myself as an engineer.

3. How did Japan become the place you would spend such a fundamental growth period?

I’d been to Japan twice before moving here. My first trip was paid for by Riot which turned out to be the greatest week of my life at that time. Four years later I returned and spent a month with my best friend who was on a work trip to Japan. I stayed in a tiny little room in Hatagaya where I would sleep on tatami floor, eat ¥100 onigiri, go to a café to study and close the day with a bowl of ramen. Returning back to the US, I found myself really unhappy and yearning for that idyllic life I had in Tokyo. It took me some time to figure everything out but I eventually bought myself a one-way ticket to Tokyo in July 2018 and started my own company in Japan.

Japan is just so good at making things. From the incredible design to their food being akin to the eighth wonder of the world, there’s so much to admire. Things like ikebana and Kyoto craftsmanship interested me and I wanted to see how I could incorporate these elements into my own work. I didn’t have a plan for how I was going to do it but I figured by being in the environment, I would be exposed to it and absorb it somehow.

4. How did you first come up with the idea for Pocket Rocket?

An online course I was doing while studying had a project where we had to use a third-party web API to download information from their database and incorporate it into an app. Around the same time, I was obsessed with watching SpaceX launches but it was challenging to keep up with the rocket schedules because it was so hyper-dependent on weather conditions. I decided to build a prototype for myself that would give me a schedule of the launches and also show up on my calendar.

Once I became confident in my programming, I decided to turn this idea into an app, both as a means to show potential employers my skills and as a passive income stream. I mentioned this to my designer friend Aaron Abentheuer and he offered to help me design the app. We worked every day on it for months until everything started to take shape. I also shared it constantly on Twitter and was able to build a user test base of people enthusiastic about space. It might seem like a niche idea, but SpaceX launch videos on YouTube are able to rack up millions of views so I knew there was a market for this.

There are apps out there like Pocket Rocket, but they suffer from the same problems that the space industry has always had. They look like spreadsheets contained in an app rather than being something that’s user-friendly and easy on the eye. For an app like this, it’s important to strike the emotional chord that people have with space.

5. What were some of the challenges you faced while developing Pocket Rocket?

Pocket Rocket was my first engineering project where I was taking a design of my own and figuring out how to build it and how to best serve people with it. Building without increasing complexity was hard for me. I made that mistake and over time it became more difficult to maintain, manage and update. Deciding to ship it when I did was also tough but it had to be done because I was going almost completely broke and needed to launch the app so it could start supporting me.

Customer acquisition is probably the hardest aspect that doesn’t get talked enough about. We had to find a very specific type of person who was interested in SpaceX but may also have other tangentially related interests like being a fan of Tesla. They also had to be iPhone users as the app is only available on iOS. After that, you need to convince them to try out this service that you want to be selling to them. It really comes down to managing people’s general expectations of an app. We’re used to apps not costing anything thanks to free apps from Google, Facebook and those built into your Apple devices. You need to understand your customers and solve their problems so well that they actively want to pay you for your work.

App Store visibility is also a challenge. It’s a huge market out there with a real mix of trash and treasure. You’re often competing on an unequal playing field because it’s hard to come up in search results, even for your app’s own name. People are able to game the App Store and figure out ways to exploit the search engine. Competitors can also buy your app’s name as a keyword which means they appear at the top as an ad when customers are searching for you.

6. What have been some proud moments for you with Pocket Rocket?

When we reached number one in the entertainment section for paid apps in the US App Store, that was really special for us. The next big milestone was when we reached the Top 20 across all paid apps, not just within our category. The US App Store is kind of like virtual New York City, if your app can make it there, it can make it anywhere. That meant seeing Pocket Rocket next to the likes of the Netflix app and other heavy hitters.

Sometimes I’ll share things we’re working on in the community and I’ll get a response from people I consider my design and engineering heroes which is extremely validating for me.

But the best part of all is really any positive interaction I have with customers. Seeing our app on their phone still blows my mind. It’s especially heart-warming to receive feedback from our customers about their kids loving the AR functionality that lets them take photos with our rocket models. Most general use apps don’t elicit an emotional response from their consumers. When I share an update preview with our users, they’ll sometimes send us an all caps “HOLY $*&#” and it’s amazing to feel their enthusiasm. What our app really does is let people express their love of space. If I can make people feel proud of the thing they love, then I’ve done my job.

7. What are some things Japan and the US could learn from each other from a business perspective?

The main difference between the business cultures is Japan is great at mastering one thing and doing it really well. They tend to stay content with small businesses and have a very narrow focus on the one thing they’re doing. In contrast, the US will explore every avenue of an idea. They’ll constantly be thinking in terms of globalizing a product for it to become a lucrative business.

Japan could probably look towards the US in this aspect, but I don’t think they need to or want to because there’s cultural value in being highly skilled in one field. The US though should learn how to be better masters of their craft. There’s a lot of businesses there that serve customers’ needs at a very basic level but the quality could be much better.

8. What’s next for you and Pocket Rocket?

Everything is changing. We’re rebuilding the app from the ground up right now to serve a more mass-market of customers. Up until this point we’ve been serving just the SpaceX fans but we want to integrate different launch providers as well. This directly impacts our design and current interface. At the same time, we’re learning from our past mistakes and taking a new architectural approach which will make it easier for us to keep adding new features for our customers in a sustainable way. We’re also working on building a new database infrastructure to have proprietary control over what info is being displayed in the app. It’ll enable us to have end-to-end ownership of everything from the accounts to the rocket schedules to data on the rocket.

The business model for the app will change to a free-to-download format with limited features, with options to pay for more. We want to continue to serve our customers in a meaningful way and a way that would make it sustainable for us financially too.

9. How long will Pocket Rocket 2.0 take to build?

The first version of Pocket Rocket took eight months to build. We’ve started working on the new one about two-to-three months ago and it will probably take a few more to complete.

I received two separate emails from users who are blind, saying that the accessibility system cannot read our current layout. Because of this, I’m intentionally starting from a point of accessibility with 2.0 and have provided them with very early Alpha stage access for them to test out. It’s been going well so far and they haven’t had any complaints. But because we’ve deliberately made this choice, we have to hold ourselves accountable for it.

If this next version of Pocket Rocket does well enough, an Android version of it too may be on the cards. I do have a day job that pays my rent right now. So a lot of the work on Pocket Rocket is happening on my nights and all of my weekends to get done.

10. Do you have any advice for people who want to get into app development?

App development takes time and patience. If you work at it, you’ll eventually be able to do it. For me, I came from film and writing and then managing teams of designers. I didn’t know the vernacular nor did I have hard logical frameworks in my head to make it easy for me to learn. But I thought it was fun and wanted to continue so I told myself I would keep doing it until it was clear I couldn’t. Fortunately that moment hasn’t arrived yet.

It’s similar to playing an instrument from new sheet music. You won’t get the sequence right at al, the first few times. It might be just a 10th right or half right. But if you keep trying, you’ll wake up one morning, try it again and it will be as though you were born with the ability to play it. Programming will eventually click and as you get more confident with what you can do, you’ll be able to learn more and faster.

There’s something about programming I love, even though I’m not naturally good at it. It doesn’t matter to me if I’m bad at something, I won’t deny myself from doing what I love. We have a finite time on this earth and I want to spend it doing what I enjoy and take pride in getting better at it, day by day.

Download Pocket Rocket in the iOS app store here: