Nathan Maas wanted to use his knack for innovation to help people stay connected, regardless of their location. After learning to code at Code Fellows, he went on to start pennypost as a way to help people stay in touch around the world.
Thanks for sharing your story and inspiration with us, Nathan! Tell us about pennypost—where did you get the idea?
After getting an Associates degree in Psychology years ago, I had this urge to learn about the world. I was looking for that Aristotelian education through seeing and doing, so I left a scholarship at university behind to find it. I saved money for a year by working two jobs in construction and food service, then bought an around-the-world ticket, packed my bags, and left for what turned into three years of my life.
On that trip, I met so many amazing people. I did service work in Thailand after the Great Tsunami to rebuild long-tail boats, stayed with a Colombian tribe called the Kogi, and hiked a lot of mountains. I learned about the world and myself.
This was before Facebook, so my only way to stay connected with all the people I missed back home and later abroad was through really bad phone connections or postcards—and although they were difficult to send, my friends and family always really appreciated getting them. They saved [the postcards] and showed me when I returned. They still have them.
So you want to help people in the same boat as you were to stay connected?
Absolutely, I really wanted to create a modern product that made photo postcards easier and more meaningful. We felt that people should be able to use their photos from Instagram, Facebook, their computer and phone to send real postcards anywhere. Moreover, we wanted to solve the major issue we discovered in the postcard-sending process during our UX research in both Seattle and San Francisco. Namely, that people don’t have their friends or families’ addresses, and collecting them is time consuming and difficult.
That’s an interesting problem to have to solve—what was your solution?
We found that the real issue that stopped people—our generation especially—from sending physical mail was that they didn’t have addresses. If they did, they were lost in old text messages, emails, or messenger chats. We then compiled research from a ton of participants in our study and got to work. Our final result is an address-collecting link that users can post to Facebook or send via Messenger, Slack, text, or email. Your personal address-collecting link gathers addresses from friends and family and lets you know in an email when a new contact is added to your pennypost address book. Before a recent trip to hike the Pacific Crest Trail from Canada to Mexico, one of our users posted his link to Facebook. He collected 49 addresses in a few days to keep people posted with photos along his travels.
What is the story behind using postcards, instead of using a social media platform?
We live in such a digital world, which has its pros and cons. We communicate through messaging apps probably more than we do on the phone now! We’re all so busy and I know for me it means a lot when someone does something special. When we did our user testing before building pennypost, we found that, in the simplest way, a postcard is that something special for people. This was especially true with photos that were unique to people’s lives instead of the postcards found in many tourist shops. It is a nice surprise that associates with it a deeper meaning than a messenger gif, WhatsApp, Slack, or text. It says I miss you or check out my adventures in a much deeper way.
How long had the idea for pennypost been in the works before you decided to launch?
My best friend Kate Perry runs a well-known rum bar on Capitol Hill called Rumba. The walls are covered with vintage postcards from the caribbean and around the world. We have sent each other postcards for the last 11 years from all over. So the idea of pennypost had been manifesting for a long time. It wasn’t until I started at Code Fellows, however, that I realized I could learn how to build the product myself. That was a big realization.
Is this the first company you’ve started?
I have worked at early-growth startups in the US, Africa, and Latin America, but pennypost is the first company that I founded. I had learned a lot from the launch of other companies, some that did really well and others that failed. Those experiences, coupled with a newfound technical competency from Code Fellows, gave me the confidence I needed.
How did you first hear about Code Fellows and decide to apply?
After I finished my MBA in South Africa and Beijing, I moved back to my hometown of Seattle. I had planned to continue to work in marketing and business development. Growing up, though, I was always a builder of things. I wanted to be a builder again. At that time a lot of my friends were working at Amazon and one of them recommended Code Fellows to me.
What were you doing before you enrolled?
For years I worked at Theo Chocolate and Finnriver Cidery to help grow both products, but I knew someday I wanted to found my own company. So I applied to different MBA programs and was accepted at Seattle University and the Foster School of Business at the University of Washington. But I also got into an international MBA in Cape Town, South Africa and Beijing, China. With an international background, I jumped at the opportunity to live, study, and work in two of the most fascinating places on earth. Along the way I met the woman of my dreams, too. 🙂
Did your time abroad affect how you approach entrepreneurship?
My travels around the world really influenced my approach to entrepreneurship. I learned from inspiring entrepreneurs in places like South Africa, Germany, Guatemala, and the U.S. that there isn’t one approach to successfully launching and growing a product. My takeaway from them was simple: the only way to know is to try.
How did your time at Code Fellows affect the route to launch your company?
Fresh out of an MBA, I knew business but I didn’t know technology. I barely understood what HTML or CSS were! Code Fellows allowed me to dive into the unknown without being afraid. I had a support network and the opportunity to develop my technical capabilities as a product manager. Every story has a beginning—for me, it was Code Fellows.
Any recommendations for other entrepreneurs who are considering a similar path?
My travels around the world prepared me for the uncertainty of the road, the need to find friends, and the curiosity and tenacity to keep moving. Entrepreneur-ing, which is actually a word, is inherently difficult. And yet it is incredibly rewarding and possibly the best way to learn about yourself and your purpose in life. I have always liked the ethical heuristic, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” For entrepreneurs, I would say, be the product you wish to see in the world. Be your users, your team, your tech, your business, and—most importantly—be authentically you.
How can people get started with pennypost?
Just pop on over to www.pennypost.me! Use promo code
CF when you check out to get 20% off your pennypost cards.