Poolsuite doesn’t track KPIs. Bell doesn’t call himself a CEO. He and the ragtag group of designers & developers who work on the “virtual vacation” station just have fun.
Marty Bell may be from the (stunning yet) cold Scottish Highlands, but that hasn’t stopped him from being the unofficial keeper of summer.
Bell is the founder of Poolsuite
(formerly Poolside FM
), the radio station, website, and brand that epitomizes summer nostalgia with retro 80s graphics and vibey relaxing music. As a recent Maker Grant recipient
and off today's official launch of Vacation
by Poolsuite (which pre-launched on Product Hunt in April), I spoke with Bell about his maker story.
We started by talking about how the dreary weather may have been part of why he started working on Poolsuite.
“Everyone thinks we’re from LA... I was probably subconsciously trying to getaway from the grey of Scotland when the idea arose,” he explained.
Poolsuite just became a finalist for the 2021 Apple Design Awards and made news for its partnership
. It’s also a favorite in the Product Hunt community too (we sometimes kick off our all-hands meetings here with the station while we wait for everyone to join the Zoom). Take a look at a few of the latest Poolsuite comments.
The vibes are unreal!!! 🤙🌴🍹Thank you for this!!!!! Jan Köster
It's a modern time capsule of sexy. Chad Fullerton
I am not leaving this app anytime soon. Aakarshna Anand
As a native Angeleno living in London, I can’t help but feel nostalgic myself when I’m on Poolsuite, but I love that you don’t have to live anywhere or be born at any one time to appreciate it. The aesthetics and jams are inclusive in a way that people all over the world can enjoy a bit of ultra summer.
How it started
Today, community is the foundation many makers build their products upon. Experts often tout the importance of having peers so you can support each other’s projects and find early adopters. As it happened, Bell didn’t have any following or community before he started Poolsuite.
“When I first launched it I wasn’t building digital products, I was building brands and making physical products. Then I stumbled upon this super-happy genre-spanning kind of music and I loved it so much; it felt like (and still does feel like) a direct hit of serotonin straight to the brain to me.. I thought ‘I could build a playlist and share it with people. But everyone shares playlists that barely anyone listens to. I need to build an experience around it to make it spread.’”
Bell wanted to pair the music with something else that would make it even more powerful. Even though the music was new, it reminded him of 80s summer beach movies, the kind you instinctively picture coming on a VHS tape (if you’re old enough to have used one regularly).
The idea to create an 80s style website dawned on Bell.
“When I think of the 80s in the U.S. I always picture some kind of LA beach scene in my head, bursting with carefree good times and positivity. No iPhones, no WiFi, no plans.”
The only problem was...
“I didn’t even know a single developer at the time. I didn’t know what web apps were outside of the terrible things I was installing on some very questionable WordPress site builds around that time. But I reached out to a friend of a friend (shoutout Grant Mac!) and pitched him the idea, he said he was in immediately."
The friend was thrilled to help — it sounded like fun. Bell got to work pulling creative assets to “throw together” a website. What the movies were didn’t even matter. He hadn’t seen half of them. What was important was pairing the scenes with music so that he could re-create the feeling he got while listening.
That’s part of the brilliance of Poolsuite. The site isn’t so closely tied to one source of inspiration or reference to pop culture. It truly is a vibe.
How it's going
Bell launched Poolside FM on Product Hunt in 2014, i.e. not long after Product Hunt was born. It's since undergone a re-name to Poolsuite (Bell and team explained the change here
Since it was seven years ago, Bell had to go back through his profile history to try to remember what happened at the beginning. Though the comments on the post are few, they are as welcoming and energetic as the Poolsuite app that launched last week.
I'm in love. Totally rad! Big 80s fan so loving the vibe. Will be great on TV for summer time parties. :) - Corey Gwin
Bookmarked this immediately <3 - Lejla Bajgoric
Awesome find! Really love the 80s feel! - Adrian Grant
Beyond Product Hunt, Bell posted Poolsuite to the subreddit r/InternetIsBeautiful/, where it went “a bit viral” and the launch was covered by Vice and Manrepeller.
