Saying Goodbye to the Passport Apps

My wife and I went on a date to Yankee Stadium one summer afternoon a few years back. It wasn’t the game that left the biggest memory in my mind, but the number of fans in the stands. All 54,251 of them.

I can remember looking around and saying to my wife, “these many people use my apps.” It was inspiring to see in that perspective, despite the fact that, in reality, it’s a relatively small number compared to the wider ecosystem.

What was most impressive to me was that I had created something that that many people found value in and decided to devote real estate on their phones to. I built something from concept to reality, taking me out of the dreamer category into the executioner one.

But, just like when you sleep, all dreams come to an end. Heading into 2020 I made the decision to shut these apps, Brewery Passport and Winery Passport, down — this despite that aforementioned number growing by several multiples in the years since that day in the Bronx. I had been thinking about doing so for the last year, but never could pull the trigger. This time, it wasn’t a tough decision.

Prior to Winery Passport, I had a successful word game in the App Store. LetterSlider was a Top 100 word game in 105 countries. I was looking for my next app idea when I visited a winery on another date with my wife — the main point of this article isn’t about taking your spouse on a date, but maybe it should be! 

The winery owner asked if we had our paper passport book to stamp. The book featured wineries across New Jersey. We didn’t. But that got me thinking: Why can’t this physical book be on your most personal device, the phone? And why does it have to be exclusive to a single state?

I launched Winery Passport in 2013, then Brewery Passport later that year. The goal was to help consumers discover wineries and breweries across the United States, then eventually Canada and beyond. Wine and beer enthusiasts could stamp their passport to record their visits, then store details about each tasting, and even connect with friends to share these details.

The apps were a success in their respective industries. They were featured in Forbes (multiple times), Food & Wine Magazine (which called it the best travel wine app), Fortune, Bloomberg, Wine Enthusiast and many others. Apple also featured Winery and Brewery Passport among the best Food & Wine apps in the App Store for years.

One of the highlights for me, however, has to be being asked to deliver the keynote at the annual Winery Marketing & Tourism Conference in Texas in 2016. I can still remember how much I practiced that 45-minute speech, which I started off by disarming the audience of hundreds by explaining that I don’t pretend to know more about wine than them, but I do know mobile.

What else? Well, the apps partnered with hundreds of wineries and breweries to promote their businesses in front of audiences of passionate consumers who were looking for places visit. Saddling up in a tasting room in Napa where they knew and used the app was a great feeling. Sure, there were those that didn’t get it and would ask to be removed (to which I would always ask if they were also trying to get removed from Google Maps), but that number was small.

I also made some amazing connections and friends as a result. People across the industry who knew wine (so many great sit downs in San Francisco) and beer, understood technology and were trying to advance industries that were (and still very much) are lagging many others in terms of marketing advancements.

Then there were the users, who were passionately sending in new listings or making sure the apps were updated with ones that closed or moved. I can remember outsourcing the gathering of the initial lists of wineries and breweries when we first started out. I began with a handful of states and hoped to move my way across the country in about a year — getting it right before hitting California. The users couldn’t wait that long and we had all 50 states there in weeks. From there, it was the users who helped maintain the 12,000+ listings across both apps. I’m still amazed that some users had more than 500 stamps!

Building the Passport apps was also a tremendous learning experience. As I tell my classes at New York University, don’t let your 9-to-5 define and prevent you from learning and creating opportunities for where you want to go. There are 16 other hours in the day to make your goals a reality. 

I taught myself how to code, manage the outsourced design and engineering resources, and app marketing, among about every other responsibility you could imagine. The entire Passport backend system was custom built so we could manage all the content dynamically and not have to continually submit app releases. That forced me to learn the Amazon Web Services infrastructure and numerous other services. I’m confident that the way the technology was built was constructed the right way. I’m also just as confident that this experience made me significantly much better at my jobs than I would be without.

So why was it an easy decision? Because it was time. I couldn’t devote the attention to the apps to make them the best for the tens of thousands of people who use them each month. I had stopped selling to wineries and breweries, which was where a majority of the revenue would come in to offset the expenses. 

My day job has me busy beyond any 9-to-5, and throw teaching and a family in there, and it became about priorities. But I’m not done building. I absolutely loved the experience and am confident there is something else, something bigger, that will come from this. I don’t know what it is right now — I have some ideas — but this is the start of that next chapter.

I also started to realize that you have to say goodbye to the past in order to move forward into the future. That’s what I’m hoping to achieve. 

And while the apps might not be gone for good — there are several parties interested in acquiring them and keeping them alive — they were a fantastic experience. Cheers to that.
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