Stepping Back from Startup Land

The time has come to face the data before me, and make a difficult decision. Based on our velocity, our minimal feature set to launch, and our cash on hand, we will not ship V.Next before we run out of cash. Thus, V.Next development will move to a part-time gig as I seek employment elsewhere. The TL;DR here is that V.Next will still ship, just not by February 1st, 2016 as I had hoped, and not as part of my full-time efforts with SyncBuildRun.

How Did I Get Here?

The original goal for SyncBuildRun was to create two products. First, an Episodic Game with high-frequency releases (ideally, weekly) that captured the imagination of our customers and built a franchise of games and media. Second, a back-end data collection and analysis system that would allow us to examine player interaction and preference, and tune future episodes to be more engaging and satisfying to our customers. The high level goal was to productize the buzz process around Game of Thrones or Breaking Bad, so that we could predictably produce hits. You know, like Pixar, or Disney, or AMC (for the most part). Easy.BlogImage3

Except of course that it wasn’t so easy, and we didn’t really expect it to be. Building the game took longer than expected. Building a team took longer than expected. Our Kickstarter failed. There were prototypes and experiments that we built that went nowhere. We spent money on efforts and people who turned out to not be a very good investment. We scaled back our plans for the game, and the backend analytics platform turned into a data collection platform (we’ll analyze it later, we told ourselves).

Thus, here we are, eight months away from having something to ship with only four months of cash left in the bank.

Is This Failure?

No, absolutely not. Clearly we didn’t hit our goals of building a company that could self-sustain through a product launch. However, we still have a solid foundation for V.Next, and we’re months away from having a launchable product. We’re also on Steam, which means we have a place to distribute our product and earn revenue. Actually, it’s THE place to be to launch a PC game, and there’s no sunset date on that. We can launch when we’re ready. That’s great.

BlogImage1Personally, I don’t see this as a failure, but as an incredible, immersive learning experience. I leveled up at People Management, at Software Development, at Hiring, Marketing, Planning, Organizational Skills, Money Management, Forecasting, Data Collection and Analysis, and Pitching to Investors. While an MBA would have been less expensive, I gained a crossover skill-set while building a product that can potentially still return on my investment. I got to see firsthand the ins and outs of starting a business, the legal issues, the accounting issues, and the joys and foibles of marketing. I feel better prepared than ever to drive forward with any new “from-scratch” endeavor.

I also feel orders of magnitude more confident about my software development ability. Honestly, leading teams prior to this effort, I always felt somewhat short of where I should be as a developer. Sure, I had designed and written major components of large, successful products, but I had never done the full end-to-end on any product with the exception of one small web game. Now, I can say that I’ve written the entire app myself. I understand initialization and clean shutdown, the asset management systems, the input loops, event handling, the scene graph, the renderer, the audio systems, the overall system manager, the backend interfaces. I know when to use the Command Pattern, and when the Flyweight makes sense. I correctly implemented Factories and Interfaces, and compartmentalized the the code well. I built the tools that make our conversation system trivial, and data-drove the experience so that a little XML has a huge impact on the gameplay. Most of all, I solved every technical problem I encountered. No issue will ever again seem “too difficult”, because I have a methodology for driving solutions, and the track record of executing against that goal.

So this was a leveling up experience, with a product that will be delayed by a little less than a year, but still much further along than most games ever reach.

Finally, I will never again wonder “what if.” The worst possible outcome of my life would be to hit retirement and question my decisions, or have regrets about life goals not pursued. I will never regret this time because it allowed me to answer that question, have that experience, and build something that I’m proud of. Plus, it will ship, and on that day sometime within the next year, I can say I have a game on Steam that people are playing.

Why Take This Route?

I’ve been asked if I would do another Kickstarter, or go for IndieGoGo, or look around for investors. The first two options are certainly doable, but they have a lot of risk, and they also present an opportunity cost. Kickstarter is essentially a full-time job, as is IndieGoGo, and I would essentially be doing pre-orders. The community management and marketing side of each takes away from time that we can push the game forward. On the investor front, we’ve received a tiny (compared to overall investment) amount of money from family, but there is a lot of risk around this project, and I’m not as confident that there will be a good return for future investors as there could be if we were going against our original goal of game + full predictive service.

Also, when we look at the data, our hopes for 100k+ sales of V.Next were wildly optimistic. Daily website visits to vnext-game.com peaked in the low hundreds, with an average of well under a hundred sessions per day. Our MailChimp list of “interested followers” never peaked above 300 subscribers. We had over 2000 people vote Yes on our Steam Greenlight page, but less than 300 backers on Kickstarter. Facebook Ads had a worst case user acquisition cost of just under $5/User, and a best case of $0.78. Articles solicited by our PR representative had a far worse cost (multiples of our intended sales price), and demonstrated negligible upticks in page visits or mailing list subscribers. Given that we need to sell 10k copies of V.Next just to break even, the data stands against us. A miracle could happen, but good businesses are not based on miracles, unless they’re a 501c3.

Regardless, barring an unlikely life of unemployment, we’ll be able to pay our investors back (eventually). So that’s not a loss for them. Just a very very low interest long term loan.

What Went Well?

As I stated earlier, I wrote a lot of high quality code, and I have the foundation for something we can ship. It downloads and runs off of Steam right now (for our development account) on PC, and is getting there for Mac (there’s a content prepping issue, but we’re researching that). The game launches, plays, performs well on low-end machines, looks good and sounds good, but isn’t content or feature complete.

