Joel Gascoigne

Startups, life, learning and happiness

I'm Founder & CEO of Buffer. This is where I share lessons I'm learning.

What online gaming taught me about startups

Written on 19th May, 2012
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Whilst researching for the Achieving overnight success: Kevin Systrom piece I published two weeks ago, I was excited to see that one of Systrom’s earliest recollections of something that impacted his journey with startups was that he played Doom II a lot:

"That was how I got into it actually. I’ll credit Doom II for everything."
- Kevin Systrom

I got really into online games when I was around 11, and there were a few things from the experience which I seem oddly similar to lessons I’ve learned doing startups in the last few years:

Pick a small market and you can dominate it

When I got into online gaming it was a fairly small game which got me hooked. I played more popular games like Age of Empires and CouterStrike, but it was a simple racing game called Midtown Madness 2 with a small audience that captured my attention. I can remember there were only ever around 300 people online, and after a while I knew almost all of them. When I got involved in the community and formed my own team, since there were not many people we were able to dominate.

Over a decade later whilst journeying into the world of startups, I initially tried to make a product work immediately in a large market with OnePage, “your business card in the cloud”. It was when I switched my efforts to build Buffer, a product with a seemingly smaller audience that I had much more success.

Start niche and nail it, then expand

In Midtown Madness 2, there were many different game modes: “circuits”, “checkpoint”, “blitz” and “cops n robbers”. When I started my own team, I started with just a few friends and we only competed in “cops n robbers” games. Even within this, there were people who would compete with just a specific vehicle. That’s how we began, and we became very good at that single type of game. Eventually, we expanded to all “cops n robbers” vehicles and eventually all game types. It was much easier to expand to others and attract more players by starting strong in one area.

I made many mistakes whilst spending a year and a half on my previous startup, and during that period I read a lot about the lean startup concept. Today, Buffer has a whole host of features and integrations. However, when I first launched, it was only available as a queue to delay Tweets for a single Twitter account. This proved to be a good approach, and it was easier to choose the best next steps once I had usage. This is similar to the bowling pin strategy and I believe it’s key to triggering initial traction.

Trust that you will learn everything you need to know

When I started playing Midtown Madness 2, I had no idea that teams even existed and how people came together at certain times to play regularly. I didn’t know all the language people were using, and I was constantly called a ‘noob’. When I had my own team and realised it’d be useful to have a website, I had no idea how to build one. Eventually though this is how I learned HTML, CSS, JavaScript and PHP which are the very skills I’ve used to build a high growth and profitable startup.

With Buffer, neither me nor my co-founder Tom had done much sysadmin work before we started. However, when we began gaining traction we had to learn how to scale up the technology. I barely knew what a database index was at the start, but now we have 10 servers with database replication and load-balancing. If there’s any one thing that’s helped me, it’s a belief that whilst I don’t know what I need to know right now, I know I will be able to learn it or talk to the right people for help.

It requires a huge amount of time to succeed

I was a real geek. I got completely obsessed with Midtown Madness 2, and whilst other kids were playing out in the street I was playing the game online with friends I had never met. I would play for hours on end, and I also spent hours coding the website for the team I had created. I spent probably two full years in this state of obsession, and eventually we competed for cash prizes and had some success.

In my article on Kevin Systrom’s “overnight success”, I attempted to validate through research my assumption that in fact it takes a huge amount of time to succeed in a big way with startups. Looking back at my own journey with startups, it actually started all the way back with gaming, since that’s how I learned to code. I’ve also spent almost two years on my previous unsuccessful startup before Buffer. Even with Buffer, we’ve now been running for one and a half years and we still feel like we’re just getting started.

Are there any experiences in childhood that have some correlation to things you have found to work today? I’d love to hear from you in the comments.

Photo credit: Futurilla

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