My first product sucked like a black hole

You’d think after 3 years of studying Internet marketing, learning e-commerce stuff such as web hosting, payment gateways, shopping carts, email autoresponders and the like, as well as reading tons of books on business, marketing, leadership, finance, and other entrepreneurial-related topics, that my first commercial online product would have succeeded beyond my wildest dreams.

It sucked. Big time.

I was also writing on this blog, biding my time if you will. I couldn’t think of a product I’d be proud to create and sell. I’ve bought some seriously sleazy Internet marketing products, and I don’t want mine to be like that. I know how to set up an online business, at least a simple one. I just needed a product to sell. As a Chinese saying goes (paraphrased from the Three Kingdoms):

10,000 things are ready. Just lack the East Wind.

The background of that saying was that preparations for a fire attack on a flotilla of enemy boats were done. Arrows were dipped in tar (or naptha or whatever fire accelerant used in the old days). The troops were massed. Instructions were passed down. Everything was ready. They just lacked the wind blowing from the east. The good guys were on the east side, so the wind would basically blow any fire towards the enemy side.

Where was I? Yes, my black hole product.

A Dungeons & Dragons character class

So I found some people who played Dungeons & Dragons. The way I play a pencil-and-paper (-ish) fantasy RPG with dice rolling, is to use my imagination. I pictured myself as a fire-wielding wizard, or sword-skilled knight, or raging barbarian.

Alas, I happened upon friends who played Dungeons & Dragons as a game of mathematical and statistical probabilities. You might think that’s funny, considering I’m a mathematician. I read fiction and play RPGs (role-playing games, see?) because they allow me to be someone I normally can’t in real life. They allow me to do stuff that can and usually defy the “real world” rules. Why would I want to reduce that to an analysis of statistical probabilities?

It turns out that a substantial group of players (not just for Dungeons & Dragons) prefer to play it that way. Why do you think there are so many multiplayer online games? Because computers can do statistical probabilities and calculations exceptionally well. They just can’t come up with unique storylines. That comes from humans.

And so, I got this idea, “Maybe I’ll create a character class for Dungeons & Dragons. But I want it to be more dramatic-focused, igniting flights of fantasy, with openings for awesome storytelling. Hey since I’m a mathematician, let’s make it unique by making it maths-based.”

And so I created Math Wizard.

The original idea was Math Sorcerer. The difference is a game mechanic of Dungeons & Dragons. Suffice to say, a wizard requires an implement (such as a magic wand) and can do spell rituals (performing magnificent feats but requiring preparation materials and time). I wanted a sorcerer because that class is more chaotic, as in “unpredictable”. I wanted to introduce chaos theory somehow into the magic spells or powers.

A friend, who’s been playing D&D for years, suggested I use the wizard instead. So I had to make a significant change to how I created the character class. At this point, you’re probably already bored by the gaming references, so I’m going to speed over this part.

Financial fiasco

If you didn’t know, RPG products tend to have amazing artwork. Players are predominantly male, and men are impressed most by visual cues.

So my first mistake was to hire an expensive graphics artist for the cover of my ebook product. That cost me over US$ 1000. I’m not sure if I can divulge the exact fee, so let’s leave it at that. Not only did it cost that much, part of the contract agreement was that I could only use that image for only 3 years. After that, I have to renew the license if I want to continue using the artwork. The artist only granted me World First Rights, meaning I’m the only one with the image in the world for the first 3 years. After that, she’s free to sell the image on her own site.

I read a boatload of information on copyright during that time.

Next, I got myself a new website. To do soft marketing, I decided to go with blogging. The idea was to write about the playing scenarios that I played with my friends. This will help with search engine optimisation (SEO) and promotional efforts and stuff.

I also hired a website/blog designer for US$ 850. You know, to give a suitably fantasy-feel to the blog, and to launch with my product. Oh Ego, thou art strong and irritating…

To help with my research, I also bought lots of game books related to D&D. Companion books to the core rule books, books with lists of weapons and accessories, books of related character classes (so I could model my character powers on them without undue imbalance of game play). I didn’t calculate it exactly, but I believe I bought a total of about US$ 200 worth of books.

The books weren’t just for my research. I bought them because I wanted to be a better gamemaster. Interesting quote from Wikipedia:

It was noted, in 1997, that those who favor their left-brain such as skilled code writers usually do not make it in the ethereal gamemaster world of storytelling and verse.

Nobody really wants to be the gamemaster and my friends actually welcomed the fact that I was open to be one for them. It turned out, my friends were divided on my gamemastering techniques. Half of them were happy they got practically unlimited freedom to express their inner character in my make-belief worlds. The other half couldn’t give a shiitake (one of them didn’t even make an effort to participate). Now I have US$ 200 of books I don’t want anymore. That is a lot of business books and fiction books I could’ve bought…

Audience apathy

The real mistake was that I didn’t understand my audience. Frankly speaking, most of those players do not want a story-centric character. Let alone one that has powers based on maths, with possibly complicated game mechanics.

