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Inspiring millenials
to reconnect
with nature.

Jan 2014 - March 2016
NYC + Austin + San Francisco
Team: Bastiaan Marinus van de Weerd, Rey Joaquin, Ana Maria Moreno
My role: Co-Founder, CEO, CPO, UI/UX, Creative Direction

Studying Sustainability and Environmental Management at Harvard, I came across various research suggesting that exposure to outdoors makes people happier, healthier and also makes them want to intrinsically protect the natural world. Other studies also suggested a link between urban nature-detached living, wasteful behaviors and climate change. I was intrigued - could it be that the solution to climate change was simply in getting urbanites into the outdoors again?

In a nutshell:

  • Social mission: inspiring urbanites to reconnect with nature again
  • Started a mobile app company called Wonders
  • Lean, iterative, human-centered design approach
  • Raised funding from Techstars (<1% acceptance rate)
  • CEO, CPO, developed UI, UX and creative direction
  • Managed a remote dev team in Chile
  • Developed a healthy community of 250+ content contributors
  • Partnered with top outdoor brands and photographers
  • After iterations, 50% used the app weekly, 15% daily
  • 5-star app store rating, rave user and press reviews
  • Currently selling to a large outdoor brand
  • Got a funny story involving emailing Tim Cook and getting help

1. Inspiration

Building upon research suggesting that exposure to outdoors makes people happier, healthier as well as it makes them want to intrinsically protect nature, I was intrigued - could it be that the solution to climate change was simply to get urbanites into the outdoors again?

To better understand the relationship between living in the city, going to the outdoors and the environmental attitudes, I have done a considerable amount of desk research; but also spoke to over 20 people in various parts of NYC. They spanned across various age, cultural and economic groups. Some were friends, others were strangers I would randomly talk to at Starbucks or bars.

It was crucial to understand how often, why and how they got out of the city. But what I also found really interesting was learning about their daily lives - what it was like to live like them. In some cases I even visited their dwellings and places they worked at. In one case, I joined this young guy and his friend when they went skateboarding together. It was interesting to learn what media they consumed, how they talked to one another and what worried them on the daily basis.

What I learned during those interviews was really surprising - very few of them had done any form of nature-related activity in the past 3-5 years! Even my most pessimistic predictions were not that bad.

One of the main reasons they brought up was fear. People said they were worried that - among other possible dangers - they would "get lost", "hurt", "dirty" or "eaten by bears".

Another reason they claimed was lack of available information about transportation, routes, supplies etc. Actually that information was widely available.

However, I felt like the real reason was the lack of predisposition towards outdoors. There was a striking relationship between outdoor attitudes as adults and frequency of doing outdoor trip as kids. If you grew up in a rural environment or spent time playing outdoors as a kid, it was likely to be a bigger part of your life as an adult. Further desk research confirmed that.

For most people, nature was an abstract, distant concept.

2. Ideation

During this phase, I’ve put together a small team and together we considered a number of possible solutions that would influence the attitudes of these young, urban millennials.

We knew we had to do it through their medium of choice - mobile. We also found that “coolness” was a big behavior driver for these young urban folks. So the challenge was to make the outdoors seem cool again. Apart from doing our own app, we also considered various ideas including Instagram/Pinterest/Snapchat campaigns, smartphone photo competitions and other ideas (my co-founder Ana was heading digital strategy for LVMH at Havas and knew a lot about this stuff).

We also found some brands with similar goals and wanted to get them involved. That’s how we became friends with Poler. Those conversations proved to be crucial as we discovered that there was a fundamental cultural shift happening in this industry - the hero was no longer the middle-aged white guy at the top of Denali with $10k worth of gear; but the young, casual, urban camper taking a weekend-trip to have fun with friends. The new kids (Poler, TOPO, Iron & Resin etc.) were celebrating the casual aspect of the outdoors and their main form of marketing was aspirational content. Mainly in the form of visual stories, distributed through social media. They were taking over the industry.

That’s when it hit us - these companies needed a better way to tell their stories and wanted to sell products through them. If we helped them, we’d have access to high-quality inspirational content which we could then use to inspire urbanites to go outdoors. We would have a stable supply of content, the brands’ promotional capabilities and a business model in one package.

Just to make sure we were thinking in the right direction, we made some visual sketches of what the idea could look like (using Sketch and Flinto),  and then showed it to brands and some of the people we talked to before. Brands were in and were asking to white-label the app (good sign), and the users loved what they saw so much they couldn’t stop scrolling through the mocked content feed. Confident that we were onto something, we were stoked to start building the first version. 

One of the numerous idea sketches. Over the years, I got 5 more Moleskine notebooks with pages filled with sketches, notes , ideas and user flows like this one.

One of the early tech architecture planning files
(used for remote dev team comms to determine how to build the app)

Remotely communicating the requirements to developers in Chile using detailed flow charts and then going over them together by phone.

One of the early Sketch mocks we used to pitch to brands and investors

Version 0 Mocks we used to present the concept to users, brand partners and investors. Interactions and transitions were prototyped using Sketch and Flinto.

3. Implementation

The challenge was to seamlessly weave several stakeholders and design problems into one product. During the design process, we worked closely with all three groups, gathering their feedback and ensuring that they liked what we were building and found it useful.

First, there were the end users who wanted quality content and whom we desperately wanted to get into the outdoors.

Second, there were the brands that in the end actually just cared about selling more of their stuff.

Third, later we also involved bloggers and individual photographers, as we didn’t want to only work with brands and make the app feel like a giant billboard. For them, exposure and personal promotion were the key.

