Updated: September 5, 2012 6:03AM
A mashup innovation called Pinstagram that combines the hugely popular desktop app Pinterest with photo-sharing app Instagram got its start when web designer Pek Pongpaet, who grew up in Wilmette, joked to colleagues about the potentially powerful combination.
“The more I thought about it, I realized the mashup could be useful, and they are two of the hottest and highly valued companies going,” said Pongpaet, a native of Thailand and alumnus of the University of Illinois at Chicago who now lives in Silicon Valley.
After all, Instagram’s marketplace of more than 50 million wanted to see and share their photos on the web. And Pinterest, with 12 million registered users and 20.3 million visitors in May, is known to captivate users for hours at a time “pinning” their favorite photos and images about events, hobbies and obsessions.
Pongpaet started working on the mashup idea on a Friday night and had a working version by Saturday at noon. Pongpaet, 35, and colleague Brandon Leonardo, 28, finished the project that Saturday evening in early May.
The result: Pinstagram, a free web portal, went viral, with the most obsessive users reporting to Pongpaet that they were on the site 24/7. Users sign in to Pinstagram and allow it to access their Instagram social network and see their photos in full web size on a Pinterest-style layout. They can then “pin” their photos on Pinterest. The only downside is that no new Instagram photos can be added through Pinstagram.
“It’s not so much about what we created,” Pongpaet said. “When you create a product that enhances people’s experience, and people really love to put photos on Instagram, they get really excited.”
Pongpaet, Leonardo and Dante Perrucci are hoping for similarly swift reaction to their full-time business, Tapisto, a paid service that hosts and analyzes mobile websites for small businesses.
The three started Tapisto because they saw that many small businesses were missing out on the fast-growing mobile-search market.
“More than 1 billion searches were done on mobile devices in 2011, and in a year and a half, mobile Internet traffic is expected to surpass desktop searching,” Pongpaet noted.
Seth Elliott, chief strategy officer for Engagement Media Technologies and a curator of a weekly digest of Silicon Valley startup events, said the social network phenomenon has become a “seeding ground” for such mashups.
“Pinstagram can afford to be nimble and quick,” he said. “That’s part of the value of an innovation culture.”
“The speed of the development community is super-fast today,” Elliott said.
Indeed, computer coding, such as the kind Pongpaet did in creating Pinstagram, is becoming an increasingly valuable tool not only for getting a job, but for entrepreneurs who want to upgrade their skills and talk knowledgeably with their own web designers.
Pongpaet said though he studied computer science and electrical engineering at the University of Illinois, the pace of technology moves so quickly that developers now must “learn how to learn.”
“Most of what I do these days involves user experience and product design. All of that was self taught on the job and studying on my own,” he said.
Two women active in the Chicago tech scene say they took a course at Code Academy, a $6,000, 11-week program started by two Northwestern University alumni, to keep their skills at the bleeding edge. Code Academy, located at the 1871 tech center in the Merchandise Mart, started on Oct. 3, 2011, with 35 students. Code Academy just started its summer session with 85 students and courses in web development, user experience design and beginning and advanced HTML/CSS.
Brittany Barran-Stanley, a 33-year-old art director and graphic designer who lives in Evanston, said her Code Academy experience, including one-on-one support from founders Mike McGee and Neal Sales-Griffin, gave her the skills to speak with authority about the web-user’s needs.
“It’s easy as a designer to say, ‘This page looks beautiful,’ but I now know how to do the research that’s vital to creating an effective product,” Barran-Stanley said.
Indeed, among the 10 most sought-after technology professionals are Java, mobile, .NET, software and web developers, according to a survey by Dice, a New York-based technology jobs board.
Jennifer Thomas, a 31-year-old Logan Square resident who created Travel720.com to help college students raise money for and share the experiences of studying abroad, said her coursework enabled her to take charge of her site’s look and user experience.
Travel720.com started as a combination “gift registry” and “Kmart layaway” program in which college students tell friends and family about their study-abroad plans, and seek fundraising help.
“Students have a web page in which they can share their journey, post photos, show how they are budgeting and ask people to match their fundraising efforts or help fill in the budget gaps,” Thomas said.
“The site is geared toward students who enjoy being resourceful but who need encouragement” to take the leap of traveling and studying outside of the United States, she said. Travel720 won six months’ free office space at Chicago business incubator TechNexus, 200 S. Wacker, in last year’s Chicago Lean Startup Challenge, and is competing again this year.
Thomas is now recruiting local college and university alumni and social-mission travelers to contribute money toward students’ study-abroad efforts.
And she is using her Code Academy experience to ensure that the site does what she and users want.
Thomas said she realized she needed to learn how to code and delve into how people use websites after a bumpy relationship with a web developer for her site.
“I realized I needed to learn the (coding) language and better manage the relationship,” she said.
Now, Thomas will redesign her site with help from her former Code Academy alumni and will include new features such as students’ first-person accounts and recommended resources for study abroad.