This Startup Puts a Wildflower Encyclopedia in Your Pocket

High Country Apps helps users identify plants in the great outdoors

18 January 2016

Whether you plan to hike the mountains of Yosemite National Park in California or take a nature walk through the Texas prairies, you might consider bringing a guidebook if you want to learn about the plant life you’ll see. To find the name of a flower, however, you’d have to flip through pages until you find a picture that resembles what you’re looking at—and some of the guides are expensive and bulky to carry around.

That’s why IEEE Member Katie Gibson created mobile apps to make it easier for people to identify wildflowers on the go. As a bonus, getting the information does not require Internet access; it all resides on a smartphone. “I love being in the outdoors,” Gibson says. “There weren’t a lot of good botany apps available when I started out five years ago.”

Gibson founded High Country Apps in 2011 in Bozeman, Mont. Her first app was Flora of the Yellowstone Region, and she has since expanded her inventory of nearly a dozen apps to cover wildflowers—flowers that have not been seeded intentionally and grow in the wild—in other national parks, including Glacier and Yosemite, as well as statewide apps for Colorado, Idaho, Oregon, Texas, and Washington. Tens of thousands of people, including hiking groups and students on field trips, have downloaded the apps, which sell for US $4.99 to $9.99 each.

IN THE WILDERNESS

Hiking groups and students on field trips have used the apps, which are far more interactive and user-friendly than books or pamphlets. The apps help users identify plants based on what they observe. Using the Search by Characteristics feature, hikers can indicate, for example, that the flower is purple and bell-shaped, has six petals, and is flowering in June. Those observations narrow down the possibilities from hundreds to just three or four, Gibson says.

The app contains quality photos of each flower. It also has background information such as under what conditions the flower grows and reproduces, and how it may have been used culturally and medicinally. Gibson acquired the photos and information for each plant by partnering with authors, photographers, and university faculty members who specialize in botany in different regions of the United States. In exchange, they receive a percentage of the app’s sales.

“With a tap of a button, users can learn so much about what they see around them,” Gibson says. “It’s like having a personal tour guide.” The apps include a glossary, links to information about plant families, maps, and best locations and months for viewing wildflowers. The Yellowstone Outdoors app also contains geolocation maps that point out attractions and services in the vicinity.

To her surprise, Gibson found that people from around the world are downloading the apps. Some of them likely will never visit the locations, she figures, but might want to learn more about wildflowers, and they like the photos. She says she doesn’t believe her apps will replace all the details available in big flora books, but she is providing a helpful tool for the general public.

A BUDDING ENTREPRENEUR

Gibson had been looking for a project to help her learn how to build mobile apps. She got the idea for her startup after she attended a book reading of Flora of Montana’s Gallatin Region: Greater Yellowstone’s Northwest Corner. She met the author, Whitney Tilt, who was so intrigued by the possibility of turning his book into an app that he ended up founding the company with her.

At her consulting company, MountainWorks, Gibson was a software developer for several startups at the time, including Texbase, which develops software for the textile industry, and TicketPrinting, which lets users design and print their own tickets and invitations for an event.

Through her consulting work, Gibson observed the many roles that contribute to a company’s success, particularly marketing. To promote High Country Apps, she used an old-fashioned strategy: writing news releases and sending them to media outlets. The startup received coverage from, among others, The Denver Post, Yahoo! Travel, and Idaho Public Radio. Museums and universities also promoted the apps.

Fortified by her computer science background, she taught herself to build the apps from online tutorials, turning her passion into a full-time job. Along the way, she brushed up on digital marketing skills such as using search engine optimization techniques so that people looking for apps on botany would find hers. She advertises with Google AdWords, which displays targeted advertising based on search terms. “New tools and social networks are constantly emerging.” she says. “I study them as I go.”

Gibson enjoys being an entrepreneur, she says, and likes working directly with customers to get immediate feedback, which helps her improve her products. She recommends starting out simple: “Sometimes people make products too complicated, and users have a hard time understanding what to do with them. Get the heart of the idea out there first and then let users tell you how to make it better.”

This is the first article in a new series being introduced this year featuring IEEE members who have launched their own ventures.

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