Interview with Dr. Kirsten Limmer

In today's interview, Dr. Kirsten Limmer describes how she built an indispensable smartphone app.

Kirsten addresses one of my favorite topics: building a business using an online platform. In this case, it's a smartphone app that supports her real estate business and meets the needs of other real estate investors.

It used to be that one could develop a cool app and bring in decent income if it became popular. However, we don’t hear much about amateurs developing their own smartphone apps anymore. I've been looking for a physician with experience developing an app for a long time.

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Physician, Entrepreneur, and Real Estate Investor

Dr. Kirsten Limmer completed her medical degree and Ph.D. in Molecular Biology at UCSD. Then she pursued her pediatric residency at Harvard Medical School / Massachusetts General Hospital. She joined a pediatric practice and worked full-time until the COVID pandemic hit in early 2020. During the pandemic, she reduced her work duties to manage and assist in schooling her children at home.

However, Kirsten is also a real estate investor and entrepreneur. She has been buying investment real estate in her spare time. And she plans to claim Real Estate Professional Status (REPS) for tax purposes this year (2021). Documentation of time logs is super-important for claiming tax deductions and preparing for an IRS audit. Kirsten looked but could not find any online tool to help keep track of the hours she devoted to her real estate investing and management. 

Solving Her Own Problem and Developing a Smartphone App

She was already aware of the costs of hiring a programmer to build an app because she had tried doing so once before. She spent a lot of money before realizing it was not worth the expense for what she was trying to develop at the time. So, she decided there must be a better way to develop an app that did not involve spending lots of money, or learning how to code.

She discovered that there are now companies that provide tools and coaching that enable clients to create an app without coding or paying high programming fees. So Kirsten enrolled in an intense software development coding course and built an app herself from the ground up. If you want to develop your own custom app without coding or outsourcing, you might use the service she used: Coaching No Code Apps.

Physicians do hard things… If you have an idea that you think is going to be successful, the worst thing you can do is just sit on it and let somebody else do it.

During our conversation, Kirsten gets very detailed about how she built her app. She describes each of the major steps and the time and expenses that might be involved. If you've been thinking about developing a similar tool, today's interview may inspire you to make it happen.


Kirsten believes that any physician can learn to create an app like hers. With tools like the one she used, anyone can learn to put one together and get support and coaching, if needed.

NOTE: Look below for a transcript of today's episode that you can download or read.

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Transcription - PNC Episode 199

How Did This Clever Physician Build an Indispensable SmartPhone App? - Interview with Dr. Kirsten Limmer

John: I enjoy bringing guests on the show who are doing something different from the usual nonclinical side hustles. And today's guest is a physician who found a way to launch a useful smartphone app. And guys, people have talked about apps for forever, and I've yet to find someone who really has got an app out there that's being used and serves a purpose. So, with that, I want to welcome Dr. Kirsten Limmer to the podcast. Hello.

Dr. Kirsten Limmer: Hi, John. Thanks. It's great to be here.

John: Yes. This is going to be fun because, I think people are going to think, "Oh, finally, someone found a way to make an app and make it really simple". Probably is not going to be as simple as one might think, but it's definitely doable. Right? That's what we're going to find out.

Dr. Kirsten Limmer: Absolutely. Absolutely. Especially for your audience. I think you've got a lot of overachievers in your audience building an app is doable.

John: Okay. Now the thing is, most of my guests do multiple things and you do, for example, you're a real estate investor because your app has to do with real estate, but we're not going to talk a whole lot about the real estate side. You also are a semi-professional dancer. We're not going to talk about that today too much. And we're going to try and focus on the app. But why don't you give us a little bit about your clinical background and then how you kind of got interested in all the different things you're doing and then we'll go from there.

Dr. Kirsten Limmer: Yeah, absolutely. So, I have an MD and a PhD in molecular biology. I'm a board certified pediatrician, now working as a newborn pediatrician in California in San Diego. And I graduated from University of California, San Diego, and did my residency at Mass General.

John: Nice. So, now you're practicing, but then you have all these side things going on. So, tell us, we're going to get this dancing thing out of the way first, to figure out about that. How did that get squeezed into everything?