“From then, I’ve never tried to turn it into a business. This has been a fun thing on the side — a digital playground. Our incredibly talented gang of designers & developers jam on it and we see how fast we can push things out in evenings and weekends. Most of my job is to curate the content and make sure the contriburing team are having a great time.”
Bell curates and art directs Poolsuite and its products, including Vacation by Poolsuite
, the company’s new sunscreen, and first physical product. He stressed though that he’s “definitely not a designer,” a job that’s handled by Neik Dekker, one of a team of 10 people currently working on the Poolsuite. Still, he works side-by-side with Neik, obsessing over the design research and “over-doing things” authentically.
We touched on how the old school operating system design that you see when you launch Poolsuite is core to the experience (and how Poparazzi’s
onboarding flow recently exploded in a similar vein).
“I love any products that make you think 'Wait, what the hell is this thing?!' Things that take people a few seconds to work out. We like to see the Poolsuite website and apps like mini sensory experiences, or virtual toys."
Expansion doesn’t have to be a buzzkill
Most of what Poolsuite puts out is still free and Bell keeps it that way.
“My job is to make it fun. We don’t try to track KPIs or metrics. I think that comes out in the product. I’ve seen a few tweets that said something along the lines of 'I can tell how much fun this team is having just by using the app/site,' and that’s absolutely true. We’re optimizing for fun, and excitement —even just our own. Nothing else. I think the whole project would’ve died a long time ago if I took it too seriously or tried to directly monetize it.”
That’s not to say he’s always had a clear picture of what to do with the product and community he’s built. He reached out to his Slack community, Jacuzzi Club, a couple of years ago for help deciding what to do next with Poolsuite while he was too busy with another startup to focus his energy on it.
That’s how he met Lach Hall & Dakota Green, a match made in poolside heaven. Hall & Green had the concept and formulation for a new sunscreen but no brand. They were just about to raise money for the new company when Bell entered the chat looking for new opportunities, both of the fun and business nature. That’s how Vacation was born.
“Sunscreen is the perfect product. We’d been offered dozens of opportunities and collabs over the years — craft beer, swimwear brands, pool floats. Everything obvious wasn’t exciting to me. We like to go all-in on stuff and go deep on brand and personality. Sunscreen is one of the few products you can layer deep nostalgia into.”
And they went all-in on “The World’s Best Smelling Sunscreen.” The product was crafted to transport you to the summer of 1986, Miami, Florida, and not just via the smell — which incorporates scents of coconut and banana — but through the whole experience, from the way the packaging opens to the receipt printed on old school 80s printer paper.
Building for fun
This is one of the key reasons Poolsuite has kept its cool factor and edge over the last seven years (and growing) — Bell’s insistency on keeping it a side project. He has never been focused on growth metrics and really is just having fun.
“In building projects, so many people are so obsessed with being a founder. Especially when you’re younger. But whatever you can do to make your projects more relaxed you should do. There’s no advantage to being overly serious … except maybe in something like medicine.”
Bell tells aspiring makers that the way they position something they’re working on matters. He calls what he’s working on “experiments” and that leaves him open to working with friends. He doesn’t position himself as a CEO and would caution others on doing so quickly too. When you’re a CEO, you have to do everything right.
“There’s been no pressure on me to deliver whatsoever. If you’re having fun with everything, and keep your project lighthearted, when there’s a bug or critical failure, you can laugh it off.”
This attitude has allowed Bell to pull in talented developers to work on Poolsuite in return for a stress-free space to get creative, hone their skills, and have a good time.
“A product is a vehicle to have a fun exciting life and no one thinks about it that way. You can build a brand or project and, even if it just covers costs but you get an opportunity to meet interesting people and learn how building stuff works, it’s more than worthwhile.
There should be a course on how to build a really fun side project. Not to make money, just to make your life more exciting.”
Who else would take that class?