How Stephanie Nguyen’s #dctech journey led to a new type of navigation app

With Landmark, the self-taught designer is changing the way people think about getting around town.

Stephanie Nguyen is working on a navigation app called Landmark.

(Photo courtesy of Stephanie Nguyen)

Stephanie Nguyen gets lost a lot.
On her way to meetings, she finds herself lost between identical buildings, searching for the right place. Sometimes a mapping app will even tell her she’s arrived, but it’s wrong.
Describing one of her past predicaments near McPherson Square, Nguyen said, “Obviously if I just had a photo of that destination, I would have found it in a heartbeat.”
And so, the idea for Landmark, a navigation app relying on visuals instead of maps, was born.
Nguyen is part of a three-person team at Landmark, which won a Digital DC Tech Fund grant back in October 2014. The app is currently in beta.
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The Landmark app. (Courtesy image)

Outside of Landmark, Nguyen remains active in the D.C. tech community. She helps organize DC FemTech events and is a co-producer of DC Tech Meetup. Nguyen also prioritizes building on her skill set, so when she can, she’ll head to a meetup or workshop after a day’s work.
Below, Nguyen (no relation to this reporter) talks to DC about pursuing entrepreneurship and tech, her tab rule and how she works best.


Tell us a little about your background.
I was a self-taught designer. I was a liberal arts major, but I designed for nonprofit organizations and a community shop nearby. I did a lot of freelancing and just started to learn how to design in the real world because of pure interest. It was only until after college when I got my first job that I realized [design] is actually kind of fun.
You get this stigma from doing design that you’re going to be poor for the rest of your life. You’re going to be doing arts and crafts. It just has a negative connotation based on what people tell you. But I realized I really loved it.
Since then I had just been going to a ton of D.C. tech meetups. I worked all the way in Reston, and then I would get on the bus to go to West Falls Church, and from there go straight into Dupont Circle or wherever it was to go to as many tech meetups as I possibly could.
That’s where I really learned more about the D.C. tech ecosystem and opportunities to learn. There’s tons of workshops out there to learn website development. As a designer, you sort of hit a wall at some point when you realize, “Wow, these are really great static images, but they’re not alive.” You can’t click on them, and it’s not a website. So I really had the hunger to do that.
Two DC Startup Weekends later, I met my now cofounder. And the next year, we met our second cofounder. We quit our jobs and then dove into Silica Labs building apps as I was teaching myself design. It was definitely the best decision I’ve ever made.
What’s the first thing you do every day before doing any tech-related work?
I have been trying to get into routine, but depending on how late I stayed up the night before determines what my morning looks like. Usually I try to go to the gym or go on a run. It doesn’t happen every morning, but it at least happens during the day when I have time.
I always make oatmeal. I buy the generic brown sugar maple syrup oatmeal — reduced sugar ­— and I make that every morning. Then I make my lunch. I am the weird person who always brings the brown bag.
I’ll always kind of check a feed too. I love looking at Instagram, as cliché as that sounds. I love the idea of making something mundane special through an angle or lens that you see it in. The people who I follow give me inspiration.
Would you say your work pattern has changed since you were doing more wearable tech stuff at Silica Labs to working mostly on Landmark now? 
Before, we were working on so many different projects, and we had to be on so many different stages at a time. One project might be close to finish. One project might be in the ideation phase when we were sketching different logos. So we were constantly just starting the process over and over again.
Whereas when you’re really focused on one product and you set your milestones, they’re pretty aggressive.
Do you have a method to getting to ‘Inbox Zero’?
I don’t really care about getting to Inbox 0. I do want to keep my inbox clean, but I do have a steady 30 threshold. Usually things in my inbox are what I have to do. Maybe I have to apply for a grant and that email’s a reminder to do so. Maybe I have to go to an event and that email is there.
How do you keep up with revenues and expenses?
There was a day where I spent the entire day at the library looking up books about accounting and bookkeeping because all of a sudden, I’d become the bookkeeper. I had to send monthly reports and I had never done it before.
We use Google Sheets. I love Google Docs because it’s simple and easy and keeps everything in one “cloud” for me.
What are typical tabs you have open?
The tabs have to be big enough so I can see the text on them. Eventually the tabs get too small, and then what’s the point of having them open? You end up clicking on every single one. Once you get to the little tiny ones, you end up accidentally X-ing out of it.
I usually have Gmail open and lately Trello, plus a few things I’ve been researching like computer algorithms or something we’re doing with landmarks in the city. Or I’ll be looking at design inspiration for Dribbble or on Pinterest. My tabs will represent what I’m working on for the day.
What’s one way in which you believe your day-to-day work is better now than it has been? Is there something you do now (or don’t do) that you didn’t do before (or did) that has made a big difference?
[At my old job] I used to do work outside of my work. I would have my work laptop and bring my Mac and have Adobe Illustrator open. Why was I doing that? It was so unproductive and not OK. I would be constantly thinking about side projects.
Now I really am focused on my role and what we’re doing at the startup, and I really am productive. If I email my team and say I’ll send it by tonight, I’ll actually do it.
We have an ongoing thread of daily to-dos. It’s like a diary. It’s also helpful for milestones and grant reporting. I can look at that thread to see what we’ve done. I wouldn’t remember otherwise because everything blends together. It’s good to have that little repository of thoughts.
Now I work when I want to work, and I think that makes a huge difference. I know that’s a little unfair to say because some people have set office hours and have to abide by that, but because I have that flexibility, it really enabled me to wake up on a Sunday morning and if I’m inspired to do design, I can really crank out good stuff when I actually want to do it.


Companies: Silica Labs
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