2017 (+2016) reflections

By the end of 2016, although I knew things were about to change in my life, I didn’t find the time to sit and write. But this year, an opportunity revealed itself, so I decided to reflect on the things that happened and derive the main lessons I learned during the last two years.

As always, the lessons are personal and used for my own guidance in life. Yet if someone will find them resonating with his situation then writing all these words was worth my time.

Career

If 2015 ended with a satisfaction of my product’s success, then 2016 took it to the next level. Supersonic merged with ironSource, yet we managed to almost not be affected by the process and continue pushing the product forward. If by the end of 2015 we had a great vibe of a good product and few interesting customers (including EA), then by the end of 2016 we were really kicking ass. We left all our competitors behind and the user base grew exponentially.

And yet, things were changing in the company and I wanted to use my success to take my career to the next level. By the end of March 2017, I left my role as Director of Product at ironSource.

In April I joined a company in the automotive industry (fleet safety and management software), that decided to make a bold shift from enterprise installed solutions to mobile app solutions for small and medium businesses. It was a risky situation from many aspects, but I felt ready to deal with the challenges and the opportunity to become a VP Product was a logical step in my career.

It didn’t take long before I the reality slapped my face hard. The CEO was fired by the board of directors only 2 weeks after I joined the company, and the small and medium businesses strategy was paused. The human interactions within the company were awful and probably the worst I have ever seen. The mobile app itself was hugely flawed, and we had big backlash from Enterprise customers who tried it. The new CEO that was brought to the company saw the SMB-related strategy and the mobile app, as less relevant to the company’s future. Soon it became clear that the reasons I have joined the company and the new strategy have too little in common. So after struggling with the situation, I decided to leave the company only 9 months after joining it. The hardest thing for me was to let down my team (4 product managers and 2 UX designers), but I knew I cannot stay in a situation I am not engaged in for so many reasons.

So I had to re-learn a lesson:

Smart people and good culture are better than hot industry and cool title.

And learn a new one:

Clarity of mission and passion for customers are more important than technology or medium of the product.

At the beginning of 2018, I will be joining SimilarWeb to lead the mobile app intelligence product. This time I did my homework and invested a lot of effort to ensure I am choosing a company that fits my personality and the latest lessons learned.

Personal Projects

Facebook-Web-Cover_31

From the 2 side-projects, I started on 2015, I decided eventually to focus only on one of them: the driving game later became to be called Hit n Run. Slowly but surely, it evolved from a prototype to a simple yet compelling game. Through consistent testing (friends and family, later usertesting.com, and then soft launched several times in different countries) and iterations, the game matured into a high-quality product which we managed to strike a publishing deal for. It is to be published and hopefully featured in a month or so.

It is hard to believe I managed to pull this off in my spare time. And it taught me another – well known – lesson:

Focus and persistency are crucial for success.

If I would have insisted on pushing both game projects, I would have probably failed both. Having only one side project enabled me to consistently work on the tasks almost daily, and push it up the hill to the point it is not only ready but feels a studio-quality game.

And yet, in 2017 I did start a new thing: teaching. I am a teaching Product Management in Games which is a part of Game Design and Development program. And while it might sound like a diversion, in many ways it embodies a lot of the knowledge I have collected and created in my career. Moreover, once the curriculum was defined and the presentations created, it is much easier to update the slide decks and run another course. Besides, teaching games and product-management is a thing I wanted to do for a long time, so I couldn’t just let this opportunity thrown. And it was a great experience as I expected.

Combine and recycle knowledge to create new value.

In 2018 I will continue pushing the game project. We might create another iteration, and potentially – if the game business will show positive ROI – it has the potential to become a bigger part of my life.

Habits

On my 2015 reflective post, I wrote about my success in acquiring new habits. It really works well. But I found it has its boundaries:

Adding more habits, is limited by the time we have.

Therefore, every time I thought of adding a new habit I considered the time it will it take, when should it be done during the day, and how can I combine it with the things I was already doing. In spite of my careful planning and focus-keeping I found that:

It is very easy to lose a habit, even if it was successfully formed before.

In 2016 and 2017 I added a few more habits, yet I also lost a few.

I am still very confident that adding habits is the best way to achieve our goals. We just need to find a way to deconstruct our big goals to smaller – habit-like – targets, and yet – we do need to consider the capacity we have.

In 2018 I am planning to mainly re-form habits that I lost and create groups of habits to make it easier to follow.

Summary

Here’s the gist:

  1. Work with smart, fun and positive people for customers you really care about
  2. Narrow your focus on a single project and be persistent in pushing it forward every day
  3. If you must add more goals, be smart and efficient about it – combine efforts to achieve several goals and recycle efforts invested in one project to use in a new one.

Disagree with my conclusions? Learned new lessons in 2017? Feel free to share your thoughts.

Advertisements

What if…

It’s over.

After reaching out to the vast majority of the investors in Israel (and even some abroad), after 3 attempts to have an aqcui-hire deal (the last one almost came through), we are forced to shut down Stix.

It isn’t easy. We tried (and tried and tried), and yet – we failed.

Now we need to overcome the failure, take the lessons we’ve learnt, and continue each with his own adventure.

TL;DR

If you don’t have time to read, just go straight to the Summary section.

If you’d like to know more about the trenches – continue reading.

Introduction

I know that asking “what if” is usually unproductive, but I decided to run this theoretical experiment in a systematic way – not to blame myself (or worse blame my teammates), but try to derive crucial lessons for the next time I will be faced with this kind of situations. The main problem is that I will never know what could have been the consequences of the alternatives. But I do know that the path we chose was not successful. So the alternative – probably, though not definitely – had chances to succeed.

I decided to go back in time (starting June 2014, the launch date of Loonies) to critical decision points, which we encountered about every 3-6 months.

