Innovation That Matters

Wise Words with Hannah Dow and Steve Coffey


We spoke to Hannah Dow and Steve Coffey of Rudder, the navigation app that helps users find the most brightly-lit route.

Genuine social innovation never ceases to inspire us. Harnessing a desire to make a positive change, coupled with a strong entrepreneurial spirit, are Hannah Dow and Steve Coffey, the two brains behind Rudder — an app that we wrote about in May, which has been garnering a lot of attention. And it is easy to understand why. The app birthed out of a social requirement observed by the couple: the desire to combat the danger of walking at night.

“I always tried to avoid walking home alone…and I wanted a product that accounted for that, ” Hannah tells us. The two University of Michigan graduates began Rudder by collecting street lighting data. The app works like a normal navigation device, but shows users their most brightly lit route home. We talk to these two true modern-day entrepreneurs to find out more about building a new app, developing their product, balancing full-time jobs alongside their own business, and more.

1. Where did the idea for Rudder come from?

Hannah Dow: The idea for Rudder was born when I was a sophomore at the University of Michigan. I always tried to avoid walking home alone, but sometimes this was really difficult. It was during a walk home through some dark residential neighbourhoods, whilst I was wishing that I had something to tell me where the street lights were across campus, that I had the idea. It was clear that the experience of walking at night was very different from walking during the day and I wanted a product that accounted for that. I worked on the idea for Rudder on and off but wasn’t able to get the project off the ground until I met my partner, Steve.

2. Can you describe a typical working day?

HD: Each morning I try to wake up before my alarm clock so that I have time to think about the day ahead, before the buzzer. I start the morning making french press coffee and when I have some time, I like to make myself a nice breakfast to get excited for the day, anything with eggs. Steve and I both work full-time jobs. When I get into the office, I like to create a to-do list, one that’s handwritten on a piece of paper — I think being able to actually cross things off is great gratification for getting things done. I talk with Steve throughout the day about the things we can accomplish over the next week and when I get home, I always try to spend a couple of hours working on Rudder. Even if I’m just doing small things like answering emails or thinking about some ideas for future releases, I like to make sure I have a chance to spend productive time on Rudder everyday — it’s what I love to do more than anything.

3. How do you unwind or relax when you’re not working on Rudder?

HD: Whenever I’ve got some free time I really like to play guitar or ukulele; it helps me to relax and forget about whatever is currently going on in my life, and just focus on playing. I can’t help but also include cooking and watching TV in this category — as obvious as they may seem, it’s what I look forward to if I’ve had a stressful day.

4. What’s the most important characteristic for being an entrepreneur?

HD: Believing. It sounds simple but if you don’t believe without a doubt that the work you are doing is important and could change people’s lives, then no one else will believe you either. There is something that happens when you become part of a project bigger than yourself, whatever that may be. Your excitement for your work becomes contagious and people want to be around you and support you. The other characteristic you must have is drive. The road is never going to be smooth the whole way. In fact, you’ll be lucky if you have a few tiny patches where things go smoothly! You just have to keep your eye on the end game and do everything in your power to get to that point. If you want to make an idea come to life, figure out the steps you need to take to make the best product you can and then create a road map to get there the smartest and most efficient way. There can’t be any shortcuts when it comes to your ideas and your goals.

5. What drove you crazy when building your business?

HD: The first two years after thinking of the idea for Rudder were the most frustrating for me. I knew I had a great idea on my hands but I didn’t know what steps to take next in finding someone to work with and build a partnership with. Once Steve and I started working together, the frustrations were more tiny bumps in the road and being excited for the release. It’s so important to keep an open line of communication between you and your partner so things never drive you too crazy. Talking about issues as soon as they come up helps get problems solved as quickly as possible.

6. What motivates you to keep going? What do you do when you hit a block?

Steve Coffey: I think a lot of what motivates me to keep going is simply the love of doing what we do. I really love engineering, and working to build a product that previously wasn’t there. We’re breaking a lot of new ground with Rudder, so I frequently hit roadblocks on the engineering side, problems to which the solutions aren’t immediately obvious. In those situations, I’ve found that the best thing to do is honestly just go for a quick walk around the block. Usually, when I return I find that I’m able to look at the problem in a new light and find the solution. When Hannah and I are struggling together on a problem, like how to design a specific component or how to tackle an aspect of our marketing strategy, we’ll think of a few options and sleep on it. I think it’s really important to not rush decision-making or cut corners when solving tough problems.

7. If you were to start again, what would you do differently?

SC: It’s hard to say, because we’ve learned so much in the process and, yes, made a lot of mistakes. I think the one thing that I wish we would have done differently is not try to perfect every aspect of the app before releasing it. A big idea that I’m really keen about is failing fast, meaning getting your product to market ASAP and just determining if it’s something people want before investing too much time in it. I think in the future and on our next project, we’ll try to focus on iterating quickly and getting a minimum product in people’s hands before spending the time to really build it out.

8. Do you have any habits or routines, which help you in your working life?

SC: I try to eat a good breakfast and spend some part of my morning reading. Usually, it’s the news, but I often read publications like FastCompany to stay up to date with other things happening in the world of tech, or the world at large. I think it’s really important to stay current with trends, as well as current events, to not only to stay relevant but also to provide a source of inspiration.

9. What book are you reading, or writing now?

SC: I’m a huge history nerd, so right now I’m reading a history of the Panama Canal by David McCullough, it’s really interesting.

HD: I really like to read about things related to design or entrepreneurship so I’m really enjoying, Getting There: A Book of Mentors by Gillian Zoe Segal. This book is great because it tells the stories of countless successful entrepreneurs, sharing their hardships and lessons they’ve learned along the way. It’s a really great reference knowing that all things worth doing are worth working and fighting for.

10. Where do you see your business in five years, and how will you get there?

SC: This is kind of a cop-out answer, but I think it’s almost too early to say. I’d love to see us move into the connected lighting space, working with products like Philips Hue light bulbs and provide a data source for cities to find out where their citizens are walking at night, in order to improve their infrastructure.

11. If you weren’t working on Rudder, what would you be doing?

SC: I would probably be working on a project much less interesting or relevant. Maybe computing increasingly high prime numbers or something stupid like that. I really appreciate Hannah for her ability to think of fresh ideas and new approaches to old concepts, so I wouldn’t be anywhere without her as a teammate.

12. Tell Springwise a secret…

SC: I went to my cousin’s wedding when I was 8, and I took a fingerful of frosting from the wedding cake. To this day they still don’t know it was me.

13. How did you get your initial round of funding to get your company off the ground?

SC: Hannah and I have been fortunate enough to not have to spend time fundraising. We’ve been able to get away thus far without any outside funds, since our costs are so low. However, I think that will change in the coming months as we begin to roll the app out.

14. How do you feel about your journey ahead and do you have any wise words for aspiring entrepreneurs?

SC: Hannah and I are very excited about continuing to develop Rudder and use it to do new and exciting things. For any aspiring entrepreneurs, never underestimate the power of great teammates, coffee, and a good breakfast.

You can read more about Rudder here.