Dr. Kirsten Limmer: Oh, that's a really good question. So, I've been a dancer my whole life, and I have been lucky enough to join a dance crew, a professional dance crew, where we are still going strong, putting on performances, granted we've had some time off during the pandemic, but do a lot of performances on stage. The same stage is like the Rolling Stones have been on before. So it's really fun. I love it. It's one of my most enjoyable side hustles for sure.

John: It's nice to have a vocation or an avocation, whatever you want to call it, that actually keeps you in shape too. So, that's got to be a plus.

Dr. Kirsten Limmer: Absolutely. Absolutely.

John: All right. Now the thing that we're leading up to is, at some point you got involved in real estate because that's why you eventually developed an app. So, tell us about the real estate adventures that you've been involved in.

Dr. Kirsten Limmer: Yeah. So, I've been a real estate investor now for several years. But with the pandemic, I should also say I have three young kids, and like many parents across the world my kids have to be pulled out of school, the schools shut down and they were virtually homeschooled for many, many months. And because of that, I had to really scale down my clinical time. And it's continued to be scaled down because my kids are not fully back in school yet.

So, I was already doing real estate investing on the side, but when I scaled down my clinical time, I really started to scale up my real estate investing because I found that that was something that I could do from home. And essentially, what really became almost by accident was that I had the formula in place in order to call myself a real estate professional in the eyes of the IRS.

And what that is, I'll give you a very high-level overview of this because this is not what the podcast is about. But essentially, it's a tax designation in which you were telling the IRS that you spend more time doing real estate activities on your own, real estate endeavors, than you do in any other career. So, for me right now, that would be medicine.

What that does is, to back up, normally, as a real estate investor, any sort of losses that you have from your real estate investing activities, or any deductions or depreciation can only be deducted against other real estate activities or other passive investments. And so, for example, you cannot rehab an entire house and then declare those losses against your W2 income in a normal sense. But by calling yourself a real estate professional in the eyes of the IRS, that essentially takes your real estate activities from the passive bucket and makes them into the active or the non-passive bucket.

But in order to do this, there are several things that you need to satisfy in the eyes of the IRS. And of course, it's such a powerful tax deduction strategy that there really becomes a lot of responsibility in declaring this on your tax return. So, there are a number of things that you have to satisfy and the main thing is the hour requirements. So, the IRS requires that.

Real estate professionals spend at least 750 hours. It's not just a roundabout thing. It's a very, very precise thing. 750 hours of participation on real estate activities that have to do with their own real estate. And if you are audited later on by the IRS and you've declared yourself a real estate professional, you need to show them exactly where you spent those hours. And in the eyes of the IRS, as some people know who have unfortunately been audited or had any sort of dealings with them, you are guilty until proven innocent.

John: So, it's on you to prove it. I want to stop there for a minute and kind of do some math in my head. So luckily, thank God, it's not a percentage of your work time because the average physician works like 3,000 hours. A full-time job is 2,000 hours, 2,080. I just happen to know that, that's how it was at the hospital I worked at. So, definitely it's less than half of that, 750, right? Now I'm sure there are physicians that work 3,000 to 4,000 hours. I mean, they do the equivalent. So anyway, if you can carve out the 750 and keep track of it, you get the benefit of the tax deductions and allowances and other things that otherwise you wouldn't get.

Okay. So, I have another question. I think we understand that because we all talk about all the great tax advantages of home ownership and of investing in real estate. But some of those are limited to certain people as you're describing. Now, I hear that there are different ways to invest in real estate. I mean, you can get involved in syndicates, you can go in with a fund. That's real passive as opposed to doing active real estate investing. So I think if I understand it correctly, you're talking about the active form of real estate investing, which really needs that to get all those tax advantages.

Dr. Kirsten Limmer: Yeah. That's absolutely correct. And I should say that there are tax advantages without declaring real estate professional status of course. But the real powerful tax advantages can come because of real estate professional status. And I should also clarify that if you are a full-time physician, so let's say you work 2,000 hours, you will need to work more than 2,000 hours as a real estate professional. So, you have to show not only those 750 hours, but you have to show that you're working more than your clinical hours on real estate.

