Tracking their digital footprints through apps like Blerdology and PicSlit, mobile tech developers Amanda Spann and Sheena Allen never considered that their journey in the tech world would lead them to their latest development, Alchomy.
The innovative, location-based mobile creation is a drink discovery community in which users can share, save, and recommend adult beverages. From cocktails, to Mai Tais, to cognacs, the Alchomy mobile app keeps you in the mix by curating your personal tastes by location with access to over 16,000 drink recipes.
As it continues buzzing through mobile app stores, Spann and Allen are embracing the unprecedented creation while navigating the technology world as black, female entrepreneurs and developers. VIBE tapped into a conversation with the two ladies on the app’s development, minority presence in mobile technology, and how they’re keeping bottoms up.
VIBE: What motivated you to tap into the tech world?
Sheena Allen: I started doing mobile apps in 2011 while I was a senior at the University of Southern Mississippi. I got involved in technology from a random idea. My major in school was actually psychology, and had no interest in doing anything technical at all.
Amanda Spann: I had always had this underlying interest in technology, but didn’t go to school for it. I majored in communications and fashion. When I started off doing public relations in the fashion and entertainment realm, I worked with several different entertainment entities. At the time, I felt a little insecure about entering the tech world because I didn’t know coding. But after speaking to a few people, I learned that there were plenty of opportunities in technology outside of being a developer. I thought about how to segue way out of entertainment and focus on technology public relations. After working on that, I was introduced to different opportunities and started tapping into the social enterprise. The rest is kind of history.
Are there any black techies that paved the way for you to launch your career in the technology realm?
AS: One person who really gave me the push in the right direction was my dad. He works in technology and encouraged me to get rid of the fear of not being competent and as qualified as my counterparts. Another person would be Lindsey Holmes, who is not really a developer but works in the tech space as a well-respected consultant. She gave me that push toward entrepreneurship. I remember her telling me that she made that leap a couple years ago and never looked back.
SA: When I started out, no. I’m from Mississippi, so tech was a foreign idea to me. Once I got into it, the first to inspire me was Kimberly Bryant. She runs Black Girl Code, and has always been a huge influence because what she has done in the tech world is amazing. After that, there was also a mentor I met along the way who helped me along my way.
For Alchomy, why adult beverages? What piqued your interest for this instead of food or restaurants?
AS: When I originally conceptualized it, I was traveling a lot for work. When that job ended, I started thinking about how easy it was to just pick a quick spot to grab something to eat, but it wasn’t always so easy to find a great place for drinks. Drinks have always just been an interest of mine as well as learning more about the cocktail market. I don’t have a background in bartending or any type of expert in the market, so I really wanted to work on making my palette a little bit more sophisticated. When I researched whether this was really worth doing, I started seeing how many people really have an interest in drinks. Actually, about 87% of Americans drink. So, there I saw that the market was picking up and the quintessential, average question is, “Where are we having drinks today?” Everyone can relate to that, so I grabbed the opportunity there to create something interesting and innovative. The food space is not completely saturated, but it’s already been done so many times. No one is doing drinks in the way that we are.
SA: For me, it was the fact that I had already done apps and most of them have been photo-based with the exception of one, which was finance-based. When Amanda approached me with this idea, I appreciated that it was different. It was definitely a different category. There’s always people who are asking where they want to go for drinks, and I loved this idea when she pitched it to me.
Before Alchomy, you ladies co-founded other apps like Blerdology and PicSlit. What did you take from your experience with those mobile platforms into the development of this new app?
SA: Everything I had done before Alchomy was trial-and-error. Everything I did, I learned on my own. I spent time in Silicon Valley and in Texas, so I was really just learning and experiencing how the technology world works. Before, I didn’t really know the ins and outs. All the mistakes I’ve made from the brainstorming, to the whiteboarding, to knowing what Apple will accept and reject all contributed into making Alchomy the best that we could.
