Dan Katcher’s head is full of great ideas. He currently holds five patents, and last year he founded and launched Winebars, which reimagines the way people collect and store their wine. But you might say his true love, other than his lovely wife, is digital product development. That’s what led him to launch Rocket Farm Studios, the award-winning app development company that is experiencing tremendous growth in the Boston area and beyond.
Here he tells us how he got here and where he thinks he’s headed.
Q: Tell us a little about the path that brought you here.
A: I graduated from Tufts back in the 80s, with a degree in electrical engineering and computer science. After a short stint working in defense, I went back to school and earned my masters and Ph.D. in computer engineering at Carnegie Mellon.
From there it was a string of positions, largely as a technical lead or Chief Technology Officer. I think I must have worked in seven startups in 10 years, driving strategy and growth and helping get companies to the point where they’d be acquired, and my services would no longer be needed. In other cases, the business would just come to an end, and I would move on to a new challenge.
I learned so much during that time about how startups operate and how agility and flexibility are mandatory when it comes to development. And I also learned that a small team can do so much if you have the right talent and processes in place—and if you are willing to get out of people’s way.
It was around 2008, when I knew I had to do my own thing, but I didn’t have a plan beyond that.
Q: Did the release of the iPhone drive your decision?
A: The iPhone had been announced in January of 2007, so not too long before my big life-changing decision. Both the phone and apps were gaining momentum, but there was only one company here in the Boston area that was consulting on iPhone apps.
So, I reached out to Rich Curtis, a good friend and exceptional programmer and product person. On this random Wednesday, we decided to become an iPhone consulting company to help businesses capitalize on this smartphone app explosion.
We didn’t even have a name yet, when I rangled an invitation from Scott Kirsner with the Boston Globe to be part of a consumer-based round table. I introduced myself and was like “Hey, we don’t have a name yet, but this is what we’re doing.”
Crazy enough, we ended up getting our first two clients. It was about a week later, and Richard and I were having a few beers, and he said, “How about Rocket Farm,” and the company was born.
Q: What was it like switching from a technical role to consulting and leadership?
A: I was a hardcore software developer for a long time. I wrote a ton of software. But prior to Rocket Farm, I had advanced into roles, like CTO or director, and I was doing less and less coding.
With Rocket Farm, I got right back into it. I started developing apps and writing code again, and I did that for a while as we were establishing our place in the Boston market. Then Swift came along, and I didn’t want to learn a new programming language. So, I transitioned out of coding and became CEO. But I still love it.
While I’d be lying if I said I don’t sometimes miss the nitty gritty hands-on work, I am doing what I want to be doing, and I want to keep doing it.
Q: What makes Rocket Farm so special?
A: We have this incredible network of talented people who are committed to their craft. We have seasoned, top-notch programmers who thrive under our business model where they can work on a wide range of projects. But we also have incredible designers and project managers. Then we have this whole team of collaborators at Full Cortex, our sister company, who are driving our growth strategies and who partner with us to drive our clients’ growth.
We can tap the best talent for any given product to ensure the best results. We have many moving parts, but we’ve figured out how to move and work seamlessly together. And that’s honestly one of the main reasons why we can take products to market so much quicker than the other guys. A strong, disciplined approach, coupled with top-tier talent makes us unstoppable.
Beyond that, we are nice people. We are professional and organized, but we have fun. We believe that creating great software should be fun, and the relationship between service provider and customer should not be filled with stress and anxiety. When our clients know our people are amazing, our process is thorough and disciplined, and that we work collaboratively, they can relax. We can focus on making great software as a team. Too many organizations end up in stressful or uncomfortable relationships with service providers or vendors. It doesn’t have to be that way.
Q: What’s next for Rocket Farm Studios?
After many years of doing this, we have gotten really great at writing software. We are hardcore engineering. That is our core. We’re not fluffy at all. We take on big challenges, and we’ve done some excellent stuff that I am proud of. I think what sets us apart, though, is that we center our development approach around product fit and market fit.
We aren’t just digital product designers or developers. Before we even start thinking about design, we work with you to understand if your product has a place in the market and if it has the potential to be one of those apps people can’t live without. The bottom line is we don’t want to build applications and digital products that fail. And every aspect of our approach helps to ensure that they don’t.
It’s been a long journey, but we have hit our stride, and I am excited for the future. We’re taking on new exciting clients all the time, and we’re always looking for that next big concept to take to market.
Q: So, what does Dan Katcher do for fun?
A: I am married, and I have a teenage daughter, a son in college, another son who just graduated from college this past spring, and two dogs, so I spend as much time as I can with them.
I love to play music every day, and my sons and I are always making up, recording and sharing our songs with one another. And we play a ton of Twiddle—my personal favorite—Phish and the Grateful Dead.
We also love escaping to the Cape as often as we can.