Islander’s mobile apps, like Camera+, are taking off

Lisa Bettany’s career making apps begins, of all places, in a hospital bed. At 19, she was a competitive ice dancer who spent hundreds of hours training at the Raquet Club. When her skating partner dropped her, Bettany’s professional dreams shattered along with her spine.

“My initial response was pretty bad. I definitely wouldn’t skate anymore. I would have difficulty walking,” she says.

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The injury limited Bettany’s options for years, but through a series of risky leaps of a different kind, she would come to co-found Camera+, one of the most successful photography apps of all time. More than 12 million copies have been purchased to date and, five years since its launch, it remains in the iTunes Top 50 paid-apps chart.

But at the time, as she slogged through both a master’s degree in linguistics and a bachelor’s in journalism, Bettany spent the better part of every week getting injections in her back and resting.

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When she couldn’t find a satisfying job after graduation, it was a low point and she needed an escape. First came the DSLR camera, which was an incentive to get out of bed. Next came the blog, Mostly Lisa, where she wrote about everything to do with photography. When she wanted to expand her skills, she reached out to other photographers online. The feedback was positive and her blog grew a following. “I started a blog mainly out of just wanting some creative outlet, because I was so isolated with my injury,” she says.

During a visit to San Francisco, where she was invited to talk about photography on a podcast, she met a group of developers who offered her an opportunity — but one with piles of upfront work with no promise of any significant payoff.

Her first job was creating and starring in videos for games, which transitioned into work on a new camera app.

The idea behind Camera+ was to add the functionality of a DSLR camera to the otherwise limited camera phone. The app development company, called “tap tap tap,” was founded on a commitment to simplicity and the belief that any task should be accomplished with just a few “taps.”

Sounds acceptable now, but when they started talking, the general public was still grappling with the meaning of “app.” Friends and family were wary. “Everyone in my life said, ‘What are you doing?’ This was when no one even knew what an app was,” Bettany says. “I said, ‘No, I have confidence.’ Now it doesn’t seem crazy, what I do.”

Bettany moved to San Francisco, then New York City.

John Casasanta, creator of software promotion site MacHeist and CEO of tap tap tap, first invited Bettany to produce videos for a game called The Heist, as well as star in them. His first impression of Bettany was, “zany,” having seen a Harry Potter-themed blog post set in a train station.

“It was sort of an acting role. I saw she had acting experience, so she was doing stuff as a Russian spy,” Casasanta said.

Her still photography experience came in handy about a year later, when work began on Camera+. Casasanta said one of Bettany’s blog posts comparing various photo apps had an inspirational effect on Camera+, which was designed to roll each function into one app.

“My role was basically developing all the features we needed to make photos look good. The filters and, over the course of the year, the focus and exposure and features like that,” Bettany says.

Casasanta says she was integral to the design as a photographer herself, testing it out and making sure it was something she would use.

The success of Camera+ has been explosive. In its first month, it sold more than 217,000 copies, providing the tap tap tap team with more than $250,000 in net sales. At its peak, it sold more than one million copies in a month. By 2012, the company had reportedly turned down an offer by Twitter to buy the app, following Facebook’s $1-billion purchase of rival Instagram. When the New York Times wrote about the expansion of Camera+ to iPad, it called the company an “unusual success story” for its approach to marketing, which relied heavily on word-of-mouth.

Camera+ has also seen its share of ups and downs. “We’ve seen huge ebbs and flows at Camera+. We’ve earned as much as $200,000 in one day and as little as $500,” Bettany said. But dedication, reinvention and a bit of faith seem to be at the core of its longevity. “With anything I’ve been a part of, it’s about hard work. The reason Camera+ has remained successful is part of that.”

Back on Vancouver Island, Bettany recently launched another app, albeit with limited success. Over her eight years in the industry, she’s worked on several apps that have reached varying heights, including The Heist and MagiCam.

Poppets, a Victoria-based kids game three years in the making, launched in November. For her partner, Sarah MacNeill, the slow sales have been heartbreaking. The Shawnigan Lake graphic designer originally created the quirky, misfit characters known as “poppets” for her own daughter. She turned them into illustrations and hand-sewn dolls under her own brand, before Bettany stumbled across them on craft website Etsy from New York one day. It was only later that Bettany realized MacNeill, her old friend from skating, was behind them.

MacNeill agreed to partner with Bettany and later, programmer Alex Zorkin, for her first foray into the app world. The idea was to create a whimsical world for kids to explore, reaching an audience that wanted a gentler alternative to commercial offerings like Disney’s Frozen.

“It’s been incredibly disappointing. We haven’t even sold a fraction of what we hoped we would, by this time,” MacNeill said in March. “I put three years of time into this project, a couple thousand hours, and will probably never fully be compensated or recover that time unless something major changes with the marketing situation.”

Zorkin, founder of theCrux Studios, agreed that a new marketing push could turn things around. He’s proud of the app they created and calls it a portfolio piece. “It’s an amazing art piece and a fun game. The success, honestly, isn’t what we expected. But I haven’t sold it out quite yet.”

For Bettany, it’s just the name of the game. It’s a learning curve and the app’s different target audience of young children meant she couldn’t tap into her millions of followers, who are specifically interested in photography. But she’s still optimistic: Runaway hit game Flappy Bird, after all, didn’t earn a penny for a year before it went viral, she said. She chalks it up to the nature of the industry, saying it could still take off.

“I’m very proud of the app, of what it stands for. And I think you can never ever count an app out. What it does in three months has no bearing overall on the success or failure of an app. I’ve seen it time and time again, where it has a lull and you just need one person, one voice to speak in favour of your app. Justin Bieber all of a sudden starts playing Poppets and it takes off.”

In the meantime, Bettany is already on to the next thing: a video app called Vee, tentatively scheduled for release in June. She’s partnering with two of the other developers who got Camera+ off the ground, to apply some of the same functionality to video recording.

“Apps are high risk, high reward and extremely volatile. An app can go from No. 1 to 400 in a day and vice versa. I’ve seen apps that don’t make a penny for a year and then gross a million in a matter of weeks,” she said.

It hasn’t always been easy, but the same fearlessness and adaptability that led Bettany into this career has sustained her through the biggest challenges.

As a woman, she faced particular barriers in the tech industry. “The first few years, I was mainly trying to develop respect in the community. That was certainly a struggle, because people viewed me as the face of the app, just the girl promoting it. “I was like, ‘No, no. I’m the co-founder. I made this,’ ” she said.

“I still receive a bit of that, but I think it’s getting better.”

Vancouver Island was a wasteland, technologically speaking, when she left. But as her career grew in the States, she began meeting people who told a different story. The capital region now boasts a $4-billion tech industry, according to the Victoria Advanced Technology Council, growing 62 per cent between 2009 and 2014.

“I’d see some people at tech events in the States who said, ‘Hey, we’re able to live in Victoria and do the same job.’ I thought, well maybe I can develop something here.”

She moved back to Vancouver Island two years ago and now lives in Deep Cove with her husband, taking flying lessons in her free time. The hobby seems appropriate for someone with interests as diverse as ice dancing and linguistics.

At the time of writing, Camera+ version 6.2 had just been released, while version 6.3, set for release in only a few weeks’ time, was set to include a new filter pack that Bettany said would “change expectations of filters.”

Even with the strong team of creators behind Vee, Bettany said the future of any of her apps is uncertain by nature.

The best bet for survival, she said, is flexibility.

“It’s about adapting and changing.”

asmart@timescolonist.com

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