An Interview with Javier Romero, creator of Hangerang
This is the first interview in my new interview series centered on independent web creatives.
For my first interview, I met with my friend and long time web creative, Javier Romero. Like me, Javier is a native New Mexican. He’s been an active member of the local music scene for as long as I can remember. He’s got that punk DIY ethic, and a strong creative drive. He’s also been working as a creative web developer for 20 years.
Now Javier is getting ready to launch his first web app, Hangerang.
We have set our coffee meeting for Deep Space Coffee in Albuquerque. The vibe is low key, and the mood is modern-minimal as I sip my raspberry mint slush. Javier arrives and orders a coffee. It’s a Friday afternoon, in the high 90’s outside, and we are both happy to have a break from the office for a couple of hours.
I first knew Javier when he was in the band Mistletoe in the late 90’s and early 2000’s. We both went to highschool in Santa Fe, and college at UNM. And, like many kids who grew up in Santa Fe in the 90’s, we both spent a lot of our teen years at the original Warehouse 21, a DIY collective for teens focused on art, writing, screenprinting, and a lot of awesome music. Many of us who were lucky enough to spend time at Warehouse 21 ended up pursuing careers in the arts.
When it came time to go to college, UNM was not a first choice for either Javier or I, but it was affordable and accessible. We ended up taking a video editing class together while at UNM. I dropped out of college soon after our class; Javier went on to earn a degree in Film.
It’s been many years since Javier and I have had a chance to chat in person. Now that I’m back in New Mexico, I was curious to see what Javier’s web journey has been over the years, and what he is up to these days.
So Javier and I sat down to talk about his new project, Hangerang, a web based app he is creating centered on the idea of using technology to facilitate real life hangouts.
Tell me about the name Hangerang…
I was thinking about the character Rufio in Hook yelling “Bangerang!” Hangerang is a fun word to say. The concept is to get yourself out there socially through Hangerang so that you can see the beneficial results of reaching out come back to you. That’s why the logo for our product is based on the boomerang shape.
I love the name, and I feel like the character of Rufio represents the wild, creative, nature of New Mexicans as well. When did you first get the idea to create Hangerang?
I first came up with the concept for Hangerang 2 years ago. I had been noticing from personal experience that a lot of people have become more flaky socially, and that technology seems to be a big part of it. People are getting their social fix online more and more, but it isn’t really working the way real life socialization works. Lots of likes and followers, not so much hanging out. The fulfillment is not the same.
What is your background in tech?
I am basically completely self taught. As soon as I got into computers, I immediately started playing with graphic design.
When I started college in 1998, there was no graphic design program at UNM, so I enrolled in the Fine Arts program. While I was in the program, the art advisor asked me what I was interested in pursuing. When I said design, he laughed in my face and said there was no market for graphic design in New Mexico.
After a while, I realized that the Fine Art program was preparing graduates for criticism and academia, not necessarily preparing them for careers.
As of this writing, there is still only a Certificate program offered at UNM in Graphic Design & Visual Communication through their continuing education program. They do not offer a bachelor’s degree in Graphic Design.
How did you go about finding your way towards a career in graphic design, despite no formal web or graphic design training and a lack of support from your college’s art department?
Interestingly enough, the theater program was one of the only departments doing some graphic design work at that time so I took theater classes as well. I basically took classes from a variety of disciplines to gain different skills to help me in my journey.
I got a work study position while I was at UNM which is where I taught myself the basics of web development and graphic design.
Ultimately, I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Film.
What were some of your early creative web work experiences like, post graduation?
One of my earliest graphic design experiences was designing print labels for a lady from Haiti who owned a spice company. I designed spice labels and lemonade labels. I got paid very little, but it was very good experience. At the time, she said to me, “You are going to make very little now, but you’ll make $36K a year soon”.
When it came time to look for my first real web development job after I graduated from college and completed my work study, I was looking through the want ads and I saw an ad for a web developer. To my surprise, the position was for exactly $36K at a place called Voyager 360. I didn’t have a ton of experience at this point and wasn’t sure I could even remember what I’d learned after taking a 1 year break from my work-study, but my mom encouraged me to go interview. Luckily, they hired me on the spot.
What kind of a web developer were you when you were starting out?
