Fall Down 7 Times, Get Up 8

How my martial arts skills helped me build an app against impossible odds

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Me during my Ninjutsu Shodan test (first level black belt) at Studio City Martial Arts in Los Angeles, CA, 2006 | photo by Stanley Appleman

It’s been a big week for Pretty Deadly Self Defense this past week, and while our Sunday Cuppa feature is usually dedicated to more in-depth discussions about what’s going on in the world, we need to take a step back and appreciate just how momentous our accomplishment this week really is.

Two years ago, we decided to design an app. The idea was to make self defense accessible to people who don’t have access to regular self defense classes: due to work or study hours, type of job, racial, religious, gender stigma, location, or disability barriers.

We wanted to encourage people to learn basic self defense moves at their own pace, in the comfort of their own space. We decided to take 10 of our techniques that we thought would be most useful for daily life, and put them in a video-based app. Sounds simple, right? Ha.

Back in 2018, I worked with Pretty Deadly grad and engineer Inés Seiler to create the basic concept and structure. Once we had that down, we created a pitch deck and Inés and I were invited to present at a pitch fest open mike at a start-up incubator here in Berlin.

Every presentation had 5 minutes, but the first few people helped themselves to 10 minutes each, so subsequent pitches were cut down to 3 minutes. Unfortunately, quite a few people ahead of us decided to continue to help themselves to more than their allotted time; by the time it was our turn, we had 1 minute to pitch our app to an audience of investors who were bored and restless and ready for lunch.

It was the first set-back of many to come.

At that same pitch fest, we were paired with two investor pool reps for “speed dating” sessions. Each rep dismissed us with “ask your family and friends” for money, and “try crowdfunding” — ironic, as one of the investor pools actually worked as a crowdfunding platform.

Strikes 2 and 3, all in one day.

Now, in baseball, it’s three strikes and you’re out and for most people that might have been the case. But one of the most important lessons I learned in martial arts is patience and perseverance.

So on we went.

I thought it would make sense to partner with female developers and coders, and spent the next two months reaching out to several female-only coding and developer groups, only to receive some general enthusiasm, but no actual connection.

Is there such a thing as Strike 4? Or are we in knock-out rounds now?

My dad’s death was not a surprise as he had been engaged in a swiftly losing battle with cancer since the year before. But it all happened so fast, and so devastatingly, that there was just not way to prepare for such a profound loss. He was my second parent to die, and now, with no parents and no family of my own, I felt completely untethered to anything at all.

Once again, my martial arts training helped me through this most difficult time. I had learned, when learning how to fall, to never reach for the ground because the ground was always there and I would find it anyway. No matter how untethered and lost I felt, I remembered that the ground was always beneath my feet, where it always was.

Our next step was to try the crowdfunding after all, even though none of us had the time or capacity to run a crowdfunding campaign. We ran it anyway, and… raised 1% of our total amount needed. What we didn’t know is that most crowdfunding campaigns start offline a month early to seed their campaign with an opening nest egg to entice new funders. It looks like a campaign raises $10k in the first few hours, but that money is usually already there.

Not a lot of people were believing in us at this point, which was understandable. But we did have one strong supporter behind us: GoDaddy Germany. GoDaddy had reached out to us earlier that year; they were interested in supporting local businesses that use the GoDaddy platform as they grow across Europe. GoDaddy learned about our app, and connected us with Felix Koehler Film, another GoDaddy Germany customer they thought would be great partners for shooting our app videos.

(GoDaddy actively fosters a supportive network between the users of its platform in the same way Pretty Deadly Self Defense fosters a supportive network between our participants: encouraging workshops, new ventures, partnerships and friendships).

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From our Pretty Deadly Presents: Calligraphy workshop, part of a series of workshops we host showcasing the talents of our amazing participants (because empowered women empower women :).

GoDaddy was right: Felix was the perfect partner for our videos. He asked smart, sensitive questions during our first meeting, and totally jumped on board the idea of creating videos that were visually easy to follow for the hearing impaired, and offered clear audio instruction for the visually impaired.

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Felix Koehler & crew arriving in Berlin for our first day of shooting.

So while we were still recovering from our 5th knock-out, we shot our app videos. Felix and his team, Luke and Laura, came to Berlin and we shot the video over the course of three days, with the help of actual participants from the Pretty Deadly program, and a couple of good-natured and talented stuntmen, thanks to our friends at Stunning Stunts.

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Me & our video team: the crew from Felix Koehler Film, stuntman Marco Albrecht, and our wonderful Deadlies

After the videos wrapped, we were put in touch with a new development team. At our first meeting, the lead developer offered this challenge: he said he’d studied martial arts for 10 years, so why did I think I could teach self defense through an app. I told him I’ve been practicing for 20 years, still actively teach, been teaching self defense for 10 years, and I’m a violent crime survivor, so… ?

The next developers we found seemed like a great match. A female-run company that specialized in adding chat functions to apps (something the previous developers told us was not possible). We worked with them for months, mostly in a tug of war over design, and parted ways after the missed deadlines became too many to ignore.

And then Corona hit.

One of the other important lessons I’ve learned from martial arts is the art of being able to adapt — that nothing is ever static, but always in motion, and we are in motion too. It means while you may hold on to your vision, the route you take to get there may need to change, adapt, evolve.

For the Pretty Deadly App, we already had the design, the UX flow, and all the content. We just needed to drop it into an app. The quarantine time gave me the opportunity to do some research, and I found Good Barber, basically a Wordpress-like template for mobile apps. It’s exactly what I was hoping to find.

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Video shoot for Pretty Deadly Mobile App, feat. stuntman Alois Knapp, in Berlin 2019

But I’m a martial artist, a storyteller, a self defense instructor… but not an app developer, so I needed a little help putting all these pieces together. Again, thanks to Corona, so many developers were out of work and looking for anything, I had my pick of talent to choose from. But I also had learned my lessons with previous developers, naysayers, and disbelievers: I needed someone who could see the use, the potential, and the point of what we were doing immediately; someone I didn’t have to convince, and someone who didn’t believe they knew my users better than me.

And that’s how I found Smiffy.

Matthew Smith calls himself a generalist: someone who had a good base of knowledge across a broad spectrum of tech, can adapt his skills to suit each job, and quickly learn new ones to enhance individual projects. He’s been the perfect partner in this journey. He tackled the project with interest, enthusiasm and expertise, and it’s thanks to him that we were able to get back up one more time.

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Me & my teacher, Sensei Chadwick Minge at his school, The Dojo in Covington, Louisiana 2019

Fall down 7 times, get up 8.

Our Pretty Deadly Mobile App is now in the Google Play store and available for free download. You can learn techniques, get little jolts of empowerment, reach out to other users, and even find open training sessions (app parties) or courses near you, and register directly from the app. There’s even a suggestion box to send us your feedback and let us know how and what to do better for the next version.

Now that we’ve finally got the right combination of people, skills, platforms and vision in place, we’re aiming for the next versions of the Pretty Deadly Mobile App to be one and done.

You can download the Pretty Deadly Mobile App directly from the Google Play store here:

Written by

Producer and host of the bi-monthly podcast, Artipoeus: Art You Can Hear, and founder of Pretty Deadly Self Defense. www.artipoeus.com / www.prettydeadly.org

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