It’s actually been more than two months since I stopped working on Otter, but I felt the need to record and digest the experience before I completely moved on. This piece is my attempt at doing that.

The Idea

Three weeks before Valentine’s Day, Hunter and I were suddenly struck by the idea that there should exist a dating app where friends suggest dates for each other. There seemed to be many merits to this idea: second degree networks are ideal pools to find love, friends understand us better than algorithms, and friend introductions set better contexts than Tinder swipes. 

After a few days I was totally convinced that the idea was worthwhile. Every dating app out there was a variation of two people judging each other’s profile. This idea offered something meaningfully different. It wasn’t the best time to start a new project, but at the same time I was never going to have an easy shot at launching a dating app if not while in college. So Hunter and I had a long Skype call and decided to put a month of our project time on this new idea.

We named the product Otter. It was a quick decision by Hunter. We didn’t want a name that screamed dating or sex. Otter was a short name associated with a cute animal and had great potential for puns. Our tag line became “help friends find their significant otter,” and our domain

The Sprint

Since we budgeted a month, we planned to spend two weeks building the product, a week marketing the launch around Valentine’s day, and a week operating and monitoring progress before we reevaluated.

For the following two weeks I stopped going to classes, Hunter cut down on sleep, and we locked in to build the service. Every night we would discuss features, Hunter would design pages and write copies, and I would spend the next day trying to bring everything we discussed to life. Given our short timeframe, building a mobile app was out of question. What we worked out was a website that would work well both on mobile and desktop browsers.

We used Firebase as our data store, Facebook for user authentication, and React with Redux for the entire front-end including routing. The complied static HTML/JS/CSS files were hosted on Firebase. In addition, an entirely decoupled Node server ran workers that would recompute friend graphs on new user signup, send match texts, and relay text messages from one user to another. I really liked this architecture. It allowed me to write less backend code and focus on the front-end with attention to server-side details for only stuff that mattered.

Cover art for the signup page was created by Jun Xia. The logo below was created by Reika Yoshino

The Launch

A few days before Valentine’s day, Otter launched with an article in The Daily Pennsylvanian. Over 500 students signed up the first day which greatly exceeded our expectations. We were both overwhelmed and grateful. My FB status that day really says it all:

 FB Status post on day of launch.

FB Status post on day of launch.

For the next week or so, signups and activity continued and we reached ~1000 users and ~500 matches. Success stories from friends kept me excited, and I tried everything to keep the hype going, including postering around campus and pitching at sorority chapter meetings.

 Otter poster.

Otter poster.

However, when Hunter and I sat down to reevaluate a week later, the verdict was clear: despite marketing efforts, signups and matches were decreasing every day. What we learned was that users ran out of things to do. In retrospect this is quite obvious. Even if the service itself has 1000 Penn students signed up, an average new user will only be FB friends with about 50 of them. After making a few matches the user would run out of possibilities, and since the user base doesn’t double every night to change that, they would gradually tune out.

Take Two

Going into Spring Break, we decided to invest another month and build a new version of Otter. We felt that there was potential in the concept judging from the initial outpour of interest, but needed to enable user actions that could sustain that interest.

We decided Otter v2 should be more like a game where pairs were automatically presented. We also decided to relax the requirement that both people need be friends that you know. One person could be up to a friend of a friend. Since you could be deciding on someone you don’t know, we asked users to build profiles. When all was said and done, we essentially had Tinder where you swiped for your friends rather than yourself.

Building the new version took us about another two weeks (essentially the entire Spring break and a bit more). This time around, a lot of my time was spent on writing the backend that would generate the pairs presented to users. When all was ready, we sent out an email to our existing ~1000 users announcing the new version.


Ultimately, version two didn’t work out either. It had an initial outburst of activity for about a week, then it died out. It seemed that for this new game-like version Otter needed to be a mobile app. At the moment, it was as if Tinder was a desktop only web app, something you couldn’t use lying in bed.

Hunter and I talked again, and we decided to stop working on Otter. We weren’t about to build a mobile app and we were anxious of an ongoing project we kept on hold. A part of me wonders if we could have made the original Otter work with just more marketing, but ultimately, that’s not our core strength nor our preferred way of competition.

So that’s it. A short journey that spanned about two months. I'm not exactly sure what to make of it yet, but I did discover the joy of rapid prototyping and that I want to get better at it. Also, a few of my friends did find real love through Otter. That’s something.