Before starting the journey, it should be mentioned that we achieved pretty good results with our game, Loonies, regarding retention: 45/15/5 (though not as high as we aimed for). Unfortunately, we didn’t have any time left to optimize its monetization model (as we spent almost all the time we had to enhance the retention). This resulted in a very low ROI, making any investment in user acquisition very problematic. So we were left with no time/money and a very underperforming game regarding monetization. It was a very hard situation to get an investment. Moreover, we had our share of problems working as a team, and were pretty exhausted when we finished our beta (with 2 months of money left in the bank). It was hard for us to even think of still working on Loonies in the same way we worked in the last few months, and we had to split the team into 2 sub teams. For the time left until we closed the company this work model created the best results, although it raised internal questions regarding the reasons of being a founding team of 4…

June 2014 – right before launch

We decided to raise funds that will enhance Stix’s valuation (and enable all of us decent salaries). To do that, we decided we should launch Loonies, tell its story in the most positive way, hope for some luck, and start working on new projects to show our creative and execution abilities.

We could have acted differently:

  1. We could have tried raising smaller investment from private investors in the promise that we are close to making Loonies a financially successful game.
  2. And, we could have started working on improving Loonies’ monetization model, and the ability to show progress in this domain.

In practice, we were exhausted from working together, and we started to believe Loonies cannot become a successful game because of internal design flaws (e.g. its turn-based nature).

March 2014 – 3 months before launch

The retention profile of Loonies we managed to achieve until March was 45/12/3. It almost hasn’t changed in the last 3-4 months, although we have added several retention-focused features.

We decided to continue working on Loonies. Moreover, we decided to take a risk and implement big changes in the game design (in an “all or nothing” strategy). Also we decided to add content exposure model that was always prioritized low (more content, more work, big risk). The end result? We did improve the retention a bit, but monetization got worse.

We could have acted differently:

  1. We could have started looking early for a small investment ($100K-$200K) from private investors, mainly to prolong our runway and enable us to optimize both retention and monetization (and leave some money for marketing). Actually, we had exactly that opportunity with an investor,  but we passed. In practice, our investors (and part of the founders) didn’t want to take the new investment (as valuation wasn’t high enough) and we thought we might have better opportunities down the road.
  2. Without any relation to the first option, we could have shifted our focus to monetization instead of retention. This would leave most of the time we had left to try different options with the monetization model. We might have succeeded in achieving (or at least nearing) positive ROI (per user).

December 2013 – 6 months before launch

We managed to overcome the activation hurdles and achieve pretty good retention results on iOS. We had much worse results on Android. We decided to focus on enhancing the Android version results and continue working on retention-focused features. Also, we got to a conclusion we won’t have enough money to invest in marketing, therefore we started working on a publishing deal.

We could have acted differently:

  1. We could have shifted our focus on adding a single player mode for Loonies (or even focus only on SP), instead of working on enhancing the turn-based multiplayer game experience. Actually, this was exactly the feedback we got from several publishers (and later some game experts). This might have created new opportunities for Loonies to enhance both retention and monetization.
  2. Alternatively, we could have decided that our retention is good enough as it is, and start focusing on optimizing the monetization. In practice, this was a very hard decision to make, as we got a lot of recommendation to achieve retention goals first, and only than move to monetization. Also, we didn’t have yet the information (revealed through a research we read) that most of the conversion to paying users, and the payments overall are made in the first few days of user activity.

September 2013 – 9 months before launch

We were very close to soft launching the game, but some of us became very concerned with the lack of diversity in the game (that would affect retention). We brainstormed for solutions and decided to deepen the power up model. This resulted in a month of delay.

We could have acted differently:

  1. We could have just soft launch the game without delays. After all, our main lessons and meaningful iterations started after we had a big amount of users trying to play our game.
  2. Assessing our situation early enough, we could have started approaching publishers even before the soft launch. If we got their feedback early enough, we might have acted differently, and maybe even had more chances to sign a deal.

June 2013 – 12 months before launch

In June we still didn’t have an asynchronous version of the game, it was still being built in Unity. During our user tests in June and July we got a lot of feedback, that indicated we didn’t achieve the “fun” yet (after 3-4 months of iterating the prototype!). Still, we decided that their feedback is not conclusive and we should continue to production phase. The time we have already invested and the theoretical launch date that looked so far away (missing the planned launch date by months), created the pressure to continue with the game as it is.

We could have acted differently:

  1. We could have re-estimated the work-plan and understand we will not be able to run a good enough beta until the end of the year. It could have created more realistic expectations, and might have set different business goals for the next 9 months (for instance, get good beta results to be able to raise funds to bring the game to market).
  2. We could have continued iterating the game features, and even adding fidelity as needed until we got excited feedback from players (and get more confidence in the project). If we didn’t get there, dump the game and start a different project (with a plan to achieve good initial results, not to launch successfully).

Of course, the problem was we “promised” to build and market at least 2 games with the funds we got, so it would have been really hard to pull these decisions back then. Continue iterating the game (after investing more than 3 months)might have sounded like a crazy things to do. Dumping the project – although sometimes is the best decision might have sounded even worse.

March 2013 – 15 months before launch

From mid January to mid March we have made the most critical decisions, that would affect the product we have worked on and the way we worked on it.

To enable us work better as a team (that had its internal struggles the passing 6 months) we tried to clearly divide the responsibilities between the team members, but we couldn’t agree on the most important parts, and so the product definition, the concept of the game, the features, the work plan and the priorities, was left to be a team effort. We paid a very high price for this decision, as we had hard time in agreeing on the audience, the concept of the game, and the priorities of the different features. We managed to decide what to do, but not always with coherence with previous decisions.

The other important decision was the game we would develop. We decided to continue working on the turn-based model (as our analysis suggested it can be a profitable genre, and it will be easier to create a bigger user base in the casual market), but instead of continuing our work on the President (or some derivative of it), as we originally planned (and shown investors), we decided to dump the concept of 2 layers and start a totally new project.

Moreover, based on our previous experience (in building the mobile game in HTML/JS), it was clear we had to change technology (later it was decided to be Unity).