John: So, it's the two. It's both of those. You have to be doing more than half of your professional activities in real estate.

Dr. Kirsten Limmer: That's correct. Yeah. So that's why the part-time clinical status, at least in my story, has really been helpful in this because that portion of it has not been so hard to satisfy for me. But for full-time physicians, as you can imagine, it can be quite challenging to satisfy.

John: Okay, good. That's what I need to clarify for myself to really understand that piece of it. And of course, when in doubt check with an accountant or an attorney or a tax attorney, if you really want to get picky.

Dr. Kirsten Limmer: Yes, yes, absolutely. Yes, please, if you're going down this road, you should have a great real estate CPA on your side and really be having somebody that you can have conversations with every day if you want. Sometimes I email my CPA every day. I'm sure she gets really annoyed. But yes, if you're so down this road that you're calling yourself a real estate professional, please have a good real estate CPA on your side.

John: Okay. So now we still haven't gotten to the point, how did this lead into you developing an app? So, what happened there?

Dr. Kirsten Limmer: Yeah, good question. So, basically, like any good physician I knew that I needed to have a system in place before I embarked on this very big endeavor. And kind of like before you do a procedure, you lay out everything, you have a timeout. And so, before I embarked on this, I looked around and I said, "Okay, I'm going to start with a great system. And then just go forward from there".

And I looked around and I was like, oh my goodness, the people were using Google calendar, Excel spreadsheets. Some people were using just paper journals. And I asked so many people, so many CPAs, so many investors, there's got to be something better out there for this.

I mean, this is such a powerful tax deduction strategy but also you have to be really meticulous. And also, kind of, I don't want to say dangerous, but you have to be really careful about it. So, there's got to be something else out there and there's got to be an app at least.

So, I looked around forever, could not find anything. And I do have an entrepreneurial spirit. So, when I have that kind of situation that comes up and I see that the market has a hole in it, I think, "Well, maybe I'm the one to fill this hole. Maybe this is the ding-dong moment".

John: So, what you really needed or what you thought other people might need is a way to track the actual time you're devoting to real estate, at least for those people where it's on the border. I mean, if you're full time, it's not a big deal, right?

Dr. Kirsten Limmer: Right.

John: But if you're trying to add this as one of your part-time side hustles or whatever, whatever you're doing, you just want to be able to track it all. And it might come down to being important to just track those extra hour or two per month that is going to put you over that number. And that does not exist.

Dr. Kirsten Limmer: Right. That does not exist. And it's funny if you look up some of the old cases and the tax court about people being audited for this, just that tends to be the thing that really gets people, is showing those hours that they committed. And there's lots of kind of funny tax cases that we can talk about another day about this, but people are trying to go back and fudge things, but I did not want to be that person.

John: Okay. So, there you go. You've got your need and you thought, "Well, I'll just hire someone to do an app". What were the steps that you took and what did you find out as you went down that rabbit hole?

Dr. Kirsten Limmer: Yeah. Yeah. Really good question. So, I have actually had an app idea previously. So, my prior experience with developing an app was going down the very traditional route of trying to find a software developer, an app developer, and pitching my idea and having them kind of echo back the idea in a way that I was like, "Nope, that's not it at all". And also, with the price tag that was really astronomical.

And so, I knew that I'm going down the traditional app development route that had some drawbacks, and it wasn't exactly what I wanted to do for this app. I guess what I really did was I had a little bit of mindset work and I told myself "If these app developers can do it, why can't I do it? I'm a doctor, I've done hard things before. I should be able to develop an app myself".

So, I started watching YouTube videos and started to think about teaching myself code. And it was not as linear as I was kind of picturing it to be. So, eventually I had watched enough YouTube videos where I started coming across kind of the same names and the same schools. And I found basically a no code app development school that's on a platform called Bubble. And it was really kind of the wave of the future, I think. It's visual coding. So, it's coding logic, but not coding language. So, an app developer does not have to learn JavaScript or anything like that, but they do have to be able to use those building blocks in order to code the app or to build the app themselves. So, I saw that there was a school that you could essentially enroll in to help you build this app. And so, I actually enrolled in this school.