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We also did really well with hiring for content creators. Our music is top notch, we have an amazing title sequence video, our production art is perfect, our scripts are high quality and engaging, and our concept art incredibly either matched the vision in my head or far exceeded it. We kept our bar high for hiring, and developed a good set of interview questions, portfolio review, and culture fit. Although a large number of our hires were remote and contract, we maintained consistent communication, rapidly fixed problems, and received our deliverables on time and on budget. We met our company Core Value of No Difficult Geniuses.

We also have great advisors. Meeting regularly, as well as frequent email exchanges, our advisors were able to point out blind spots, make recommendations, and point out opportunities that we hadn’t seen before. We had a solid policy of “nothing is off the table” when it came to conversations with advisors. I never took criticism of the company or product personally, but I also didn’t always follow the advice of my advisors. Still, having great, experienced advisors who can offer an outside perspective is one of the most critical recommendations I can make, both for companies and for individuals. Wherever you are in your career, even as an IC, you should have two or three experienced people you can reach out to for advice and mentoring on at least a monthly basis.

Steam Greenlight also went well. Achieving that within a week was amazing, and watching V.Next go from launched on Greenlight to the #9 game out of thousands in the charts was highly encouraging. (More on this below.) Our Episodic System works well. Our tools for building and editing content are solid. Our codebase is relatively bug free and not too fragile. We have a small number of passionate followers.

What Would I Have Done Differently?

The biggest misstep overall was chasing Kickstarter and Investor Funding. As an advisor told me “making games is like panning for gold, and mostly you just get rocks.” Gaming endeavors that don’t already a demonstrate a proven track record of massive revenue or massive, engaged user bases simply do not make attractive investments. The Kickstarter process involved months of planning, content creation that could only partly be reused in game, and a publicity and marketing campaign that ate up tens of thousands of dollars. The opportunity cost there was that we weren’t building the product, and the outlay for PR and ads would have given us six more months of development runway. About 40% of the content we developed for Kickstarter was useful for Greenlight, so this wasn’t a total wash. The Greenlight campaign also gave us a false sense of hope for Kickstarter, which caused an overinvestment in Kickstarter publicity. Amusingly, the week we cancelled our Kickstarter, an article came out on a major gaming website describing the trends for Indie Game Crowdfunding, and how it had become a lost cause for new companies and new IPs. This data was literally two weeks too late for us.

We also pushed the feminist angle hard on our marketing campaign, with assurances from an advisor and several game community members that this would generate press and vastly increase our exposure. As a manager who wanted to create a more equitable environment, my heart was in telling a story about women in tech, presenting a strong and smart female main character, and showing the then fresh #gamergate community that female-friendly games were here to stay and could be successful. In the end, all the efforts around this angle had no material consequences. Online Community leaders who verbally committed to spreading the word didn’t follow through or had no impact. There was no press pickup. Some backers were turned off by the social commentary, and none of the backers who committed funding commented that this was a positive for them.

We did have one internal conflict that we should have solved earlier. Two people involved with the company got into an intense disagreement that I had to resolve, and this distracted from focusing on the game and the Kickstarter. There were multiple lessons learned here about performance management, communication, firing fast and hiring slow, and how we should drill down into ambiguity about what constitutes success and what is a process for getting there. I will never again accept “I have a secret system for achieving results” as an acceptable answer. Any system or process can be described and examined, there is no value in a process in and of itself. Executing the process is where all the value lies, and there should never be a fear that someone else will execute against your secret process once you share what it is, because most other people are too busy with other stuff. Performance against expectation must also be measurable, and steps must be taken to quickly evaluate and correct if these metrics are not being met. All hires from then on out were based on ability to execute, not on pure domain expertise.

From a tech side, we explored and prototyped ambiguous game modes too deeply, and too slowly. Creating our Side-Scroller Game Mode took a month longer than expected, but was also the most visually appealing and attention grabbing part of our game. I should have created that first to build interest sooner. The other game modes could have been explored and patched in later.

Delaying the episodic aspect of our game and getting a shorter “pilot” experience would have been a better approach. We could have evaluated the IP and the user base, then sold the Episodes as DLC once we understood what customers liked about our game. Alternately, we could have re-skinned the game or pivoted earlier to a different game type given our knowledge after release.

Finally, I wish I had gained a co-founder within the first three months of starting the company. Having another person in-house who was personally and financially invested in the game and company vision, who could contribute Marketing, Business, or Creative Expertise to balance out my Technical and Management expertise, and could take on some of the responsibilities that I was handling, would have been a huge boon. It also would have changed the conversation with investors, the press, and the public. Being a solitary CEO and business owner is a lonely experience, and having to stretch and grow into areas outside of my domain expertise was good for me personally, but not optimal for the business. My advice to other startup founders: Get a Co-Founder ASAP, or find one before you take the leap. (Yes, I know co-founders bring their own set of headaches, but having run a partnership before, I would prefer that situation.)

So What Now?

We have about four months of runway left. We’ll continue to work on the game and drive content and functionality forward. In the meantime, I’m on the hunt for a Seattle-area company that can use an experienced Software Development Leader to help them drive their goals and vision forward. Once that transition happens, V.Next will drop to a part-time effort, which will slow velocity, but keep it moving forward. It will take up no more time than soccer games with the kids, PTA meetings, and helping out with homework, which in my case will be a fine trade off since I don’t have children. It’s what I would do in my spare time anyway.

For our customers and fans, V.Next will come out, on Steam, sometime in the next year. It won’t be as soon as we wanted, and there won’t be as many episodes as we wanted. However, you will be able to play this game. It’s come too far, and there’s too much good stuff in there, to cancel it completely. Our contract workers are all paid up. The only people left with anything to lose are myself and our customers. I don’t plan on letting either down.

Thanks for coming along for the ride. Now, onward to what’s next!

Paul J. Furio, CEO & Founder SyncBuildRun, LLC

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