Tim DeBenedictis' high-tech space app business started with a low-tech gift he'll never forget.
"I have always been a bit of a space nut," said DeBenedictis, founder of mobile application maker Southern Stars. "When I was 4 years old, my parents got me a telescope and I was one of those nerdy kids who hung out and looked at stars, the moon and Saturn all night with it. It has always been a big interest of mine."
That interest in space became a driving force for DeBenedictis as he started a business centered on exploring the Great Unknown. The business, Southern Stars, combines DeBenedictis' love of space and his technical background writing software code to develop the SkySafari mobile application, which allows stargazers to use their phones to identify what they are looking at in the night sky. The app has been downloaded 1.2 million times from the Apple App Store and the Android Market since launching in 2009.
Reach for the stars
Space may have always been an interest for DeBenedictis, but soon after college his career took an unexpected path.
"My major in school was planetary studies, which was right in line with my interests, but then I graduated and discovered very quickly that you need to make a paycheck," DeBenedictis said. "I soon discovered that astronomy is cool, but it is not necessarily a good way to do that."
Luckily for DeBenedictis, after graduating from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1993, he was primed to take advantage of the Internet, which at that time was a growing phenomenon.
"In 1993, the Internet happened and I got a job doing bank security stuff for many years, until the crash happened in 2001," DeBenedictis said. "I survived six rounds of layoffs at my startup and when the seventh round came along I said I have to get out of here and do something else."
DeBenedictis didn't hesitate when a position writing code for astronomy software opened at Carina Software in 2004. Originally, DeBenedictis signed on to update the company's software so it would run on modern Mac OSX and Windows operating systems.
"Then the iPhone came along in 2008," DeBenedictis said. "So we decided for laughs we would take our best top astronomy software and make it work on the iPhone. We also wanted to try to make a telescope control gizmo that would use Wi-Fi to control your telescope and really look at things in the sky as opposed to just seeing a simulated image of what it would look like."
A little over a year later, in 2009, the SkySafari app was up and working, but in one month it sold only 100 copies. The app allows users to know exactly what they are looking at in space using the GPS and accelerometer within a phone to determine where users are in the world and which direction they are pointing their phone. Disappointed but not discouraged by the poor sales, DeBenedictis looked to take advantage of an upcoming opportunity.
"We realized that that the 40th anniversary of Neil Armstrong's moon landing was going to happen on July 20, 2009, and on a whim I emailed a few people in the astronomy business to let them know we were going to have a one-day free app sale to celebrate it," DeBenedictis said.
The one-day sale proved to be just what the company needed — 135,000 copies of the app were downloaded on that day alone. Soon after the web sale went viral in 2010, DeBenedictis broke off his mobile application business from Carina, working full time in producing mobile applications under Southern Stars LLC, a company he had owned since his days in college.
Since then, DeBenedictis has developed a plus and premium version of the SkySafari app and brought the product to different platforms, including the Mac OSX for desktop computers. Southern Stars also released the SkyFi adapter in 2010, which allows phones equipped with the SkySafari app to control a telescope.
"It has been a pretty exciting ride and people seem to like our product," DeBenedictis said. "All three of our versions have a five-star rating on the app store from Apple and that is pretty hard to do. We won a hot product award from Sky and Telescope magazine for 2012 and we also won a Macworld Best in Show award in 2010. It is not just about good marketing and talking to the right folks, but we also put in a lot of work to make our product easy to use and accurate and well built."
Even with a unique product and intense passion for his business, DeBenedictis still remembers struggling early on. It was that struggle, however, that gave him the blueprint for success later on.
"Figure out how to make yourself known," DeBenedictis said. "Your biggest problem is going to be that most people don't know you exist, so figure out how to attack that problem. The biggest problem any app maker, or business for that matter, faces is how do you stand out from the crowd? How do you make yourself known? It is one thing to have a product, but if that product doesn’t sell you might as well not have a product at all."
To overcome that problem, DeBenedictis found that by taking advantage of timely opportunities and using the Internet as a marketing tool, he could make SkySafari stand out from the competition.
"I think that being forced by reality to learn how to use the Internet as a viral marketing tool that shows what sells was probably the single most critical and eye-opening experience that I have had," DeBenedictis said. "Any successful business is going to have to figure that out before they have a successful product."
Additionally, DeBenedictis feels that in order to be successful, entrepreneurs must not shy away from their passions and true feelings even if that means entering a crowded field.
"Don’t be worried if someone has the same idea," DeBenedictis said. "Don't let that stop you. More than one person can have the same idea. It probably just means that it is a good idea. You need to figure out how to get customers to focus on you and why your implementation and idea is the best."
Reach BusinessNewsDaily staff writer David Mielach at Dmielach@techmedianetwork.com. Follow him on Twitter @D_M89.