John: Okay. Now let's see when you say school, I mean, that could be anything from a year to four year university or some online carpetbagger that has 30 minute videos. So, you have to vet that, or how did it really look once you got into it?

Dr. Kirsten Limmer: Yeah, yeah, yeah. So, this school in particular, the one that I did was called The Coaching no-code apps built to scale programs, in case any of your listeners are wanting to find that. And essentially the school is for 12 weeks, it's as intensive as you want it to be. It has a curriculum in which I really started with a blank screen and like a blinking mouse. Like you start from nothing. From just a blank screen and building up from there, teaching you the skills as you build your app.

So, the thought, and the reason why this appealed to me too, was that not only was I going to build an app, but I was going to have the skills that I would need to troubleshoot it later on if something came up, if I wanted to iterate, if I wanted to scale or grow, then I could do it myself. Or I could at least have the expertise to oversee somebody and be more hands-on with it.

So, the school is not only building the app, but also teaching you the skills in the no code platform route. Depending on the complexity of people's apps, some people took a lot longer than 12 weeks. So, they kind of had to add onto the 12 weeks. I really put my nose to the grindstone and took about six weeks on this app. Going into it, I had a very clear vision of what I wanted it to look like. And I think that that was probably the most helpful thing. And I also had a timeline that I wanted to hit as well.

John: So, let me ask you a question. I'm assuming that depending on, like you said, the complexity, you might have to learn certain things that other people wouldn't have to learn if it was a fairly straightforward or simple type of tool.

Dr. Kirsten Limmer: Yes, that's correct. The skills were essentially tailored towards what app idea you had. And the cool thing about this program was that it was very collaborative. So, I would have conference calls several times a week with other app developers who were doing things that were just totally different across the board. And so, seeing how they develop their skills. And not only kind of enhancing just general education and life, but also seeing how they approached problems and sometimes I was able to integrate that approach into my own app.

John: Now, as an entrepreneur sometimes we talk about, what do we call it? Proof of concept. But I think you have already kind of proved the concept yourself. I mean, you were going by, "Okay, I need this, so I'm going to build it and I'm sure other people will need it". Or did you have any kind of survey or anything you did from other people saying "I would use that"?

Dr. Kirsten Limmer: Yeah, it was very informal. It didn't have a survey or anything, but I did ask other people and it did seem to resonate with other people. It definitely resonated with me. So, the whole time that I was going through this, I thought, "Well, if nothing else, at least I will have a great tool for myself to use".

John: If I was doing something like this, the thing that would slow me down, for sure, in addition to the technicality would be the design of it. I Like logos and pictures. Do I do some cartoon figures? Do I just do a text? How did you decide on the actual design in the way it looked?

Dr. Kirsten Limmer: Yeah, really good question. And actually, you touch upon a pretty major point. And that is something called a minimum viable product. So, this is something that, as an app developer, or as a lot of kinds of tech developers, somebody should have gone in. And that is having a very bare bones version of the app that you will eventually want to create. Because like you touched on before, you will need a proof of concept. And this minimum viable product is your proof of concept.

So, what app developers that are successful will do is try to get out their minimum viable product as soon as possible, because the most powerful thing you can do with your app is get it into the hands of users. Because those users are going to be ultimately the people that give you your best feedback.

And I got my minimum viable product out within about six weeks, like I said, to a handful of beta users. And really their feedback helped shape what my app was going to look like before I launched it publicly. Some of their feedback was stuff that I didn't expect. I didn't think it would be important, or I thought a feature would be important and it turned out to be not very important. And so, you can save yourself a lot of time by trying to get out a bare bones' version first.

So, when you ask about logos and graphics and stuff like that, sure, you can do all that, but that should not be where your mind is focused. That can all come later. I mean, you look at a platform like Craigslist, it's like the ugliest website, and yet so many people use it, right? Like the functionality is what's important. And the graphics and the bells and whistles can come later once you've really iterated to your product to be what users really want to use.