We could have acted differently:

  1. We could have insisted on diving the responsibilities. The truth is this could have created a clash, that might have broken the team apart.
  2. We could have suggested 2 man work teams (like we actually did in the last few weeks of Stix).
  3. We could have continued working the 2 layer game concept (as we knew what works and what improvements are needed). Making us much closer to soft launching and learning.
  4. We could have chosen a different (either simpler or better monetizable) game model for our next game. Although we actually didn’t know how bad performing turn-based games were.
  5. We could have simplified some of the requirements. For instance, develop a 2 player game instead of 4 player game (a decision we were forced to do several months later). This affected a lot of our original decisions, including the chosen game itself.

November 2012

By the end of October, we have launched our first game, The President. We decided to make it available in all App Stores, and we treated this (effort-wise and state-of-mind wise) as a real launch (although the product was far from being “well done”).

We could have acted differently:

  1. We could have treated it as a soft launch, without trying to market it, and focus on learning and iterating. We originally wanted to use the 2012 US presidential elections as a boost, therefore we could release the game only in the US and learn from that.
  2. We could use our next 3 months not only to get an investment but also show how we learn and improve our game metrics (by fixing the on-boarding experience, enriching the game diversity, etc.)

In reality it wasn’t easy to do. The product was still very far from being good enough (therefore, did not meet our own expectations – even though, originally, we planned to develop minimal viable game and iterate it). Also, the feedback we got after the pitch event in The Junction was pretty devastating for us. This resulted in one of our worse times as a team (getting the investment in January 2013, was actually a big surprise, as it was pretty much against all odds, in my opinion).

June 2012

June and July were very intense months, during which we have done some of the most critical decisions that defined Stix’s strategy, work plans, funds and projects.

  1. We decided to follow our (and Guy Gamuz’s heart) and pivot into a game company (instead of a B2B service company).
  2. We quit our jobs (as we were about to get funded by Guy Gamzu), moving us for the first time to be fully dedicated to Stix
  3. We defined several game concepts (first game mechanics, and later creative concepts) – deciding to continue to work on a 2-layer game model that was derived from the B2B model
  4. We decided to stay in the B2C game company model, although Guy Gamzu withdrew his proposal after few weeks
  5. We joined The Junction, thus creating for us an adequate workplace (though not very relevant knowledge-wise)
  6. We decided to develop a minimal viable game, that will help us learn and get funded (within 6 months)

Later, we struggled a lot with the creative concept of the game: we were “traumatized” by the original concept we had (Space Sheep) because of Guy Gamzu’s reaction, which led us to testing several new concepts, getting feedback (from Oren) that the concepts we created are not good enough, leading us to create another concept, that was found to be too complex to be implemented in the timeframe we had. We finally created a simple, yet problematic (Election theme) concept that was implemented to become our first game “The President”.

I still believe most of our decisions in this phase were good (quit our jobs, continue as a game company despite the changes, develop a minimum viable game). The problems were with executing the plan and managing our own expectations.

I believe we could be in a better situation:

  1. We should have continued working on the Space Sheep creative concept. It was cute, funny, “timeless” and mainly very developed. We literally wasted months of creative work and weeks of development, in implementing, arguing and changing concepts. And all because of one person feedback. This would definitely help us achieve a more mature game at the (soft) launch date (and it would feel less time-specific as the feedback we got about The President), so we might not have dumped it later on.
  2. We could have simplified the game complexity (making a 2 player game instead of 4 player). We were pretty sure this is part of our uniqueness, so I am not sure we could have decided this anyway.
  3. Alternatively, we could have rolled back to being a platform company. We probably would have needed to find a unique model that would set us apart from the competitors (that were all ahead of us, and we got a lot of feedback that the market felt crowded). For instance, we might have developed a unique communication app, that would become a distribution platform (and maybe a bit more) for games. It should be mentioned that we had more experience in designing applications than games and the technology we used (HTML/JS) would fit an app much better than a game.

Earlier times

I could have gone even farther into the past, and ask myself if there was any logic in trying to build a desktop app (for almost a year, during 2011) in our spare time (it was hard and inefficient), or should we waste so much time on defining a product for desktop and for such a long time (during 2010), when the emerging trends were Facebook games and mobile games.

But all of that happened when we dedicated a fairly small portion of our time to the venture (and we had so little experience), therefore I see this whole model as problematic. We really started learning when we started getting feedback, which made us move (by the end of 2011) to a b2b service for mobile game developers.

Another interesting point in time is back in 2009, before Stix was conceived. We were 2.5 people working on a game toolbar project with 2 operating games, when we already had an early alpha version, several testers and some metrics.

Summary

So what were the main problems or the main causes to our failure?

  1. We were – almost always – too optimistic about the time / effort needed to achieve our goals.
  2. We threw away efforts (and achievement) in favor of starting something new, even though we didn’t have valid information to make these decisions.
  3. We had a hard time making decisions, especially for Loonies, as each of us wanted it to be a different game, and we let it continue for a long time, without trying to drastically solve this way of work.
  4. We fully launched products before they were “ready” for this stage, not meeting our expectations and making the case of a valuable investment very problematic.
  5. We didn’t always get early enough and detailed enough feedback regarding the game (though we became better in this). Even when we got feedback we failed to use it to make the right decisions.

But when I look at these problems, I think there are actually only 2 root causes to our failure:

  1. Bad team structure – I have already wrote a lot about the problems we had with our founding team in my previous post. I think this is all still very relevant.
  2. Lack of experience – none of us worked in a game company before, nor did we have experience in building startups. It led us to take a lot of bad decisions (e.g. optimistic effort estimations, problems identifying the big challenges, selecting bad monetization models, plan the right time to raise funds, etc.)

Lessons learned

My conclusions:

  1. Have a balanced and experienced team. Balanced team is much more critical, as experience can be gained by doing, or somehow hacked by getting an experienced mentor.
  2. Have a clear vision for your game, that you believe in (don’t build something you don’t believe in), but have a solid business case for its financial success (if you are planning on doing business out of it).
  3. Reduce complexity, not quality. Game are entertainment. More game features is not necessarily more fun, bad quality will backfire badly.
  4. Test the game early, learn and iterate (from prototype to alpha to beta to launch). Have clear conditions to moving forward for each stage.
  5. It is important to know when to quit, but it is not less important to know when to continue pushing. Throwing away hard earned efforts before exhausting the relevant options, might take you back months in the process.
  6. Time fund raising efforts to the point when you are able show achievements, but before you have fully launched the game. This enables you to still sell a dream – and have more time to perfect the game.

