UNUM: the app to up your Insta game
An interview with USC alum Dillon Morgan about his app-developing experience
Admit it: you’ve gone to follow someone on Instagram, and after a few moments of looking through their feed, you thought, Meh. I’ll pass. Maybe there are too many clashing colors. Maybe they use stickers on their photos. Maybe they just use way too many of those white bars to crop their photos.
At one point or another, we’ve all committed one or more of these mortal social media sins. And that’s okay because, well, everyone is doing their best to figure out how to get their Instagram to the highest tier of fire emojis.
In comes UNUM, a new app for those of us who care deeply about our Instagram aesthetic but don’t want to sacrifice time or energy perfecting it. I got a chance to sit down and interview Dillon Morgan, founder of UNUM and USC alum (everybody say it with me: Fight On!). Learn more about his experience below, as well as his advice for people who want to take part in the app world.
Responses edited sparingly for clarity and conciseness.
Okay so let’s get down to this app. UNUM. Am I saying it correctly? Oooh-noom?
Oooh-nuhm. I guess I should explain why we came up with that name.
That would be great!
So UNUM means “one” in Latin, and what our focus and our goal is to better tell your story so that your grid is one inclusive journey made up of all those pictures you’ve taken along the way. If I go on your Instagram account, I see a grid, so it’s all the pictures you’ve taken, and each one kind of tells your story. But as a whole, your Instagram tells your journey, right? It’s a little cheesy, a little cliché, but it’s true.
Most of us that are on the team are really into photography – I did a lot in high school – and a picture’s great, but if you ever go to a show and you have multiple pictures from different scenes, you have to pair them up in a way where, as a whole, they look very inclusive. One black-and-white might clash with a color, but a grey [picture] might blend better with that.
So that’s kind of the concept behind UNUM. It’s a scheduler, it’s a visualizer. You can make drafts, you can edit and filter, you can add captions beforehand so you can think about what you want to say per picture. Basically, we have all the pieces of the puzzle that lets you see how your pictures better complement your overall Instagram, which in turn gives you more likes, more followers, more comments, makes you more popular. You know, “you live forever” kind of thing.
And that’s what you want. That’s what it’s all about.
That’s the premise, exactly! So that’s UNUM in a nutshell. A little fun fact: on the back of every dollar bill it says “E pluribus unum” (“out of many, one”), which explains UNUM, too. Out of many pictures is one story: yours.
Oh my god.
Isn’t that so poetic?
I’m like, tearing up a little bit thinking about that. That’s really cool! I really like the premise behind it. Was there any particular instance that sparked UNUM?
Our previous company that we started at USC was called spop. It was a local messenger where you can communicate without cell service. So we could text each other during the crowded football games through everyone else, so we don’t need AT&T or Verizon. We were really focused on building out our product and perfecting the service of spop, and we were having a hard time building out the feed of our Instagram. We needed a social media presence so people kept understanding who we were, building our brand. So that was kind of tough from a business standpoint.
Actually, my little sister was the one that kind of came up with the idea. She was the one that thought of planning it out because she’s really into Instagram. So from a consumer perspective, she really liked it because she better told her story. From a business side, we really were drawn to it because it helped take away time spent on social media and we could continue growing our product. It was that aha moment that both consumers and businesses had a need for a tool that could give you that.
Before, it was all about companies branding themselves. But now, us being in this social media culture, we gotta brand ourselves, too. Our own personal branding: how important is that?
One of our [users], her name’s Liv. She’s from the United Kingdom. She found UNUM, she fell in love with it, and we fell in love with her. She is an amazingly gifted fashion blogger who wrote a beautiful article about UNUM and her Instagram. Highly suggest everyone read it! As someone who has to constantly promote herself, Liv explains it perfectly in the article. She is her brand, and UNUM gave her all the tools that she needed to perfect that brand: herself. We’ve found that, for consumers, social media marketing is fundamental in their success, making UNUM the life-saving tool for them.
Any other feeds using UNUM that you’ve noticed have a more unified theme now?
Pretty Lights (electronica DJ) found us. We looked at his Instagram account, and he tiled a photo. It was cool that he used UNUM to perfect it and really market his new song that came out. That was awesome, and someone like PrettyLights who I already thought had a good theme ready because generally, the colors meshed well, to somebody like U.S. Senator Cory Booker uses us, too, which is weird. I guess it helps his political campaign. I mean sure, dude! We weren’t expecting you, but we’ll take it!
There’s also an account called Discover Earth, and they have beautiful pictures all around the world. Each picture itself is breathtaking. You really can’t go wrong, high-quality images. When they started using UNUM, I noticed their feed started getting better because they had a lot of greens that were blending in together, or blues from Antartica all the way to the South Pacific. He or she who manages the account planned it a lot better, so now each picture looks way better than it did before. That was pretty rewarding.
So we got Earth. We got a senator and we got a DJ, and they’re all using UNUM. I mean, how does that feel, people using your app?