John: Let's stop here for a minute because I'm going to stop and give the website or let you give it for how to download this thing only because I've gone on and I've seen it. It looks very professional. I see the design is there and there are images and things. It's not just a text-based thing. So first of all, tell us where we can access this right now and how that works.

Dr. Kirsten Limmer: Yeah. So, users can go onto And they can download either if they have an Apple device or the Google Play Store, we have it in both.

John: Okay. So then, when doing that, that is where you actually get the app that enables you to interface with it. But then you need to have a subscription I understand to actually use it or to get certain features. How does that work?

Dr. Kirsten Limmer: That's correct. So, you can register for a free trial. So, try it, if you love it, great, continue to use it. It is a paid subscription, and if you don't love it, that's fine as well. So, yes. And those users can also have access to the desktop version. And there's a couple other features that the desktop version incorporates as well. So, they have access to both the mobile and the desktop versions.

John: And for those that are really into real estate and into wanting a tool like this, how does this tool actually make it easier to keep track? Why is it better than just me scribbling some dates and times down, and maybe the address of a property than just this? What's so good about it?

Dr. Kirsten Limmer: Yeah. So, the fact that it's a mobile app, I think that is number one. I can't tell you the amount of times that I have gone to Home Depot or been kind of on the go and done something kind of related to my real estate activities that then I forgot to record later on or with receipts or whatever else like that. So, having a mobile app that you can use on the go to record your hours as you go is really helpful in that kind of recall of the actual detail of your hours.

But the real beauty or the power of my app is that it essentially guides the users to hit all of the points that the IRS needs, if you one day need to hand over your time logs. And along with that, comes the generally acceptable activities that real estate can declare in their time logs. And for those activities I've had the help of some really great real estate CPAs to vet this part of the app. And so, I'm really grateful for that part of it.

And as well, the app records the hours as the real estate professional adds them in. So, they know exactly where they stand throughout the year in terms of how many hours they've recorded and how many hours they have left. And that can be really helpful when talking to your CPA, when making decisions throughout the year as a real estate professional, "Do I need to buy another house?" maybe. Because this is such a powerful tax strategy, that actually could come into play.

What really results from the app is a really large searchable database that an investor can go back and look through, print out, export, import into if they want, and really keep them organized in a way that will be acceptable if they get audited by the IRS. And of course, my disclaimer for that is please talk to your CPA along the way. I am not a CPA, please talk to your CPA about all of this strategy.

John: So, I'm trying to imagine there are certain activities that would count and certain activities that might not count. So, it already kind of lays out what those types of activities are like, "Okay, put this in this box or in this box". So, for example, if I was sitting on my sofa helping to read an article about real estate in Washington, DC, and I live in Illinois, I spend an hour reading that article, do I get to count that hour as part of my real estate activities?

Dr. Kirsten Limmer: Well, okay. So, there is some discrepancy between CPAs actually. So, the activities that I included in my app were ones that are generally acceptable by most CPAs that I talked to. And I should say most real estate CPAs because there is a kind of a big difference, that's a specialty.

One of the more powerful benefits of this is as you record your hours, you can print this all out or export this all and send it to your favorite CPA that you're working with and have them very quickly look at it and say, "You know what? I don't feel comfortable with you declaring that as an activity. I don't think that you reading a New York Times article about real estate should be something that you should put on your log". And actually some CPAs might be okay with it. So, this is a really kind of diversified area of the tax code and I guess maybe not quite hammered down area. So, that's actually one of the more powerful benefits of this app.

John: Okay. That sounds really neat. So, that value as well is just the convenience. Anyone that has their phone with them, they're going to be able to keep track. It basically is what you're saying from the convenience standpoint. Okay, so now you've talked about the beta users and the feedback, and I think you pretty much have been working on this, but it was officially released earlier this year, right? And people are using it in real time. So, can you give us a little hint about how things are going so far?

Dr. Kirsten Limmer: So far so good. I mean, every day I have a couple more customers that sign on. It's definitely growing in the positive direction. And thus far, I haven't had to do any paid marketing. I've just done grassroots type of marketing. And hopefully I can stick with that. If not, then I'll kind of change my route a little bit, but thus far it's going pretty good and it has not been released for very long. So, definitely growth in the positive direction.

