Bardowl: The Big One

For the last few years, I’ve been working with a great team of people on our iPhone app, Bardowl, an app for streaming unlimited audiobooks for £9.99 a month (think Spotify but for audiobooks.)
It’s not been a quick and easy. Getting publishers to come…

For the last few years, I’ve been working with a great team of people on our iPhone app, Bardowl, an app for streaming unlimited audiobooks for £9.99 a month (think Spotify but for audiobooks.)

It’s not been a quick and easy. Getting publishers to come round to the idea, and securing good audiobooks, has been a lengthy process but we’ve been lucky to have people who really know what they’re talking about behind the scenes. Our CEO, Chris Book and CTO, Neil Chapman, have bootstrapped the business and have worked incredibly hard, taking a big risk, because they really believe in bringing good audiobooks to the iPhone without massive subscription costs or limited listening choices. They’re the reason I was first interested in being involved, and the reason I’ve stuck at it for so long.

Why only blog about it now?

I wanted to wait until there was a version of the app that you’d want to try. Previously, we launched with ‘business books.’ These are wonderful if you’re into management techniques, deals, finances and all these audiobooks that I find, quite honestly, dull.

Now the catalogue has got so much awesome

But now, the catalogue has some serious awesome with biographies and memoirs, childrens books, classic, contemporary and modern fiction, non-fiction, poetry and drama. Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes, Cormac McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men, loads of Dickens and Sherlock Holmes. I really think you’ll like it. Oh yes, and you can try it for free for 7 days.

What have I done then?

I am the sole designer. I do all the design; branding, app design and web design/development. It’s really the first product I’ve ever worked with, and I enjoy having something I get to stick with and iterate over time. I’m still not sure if I’d want to do this full time, I really love the variety that comes with client work, but it’s very rewarding feeling like you’re constantly improving one product.

Working for almost-free

I also work almost solely for a small share (I’ve had a few payments for work when we had some investment.) Since I started time-tracking the project in March 2010, I’ve put 430 hours into the project, around half of that being on the website, which has had three or four full redesigns. This working for almost-free is definitely not something I would do again, which I will elaborate on below.


It’s been a complete learning experience. It was my first app design work, I created the logo long before I started working professionally as a designer, and I’ve never worked as part of a startup before, in fact I’ve never really worked as part of another company before (as a designer.) Starting before I graduated from university, it’s been a project that has spanned the whole of my freelance/professional career. As I’ve learned new things, I’ve been able to experiment, and put my new knowledge straight into the app and the website. It was my first mobile website design (pre-“Responsive Web Design”,) my first foray into web fonts, my first “Responsive Web Design” and my first experience with CSS pre-processors.

Designing and developing

I’ve learned a huge amount about designing for apps. Unlike designing for the web, where I usually write the markup and sometimes the code, I can’t develop iOS apps. I don’t think this is a good thing, it really emphasises why I think that you must be able to write markup in order to design for the web. Designing for iOS apps, with fairly minimal knowledge of the development process is really hard. I make a complete pain out of myself, constantly asking Kieran questions about how things work, what’s possible, what’s native, and what would be easiest to create from a development point-of-view.

While I’ve learned loads from Kieran, I still want to know more about the development process. In the new year, I’ve resolved to attend Aral Balkan‘s Modern iOS Development Workshop (I’ve heard so many good things.) But I don’t really see myself developing apps for a living, I find programming very difficult and not terribly rewarding, I just think my design decisions can be more well-informed as a result.

Designing for free

Above I said I wouldn’t work for free (shares) again. As a general rule, I wouldn’t recommend it, it’s a huge risk and chances are you’ll never make a return on the hours you put into the project.

However, my specific reason I wouldn’t work for free is that I believe people can often struggle to understand and appreciate the value in design if they’re not paying for it. They’ve not got an interest in getting the best value for money, so they don’t necessarily feel as though they should listen to what you say. In a way, the developer will always have the final say, as whatever they make is what gets released.

When you’ve worked for free, and you’ve put so much time and effort into a project, you’re less likely to leave. The more time you spend, the more reluctant you’ll be to leave that all behind. It’s like the Stockholm Syndrome of working for free. I still completely believe in Bardowl as a concept, and I have a huge amount of respect and love for our CEO and CTO, and that’s why I persist in trying to make my app design live up to the idea, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have frustrated times where a loss of control and startup politics infuriated me.

Working with good people

Despite the occasional hiccups, I’ve found working with Bardowl immensely rewarding. There’s so much to be said about working for people who really believe and care about what they’re doing. It’s not just about doing design and development right, or business right, but about working with people right. Our CEO Chris Book is an example of somebody who cares about the people he works with. His role as CEO has often mean placating, convincing and cajoling, but he doesn’t just do this as a means to getting his app finished, he genuinely believes in providing value for those working on the project. And doing it all with honesty and transparency. Honesty and transparency are massively underrated.


  1. Great, open and honest post, I can sympathise with some of the long hours/low rewards just because you either love what you are building, or love the learning process of doing it :)
  2. Hi!

    I´m Ola, a swedish male voicetalent who loves audiobooks. I have looked at Bardowl and it seems great but there is one questionmark: why aren´t the books listed on the website?

    There is a swedish company with exactly the same concept called, and the show all of their books and you can also manage your books on the site which is really handy.



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