When I first started doing web development, I did everything the wrong way. I started out using the Dreamweaver GUI to write code. After a while, I was working with others more and they helped me understand that the code generated from Dreamweaver was not very good. So I started to really learn how to code and became a better developer by using best practices.
I agree, Javier. Best practices really do make all the difference in the success of a web project. I had a similar start using Dreamweaver as well. What kinds of projects were you working on in these early days?
Voyager handled many real estate websites in the Santa Fe area. It was a great place to start, and pushed me to learn more than just HTML/CSS but also to take my first steps in PHP/MySQL application development.
Eventually, Voyager was to be sold to a company in Indianapolis, and I was asked to move with the company. I wasn’t interested, so we parted ways.
That’s how I landed at a company called Xynergy for several years doing client-based web design and development. I was attracted to the idea of working with a medium-sized team doing a broad mix of projects. I learned how to get really fast on the front-end, and was tasked with learning many early e-commerce and CMS systems. It helped me form an opinion of how I liked to work, and what systems I thought were most practical.
I also learned a lot while doing contract work on Deep Web Tech. Most importantly, I leanred how to do stuff exclusively from a Terminal window. Deep Web Tech is an educational federated search engine. It’s basically a search engine for academic white papers.
A platform not unlike the web in its early days, yes?
Yes. I did some front end work on the web based search app. Then I freelanced again before forming zByte, a web development company based in Albuquerque.
I took my experience with the lessons I learned from Xynergy to help co-found zByte.
What kind of projects did you focus on while you were at zByte?
Our goal with zByte was to grow the relationship between client and developer. I found that it was really difficult to deepen client relationships while still providing broad support to our general clientele, even with a team of 5 people.
Zach Lovelady, the principal founder, came from Sandia Labs and thought (maybe naively) that web development for small businesses would be easier than the projects and problems he faced at the labs. We did many high-profile projects together over the years, and got better at what we did, however we could never get over the hump of scaling the business in a way that we intended. We wanted to break the 1:1 hourly paradigm that many smaller web firms face. We wanted to do it in a way that would be more of a product than a service, but due to our client workload, we couldn’t adequately develop the product.
Zach had another new startup that he was focusing more and more on, and much of the zByte team had moved on to that new company. I was left with keeping our many clients happy, somewhat on my own, which was unsustainable.
We decided to find another development agency to take on the zByte workload, so that I could also focus on the new startup. We migrated our clients, but due to unfortunate circumstances, my position move didn’t come to pass. This left me in an awkward situation, because I didn’t have a job to move to, so I just gave the keys to my old job.
I realized it was time to make a big change in my professional life. I knew I could always fall back on my freelancing after leaving studio work behind, but I wanted to do something really different, create my own product, and flex my chops.
It’s a cliche that many developers have an array of skunkworks side-projects happening. I’m been very guilty of taking on too many side hustles and never seeing them through. I’ve made a commitment to myself to see this one all the way through, and not have a back up plan.
Not having a back up plan can be scary. How did you turn this big change into an opportunity to create Hangerang?
I have a family and financial responsibilities, so I have to provide. I needed to make a choice which way to go for the New Year. It was at this moment in time that I decided to take the idea for Hangerang and run with it.
What makes Hangerang special?
In creating this product, I take a humanist approach to technology. I believe that technology should not be the endpoint, but the beginning of human interaction.
Hangerang is a web based rather than iOS based app. What’s the biggest difference between web app development and iOS app development from a user’s perspective?
The biggest difference is that web based apps are device agnostic and accessible. This makes the platform open to more people. If I’m out and about and I get invited to a “Hang” via text message by a friend, I may not have time to download an app or may not want to if I don’t have access to WiFi.
Today, time is of the essence. If I don’t accept that invitation soon after receiving it, I probably won’t get a chance to deal with it later. With Hangerang, there is nothing to install. It’s not going to take up space on your phone. All you have to do is visit the Hangerang URL, then enter your email to login with Facebook.
You can use any type of Internet capable smartphone to access the site, so it’s not limited to a specific kind of device.
How does working on a web based app differ from a device specific app from a developer’s perspective?
When you build an app for the app store, the process to get software updates approved is costly and can take time. This affects me as the developer and also means it takes more time for users to get the updates. First they have to be approved by the app store – a process which can take days – and then the user must actually download the update.