John: Awesome. Now we're going to have to end pretty soon, but there's another question that I didn't quite get to the bottom of. We were talking about money before and the cost of paying someone. So, now you obviously had to pay for the course that you took and that was a six week or however long it took you to do that. So, how did that cost compare to just saying, "Okay, I'm just going to pay someone to write this thing and they may not even make it look at the way I want". So, give me the bottom line on that kind of feeling on using this approach.

Dr. Kirsten Limmer: Absolutely, absolutely. So, a traditional app developer, when I had my previous app idea, they were quoting me $20,000 to $40,000 for the MVP.

John: That's the minimum viable product.

Dr. Kirsten Limmer: Yes, the minimum viable product. So that was something that I would have to sink more money in as I iterated it later on. People would talk about like hundreds of thousands of dollars for that, the traditional app development route. So, I knew that price tag was out there.

And then the way that I went is the built to scale school, at the time that I enrolled, I'm not sure if they've changed their pricing at all, but it was about $4,000, a little bit more than $4,000. So really quite reasonable in comparison to the quotes that I was getting for the app developers. And then of course, you have to pay that to host your app. There are lots of little costs here and there, but really nothing compared to that traditional app development route.

John: Okay. Okay. And then you had the hours that you had to put into it. Do you have a sense on any given day or week, how much time you were spending on this during that process?

Dr. Kirsten Limmer: Yeah, probably anywhere from like three to six hours a day. Usually in the wee hours of the morning before my kids woke up, I would put in some real dedicated time onto that. And for about seven days a week for six weeks. So it was a decent amount of time.

John: Yeah. Well, we all have to consider that and if we don't have the time, obviously it's not going to work out. We don't want to invest all that time at the front end and then sort of trail off and never finish it. So, it's good to know though.

Because before we had gotten on this call, I thought, "Okay, I'm going to have a hard time figuring out exactly the cost benefit on this". But no, you really explained it well, it made sense. It was definitely an alternative to forking out $50,000 or whatever. And you got it done. It's great to hear from someone who is a physician because I've had other physicians talk about developing an app. And I think you're the first person. Well, I have one guest that had done it in the past but I think they were trained as a programmer.

All right. Well, you want any last bit of advice for someone who might be thinking of doing this? Any things you've learned along the way that you haven't already shared with us and some pitfalls to avoid or things like that?

Dr. Kirsten Limmer: Yeah. Yeah. So if you have an app idea, the best thing that you can do is try to get as granular as possible with your app idea before going either direction. Whether you want to go the traditional app development route, or do you want to make it yourself, think about exactly how you want your app to look. How does a user's journey go through your app when they log in? Where do they go, what happens?

And even just taking out a sketchpad and sketching it out can really help develop your idea and also can help you think, "Well, is this actually doable? Is this something that somebody will want to do?" It'll make it less abstract. And then in that way, when you're communicating it to anybody, you could communicate it a lot better.

Number two and probably most importantly, especially for your listener base is, "You guys can do it". You do hard things. Physicians do hard things. If you have an idea that you think is going to be successful, the worst thing that you can do is just sit on it and let somebody else do it. Just do it. See where it goes and get that minimum viable product out there and just push it out and have confidence in yourself.

John: I think that's great advice. And it's true. Even a lot of my audience, whether they're going into a nonclinical career, there's this fear, this feeling like "we can't do it". And yet, while you've been through, whatever, 11, 12, 15 years of education and training, and you've learned a lot and you're applying a lot, so you should be able to do something outside the field of medicine, if that's what you want to do. So, don't be too shy about it.

Dr. Kirsten Limmer: Absolutely. Absolutely.

John: All right. Well, Kirsten, I think this has been really fun and fantastic. I might have to have you come back and tell us about the results of your real estate investing at some point in the future. But I think everyone that's listening will get something out of this and I really appreciate you for being with us today.

Dr. Kirsten Limmer: Thank you so much, John. It was great.

John: All right. With that then I will say goodbye and hope to talk to you again soon.

Dr. Kirsten Limmer: Thank you.


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