What online gaming taught me about startups

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 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

Like anything else, we need to practice startups

It is easy to look at successful founders and see them as genuises, as people who were without a doubt going to be triumphant. When we look at people in that way, it is completely understandable to think that they were born lucky and that we have some kind of disadvantage.

The story of Tom Preston-Werner

I was recently watching a Mixergy interview where Andrew Warner interviewed Tom Preston-Werner who founded GitHub. Tom is an amazingly talented and eloquent guy who has grown one of the most successful startups that exists today. Even more amazing, is that GitHub is completely bootstrapped. I’ve recently moved from the UK to San Francisco where GitHub is based, and I can say that especially over here a successful company being completely bootstrapped is very unusual.

Genius, or practice?

When you come across people like Tom who have built amazing, profitable companies like GitHub without taking a penny of outside funding, you couldn’t be blamed for thinking that he was born destined to achieve this success, born with some kind of advantage over the rest of us.

However, before we assume that to be the case, let’s look a little into what he’s done previously.

What Tom did before GitHub

Tom has been an avid open source developer, and chose to start writing open source software through a desire to participating in the community and gain some recognition. He was one of the first to write a Flash Replacement for text elemtns, though Sean Inman was the one who improved on it and ultimately took the glory with his sIFR. Later, Tom saw a need in the blogging community for a profile picture which would follow you around blogs and the web, especially in the commenting ecosystem, so he created Gravatar.

How Tom’s practice helped him with GitHub

Tom says his motivation to do these projects was to be a part of the community and nothing more. The key thing, however, is that he kept working away on projects.

Tom tried to monetize Gravatar through premium accounts, but he says that nobody really paid for premium accounts. He even took donations to keep Gravatar alive. Reflecting on this experience, Tom says:

"If you have an idea that becomes popular, and you don’t have a way to make money from it, well now you’re in a pickle."

It is now clear why he was able to build GitHub so quickly, and do it with no funding: he had practiced with previous projects. Tom took the experience of Gravatar growing so big without a revenue model and put in place a revenue model from the get-go with GitHub:

"If you’re gonna do a side project, that you think might become popular, you better damn well be able to make money from it, because otherwise you end up with a Gravatar where you just don’t even want it anymore and now you have to do something to get rid of it or otherwise deal with it somehow."

We don’t know when we’re practicing

One thing which seems clear when listening to Tom talking to Andrew about his experiences, is that when he was writing the Flash Replacement script as an open source project, he had no idea he would go on to build Gravatar, and when he did Gravatar he had no idea he would eventually build GitHub. Looking back, however, it is clear how these projects helped him build GitHub.

We won’t always know when we are practicing, but the important thing is that we are. What if that seemingly insignificant bit of open source code you write today is the beginning for you?

"Practice isn’t the thing you do once you’re good. It’s the thing you do that makes you good." - Malcolm Gladwell

Do you have an experience where in hindsight you can see that a previous project was the practice you needed for your current project? I’d love to hear from you in the comments.

Photo credit: nichole

Healthy naivety

I often like to look back on when I was just getting into startups. I think there is a myth in entrepreneurship which not only do many newcomers believe, but could also be a key reason why many don’t even “try”. The myth is that you need to know how to do everything, and you need to do everything perfectly. It’s not surprising when you look at successful startups: it is easy to think that they’ve done all the right things. I believe the reality is far from that, and I am starting to think that it is in fact very healthy to have a good dose of naivety whilst building a startup.

The scale anticipation fallacy

One prime example of something which I think falls into this notion of healthy naivety is avoiding what I have come to call the “scale anticipation fallacy”. The fallacy is that in order to build something which can scale to millions of users you need to build it in a way which can handle that scale right from the start. The idea is that if you don’t get it right at the start, you will never succeed.

When I started my latest venture, I had sub-optimal tables in my database, I was doing multiple queries to get data and I was looping through data and doing extra queries to get everything I needed. I had no idea what a database index was. I basically did all the wrong things. However, at the start, this didn’t matter. I didn’t have any users! As time has gone on, I have encountered some “nice problems to have”, and the server has struggled a little. It has been no problem to improve things as I needed to. I believe the fact I didn’t think about scalability has certainly helped me reach a point where scalability matters. Conversely, I wonder whether if I focused on scalability when it didn’t matter, would I have ever reached the point where it did matter?

You don’t know what you don’t know

When you’re building a startup, one of the most challenging things is that you are in a world full of unknowns and uncertainty. You literally do not know what you do not yet know. This is something I’ve talked about before, and I think the only way to really cope in this kind of environment is to strive for knowledge, information and validated learning through feedback. However, I think that looking back on my startup attempts to date, I would say that one of the reasons I am currently having some success is that I didn’t quite realise just how much I still had to learn in order to succeed. It is this kind of naivety which I think is a good thing. In fact, I may even go as far as to say I fear the fact that in the future I might know how hard something is going to be.

Steve Blank wrote about this in his article "Too Young to Know It Can’t be Done". I particularly like this sentence:

"if theyre really strategic older founders hire engineers in their 20s and 30s who dont know what theyve been asked to do is impossible"

Be proud of your naivety, and fear knowing too much

The scale anticipation fallacy is just one example of where I have been naive and I think it has turned out to be an advantage. The thing about startups is, it doesn’t matter how bad your code or anything else is. All that matters is that you create something people want.

I chose to attempt to create a startup immediately after graduating from University rather than spending some time in industry. It was a tough two years whilst I made lots of mistakes, and I am finally starting to have a little success now. However, the main thing I have learned is not “how to do everything perfectly”. The main thing I have learned is that a balance is required where you do everything “good enough” for the point in time you are at. Some might call this the 80/20 or Pareto principle. I believe that if I had spent some time in industry, I may have brought the skills I had learned to my attempt at a startup some years from now and I may have aimed to do everything perfectly. I think that would have been a big mistake.

I think clinging onto a beginner’s mind is very important. As Steve Jobs said:

"Stay hungry, stay foolish"

What do you think about the effect of naivety in startups?

Photo credit: Trey Ratcliff