Alternative paths

So was there a realistic path we could take that would eventually lead us to success?

I am not sure. Our team structure created a lot of problems and tension. That, combined with our lack of experience in game development and entrepreneurship, resulted in unrealistic expectations and bad decision making.

If somehow we could create the balance within the team (hard definitions) without breaking the team, or create a workable process (that manages to work around the lack of balance), and if we would have found an experienced mentor to help us make less mistakes, we might have executed this plan (starting June 2012):

  1. Raise pre-seed ($50K-$100K) money for art / sound / small salary
  2. Design (including monetization) and develop a game based on Spacesheep – iterate its prototype and alpha to achieve fun (3-4 months)
  3. Soft launch the game and iterate to achieve good retention (deal with activation, add SP mode, deal with diversity) (3-4 months)
  4. Raise seed money ($250K) to make the game ROI positive
  5. Continue with the soft launch until good monetization (3-4 months)
  6. Raise A round ($1M) to scale the game and create a lot of revenue
  7. Market the game aggressively, generate revenue (6-12 months)
  8. Raise B round ($5M+) to create a bigger company (with several teams)

There could be several sub options of course (for instance, create really small polished SP game that will show what can we do instead of developing a more complex game prototype), but this is the main structure.

This plan would not only mitigate risks for investors, it would also mitigate our own risks (for instance, create a good MP game or even good enough beta is almost impossible within 3 months, but creating a detailed prototype / alpha) within the same time frame is much more achievable). If we couldn’t create good results in each step in this plan, we would understand pretty early we are not up for the job.

Even if didn’t run this kind of plan from June 2012, we could come up with this kind of a plan when we started Loonies (after we got almost $300K) and focus on creating good retention in soft launch and raise additional money ($200K) to make the game profitable and launch it.

Another path might have been going back to the platform model. Still I don’t believe we would do better as a B2B company with so much competition. If we could find a different path to become a platform (like Tango), maybe we had an interesting chance.

A totally different path, would have been starting a partnership with the CTO by the end of 2009, without adding any founders. Back then, we had a basic (though not scalable) application, and one (and later) two games, and even alpha testers. We could have left our jobs (or at least work part time), pay for a designer (from our own pockets) to create a simple brand and enhance the user experience, to stabilize the app and run beta tests. By 2010 we could have enough information to take it further: talk about the achievements in beta and about the future (mobile app, which we designed already) and raise our first round. This path would create a founding team of 2 (instead of 4), and focus on what was already working, instead of generating detailed new concepts without any empiric information regarding the original idea. This is very theoretical option, as I was not yet ready to make the jump to full-time entrepreneurship in 2009, and we had even less experience…

Last words

Hoping your first startup / business will be a success is not very realistic. Most startups fail. I don’t think there was any different way I could learn all that I have learnt – first hand – beside being the CEO of Stix. It’s priceless.

So it is very unlikely our story would have ended in a different way.

But maybe

  1. If I was more courageous in the early stages , or
  2. If we found a way to work around our problems as a 4 member team, and
  3. If we found a successful and experienced mentor 

This venture would have developed to a success.

So if you are a newbie and you are starting a new venture, make sure you have a well balanced team, and if you lack the experience, get someone on the board that has lots of it…

What I’ve learnt about startups and games so far

When 2012 was about to end, I couldn’t find the energy to summarize the year, and didn’t have any clear view of my next steps. It was one of the hardest years I ever had both financially and mentally. I was very pessimistic about the future.

The only text that somehow resembled a summary or reflection was the post I wrote for the Junction, the accelerator we participated in (July – October 2012).

Now, in the last days of 2013 and the beginning of 2014, although I am far from being a successful entrepreneur, and Stix is still far from a financial success, I can reflect upon this year (and the year before) without fear, with healthy criticism but also with a lot of satisfaction.

The Hardest Thing Ever

Most of my early life was pretty easy, from my point of view. I was fortunate to have caring, hard-working and stable parents, who didn’t have a lot, but never deprived me of anything I needed. I was a good student early on, and continued to excel all the way to my graduation. Even my bachelor and master’s degree were fairly easy tasks. I was always a valued employee, I had interesting jobs, and my salary was pretty nice. It all was very easy.

I always felt it’s not fair. And somehow, I figured, that running my own business will challenge this “unbearable lightness of being”. Well, it seems I was right about that. Running a gaming startup is the toughest thing I ever did.

The moment you leave your safety net (as an employee), it becomes an ever running emotional rolling coaster. It’s all up to you and your team, you call the shots, but you also get the hits. There’s no one to tell you are great. The only metric of success is the results of your business – did you create something that others value? have you succeeded in getting an investment? is there traction? revenues?

And yet, it might be a cliché, but I am certain – today more than ever – there’s nothing of real value, that can be created, without real, hard and sweaty work.

So, would I do it all over again if knew how hard it is few years ago? Would I recommend it to other people? Certainly, if they are really, really passionate about an idea, a way to improve other’s life, a problem they want to solve, a life-changing product they just must build.

I would also give them some piece of advice.

Start

Start Early

I left the Israeli Air Force at age 35 (it was 2008). Most people don’t leave the army at that age, they either quit before they are 30, or they stay until the retirement (~45). I realized I want to become an entrepreneur, build products and companies. So I left, even though it was a bit “late”.

But I was afraid to take a deep dive in. I knew very little about entrepreneurship, business, marketing, consumer product or game development. Even worse, my social network was mainly irrelevant for my new career. So I took a safer path – I became a full time employee (in UX and Product positions), and in my spare time I ran several game projects. Only after 2 years (2010), I chose to focus on a single project, and only after another year (2011), I partially (50%) left my job. Only after 4 years after leaving the army (2012), I fully quit my job to lead our venture.

