When General Assembly students graduate from their course — whether it’s user experience design or data science — it’s always exciting (and sometimes surprising) to see the range of products and passions that actualize as a result. In the case of Nathan Maas, a Web Development Immersive alumnus of GA Seattle, the product was an idea called pennypost. The passion? Connecting the world with homemade digital postcards that are easy to send and share.
Nathan — who took a range of night classes in product management, front-end development, and data science at GA before choosing WDI — developed a web (and soon-to-be iPhone) app, pennypost, which was inspired by his travels to nearly fifty countries across the globe. Though he bought postcards everywhere he went with the intention of sending them home, constraints like time, postage, and tracking down mailing addresses, meant he never actually sent them. An idea was born.
In our Web Development Immersive, Nathan gained the skills and support he needed to put action behind his concept. He worked on pennypost for his final project, and, once he graduated, gathered the creative people he met at GA to help him take his product into the real world. Together, the team has taken an innovative digital-to-physical postcard idea to a real startup using its success for social good. They’ve partnered with non-profit medical funding startup, Watsi, donating a percentage of proceeds for every postcard sent to help patients in need of healthcare.
Now in beta, pennypost has been accepted into Amazon Web Services Portfolio Package, typically reserved for startups who have graduated from well-known accelerators or are backed by venture capitalists. And, since GA alumni are part of our tight knit community for life, GA Seattle is using pennypost to send postcards to graduating students with their class photo on the front as a keepsake. Win-win? We think so.
Here’s an in-depth look at Nathan’s journey with pennypost, his sources of inspiration, and his vision for the future.
What were you doing before you started at General Assembly?
I had just completed my master’s degree in Business & Innovation at the University of Cape Town and at Tsinghua University. It was a really amazing international experience where I spent two years focused on the future of technology in Africa and Asia.
How did you first hear about General Assembly?
I knew that I wanted to move into a more technical product management role, but I didn’t know the way forward. My past experience with product management revolved around physical goods like chocolate and cider. After cofounding a startup in the sharing economy that focused on providing services to Airbnb and Homeaway hosts, I quickly realized the gaps in my technical abilities. It was at that point that I made the decision to dedicate myself to learning how to code and started looking for the best program I could find.
What made Web Development Immersive stand out from other web development programs you considered?
The structure and efficacy of GA as a legit way to learn the necessary tools in technology is what initially drew my attention to the WDI program. I met with students who went in with limited technical abilities, who graduated with deep skill and confidence and got the jobs they were looking for. I also spoke with the GA crew and teachers from the program and saw a really high caliber of dedicated people working towards a vision of empowering people to do what they loved.
Tell us about your web app, pennypost.
pennypost is a web app and soon-to-be iPhone app that allows you to easily use your Facebook, Instagram, and mobile photos to create awesome postcards that showcase your life and connect to people in a more authentic way — like Snapchat does with videos but with dynamic postcards. The idea really came to be from my travels around the world and a subconscious guilt of not having sent enough postcards to my friends and family while on the road. I sent a few here and there but most of the time the process of finding a decent postcard, buying stamps, knowing someone’s address, and just having the time got in my way, so I have this graveyard of postcards I bought and never sent.
I founded pennypost and formed a team of truly outstanding developers from my GA WDI program with the aim of making postcards easier, not just for travelers but for fashion designers, brands, companies, and even events.
pennypost has been making waves in a lot of different communities. Who are you working with lately?
We wanted to partner with an NGO who we felt was creating real change in the world. When we discovered [a non-profit medical funding startup called] Watsi, we reached out to them. They liked our product and we partnered with them so that every postcard sent through pennypost funds healthcare globally through their amazing efforts.
We also partnered with Port Au Prince Startup Week. Its founder used pennypost to send postcards in real time from the week-long event in Haiti to PAP Startup Week sponsors. It was a really successful collaboration.
You started pennypost as your WDI final project. What kind of traction did you need to see with the project before you brought it out of the classroom?
Sending a postcard is a unique experience for both the sender and the receiver, so I wanted to make sure people still saw the magic in sending postcards like I did. People who saw my final project or heard about the concept were enthusiastic and encouraged me to make the app scalable beyond a hobby site on Heroku, a program that provides services and tools to build, run, and scale web applications. As our team grew, we went out to coffee shops all over Seattle to do research with people and get feedback that helped us imagine our product.
The pennypost team includes several GA alumni, instructors, and TA’s in Seattle and San Francisco. How did that happen?
My initial goal was to become a more technical product manager. Through GA I recognized how talented my classmates and teachers were. I sought out that same enthusiastic crew who supported the idea of pennypost from my class when we graduated. I asked them to join me in learning through launching a scalable product into the market.
We all had the skill, drive, and confidence from our class at GA and that really propelled us forward. Having worked closely with UX students during WDI who loved the concept, our group burgeoned from Seattle to San Francisco, with some friends and family at GA campuses down south, too. Soon we had students, teaching assistants, and teachers on board.
Transitioning into startup mode from the fast-paced collaborative learning environment of WDI was exciting and fun. It allowed us all to take what we had learned and apply it to something we were passionate about and wanted to share.
How do you keep your web development and product management skills fresh? What do you read? Who do you follow?
I stay sharp by devouring content about product management on Medium and Product Hunt. I also consult on the side because I find thinking about other products helps broaden the way I think. I am a big proponent of learning through doing and experiential knowledge. I met [bestselling author of Decode and Conquer and Rise Above the Noise] Lewis C. Lin a while back and really like his content. As a team, we stay fresh by learning from one another in a collaborative way.
What are the next steps for pennypost?
Our next steps are to continue to grow pennypost through our stories that showcase how uniquely people are using our product. You can find out more about that on Medium.
Who is your favorite teacher and why?
In our Web Development Immersive program, both of our teachers,Brian Hague and Lenny Urbanowski, were straight up the best! In life, I have always really loved [mythologist and writer] Joseph Campbell. Beyond that, Carl Sagan and Nicholas Cage are my heroes.
Build products based on your own life experiences.