It feels really … I don’t know. The words don’t describe it, but ecstatic, I guess. It kind of reiterates that we’re on the right track and we’re perfecting the user’s experience and we’re making Instagram a lot better. That kind of was our goal from the beginning. To see people like that, to get that stamp of approval like, “Yeah, you’re doing a good job,” really shows a lot.
It’s funny because we actually use our own tool to better our Instagram, so worst-case, if no one else did it, we’d still have a pretty good Instagram account, you know? But it just helps that everyone else likes it too!
I’m going to backtrack a little bit to the app developing process itself. Can you give people a glimpse into what that’s like?
It’s really strenuous. I personally didn’t code UNUM, but I know enough coding language to dive in and fix certain parts. You can miss a comma here or a semi-colon and the whole thing will be wrong. So finding those kind of bugs has been the biggest hurdle, and each build brings up new bugs you hadn’t found before. If you’re attention-to-detail oriented and you don’t mind working until you get it, I would highly suggest a career or at least a hobby in coding and programming.
Another thing, and this is from business experiences in the past, is there’s one thing to be a developer and another thing to be a developer you trust. Most of the time, if you don’t have an understanding of programming language, then you’re going to get taken to the cleaners by developers. If you don’t know generally how long the timeline should be and they finish it in two weeks but they still bill you for x amount of months…you really should have a basic understanding of the whole process itself.
The hardest part is finding people that are good, quality developers but people that you trust. I’d take someone any day who isn’t as good of a developer as somebody else, but you trust them like no other. They’ll learn, and it’s a learning experience for all of us.
Any other advice for people who are looking into developing an app?
One is test the market, and there are a lot of free ways to do that. The good thing about technology and having it be so prevalent is a lot of people do the work for you in a lot of different ways. That wasn’t the case, you know, twenty years ago. You don’t need to keep recreating the wheel.
I highly suggest doing A/B testing. Also Google Trends, too. If you see a low monthly unique search, then it’s probably not something people are really looking at, or maybe the problem’s not big enough for people to go out of their way to buy it. You don’t have to break the bank to find out if this is the market you want to go into. Find competitors before you get in that space, and make sure that if you can differentiate yourself, what’s your value compared to somebody else?
Porter’s five forces is the go-to. It’s basically threats from new entrants, threats from current competitors, technological changes. I suggest that being a focal point to see like, if I want to dive in, what’s my space? What’s my likelihood of success? And then, if all those pieces come together, your team is then the most important thing.
So one is: you have to know the marketplace. And then two is: you have to have people who you trust. You have to have strong workers who are gonna be working day and night to do whatever it takes to make that vision a reality.
How did your time here at USC help you during this process?
Aside from the overall class experience, which was great, it was the professors and the network. Marshall really does hook you up a lot. For spop, the other startup, we were in the accelerator program over the summer two years ago. That helped jumpstart spop, found out where we were struggling. All the professors were above and beyond helpful.
I assumed that once I graduated, if I tried to reach out to them, they’d probably say, “I’m busy,” or, “I have a whole other class that I need to take care of and mentor.” Sometimes I have to send them a few more emails to get an answer [laughs]. But for the most part, they’re really good and more than helpful. We’re trying to get into a few accelerators that are USC-focused, so we wouldn’t have gotten to where we are now without them.
100% the network, and the student body, too. All of the team for UNUM is from USC. I love working with other Trojans because we get each other and we all have the same mindset, we have the same vision of where we want to go. Going to a school like this where pride is fundamental…to not represent your school the best way you can is tough to live with. As “woe is me” as that sounds, you really want to make your school proud. USC definitely made us feel good as students, so we kind of want reciprocate with the business.
Besides coding, are there any other obstacles you’ve faced in making UNUM happen?
The biggest thing is the barriers for entry are relatively low. Unless you’re doing like what Spop did, with new technology. It’s getting the market as quickly as possible, and that’s been hard on anybody in any industry. If you’re trying to go in the tech sector, you have to move really fast. Some industries move so slow, about four or five years before you get to proof of concept. In the tech space, it’s two months, three months. That’s difficult.
Not only have to worry about the competitors you want to beat, but the underdogs you don’t even know about that could have a lot of funding behind them. Time is of the essence. If I were to give you a road map, it would be proof of concept: check. Get your team as quickly as possible, and trust your team: check. Then start as quickly as possible and keep going and do not lose momentum.
So what’s next for UNUM? Spoilers? You could totally say no to answering that.
The closest spoiler that I won’t mind giving up is being able to manage multiple accounts. You won’t have to keep signing out of UNUM, so you could plan your personal feed and manage your business account. That should be coming up relatively soon, just working through some kinks.
When we do have our official launch, our campaign is going to be “END UGLY”. What is Instagram fundamentally based off of? Appearance and getting affirmation from people around the world that like your pictures or comment or engage. So the whole premise is to end ugly Instas.