Merek Davis is not a coder. The developer never even made an app before 2013. Yet on his first iOS at-bat, he hit an App Store grand slam with Mextures, his photo-editing app that quickly became one of the top photo apps of the year.
Mextures is like Photoshop for your iPhone, only easier to use. The app’s editing tools and formulas let you tweak and re-tweak pics, adding light leaks, textures and color gradients that can turn even your crappiest pics into something majestic.
It’s a bona fide hit, with some of the most-followed names on Instagram using Davis’ creation. But it almost never happened.
Before Davis had aspirations to scale the app charts, he just wanted to sell digital texture packs that imitated film to the world’s top pro photographers. For weeks, he busied himself with the release of a set of high-resolution textures. He posted them online for a small price and waited for the money to roll in. It never came.
Only five copies sold, an absolute failure. Davis pulled the grungy textures off his store in defeat, but not before brilliantly deciding to give them away to Instagram friends for free, where #mextures suddenly took off and a phenomenon was born.
“I kind of always knew I wanted to make an app since I got an iPhone,” Davis told Cult of Mac. “So I approached my graphic designer buddy, who never built an app either, and we started creating the Mextures iOS app. We went through 13 revisions — the first few were terrible, completely unusable, but I thought it was amazing.”
The meteoric rise of Instagram brought an explosion of growth to iPhone photography, turning a wave of amateur photographers into filter junkies, sometimes to horrible effect. The photo-centric social network hit 150 million users by September 2013, fueling the growth of other apps like VSCO Cam and Camera+, which provided even more filters for Instagrammers to slather over pictures.
Despite the dozens of other camera apps already established, Davis saw the need for an app that would let iPhone users non-destructively edit photos, so that if you’re, say, eight steps into your editing workflow and want to tweak an early edit, you can toss it out without ruining all the other stuff you did.
As a self-proclaimed nerd since birth, Davis thought he knew what people wanted — what an interface should look like and how easy it should be to use. But making an app that would go on to win a 2013 Apple award, and turn into his full-time job, was beyond his dreams.
The #mextures hashtag has been slapped on more than 700,000 Instagram photos since Davis released his first pack of free textures that mimic blemishes of film and other natural elements, with some of the most-followed names on Instagram adopting Davis’ creation into their works of art.
“I use Mextures as a way to subtly add gradients of light and color into my photos,” popular Instagrammer Branden Harvey told Cult of Mac. “It gives them the perfect pop to capture people’s attention. I especially love when I can give the appearance of beautiful layered light on an otherwise flat photo.”
Merek makes app design and development look incredibly easy, but after a roller coaster first year creating Mextures and keeping up with the rapidly evolving app space, he’s learned it’s anything but. The biggest problem? Finding a good developer.
Living in Gilbert, Arizona, an area where flipping real estate is cooler than building apps, Davis sought help for the creation of Mextures through Google and LinkedIn, but hit a wall finding the talent and resources needed to pull off his dream app.
“I went through 18 different developers — all of them were terrible,” recounts Davis. “I was ready to call it and give up on the app when a developer told me he wanted $90K just to make one blending mode. I went on Twitter and sent out a desperate cry for help and was connected with an incredible developer named Wes Billman. For three months we’d get off our day jobs, eat dinner and then go right to work building Mextures over Skype and Google chat.”
The two-man team sweated all the tiny details. They spent inordinate amounts of time on little features and tweaks to the Mextures workflow that Davis knew photographers would demand, even though most software designers thought they were pointless, and it’s paid off.
“There are so many amazing features that enable the user to be free to express and showcase their own specific style of editing,” famed Instagrammer Matt French told Cult of Mac. “Before Mextures, editing on your iPhone was a far more limited process. It has really opened the door to out-of-the-box creativity.”
The duo released Mextures on iOS nearly a year after Merek’s first failed pack of textures, then watched their creation climb to the No. 3 spot on the paid app charts on its first day. The next day it inched up to the No. 2 spot.
“It was a huge risk,” says Davis, who says it took some work to convince his wife that it was a good idea to toss a huge chunk of their savings into developing an app. “I basically told her if I didn’t give it a shot I’d be unhappy the rest of my life and have all these ‘what ifs?’ It was one the only things in my life I knew I’d regret it if I didn’t take the jump.”
Now he’s glad he took the risk.
“Before Mextures came out, photographers weren’t crediting whose textures they use,” Davis says. “You don’t expect it. Now you can find some of the top artists in the world tagging #mextures and posting the formulas they use for others to try. Seeing that alone has made the entire experience worth it.”
Twelve months later, Mextures still sits in the top 20 paid photography apps for iOS after being labeled one of the best new apps of 2013 by Apple. All the success isn’t going to Davis’ head, though. He’s been able to quit his day job at his family’s scrapbooking empire, bringing his Billman along with him, and even though they’ve been approached to receive funding, he says he doesn’t want the money because it would probably make them lazy or sloppy, like so many failed app startups in Silicon Valley.
“I’m doing my best work when I’m scrapping for a paycheck,” he says. “It motivates me to get out there and do the best I can, even if it’s only for me.”