During this time, we’ve seen the rise of the mobile devices and the decline of the personal computer, casual games shifting from portals to Facebook to smartphones. Our initial venture was a multi-player browser toolbar, which shifted to a Skype-like gaming platform, then to a cross-platform mobile service, and finally to become a social-mobile game company…

Looking back, I am not totally sure if I could do it in a different manner. But I know that during the 4 years I worked as an employee, I learnt a bit about business, and marketing, building consumer products and even games. But I have learnt 10 times more in the last 1.5 years of running a company full time.

My advice – start it as soon as you possible. Don’t wait for the right moment, as it might not come at all. Drop your your excuses and just start.

You think you don’t have enough experience? Bullshit. Entrepreneurship is a totally different career path. The most relevant lessons for building your company will be acquired through the process of building your company, not by being employed by others.

You don’t have the financial security yet? Tough. The older you get, the harder it will be for you to take financial risks. When you are young and don’t have a lot, but you also don’t need a lot.

Markets change, you change. What is relevant today, might become irrelevant in 2 years. Make your move, and when ready commit 100%.

Start Small

Building a customer-worthy product is not an easy task. Especially, if you haven’t really led the design and development of a full consumer product before. It takes time (usually more than you’d expect), it needs iterations (usually more than you’d expect), and managing, designing, developing, and testing the product becomes an ever growing complexity.

My initial projects were fairly small – stand-alone single player games. A multi-player game, and especially a platform for mobile multi-player games, is a totally different league. The complexity of this thing is much bigger than I expected.

Looking back, I think I should have tried to transform one of my smaller projects to a real product, try to market it, monetize it, etc. I would have learnt so much, and would have been more ready for taking bigger, bolder projects.

No matter how small the product in size, you will have to go through all the main steps: building a team (unless you are doing everything alone), planning, testing, iterating, shipping. The smaller the project, the more chances you have to make it better (though never perfect…).

At first, learning should be your main goal. So choose your first project as small as possible. Even smaller. Tiny.

After making it for the first time, you can constantly challenge yourself with bigger, bolder projects. One of them might become the “one” you’d like to commit yourself to.

Founding Team

Size

We are a founding team of 4.

I always heard investors are more likely to invest in team of 2-3 people. A single person might not have enough skills or the mental strength to run a startup, but teams bigger than 3 have hard time in making decisions.

Based on my experience, they are right. We found ways to deal with this problem, but it’s not easy. The group dynamics are more complex and tedious. I felt it many times, that in sub-groups of 2 or 3 we have faster progress and better decisions.

So I would advice on a team of 3. I presume 2 could be enough if you hold all the critical expertise diversity needed to run your business. Later, as business grows you would hire employees, but they won’t be critical decision makers as the founding team members.

Diversity

Our founding team is product-oriented. All the four of us. Most of us had previously worked as product designers and/or product managers. Although we possess an excellent software engineering capabilities, it’s the product that we are all passionate about. Sometimes, maybe too passionate.

We spent hours discussing different issues regarding the product, from high level concept to the smallest details. The biggest disputes were about game design.

Everyone thinks his idea is the better one, and that it is critical for the success of the product. And although having lots of ideas is usually great, this model (of many people owning the same area) has it costs: time wasted, bad vibes, slow decision making process, and more.

I think diversity is a key in the founding team. The founding team should cover: business, marketing, product and engineering. People may have experience in several, and overlapping in some parts is not a bad thing, and having opinionated team-members is important, but people should feel ownership on their domain. They should feel super-heroes.

Leadership

Leadership is not an easy task. I found it easier in the past, when my leadership also came with a title (e.g. Major or Team Leader), but leading people has much more in it. It’s about showing the way, making hard decisions, but also about doing the dirty work, being a professional, a person that others trust.

I know I made a lot of mistakes as a leader. I didn’t always make the hard phone calls or sent the emails I needed, I let discussions continue instead of stopping them and taking a decision, I wasn’t always nice to my team members, I wasn’t always optimistic about the future, I wasn’t always solid as a rock.

And yet, I definitely lead the team. Most of the time I make the hard decisions, most of the time I try to do the hard and ugly tasks, and I try my best in being nice and optimistic. It’s not easy, especially when I feel bad and pessimistic.

So my advice – build a good, diverse, and small team, and lead them by showing the way, making hard decisions and helping your team members achieve greatness.

Endurance

This might be the most important ability of your team.

It’s not the idea (that changes during the process), not the market size. It’s your team, and mainly its endurance.

You need endurance because you will get hit, because you will be down, because there are going to be really bad moments. And the one thing that will save your team is endurance.

Our venture almost died. Actually, it did die, but right at the next day, our (future) investor called in to ensure our offer is still relevant…

If you stay long enough in the ring, get the hits but always come back, you will probably win (or at least give a good fight). Never loose hope.

Process

Plan

I already wrote about planning in my previous post. Planning a long-term project is hard. It’s even harder when you are doing it for the first time.

When we started planning our first commercial game – Loonies -  we had only one relevant experience: The President, which was a pilot game we have developed to test our conceptual and technical assumptions. So we knew how much it takes to develop a game, but not how much it takes to develop a commercially successful game…

We estimated it will take us about 6 months to launch. We even had good industry references telling us we are about right. We were wrong.

Initially, we estimated  it would take us about 3-4 months to get to a public beta (soft launch). It took us 9 months. And we are still building critical features.

Initially, we estimated it would take us a month or two to tweak all parameters, and achieve good metrics. We are 4 months in beta test and expect it will take us at least 2 more months to achieve these numbers.

So I will advice – again – to always plan, and then multiply your estimations. If you already have experience in this kind of project I assume multiplying it by 2 will be enough. The less experience you have, the bigger the number should be. Project will never run as planned – people become sick, go out on vacations, time will be wasted on discussions, meeting people, updating plans, learning new tools, and iterating and iterating and iterating (more about that later).

