Michael Leigh (64) and Gidon Stemmer (63) are the creators of iBridgePlus, a Bridge app for iOS devices (iPad and iPhone) launched in 2010.
Rather than Silicon Valley, they are based in a rather damp but nevertheless warm and cosy basement in Salford; here they tell us their story, and share advice for anyone else thinking about creating their own app.
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How did you get started?
We’ve been friends and colleagues for many years when we discovered our mutual love of the card game bridge.
Gidon was an addicted (although not particularly good) player, and Michael’s interest stemmed from the pure academic mathematical aspect of the game.
The year was 2007, and the late Steve Jobs just introduced the iPhone, when we had the crazy idea of creating an app to enable people to play all the popular variants of bridge (Rubber, Chicago and Teams of Four) on their phones.
At that time there were several PC-based bridge programs, but we saw the iPhone as the ideal device for people to be able to play anytime, anywhere, without being constrained to sitting at a desk, or being connected to the internet.
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How did you fund yourself initially?
IBridgePlus was totally self-financed. We required minimal outside resources, as we both had complimentary skills; Gidon’s bridge knowledge from playing regularly from the age of 14, and Michael's extensive and meticulous expertise in programming.
A major item was the license for the bridge Artificial Intelligence, or AI . We secured the rights to one of the world’s best AIs, and we were fortunate to negotiate this on a royalty basis, which meant no substantial up-front costs.
What were your biggest challenges?
Our biggest challenge, which turned out to be our biggest asset, was our total naivety and lack of knowledge about designing an app.
We were probably 40 years older than the stereotypical app developer, and neither of us had used apps of any sort. So we started with a totally blank piece of paper, and designed the app… for us.
In other words, we designed the app with no pre-conceived ideas of app design, or following any pre-ordained rules.
We designed it to be ergonomic and intuitive for us: app-illiterate, middle-aged bridge players.
We also knew that many users would be relative newcomers to the game, so we knew we wanted to design an app that would also have ‘help’, ‘hint’ and ‘explain’ features to guide the novice. In fact, the optional ‘Assist’ module of iBridgePlus has been one of our most successful features.
Five years on, and with global 5* ratings, we firmly believe we have conquered our challenge and achieved our goal!
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What are you most proud of?
The feedback that iBridgePlus gets from the ‘higher echelons’ within the game. We receive regular emails from bridge teachers around the globe praising the app, and telling us that they have encouraged their students to download iBridgePlus and use it, both for fun and training.
We are also proud, and humbled, to hear from users who tell us that iBridgePlus has been a ‘life-saver’ for them.
We designed iBridgePlus to be a solo game (the user plays with a computer partner against two computer opponents), and we wanted to utilise the internet capabilities of the iPhone by enabling users to take part in duplicate competitions, whereby they can compare their ability against other users who will be playing exactly the same hands, also on their own.
We hear from many who tell us that in their advanced years they cannot get out to the Bridge Club any more, and iBridgePlus is an ideal replacement for the live game.
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What surprised you?
The age of our user base. When we started, we thought iBridgePlus would mainly appeal to the younger players, and that the older ones would shy away from using it.
How wrong we were. Our registration process asks users for their year of birth, and we are staggered to discover that while the average age of our users is 64, we regularly communicate with users in their 80s, 90s, and we’ve even had one who is 102 years young!
We believe that this is both a tribute to the computer literacy, and willingness to try out new technology of seniors, as well as a tribute to the simplicity and intuitiveness of the iBridgePlus design.
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Did you learn any new skills?
Yes, yes and yes. Michael had to learn and master a whole new programming language, while we both had to handle PR, marketing and design challenges that were alien to us from previous commercial endeavours.
What resources did you find most useful?
Our most valuable resources were two understanding and totally supportive wives. In the first couple of years when they hardly saw us as we developed the app, and subsequently when we both left our full-time employment to devote ourselves full time to iBridgePlus.
What was the best piece of advice you received when you first started?
Neither of us recall any particularly ‘good’ bits of advice. We do, however, both recall an oft-repeated bit of advice, that thankfully we didn’t listen to, which was ‘don’t do it!’.
Numerous people told us that we were mad, going into an area we knew nothing about, with pitfalls at every corner. Thankfully we didn’t listen, and we’ve had six years of total job satisfaction, some reasonable financial success to make it all worthwhile, and we are looking forward to many more years of challenges, stimulation, and hopefully financial reward.
What do you wish you’d known from the beginning?
That the younger generation don’t seem to respond as fast as we oldies do.
For certain techie bits we do need to out-source, and invariably the experts we use are much younger. Boy oh boy, are they slow…
If you could give one piece of advice to someone considering following a similar path to you, what would that be?
GO FOR IT! We are both in our sixties, and we both jump out of bed to get to work in the morning.
iBridgePlus has given us both a new lease and purpose in life, and that on its own is worth a pot of gold.
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