With a web based app, I can push out incremental changes at any time. As I develop Hangerang as a platform, I can be more nimble in adjusting to bugs and features that may arise. Site visitors will automatically get updates about new Hangs when they visit the site the next time.
What technology did you utilize to make the app happen?
I used Firebase for the database solution as well as React to create Hangerang. I also use the Facebook API in order to provide suggested friends within the app. Currently, login is by Facebook login only. This provides a level of connection to the people who create Hangs.
Do you see any limitations in how your app visitors will perceive or interact with a web based app as opposed to an app they would see in the app store?
The heyday of apps has come and gone. Most everything has been created in the app world. Meanwhile, web based technology has caught up. I can now do nearly everything in a web based app that I would do in an “app” app with the exception of a few things such as real time notifications, but that’s something I am working on right now.
How does Hangerang work?
The idea is to take something we are used to with social media and actually enhance our lives with it by turning it’s current functionality on its head. So much social media is centered on spending more time online, engaged in any given app. The goal of Hangerang is to make it easier for people to hang out in real-time.
Twitter and Facebook is a numbers game. This app is not going to be about numbers, but real life possibilities.
What I imagine, is that when you login to Hangerang, you will see thousands of things to do…events called “Hangs” created by your friends, friends of friends, and also the public community.
In the user interface, there will be 3 types of Hangs including Invite Only, Friends + and Public. Friends + recommendations will come from your Facebook Friend circle. Any user can create a Hang in Hangerang quickly and simply.
During our interview, Javier and I logged into Hangerang, created a coffee Hang, and confirmed that we were both attending the Hang within about 2 minutes of opening up the URL for the app.
A Hang could be anything as simple as finding a few random friends to go see Ant Man to joining a flash dance mob Thriller performance.
Every Hang in Hangerang will be a possibility to meet people, build community and enrich our lives with some good old fashioned hangin’ out.
Creating a Hang in Hangerang is quick and easy.
How do you see Hangerang as different from Meetup?
Meetup is more formal and interest based as a social event platform. The name of the game with Hangerang is that it’s whatever you want it to be. Informal, specific or unspecific.
So Meetup is to LinkedIn as Hangerang is to Instagram.
Yeah, that’s a good description.
What are your biggest challenges launching a technology startup in New Mexico?
It’s been fairly easy to do this because I have let go of any selfish notion that this will be just my thing. I think once you do that, you then subconsciously communicate that other people can join you and the idea becomes bigger than you. The idea grows and starts to have a certain cachet.
One thing that I am finding is that VCs in New Mexico are interested in the tried and true when it comes to investing in new technology products. In New Mexico, that means defense, anything related to Sandia Labs, energy interests, and medical. There has to be a way around this dogged mentality. If we can do just do one thing differently, it opens us up to more possibilities.
Only 1% of tech companies that receive venture funding have Hispanic founders. Do you see yourself as a trailblazer for other Hispanic people to enter tech?
So far I have not faced any direct adversity as a Hispanic startup founder.
One thing that has been on my mind, is that if you have won the lottery like Musk and Zuckerberg, why would you not want to do some serious social good?
One of my favorite quotes is from Jim Carrey: “I think everybody should get rich and famous and do everything they ever dreamed of so they can see that it’s not the answer.”
I really believe that service to others is the most important thing we can offer in life. Material goods are not everything. People are what matter.
Right now, I find the way people interact with each other through tech to be a bit clumsy and disconnected, and I know we can do a lot better.
With the recent arrival of Facebook in Los Lunas, how can New Mexicans begin to welcome greater technology development in our state while still preventing Big Tech from taking over?
By digging in and setting boundaries and standards. Connecting the talented tech and creatives we have here already. New Mexico may seem like a flyover state, but there are some really special people here doing some great work.
Overall, New Mexicans are pretty real. Albuquerque’s culture is very open, and if you come in here with any pretension, you will not last long.
What is your vison for Hangerang?
My dream for Hangerang is to be the killer app that actually succeeds business wise and does some real good in society.
How do you set goals so that you can ensure your project development with Hangerang stays on track?
Before I could even pursue Hangerang, I first had to realize that I had become enslaved by the thought culture where I was working before. As soon as I made that realization and put that aside, it freed me to pursue bigger goals.
What is your team for Hangerang?
