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

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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.

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Here’s what I learned in 2015

A year went by. Boy it was fast.

And yet, when I look back at 2015, a lot of things have happened in my life: I settled into a job (though I thought I won’t), I finally cracked a system for creating and holding to new habits, I started working on my own side projects, and my financial state and my general well being were improved.

A Job

After the shut down of my venture Stix, I had to find a job. Our financial situation was still solid, but it was worsened during the 2.5 years of being an entrepreneur. During my job search many opportunities popped, but I couldn’t wait for all of them to ripen – I had a deadline: a long-planned family trip. The holiday season was coming right after it and I just couldn’t see myself without a job (and a salary) for several more months. So when the deadline was about to expire, I had to choose. And I did.

The final decision was mainly between two options:

  1. Become the first product manager in an early stage startup that was trying to tackle an interesting problem in the search space, but didn’t finish its funding round.
  2. Lead a new product in a big and already successful startup in the mobile ad space.

Other options were either eliminated or not yet ready to give their verdict.

It was a tough decision. But eventually I chose the big startup. It was against my original intuition, as ad tech is one of those areas I am really not passionate about. But the vibe in the company was good, people looked happy, and I had a good interaction with my potential boss (the COO). For a few weeks I had hard time fitting myself into this world. My mind was rejecting the decision and I felt I made a mistake. I thought of leaving. But my boss didn’t give up on me. And I am glad he didn’t. Because after a 2015 strategy planning offsite, I became to realize there are challenges that I found interesting. My role was extended and I took the lead of the UX team as addition to my original role as the product manager of the flagship product of the company.

Looking back at 2015 it feels like it was a great decision:

  1. The product I am leading grew from inexistent in 2014 to a market leader by the end of 2015. This is a very satisfying experience. I had to deal with the insight that the success of your efforts is not just a function of how hard you try. There are so many other factors… and most of them are not controlled by you.
  2. My feelings about the vibe in the company were correct. No company is perfect of course, but working with smart people in a great culture is super important. I had worked in the past for a company with an inspiring vision but bad culture – and it sucked. I still miss the feeling of purpose, of doing something of importance for humanity, but I was surprised by the effects of good culture and good people on my overall satisfaction.

And finally, the role allowed me to curve out time and experiment with new habits and personal projects. These, in turn, helped me in regaining my self-esteem and improve my general well being.

A side note: I can’t exactly know how my life would look like if I had chosen the role in the small startup, yet it came to my knowledge that it was shut down only 9 months after our negotiations (in spite the fact they managed to raise the funding round).

Habits

Throughout the years I have been trying to set yearly (and sometime even longer term) goals for myself. And although I had pretty good success achieving long term goals, I always had a problem with creating good habits. I had a bunch of new habits that I wanted to pick up, and then I tried to make them stick.

These year – I think it was after I read a few articles about habits – I decided to try a different approach:

  1. Each habit had a daily or a weekly goal
  2. I didn’t try to achieve all of them at once. Instead I focused on acquiring a single habit in a timeframe of 4 weeks (some call it “the 30 day challenge”).

The first habit I selected was pretty small and easy – to floss my teeth daily – but I wanted to start this new system with an easy win. And so I flossed for 4 weeks without missing a day. And then I selected to add a habit that was important for me (and my wife) – to wash the dishes every day.

And so, step by step, habit after habit, I was able to make real changes in my way of life. The habits I acquired include:

  1. Daily flossing
  2. Daily dish washing
  3. Daily weight measuring (which I did in order to balance my diet)
  4. Daily planning
  5. Daily journaling (to reflect and be greatful)
  6. Daily mediation (goal: 60 minutes/week)
  7. Practice Aikido (goal: 120 minutes/week)
  8. Work on personal projects (goal: 10 hours/week)
  9. Read fiction books (60 minutes/week)
  10. Read (or listen to) professional literature (60 minutes/week)
  11. Sleep more (42 hours/week)
  12. Walk more (70,000 steps/week)

The approach isn’t perfect: some habits needed more than 4 weeks to stick, some of the habits still create a challenge in meeting their goals. And yet, this systematic approach is the best I used so far. I find it works because of these factors:

  1. It focuses on a single habit. A single challenge makes it feel achievable, even easy to do.
  2. After 4 weeks most of the behaviors were easy to do, almost automatic. It feels like it rewires the brain.
  3. Every new habit I acquired (right from the first) created a feeling of achievement that pushed me further in acquiring more habits.
  4. Although it takes time to make a habit stick, during a single year you can easily gain at least 10 new habits.

I feel that habits are a great way of changing your life. It’s like hacking your brain into doing things that might be damn too hard. All you need is 4 weeks of focusing your energy on a single challenge.

I already have a list of new habits I am going to pick up in 2016.

Side Projects

One of the most important habits I created is working on side projects. I managed to remove some procrastination habits (like consuming content) and started utilizing the free time I had after 9:30PM. Since acquiring this habit I am able to have 10-15 productive hours every week!

I used the time to pursue my passion – game design and development (Yes, closing Stix didn’t reduce my love for the domain).

I started working on 2 projects:

Goldilocks

A game that was originally planned to be an interactive story for kids, but transformed into an endless runner-shooter game inspired by the classic fairy tale and the cold war era. I work on the project with a friend and a Global Game Jam counterpart, Omer Nainudel.

I deep dived into prototyping the game (using Construct 2), and iterated the concept with dozens of versions until I have arrived to a unique and fun gameplay. Lately, implemented the cool art Omer has created, which makes the prototype feel like it’s almost the game itself.

Here’s the prototype: http://goldyultrasliderart.site44.com/
Tap on the left side too shoot. Swipe up to jump. Swipe down to slide. Hold (or swipe and hold) to get into Supermode. Better play it on your mobile.

Too lazy to play? Just watch the trailer on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/goldilocksgame/

We want the production-level game to be built in Unity or Cocos2D, but we are missing a developer, so if you are a game developer or you know one – drop me a line.

Hit n’ Run

A game inspired by the classic Spy Hunter:

I wanted to recreate the same experience of fast-paced driving action that includes hitting and blasting cars, but can be easily played with a single thumb even while walking.

I had this game occupying my thoughts for some time already, but now that I had the time and the ability to demonstrate my vision, I worked and iterated this game as well.

This version has has better steering model: http://drivertests.site44.com/

And this one expands the game design with virtual currency and powerups: http://drivercoins.site44.com/

Since then I created a partnership with a good friend of mine, Danny Livshits, who covers the development cost of the game, while I’m responsible for everything else. We have a game with 90% of the functionality ready for soft launch, but we are still searching for an artist/designer, so if you are one or you know one – drop me a line 🙂

Beside these two I have more game concepts I would like to work on, but I’m actually restraining myself from starting too many projects at once.

Well Being

The combination of the economical safety, the success of the product I lead, my systematic approach for acquiring new (and healthy) habits, and my ability to envision, demonstrate and execute my passion-driven projects transformed the way I feel.

While the shutdown of Stix and the months that led to it, left me exhausted and powerless, questioning my ability to create successful products, then my Supersonic experience proved me that I can create world-class market-leading products.

Although after closing Stix, I wasn’t sure whether I can execute my own vision, always dependent on others abilities, my side projects proved I can take an idea and make it a reality.

And although picking up new habits was a constant struggle in my life, the fact I finally cracked the system, made me feel that any goal is within my reach.

Summary

It was a year of recovery, a year in which I found and reinvented myself. It was a year I learnt some new things about life, and some new things about myself. It was a good year.

I already have goals for 2016, but what would I achieve, and learn, and discover is still to be seen.

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…