HappyMoose: A mobile app built by a dotting father to print and send 'moments' of his firstborn to grandparents living overseas

Mia Dong, the inspiration for mobile app HappyMoose
Fresh off selling his startup Trunk.ly to YouTube founders Steve Chan and Chad Hurley, Dunedin-based Alex Dong has his sight on the big picture with HappyMoose, a mobile app set to change how we share precious moments and memories.

What do you do when you can’t find a good way to print and send photographs of precious memories of your child to grandparents in China? You build an app, of course. This is precisely what Alex Dong who is based in Dunedin, has done.

Alex’s mobile app HappyMoose has developed an app that enables photos taken on a mobile phone, to be printed directly on high quality artist canvas.

For instance, if you have a picture of your child on a monkey bar snapped at a playground, and want it printed and sent to a relative in the UK, all you have to do is download the app - currently only available on iPhone’s app store - crop it the way you want, and submit the photo to be printed. Development is underway for the app to be made available for Android and web versions, Alex says.

Photos can be shipped overseas, but Alex says the company didn’t set out looking for offshore business, preferring to first test out the NZ market. However, Happy Moose already has orders from the US, China and the UK.

“About 5 mins after we launched the app, we had our first order from California. When we were building the software, we didn’t anticipate or forsee that. It is certainly, challenging, from the perspective of sorting out GST,” he says.

Alex is no new comer to the startup scene. He had divested his photo blogging site in China before setting out overseas, including months in Melbourne, Sydney, Boston, San Diego, to travel and experience the world. He and his wife Zephyr travelled around looking for the perfect place to call home. Australia rejected their application.They turned to Dunedin -- perfect as a place to experience nature easily, and have a clean, green environment. Initially, Alex enrolled in the Otago Polytechnic.

While in Dunedin, Aex in 2010, started Trunk.ly with co-founder Tim Bull. Trunk.ly is a free bookmarking app that automatically gathers all the links you share online, and makes them available via a searchable web interface. The startup was acquired by founders of YouTube Steven Chan and Chad Hurley in 2011 and integrated into their company Avos.

Wall Dot is water proof

Alex worked for Avos but left in 2012. Avos has since disbanded. Chan and Hurely started MixBit -- a social video sharing and remixing site -- but Chan has moved on, to Google Ventures, while Hurley stays committed to MixBit, a company in which Alex has shares in. Alex also helped set up the engineering centre for MixBit in Dunedin, which remains the largest MixBit engineering hub, with about seven engineers - and still growing.

The HappyMoose project was first conceived by Zephyr who was looking for something else to work on after she worked on project developing software for monitoring high performance atheletes in the NZ Olympic team.

The project became idle when the coupled had their first child. The revival came after Mia, their daughter came into the world, and the two couldn’t find a good solution to send pictures across the world, to China. He recounts one instance, where he spent more than $300 to mail a photo printed, and it wasn’t even of the right resolution.

Photos printed on canvas

Problems with existing products

“There is a clear need out there. Existing companies in this space are not doing a good enough job,” he says, adding his tried all the competing companies out there but didn’t land on one that did a good job.

“I bought a product from every single app. I got one printed in Hong Kong - and when I saw it, thought ‘this is not my baby’s colour’. That’s a big mistake: if you print a photo, you want the photo quality to be really good.”

The other problem, he found, was that existing apps weren’t catering to the right market segment. “The majority, 85-90% of them print square photos,- that is a problem if you think in terms of a ‘moment’ or family photo. These are landscape photos. If you squeeze these (moment photos) you are going to chop someone off.”

Since August, he got hold of his wife’s initial plans (she had laid the foundation and wrote all the workflow process), and revived the project, writing the software, integrating the programme with the printing -- which he reckons is a piece of intellectual property for the company.

He says estimates show the New Zealand/Australian market is worth $100 million and expected to grow to between $250m and $500m in 2016. The US market for photo prints is valued at US$12 billion (NZ$15.6b) in 2013.

Wall Dot photos can be removed and placed elsewhere

He has set up a partnership with Tim Green, who has been in print industry for 10 years, to deliver photos printed on canvas. Happy Moose also prints photos onto a new water-proof photo material, available through its Wall Dot product. The Wall Dot product can be installed on a flat surface, indoors or outside, and can be removed and reused.

Lessons on entrepreneurship

Alex is however cautious about how big he wants the app to go. “I want to be cautious. Every software has a bug. We want to smooth out those issues (before heading for the global market).”

Some of the key lessons he learnt from working on startups, and with entrepreneurs such as Chan and Hurley he says, are that solving problems is a lonely pursuit; having the right perspective matters a lot; and that ‘focus’ which is normally read as paying attention for a short time, is in fact a long term endeavour.

“In working on entrepreneurial projects -- the same applied to Steve and Chad -- when it comes to developing a new industrial product, or engineering something, most of the time, you have to learn how to figure out and resolve issues yourself. There is not much you can use from previous projects or products.”

And being in New Zealand means entrepreneurs here have to be aware of perspectives. “In New Zealand, the domestic investment market is small so it makes sense to be aware that when dealing with international investors, there is awareness of what the issues are for those wanting to invest in a place such as New Zealand.”

Otherwise, entrepreneurs are just like normal beings, focusing on creating unique products and services, living lives centred around their families, he says.

But when it comes to defining focus, Alex notes:” “Nobody actually tells you that focus means you have to reiterate something. Once you finish, you go back and you do it, again and again and again, until you feel happy with the product. Most people define focus to mean, doing a few things. Focus is about the process of refining the product.”

In January, Alex hopes to gather enough people to break record of “most people shooting selfies at the same time” in Dunedin. "The shameless plug for us is that all participants will receive a Wall Dot from HappyMoose," he says.