You might have read about startups that built a product in 3 months and had tremendous success. I don’t know any person who did that, and I am pretty sure these stories don’t tell everything. And if it happened to someone, he is the outlier. You shouldn’t build your expectations on these kind of stories.

Test

Your first idea will probably suck. And if it won’t suck, the initial implementation of the idea (aka product) will.

The only way to learn whether you have a good idea, a good design, a good product is to test it. And you probably can start testing it much earlier than you believe. At least some parts of it.

With a need-based product you can probably start validating the concept even before writing a line of code. There’s a lot of writing regarding the Lean Startup, which is a scientific-based approach to building products and companies (therefore experiments are in the heart of the concept). If you haven’t had the chance to learn about it yet, go and educate yourself. It is practical and important.

With games, it’s not different, at least regarding the state of mind. The only problem I found with testing game ideas, is that it’s much harder to validate them early enough.

When your product solves a need, you can find people who are your target audience to validate the idea with them, to show them some mockups of your product. But games don’t solve problems per se. They are entertainment, even worse, they are interactive entertainment. It’s very hard to know if a game idea is a good idea only by talking about it, or even showing some game art. Videos do a better job, but still not perfect. So you need to find the way to create a prototype of your game as fast as possible and test it.

I didn’t have the chance to try it myself, but in a away Kick Starter and Steam Greenlight, are closing the gap (by validating the interest and generating funding for your game), but it feels to me as if they appeal to niche audience (and we were trying to develop a game for the big general market).

So in our case we focused on prototyping. But there’s still a catch – while a crude prototype could be enough for your team (and other industry experts) to evaluate the game (is it fun, balanced, etc.), it will be very hard to test it with users, as their expectations of a “game” is of something much more polished, live and juicy.

It’s like a pilot show on TV. Although audience might watch only 2-3 chapters, these chapters still need to be well produced, or it might affect the audience’s opinions, you can’t just read them the script or show them a rough sketch.

While your team can evaluate the fun in the game pretty early by playing the game (a lot), all team members will be totally blind to usability problems, the learning curve, the level of difficulty, etc. These issues mustn’t ever evaluated by your team. You must test these things with new users (If possible do it face to face).

Only after you found the fun, and your game teaches the rules clearly and easily (based on the tests you made), you should start testing your game in the wild, with large audiences, data gathering and analysis tools.

I found multi-player even harder to test, as you need several people to to play every game. An a-syncrhonous turn-based game (like we did) is even harder, because the real gameplay experience is revealed only by playing it a-synchronically over a period of several days, at least. On the other hand, we found multiplayer games have some benefit in learning about your players behavior and gameplay styles, because we were able to really play with our users.

So to sum it up:

  1. In the prototype stage, test with experts (your team and other industry experts). Your main goal is find the fun.
  2. In Alpha stage (when the game should look, sound and behave much closer to the final product), start testing with your audience. Test mainly for usability (general UI, tutorial), but you can learn about fun too. If possible (sometimes you have to) let your testers the chance to play in their natural environment (in mobile games this means an installed application).
  3. In Beta stage, you need to start testing with a lot of people (hundreds, thousands). Target your audience. Statistics start to be more important than the individual feedback.

Test early, Test often! And learn how to test properly before you start. Good testing (which will bring meaningful learning) is a matter of design too (the audience to target, the tools to use, the data to collect, the metrics to evaluate by, etc). 

Iterate

Testing is the first part of your cycle. That’s the part where you learn about your product. After the learning stage, you need to implement what you’ve learnt. Design solutions to your problems, prioritize, update your product, and go back to testing.

This process will not only increases your chances of creating a good product, it also eliminates much of the arguments and fights over different concepts or priorities. It’s much easier to prioritize features, after you have results based on real user behavior.

Ship

I don’t know a lot about shipping a product. But I know shipping is critical.

The first time we “shipped” a product (The president), it was half-baked. But we committed to shipping, and so we did. It was painful. We should have treated it as an Alpha, but we didn’t have the runway back then. We just weren’t aware of how much time we really need in order to create a good product.

The main question is when is your product ready to be shipped? Based on my experience, your product will never be perfect, and if you are time constrained (you should), than your dilemma becomes clearer but harder. 

So how to overcome this problem? Again, it is wise to build the smallest valuable product (see Start Small above). The smaller it is, the less testing and iterations it needs, the more chances it has to become great (even through your own eyes) and be shipped. Just don’t forget that for the product to be shipped, you’ll need at least twice the time you originally estimated.

To sum it up: plan to ship and commit to shipping (or else all your work might not be ever seen by anyone else), define a small product (especially, if you never shipped before) and multiply your original estimation to get a more realistic goal.

Product

A Game Company vs. Product Company

I already mentioned that games are different from need-based products. And yet the bigger problem is the difference between a game company and a product company.

Startups get money to grow a successful company. Product startups focus on a single problem and try to solve it. They sometimes pivot, but they don’t usually create several different products, at least not in their early life.

But game companies are different. They are usually expected to build several (or 52) games with which  they will have some rate of success, as games (like other entertainment endeavors) are still regarded as hit-based industry. So game companies should usually plan to ship several games in the time they got (the time they got based on their founders’ financial situation, investments, etc.)

Games vs. Products

Games are a type of product, but they are different from the need-based products.

Like in any product your need to know your audience, and you need to understand what is the product concept, but it’s much harder to validate the acceptance of your product by your audience early enough.

You can always innovate in the same genre, so in a way competitors are not a direct problem, but there is a big competition on users time.

Games are entertainment, so the polish level is pretty critical early on – it’s impossible to get “early adopters” if your product is not fun enough (and fun is comprised of  both features and art).

Games are usually played for a short time (days, weeks, sometimes months), because it’s very hard to create games that are diverse and challenging for years (unlike a need that usually can be served for a very long time), so you can’t launch the game and iterate it after that. If players had bad experience or already tired of your game, they won’t come back.