We now needed the funds to continue working on the concept full-time and to pay for the development. For that we applied to a number of startup accelerators, including Techstars. We knew our chances were slim (1/150 to be exact), but we didn't want to say “no” to ourselves - we wanted to let them do that for us (I probably wouldn’t have had the guts to do that, but luckily I was working with really good people who constantly challenged me). Well, after a semi-theatrical performance we put on during the selection interview (we knew we had to do it differently), Ana and I got the "Congratulations" email, packed our bags and moved to Austin, TX. Holy cow. It was real.

The development process of V1 was primarily driven by what we already knew and our product vision. We wanted to build something that we thought had the best chance of success and then get feedback on it. So after a month of searching for the right developers, and building the app in native Swift (it was brand new and still had a few bugs), in June 2015 we launched our V1. It was pretty bare bones - all we wanted to test with it was whether people would actually engage with the content in the app. Everything else was resting on this assumption so we either faked it or left it out. By then we managed to source about 300 stories and 3k quality photographs from the community of photographers, bloggers and brands that we’ve build around us. To get an idea about the level of content we were going for, check out our collaborations with Johannes Huwe, Cameron Gardner and Andre Silva.  We then presented what we’ve built during Techstars Demo Day.
  Doing things that don’t scale:sending postcards to early content contributors

Damn it felt good to get that email from Chris Burkard

Hanging out with Laird Hamilton at Outdoor Retailer
After the launch (and all the surrounding press coverage, Product Hunt features, interviews etc.), we were pretty attentive about our metrics. They were 2x better average for media apps, but we found some UX issues that we could fix. For example, we saw that people spent very little time in our Shots section (photo feed) and instead went straight to stories. So we removed it altogether. Nobody seemed to object and we saw about 30% improvement in engagement (probably because the first-time users got the app better). Right move. Then we decided to improve the UI and saw another 15% increase in engagement! Moreover, we were continuously getting emails from people telling us how much they loved our app and how it inspired them to take that surfing lesson or a trip to Yosemite that they've been planning for ages.

To search for inspiration for the UI, I went to print. After hundreds of years of commercial printing, that medium was far more evolved with visual and textual content presentation than digital, that was still trying to recover from Comic Sans. I collected a number of magazines in the outdoor/surf/lifestyle/art space that I thought were doing a really good original work with form, colors, layout, language and especially typography and photography. Saturdays Magazine, Scott Hansen (Tycho)Deus ex Machina, Pilgrim Surf Supply, Mollusk, Patagonia, Land Boys, Foster Huntington and others provided an immense source of inspiration for the creative direction of the app. 

From Saturdays Magazine Issue 4

From Saturdays Magazine Issue 4

Our lifestyle those days was a source of inspiration in itself

I spent a lot of time thinking about the choice of typography and the color scheme. Since I wanted the content to rule the visual hierarchy, the interface elements like menus had to feel strongly secondary, almost transparent. So we went with black and white for the interface elements, which balanced well with the all the colors in the photographs. It also set clear constraints and simplified the design process down the line. Black and white was not a common color scheme for mobile apps either - so it also provided some differentiation.

I then aimed to further deepen this simplicity with the choice of font. In the early days, typewriter fonts could only be capitalized or underlined - no bold, italic or weight options, imposing a limit on what you could do and forcing you to be creative working under such constraints. So we went with Prestige Elite Std that we never italicized or made bold (it was before everybody and their mother used a monospace font; we truly were one of the first onest). I generally find that imposing design limitations like this is critical to creativity and simplicity. It’s like a set of rules that the user starts to intuitively understand, and then they’re happy that you made the rules so simple.

Content colors balancing well with the simplicity of the interface elements (no worries - we would add more padding later;)

Moreover, I also really wanted to communicate the deeper spiritual, primal and enigmatic nature of being drawn to the outdoors. George Mallory has put it best when asked about his reasons for climbing Mt. Everest - “because it’s there”, he said. We can’t explain it but it’s a part of all of us. So I asked some of my favorite artists Keith Davis Young, Garrett DeRosset and Land Boys to create a set of iconography rooted in mystic symbolism that we could use for various promotional goals. We put a lot more emphasis on branding with our 2.0 release.

In the months to come, we focused our efforts on testing various monetization features. Oftentimes for these tests we would just fake it - e.g. implement only the UI and then connect it to something free and basic on the back-end (like Google Docs). Coding is your most expensive option of testing things. There’s usually a simpler, faster alternative that you can implement with minimum damage to the user experience. We would only code something if there was really no other way. Build, measure, learn, amen. Currently we’re in the process of selling the company to a big outdoor brand. Fin.
Last Techstars days
Austin, TX
4th of July team celebrations
Glacier National Park


  1. Build - Measure - Learn is the way to go
  2. Minimum Magical Product is the new MVP
  3. Without metrics you’re driving blind
  4. It’s expensive to stand out as a consumer app
  5. It’s hard to convince people to pay for content
  6. Think about your business model from the start 
  7. Be very scrappy, especially after funding
  8. Be very clear about your motivations
  9. Your team is what will make it or break it
  10. The culture of your industry has to be a good fit
  11. Have fun and take care of your mental space

Thank you for reading! Here are other projects you might find interesting to learn about:

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Designing a content-driven eCommerce experience to help women find their perfectly-fitting bra online.


Designing world’s first wave of Augmented Reality (AR) experiences.

L’Oreàl Brandstorm 

Developing a new packaging strategy for Redken for Men

Personal project 

UXKit - world’s most comprehensive kit of UX methods.

Personal project 

Storyboarding library
for Sketch.

Personal project 

Building GoPro for music

Photo stories:

 Nazare
 The Race of Gentlemen
 Environment
 U-Hauling Ass
 California


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 Resume (CV)


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Copyright (c) 2021. Martin Ahe