Jeff Foulk spent four years creating his version of the perfect boating app.
By his own estimation, he spends 80 to 100 percent of his time retooling and reimagining the GPS app, Argo Navigation. He made it easy to use. He color-coded routes based on depth. He added a social networking aspect that would recommend restaurants and connect boaters with each other.
Mr. Foulk, who calls himself Captain Jeff, loves his app so much, he even has a shirt that reads, “Warning: I will tell you about my app.”
So when Mr. Foulk’s daughter, Megan, tagged along to a boat show in Chicago in January and saw that some attendees were bypassing her father’s booth as he tried to tell them about Argo, she decided to turn to one of the apps on her phone: TikTok.
As any 20-year-old would do, she pulled out her phone and starting recording as one person after another walked by her forlorn father, ignoring his offers of brochures. She added a wistful, instrumental version of the Whiz Khalifa song “See You Again” and put it out to her TikTok followers.
“Help blow up my dad’s boating app,” the caption on the video read. “He’s worked so hard on it and just wants people to try it out.”
The call for downloads worked.
Since Megan posted her TikTok, which has racked up almost 23 million views and three million likes in a couple of weeks, downloads of Argo Navigation have skyrocketed. On Jan. 14, the day the video was posted, Argo leaped from No. 339 on Apple’s U.S. App Store ranking of the top free navigation apps to No. 3, according to Randy Nelson, director of market insights at Data.ai, which provides analysis of the mobile app market.
The next day, it reached No. 1.
“I couldn’t have dreamed of anything better,” Mr. Foulk said in an interview, referring to the sudden booming interest for his app. He said he was “not aware of the power” TikTok could have to reach people. He didn’t even have it on his phone.
Mr. Foulk, 62, has been boating since he was 23, he said, when he moved into a condo on the water with a boat slip, which inspired him to buy his own vessel. He has been cruising around the Chesapeake Bay ever since.
Mr. Foulk said he had always wanted to create an app that provided straightforward directions to an exact location while featuring local attractions and reviews from other app users. The chief executive of an engineering company, Mr. Foulk worked with a development team that could bring his vision to life.
Argo quickly became a family affair. Mr. Foulk’s oldest daughter did the original marketing for the app, setting up its Instagram and Facebook pages, while his son programmed a dashboard for its data analytics. His wife also helps run the booth at the boat shows.
Ms. Foulk said that she was not a boater herself but that what she loved about Argo was seeing her father become excited about what he was creating. Once the initial TikTok video started taking off, she turned her own account into an Argo promotional account, removing her name and personal videos.
“I honestly just want him to be recognized for all this hard work,” she said. “He’s very inspiring to me.”
Strangers on TikTok were inspired, too. Between Jan. 14 and Jan. 17, according to Mr. Nelson, Argo ranked as one of the top free iPhone apps overall. Since Argo was added to the App Store and Google Play in September 2019, it has been downloaded 280,000 times. About 190,000 of those downloads, or 68 percent, have occurred since Jan. 14, Mr. Nelson said.
“This is crazy,” Mr. Foulk said. “There’s a lot of good things going on right now.”
Many of those downloads came from people who had no intention of setting sail. “Suddenly I’m downloading a boating app without a boat,” read one comment on the video.
“I don’t have a boat but I love you for doing this for your Dad,” another said.
Laken Ramey, a TikTok user who downloaded Argo after seeing Ms. Foulk’s post, said she “wanted to reach through my phone and give him a big hug,” adding, “I don’t even own a boat, but it looks like a great app for those who do.”
The app also reached more of its original target audience: boaters.
One user was planning to download the app for family members who “still used paper maps on the lake.” Others praised its layout and user-friendly display. “App seems easy to use,” one user commented. “Good work, Captain.”
Mr. Foulk is thinking about expanding internationally and creating accompanying hardware for boats. But he’s learning to reel in his enthusiasm. The shirt with the “Warning” label was a gift from his sometimes annoyed children. (He will, indeed, tell you about his app.)
“I’ve gotten better,” he said. “I know they don’t want to hear about it all the time.”
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