And yet there are similarities too. You still need to validate it as early as possible (though in games it’s not as easy), prototype, test, iterate, find product/market fit (meaning the exact audience, good retention, and maybe even good monetization), and than launch. Moreover, there are games that are played for years, because they diverse enough and challenging enough even after a long time.

Either way, to become a successful game company you need a strategy that will capture specific audience and create value for a long time.

Games as a platform

So this is it. If you are planning on getting funded as a game company, you should have plans to create a “platform” (and I am not talking about a service company that provides technological solutions for other game developers). I see 3 ways of creating a platform as a game company:

  1. A game that is designed to entertain people for years (Clash of Clans, Candy Crush)
  2. Develop a creative-based franchise (portfolio) of relatively short-span games (Angry Birds, Cut the Rope)
  3. Develop unique model-based (portfolio of) games, e.g. multiplayer games. Even better – own a technology to support it (like Newtoy, the developer of Chess with Friends and Words with Friends who was bought by Zynga).

Each of these paths – if successful – can be transformed into growth (developing more games, partnering or publishing for smaller game studios, buying companies).

Conclusion

Tips and lessons learned are great, but the best lessons are the ones you learn by yourself. So as always, my best advice is go out and start.

Building a startup? Five Obvious Things You Will Probably Do Wrong

This post was originally published on the Junction blog (http://thejunction.co.il/blog/).

 

Doing a startup is really REALLY hard. It is much harder than you expect. Trust me.

We have learnt a lot on our journey: about ourselves, about our domain, and about building a startup. Boiling it all down to a readable post is not easy. Nevertheless, I can highlight the most important lessons I’ve learnt:

Commit 100 Percent

Our venture started off as a hobby. For a long time, most of us worked on it in our spare time. And then we switched to part time jobs and worked on our venture 50% of our time. Only at the last 4 months we fully committed ourselves to our venture.

Our progress during the first stage (the hobby) was painfully slow. Even worse, only when we switched to 50%, we understood we were working on the wrong product all along. Working at 50% was much better, as we met more and worked more, but we still deprived ourselves of important things like a working space (“why pay for a place when you are not there 50% of the time”?). Working together, on a daily basis, positively affects your team’s mindset, focus and efficiency.

So my advice is work on your startup 100% of your time. If you are not sure you are willing to do this, than do whatever needed to be sure, or don’t do this at all.

Going slow is bad. Not only because markets and technology change, but because at the end of the day, what your mind really remembers is the time-span you are working on your project and not the amount of hours you invested.

Have a Plan

By having a plan I don’t mean just the milestones for development. If you are a part of the “makers” community you will be able to craft a product development plan (although it will be 2, 3, or 4 times too optimistic than the reality). By having a plan I mean understanding your business plan, thoroughly. I am not saying you need to write a business plan document, but you need to understand your customers and their needs, your market (size, limits, regulations, and competitors), and how will you make money. Your product should give an answer to all of these things. Ignore one of them, and you might be building a piece of software that is doomed to fail.

On our first iteration we were creating a cross-device (Desktop and Mobile) multiplayer gaming platform. We haven’t invested too much time in understanding the market (and its limitations), nor did we really understand how are we going to generate income. We sometimes told ourselves we would open our platform for 3rd party game developers (though we never spoke to them at the time) and users could download games and we would share revenue. So after we invested in building a desktop version of our product (WTF?!), and started thinking of creating a mobile version of it, we understood our whole product model was wrong because one cannot create an app that behaves as market/store on mobile devices.

So, have a business plan. Only after you formed this plan thorough enough, you can design your product, create a development plan and build it (don’t forget to multiply it by 2, 3 or 4).

Have Rigid Deadlines

After you have multiplied your work-plan, set a milestone and commit to it. And I am talking about important external milestones: installing to beta testers, launching the product. It would be even better if the date is external (like a holiday), so you cannot postpone it.

Having a rigid deadline will create focus – what are the most important features to be developed, what are the really important bugs to fix. Having a rigid deadline will create commitment – you and your team will do everything to achieve the goal.

Hitting milestones according to plan is hard. My advice is work iteratively. Some part of the product can (should?) be designed and built in a waterfall method, but most of your product development plan should be iterative.

It enables you to continuously test your product and reflect on it, prioritize features and bugs better, and have an ongoing sense of accomplishment. You might not have the perfect product at launch (yet). But you will have more chances of having a product that is good enough to be shipped on time.

We are a quality driven team, and it’s very hard for us to ship a product that is not perfect. So we have committed to an external deadline: the US elections. Our first game, although not directly related to the US elections, would benefit a lot from the hype around the event. We knew we must ship before the elections, and totally changed our work, our decisions and level of expectations.

Mind Your Potential Customers Not Your Potential Investors

I found it is hard to get funded, especially because we are a team of first time entrepreneurs. Nevertheless, during the last 12 months we were trying to do exactly that. Obviously, reaching investors, require specific tasks that affects your decisions and priorities.

Not only talking to investors takes time (setting meetings, getting prepared, meeting them, following up, etc), if you are not careful you might make bad decisions regarding the product development. For instance, investing (way too much time) in an irrelevant feature only to demo or impress potential investors.

We made this mistake twice (a bad habit for itself). Once, we started building a demo, and found ourselves building the wrong product (because we never stopped to think about the whole business plan); and second, we implemented a design that we knew we won’t ship, mainly because we thought it will be impressive enough for potential investors.

At the end of the day, most potential investors are (said to be) more impressed by traction than by a cool product. So whatever makes your customers happy, will probably make your investor happy.

Get feedback. ASAP!

No matter at what stage your venture is, talk to people. Talk to people about your product, talk to people about your business model, talk with potential users, talk with fellow entrepreneurs. Just talk. And if you having something to show already, than show it (mockup, demo, beta…)

So many times we live in a “world” we have created, that we start to believe it is true, or perfect. It’s not as if every feedback should immediately change what you are doing, but having many opinions will give you a wider view of your venture.

We have been building our first iteration for many months, and didn’t get any real feedback during this time. Only when we started talking about it (and showing it) to people, we got to the sad conclusions we were building the wrong thing.