AS: It was just a huge jump from going from publicist to founder. This was a lot more all-inclusive. Being a founder of an app versus a publicist for one such as Blerdology, you literally have to know everything. I really was dependent on Sheena and our other two partners and learning about their areas of expertise. It took a lot of time to sit down with each of them and say, ‘Hey, can you show me more about XYZ.’ Then, just navigating the process and learning to stay ahead of the curve so that they can do their jobs efficiently. The biggest takeaway from dealing with other apps before this one would be learning how to work on your business and in your business at the same time. It is a challenge projecting where you want to move forward. Also, you can’t get too far ahead of yourself. You can’t put the promotions before the product, and as a publicist for the previous apps, that was innate for me. It takes time to build something that people will actually use and that’s what we are in the process of doing now.
Now, as an established black developer, were there any major challenges you faced trying to break into the tech world?
SA: I’m guesstimating this number, but I believe there are only about three percent black female founders for tech companies. I believe there’s about one percent who ever get funded over $250 thousand for them—it’s somewhere around those numbers. You come in as a minority, and anytime you’re the minority it’s a challenge. I look at it as a gift and a curse because you are the minority. It takes more to break in and people might look at you funny. One person takes one step and you might have to take 10. But the gift is that once they do look at you, if you’re doing it right you’re giving them something to look at.
AS: I cosign [Sheena’s point]. There’s so many articles and information about lack of diversity in certain industries. Especially with being a black woman in technology, there’s oftentimes this unique perspective of an African-American mindset, how we produce products, and how we consume them. I definitely think we’re at an advantage. The challenge would be building a network. People gravitate toward helping people that not necessarily look like them, but people that feel familiar to them. There’s opportunity for us, and I think we just have to figure out how to connect the dots to be on the same page as these investors. There’s a lot of research now about that process to help mitigate that system and navigate through more seamlessly.
What are your thoughts on other mobile apps geared solely toward the black community like SoulSwipe for example? Do you believe they’re progressive or faulty and divisive?
AS: Personally, I love SoulSwipe! I think it can be a catch-22. There’s definitely a need for those communities because you want to foster a good place for people to feel comfortable. I know a lot of my friends really enjoy it beause it cuts out some of the clutter from othr dating apps like Tinder, Bumble and other apps like that if you’re looking for a black partner. There’s a different feel and atmosphere on an app like that. I don’t believe it’s divisive; anyone can use the app, it’s just geared toward a specific market and I don’t anything wrong with that. I mean there’s plenty of apps that are created that don’t really have the black audience in mind, and we still use them. I don’t see why we can’t make one that does have that audience in mind and be of value as well.
How do you stay above the competition?
SA: The biggest thing that sets us apart is our content and the strategies we use. It’s much different than an app you can just go in and find a recipe for. That’s just an option and a feature of Alchomy. We offer much more than just the basics.
AS: We are a lot more open to the dynamics of those who like drinks and entertainment versus just one or the other. With other apps in our space, they’re very narrow and focus on just one segment of drinking. They may focus just on going out on the town or recipes. When you think of who most people are as people, it changes. The same person you are winding down after work on Tuesday is not the same person you are turning up on Saturday. Our mobile platform accommodates both. Also, we wanted to make a recommendation engine that could curate your content by your tastes and location. When you go out, you want to know what places have what you like—anywhere in the world. We didn’t want to just feed people something based on what’s popular to other people. Take Yelp for example, which does reviews. There’s a big difference between a review and a recommendation. A review is either a person really likes or hates something. But, there’s no consideration for people who may be considering that particular venue and what experience it may have been trying to give that the person may not have understood. We want something that’s more customized, customer-rich, and taste-based.
Lastly, are there any major changes or developments coming up for Alchomy users?
AS: We can’t release too much, but there’s a couple new cool features coming this summer. We will be having our Android launch during that time, too, since the app is only available to iPhone users. Definitely be on the lookout for that!