For now, it’s just me. I realize that at some point I may take a partner, and we will eventually need a small team.
Albuquerque has such amazing talent and great, friendly people. I already have my eye on some talented people who are right here in New Mexico when the time comes to hire up.
Have you considered taking on a partner or are you receiving guidance from an advisor?
Choosing a partner or advisor is a bit like dating. Finding like minded people and building a relationship takes time and can be challenging. At one point, I met with an advisor who I could potentially have partnered with. He had some good advice, but he didn’t see what I was trying to do. It’s all about finding the right fit.
Recently, it was recommended that I join forces with another local app developer who is also in the process of launching a product in a similar space. I’ll meet with him and see.
As I mentioned earlier, in the past, I’ve been a serial project fanatic. Sometimes, I get most of the way there, and then I lose interest. When I decided to do Hangerang, I made a commitment to my (life) partner Susie that I would commit fully to this project to make sure it gets off the ground in a big way. So no side projects until Hangerang is running strong!
Since Hangerang is an app that facilitates real life human interaction, how can you as its founder and developer build an app to avoid safety issues like Craigslist?
Human behavior is human behavior. It’s a variable that is hard to control, even under the best of circumstances.
You have to establish the product culture to help facilitate reasonable behavior within the technological environment. I will be creating product guidelines, and encourage our early user base to collaborate in creating a positive community.
Everything useful in technology is a double edged sword. Take our mastery of fire for instance. Fire is great for cooking, but can easily get out of control and be destructive. Facebook and Twitter have been instrumental in connecting people and ideas in unforeseen ways, some beneficial and-as we’ve seen recently- some detrimental. I think it’d be a mistake to make knee jerk reactions about technology based on the actions of a few.
Hangs on Hangerang initially will be invite only or public, we will recommend that people only meet with those that they already know and trust, and meet in established public locations. As usership grows we will add the Friends+ feature to enable networking and new interpersonal connections to be made.
What kind of demographics do you strive for with the initial release group for Hangerang?
The initial launch will be targeted at people mid-30s and younger. A feature of being young is that you are more excited and perhaps more open and trusting. Younger people generally more tech savvy and happy to try new technologies.
If you could choose 3 words to describe Hangerang, what would they be?
Connection, Fun, Adventure.
With Hangerang, we are not pushing a transaction…we are hoping to help facilitate meaningful real life human connection and interaction.
I have watched other companies hold on so tightly to their own ideas that they kind of lose touch with the community and people around them.
Have you ever felt imposter syndrome now that you are launching your startup?
More now than ever, I am feeling imposter syndrome. I could see the app in my head during development, but now that it’s coming into reality, it’s becoming more real and kinda scary.
Now that people know what the product is, I have expectations to meet.
I’ve been dealing with a bit of imposter syndrome myself as my book gets nearer to publication and launch. What kind of advice can you give other creatives who are dealing with imposter syndrome?
Everyone is an imposter until they are not. You just have to get started, and find the right people to learn from and collaborate with along the way.
How do you know when you are ready to begin a startup?
No one does. You just learn by doing.
Someone told me recently that the one thing you do have to remember when you found a startup is that the company you create will be a direct reflection of you and your values. Leaders often blame problems with their company on company culture when in reality that company culture is a direct mirror of the company’s leaders.
Are there some resources for startups in Albuquerque you can share with us today?
The Broadway and Central corridor is full of great stuff right now.
I go to One Million Cups every Wednesday…it’s a semi tech-based meetup for local startups. It’s open to any entrepreneurs who are just starting out as well as those who are very established. Speakers can present what is working for them, as well as receive feedback on what the challenges of successfully launching a startup really are.
There is also the ABQID accelerator, an Albuquerque startup accelerator which is focused on creating economic improvement through entrepreneur led solutions.
What resources can you recommend for people who are looking into getting started with web app development?
There is so much good free content out there. YouTube has many great tutorials if you are just beginning, and if you Google a specific bug or challenge, chances are someone has already faced a similar one and have found a solution. Those Google results usually end up being links to Stack Overflow.
Learning on the job is a big part of what we do in web development. How do you keep up to date on the most important tech news and trends?
Twitter and Ycombinator are good resources.
Thanks for taking the time to speak with us about Hangerang!
Read more about the technology behind the app in Javier’s article series about Hangerang on Medium.