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Sanford teen develops his own iPhone app, and it’s a real conversation starter

Some of us have genuine anxiety about talking to people we are meeting for the first time. Others may be less stressed but simply don’t like making conversation with someone they don’t know well. Whether young people in a new school, neighbors who pass each other regularly but aren’t sure they have topics in common, or professional folk in a networking setting, small talk doesn’t feel right for a lot of people. And you can discuss the weather only so much — especially in Florida.

Realizing this need, 15-year-old Sanford self-starter Zachary Shenkman, a sophomore at Crooms Academy of Information Technology, saw a solution and jumped into action.

“I just started coding,” says Zachary.

Zachary has developed a free app, now offered in Apple’s App Store, called Shmuzer, a variation on the Yiddish term schmooze, meaning “to engage in informal conversation.” The app generates random prompts to help spark friendly dialog between strangers or friends.

“I put a bunch of conversation starters in an Excel spreadsheet, I built the app, I built the design and the graphics, and I was ready to publish,” says Zachary.

The social-utility app currently works on an Apple Watch or an iPhone, offering prompts to get communication going when it needs a jump-start for a variety of reasons.

Say What?

With Shmuzer, there are two different categories of prompts: Assorted and This or That. Assorted can be any random inquiry, such as, “If you had a million dollars, what would you do with it?” Or, “If you could do one thing without any risk of getting hurt, what would it be?” This or That gives the user choices – not always easy ones – such as, “Would you rather have a fancy house or a fancy car?”

The app also serves as a social activity. That’s how Zachary first envisioned the app on a family trip to Williamsburg, Virginia. During a long wait at a restaurant with Zachary’s parents, Lisa and Jason Shenkman, and his sister Danielle, conversation-starter cards on the table really helped pass the time. Like the cards, Shmuzer can be a handy tool to restart a waning conversation between people who know each other in a fun, creative way.

From the Drawing Board to Downloads

The Shenkmans say all the credit for Shmuzer goes to Zachary. He worked on the app while juggling schoolwork, swim team responsibilities, and other activities. The main version of the app was completed in the summer of 2015, but a lot was added, and the app was majorly overhauled this past summer. Zachary felt version 1 of the app wasn’t quite right. 

“I pretty much started from scratch again,” he says. “This is fun. This is not work.

“He just loves to do this stuff,” says Lisa.

Jason, who has worked in the video-game production field for many years, did give Zachary some tips on graphics. But other than that, says Lisa, Zachary made it, called Apple developers on his own, built the resources Apple requires to offer an app in its store, field-tested with friends, and chose the name.

But, since Zachary is underage, the app did have to be published under Lisa’s name, and she had to acquire a developer’s license from Apple, though that was really the extent of her involvement.

This past August, Shmuzer was approved by Apple the same day Zachary got word it was under review, and he was notified via email. Not long after the release, smartwatch site covered the app, with the reviewer writing, “Shmuzer is simple; it gives you questions that prod interesting discussions. I can envision using this on car trips with the family.”

It’s important to Zachary that the app is accessible to anyone who might find it useful or entertaining. That’s why it’s free, he says. Once downloaded, new features come via updates. Zachary says his goal is to make the conversation starter topics as generic as possible.

“It opens my audience up to a wider range of people,” he says. “I want people to use this until they are comfortable making conversation starters in their heads.”

Zachary’s currently planning some new Shmuzer features, keeping an eye on download and retention data for the app, and considering other projects, as well.

“I can refine my own programming skills at the same time with projects like Shmuzer, Zachary says. “My app store page is like a portfolio.”

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