Bonus: Be ready to make mistakes. A lot!

Nothing will really help you not making mistakes. Not this post, nor TechCrunch posts, or TNW, or any other blog posts. People don’t learn well through other people’s mistakes.

I know, you probably read these lines and say to yourself that you are different, or maybe you even think you are implementing these tips. But it’s only after you make the mistake and understand you did them, you might really learn something.

Therefore, you should just start doing it. It won’t be easy. I promise.

Good luck!

Collaborative Hobby Project Essentials

So what is it?

Do you have a great idea, but you’re afraid to take the risk and leave your job? You like what you’re doing, but you search for fun activity with a bunch of nice people? You’re searching for another way to practice your creativity or your leadership skills?

What the hell… it doesn’t matter. Just set a mission. Commit to it. And have fun. It’s a hobby project!

My list of essentials for a successful (hobby) project:

  1. Great team
  2. Simple work processes and habits
  3. Easy-to-use free collaboration tools
  4. Leadership, faith and patience

What? What about ‘a great idea’? Could I forget this ingredient?

Usually people think the first thing you need is a great idea in order to start a project. I disagree.

1. A Great Team

The first thing you need is a great team. If you have a group of self-motivated, talented people, you don’t need an idea. The ideas will come on your first brainstorm meeting. Even better, when people conceive the idea together they are more committed to its goal.

I always search for new candidates. I always think: “is that guy I just met could fit into the team”?

I gathered a team of guys I already worked with in the past. I knew their skills, and I knew I could trust them. Only than we started brainstorming for ideas. Our main focus was – how do we leverage our knowledge and transform it into innovative and exciting products? After few brainstorm sessions we had more than 50 (!) ideas. Even after filtering we had almost 10 really good ones. Eventually we had to choose one idea to start with. We chose the easiest… small wins is always better than big losses.

One of the challenges is to keep your team motivated. After all, it’s a hobby project. There’s no investment, no budget. Everybody are a part of that project only for the ride. Of course you can promise that they will be rewarded right after the big success… I prefer to talk about the journey itself. No fake promises. Just the truth: we’re here for fun, for the learning experience and for the chance that someday our idea will become a product people will love. That’s all.

2. Simple work processes and habits

Workload

It’s a very delicate relationship. You must find the balance between a productive and manageable workflow, and a mild workload. Very easily the hobby project may become a second job. If your team members do it on their spare time, you must be tolerant to timetables, to meetings being postponed, to team members not showing up. Still you need to know when to cut things. Too tolerant – and your team will break a part.

We found the balance in 5 hrs of work every week. This sounds very reasonable. Just an hour a day… less than the time needed to go to the gym.

Meetings

We have a sync meeting every 3 weeks. Usually it happens as we planned. We do it even if 2-3 team members are missing. It’s almost impossible to have everybody at the same time every time. Usually we have more than 80% attendance.

I recommend making the meetings a fun get together. After all, people are doing it for the sake of the idea, not for the money. Order a Pizza, bring the Playstation, you name it… invest in fun. If you succeed in that – nobody will miss a meeting.

I believe in sharing knowledge and collaborative creation of ideas. So whenever I can, I conduct a brainstorm sessions. There might be some specialist in your team (technology, marketing), but it will be less fun if every specialist would only do his chores. So on big issues – brainstorm. That way everyone can influence the project. This is a great opportunity to learn new things. The key is to do it right. Too many times I was engaged in bla bla discussion meetings titled “brainstorm”. To conduct a good brainstorm you need to have a specific mindset and keep few (simple) rules. I found this article comprehensive yet simple. After you read it, you will be able to conduct a productive brainstorm session.

Now the meeting is over – a good summary is essential. Wait, aren’t we talking about a hobby? I know it sounds almost like work… But the commitment needed in this project is not different than any other reasonable hobby: going to the gym 2-3 (or more) times a week, managing your band, etc. So, if you want the project to work, you need everybody in sync. I use the simplest way –  send an email of a meeting summary + tasks. I also recommend you to do it yourself. Most of your team members produce, create and innovate. Don’t bother them with project management.

Staying in Touch

Meeting every few weeks is a problem. It’s not like going to work. It’s very hard to keep the tension. No tension = little work done. I try to stay in touch, have a friendly conversation once a week on an IM application or the phone, ask about the project  status, motivate and offer some help. This helps raising the tension a bit. For instance, one of my team members – a programmer – prefers working when we’re both chatting online. He needs the company to get in the mood. Anything for the sake of the project… 🙂

Achievable goals

This is a simple rule. It’s true in every project. It’s very important in a hobby project. When people contribute only few hours a week, your pace is really slow. So you’ve got to think of achievable goals, quick wins. Don’t stay in the design stage too long. It might take ages. When you know enough about the core of the project, start developing it.

Agile development process

Of course when talking about quick wins, experimentation instead of long design processes… you’re talking about agile development. Although it would a lie to state that we’re developing in an agile method per se. Still, we keep few agile rules:

  • Short sprints: the time between our sync meetings. Usually 3 weeks.
  • Deliver working software frequently: We have a working application in every meeting. Usually even in between.
  • The team acts as an Effective Social Network: This is easy – we’re all friends, not co-workers.
  • We use user stories in order to reflect the requirements
  • Everybody has the authority, everyone can contribute, no hierarchy

Because we meet only once a week we don’t stand in our meetings. And they take much more than 5 minutes. Maybe we should incorporate this kind of habit in the beginning of our meeting…

Sub teams

Working alone isn’t much fun. So if you have enough team members – break them into small sub-teams. It seems to work better for us. Nowadays we have marketing team, product design team, and development team. But it will change. At first we didn’t have the marketing team, but we had a website design team. We changed it as the focus changed. The lesson here – people are flexible. So don’t be afraid to reshuffle. It gives them an opportunity to change roles, try new things.

That covers the first two points. I wonder if anyone has some good advice here. We’re always ready to get a good advice and update our work processes.

Next time I will talk about tools to enhance your project and some qualities you should have in order to achieve your goals.