Born on the Trail
When Matt Smith ventured up to Canada with a group of friends for a mountain biking trip in 2016, his intention wasn’t to invent something new. The trip was supposed to be an extended break from his career, a chance for his engineer-brain to switch off for a bit. The Bend, Oregon, native was practically born in the woods, and he often finds insight into his own life as he fishes, camps, skis, and mountain bikes the Cascades Mountains in his backyard. But while he was hitting the pedals in Canada nearly three years ago, he had an epiphany: the world needs a tool to help make trips like this happen more often, and he was just the man to build it.
The idea of an adventure planning tool wasn’t completely new to Matt. A decade prior he created Perpetual Adventure, a medley of separate online services scraped together to help plan group camping trips, and share the photos afterwards. The endeavor consisted of a website, a Google shared calendar, and a separate subscription to a public photo sharing service. The end result was serviceable, but proved too cumbersome for most users. After a year, when Matt saw that it hadn’t generated any interested, he shut the site down.
“I should have kept going with Perpetual Adventure,” he says, thinking back, “but I was always too busy.” Back then Matt had just started Hatch Product Development, where he designed and built products for a variety of clients over the course of ten years. Two side projects soon came to occupy what free time he had left. He co-founded a medical device startup, where he designed an aftermarket device to assist parents with nebulizer treatments for their children. He also helped Oregon State University develop a natural gas engine compressor, a project which bloomed into a startup of its own.
By 2016 both startups had come to an end—the first foundered while the second flourished—leaving Matt with spare time on his hands. He decided it was an opportunity for reevaluation, to take a break from building other people’s ideas, and to figure out the next step in his career. A short hiatus would also give him an opportunity to commit to a mountain biking excursion in the South Chilcotin Mountains of Canada with a group of nine close friends.
It was during the organization of that trip that Matt remembered Perpetual Adventure, and why he tried to create it in the first place. “I was looking at the email string between all of us for the big trip. There were 150 messages between us all, and I was just trying to figure out what I supposed to bring.” Preparing for such a trip, thought Matt, should be exciting, not anxiety-inducing.
When the trip finally arrived, Matt dug in to the adventure, shredding miles of trail during the day, and sharing laughs and stories around the fire at night. In the hours spent riding, two thoughts remained in the back of his mind. He’d have to figure out what to work on when he returned home, and he would have to get serious about it. But there was something else brewing, a third, nagging inspiration that came to light after the frustration of the planning phase for this very trip. “I need to fire up Perpetual Adventure again.”
After a few days of fleshing the idea out from the seat of his bike, Matt couldn’t keep it to himself any longer. He spilled his intentions to his friends around the campfire. He would create the best tool ever for group trip-planning, only this time in the form of a smartphone application. “I told them all I was going to do it. And everyone was supportive from the start. It was validation. It got me started.”
When he returned home, his wife Cheri soon jumped aboard, agreeing to invest the family’s savings into the project. After settling on a new name—Tribe Pilot— the two began searching the web to find out if there was a demand for such a tool. They also sent out a short survey to a group of friends and family. The email took on a life of its own as people forwarded it to other friends and family. Matt's inbox was soon brimming with suggestions and ideas. “We got back answers that were paragraphs longs,” he recalls. “With that information, we came up with a list of features that were do-able in an app. It was our first roadmap.”
The first version of Tribe Pilot, released February of 2018 for iOS and Android, was a serviceable attempt to meet that list of needs, and the app generated some interest among users searching for such a tool. In that first year, people discovered and downloaded Tribe Pilot, creating more than 850 trips from 45 states, to destinations that included 26 countries. “There is definitely a demand for what Tribe Pilot provides,” says Matt.
But the app had a lot to be desired. As with most new software, there were bugs to iron out, improvements to be made, and additional features to be added. Change was painfully slow to come. In retrospect, Matt credits the decision to rely on an overseas developer to create his brainchild to be the problem. “We could identify the problems, but we couldn’t fix or change them. We had to submit the changes to the developer and wait.” The average development cycle for a smartphone app is two weeks. In one nightmarish exchange, Matt had to wait 17 weeks for requested changes to be made. “That was the trigger. I realized we can’t do this. So we pulled the plug, and started a parallel product development path.”
Turning to his all-local team of software professionals in Bend, Matt started from scratch. He oversaw an entirely new app, built from the ground up, using what they learned from the limitations of versions 1 and 2. Today, version 3 of Tribe Pilot is better and prettier, and if it has any problems, the team can dig into its engine themselves to make changes.
It’s been a long journey for both creator and creation. Forged in his passion for the outdoors, Matt's spark of inspiration has grown into a reality, but he’s only just getting started. When asked what he hopes to see in the future for himself and for Tribe Pilot, his thoughts return to that 2016 trip to the Canadian Chilcotins, and the 150 emails that got it started. “That’s the biggest hurdle. You get together with your friends for some beers, and someone at the table says, ‘We could do a trip together this summer.’ Everyone is all for it there at the table, but most of the time those trips disappear with the last beer. It’s just too much work and stress setting it up. I want to help make those trips happen.”