The veteran players might have found my character class insufficiently powerful for them. “Too much fluff.” “Fluff” is the word used for anything story-based or description-based. It even sounds derogatory.

The amateur players might have found my character class too complicated. They can barely wrap their heads around rolling a die, figuring out whether they hit, and how to calculate the damage.

Few people cared that my character class has powers that are awesome when used in the infinite descriptive power of an imaginative mind. If a movie was made around my character class, it would have special effects and situations that made the powers look totally awesome. Have you ever noticed that the bad guys in movies never need to take a ton of hits the moment the hero(es) figure out the bad guys’ weaknesses? That’s because repetitive pummeling is boring. Those bad guys were basically defeated by awesomeness.

But, imaginative storytelling isn’t big with my role-playing gaming audience. They mostly just want to rack up damage. Who cares about hidden levers behind bookcases? Who cares if in the room, there are barrels and baskets, spikes and pikes, chandeliers and champagne glasses? Who cares if you can sling a fireball hanging upside down on a rope ladder? (“Would being upside down disadvantage me?” WHO CARES! IT LOOKS AWESOME!)

Point at enemy. Plan best statistically powerful skill to use. Pummel.

Pricing predicament

I priced the Math Wizard at US$ 7 (now $5 I think. I didn’t care to even check… *sigh*).

Here’s something you should know. Pricing sets expectations. Price is not the only thing a customer considers. And if you’re playing with only price as your competitive advantage, you’re screwed.

The Apple App Store has applications at $0.99. You can’t afford to go there, because you don’t have volume. And if you do have volume, what the hashbrown are you doing pricing so low? Create something worth much more!

The general pricing of RPG products tend to go from US$ 1 to US$ 50 (or even US$ 100), but the typical range is US$ 7 to US$ 20.

This was another mistake. My friends are content to sell products at $1 or $2. They still have day jobs, and they’re taking this as a hobby. I’m running a business. I can’t go that low. Even at $7, I would still need a lot of customers to have enough to eat.

And my target audience just didn’t want to pay my price for what I’m offering. They don’t want my product! This is the most fatal mistake I made.

Quitting and committing

It was around this period of time that I quit my job. Now I have no illusions that this RPG product of mine would rocket me into millionaire status. I quit because I wasn’t happy, I wasn’t growing (professionally, technically, career-ly) and I was eating lunch alone.

But my RPG product was to start off my online business, my foray into Internet marketing and basically where my actions and efforts have a direct impact on my ability to create wealth. So I committed myself to work at this.

So what’s the total damage? My first product cost me over US$ 2000, 2 months in writing the ebook, a few days in reading up copyright laws and regulations, a couple of weeks researching my gaming materials, months maintaining an RPG blog that I no longer have interest in maintaining.

I don’t think I made more than US$ 50 in sales.

And in early 2013, my right to use the beautifully created (and dearly priced) ebook cover image will expire. I don’t intend to renew it.

I learnt a bunch of stuff learning to manage an online business. I just didn’t earn enough to cover costs. Luckily I created another product. Luckily, that one didn’t suck like a black hole.

“Startup founder” is not a career promotion for programmers

It’s a completely different career ladder.

In his book, “The E-Myth”, Michael Gerber identified 3 personas: the Technician, the Manager, and the Entrepreneur. Face it, you’re a Technician. And Michael identified a singularly fatal assumption:

If you understand the technical work of a business, you understand a business that does that technical work.

And that assumption is wrong. The technical side of a business is separate from the business itself.

And with many a technological startup that’s been popping up all over the place, and succeeding, it can be alluring to a programmer (I’m talking to you) to think that he can do the same.

And you can. But you must go into this knowing you’re running a business. Writing your killer web application may be fun, but it’s not your whole business.

Michael Gerber identified the Technician with bakers, chefs, hair stylists and other crafts people. People who do stuff. A subset of them are programmers. Our work, existing as software, can change within minutes (even seconds) of us changing source code and pushing the results out into the world.

A business can change almost as fast. But it’s a system that surrounds the software system. You need to know about the other parts that keep the business going.

Of the successful startups reported in big media blogs, there are also many more that failed into obscurity. Some of them created by single programmers. Maybe you.

Going the whole 9 yards with a startup can be your dream. Raising venture capital. Talking with VCs. Getting angels to invest in you. Raising funds in rounds 1 and 2 (or A and B or whatever they’re known as). Getting media blogs to notice you. Hiring code ninjas (just a thought: bad idea. Don’t hire if you can. And you don’t really need ninjas). Millions of users. Millions of dollars as an exit strategy. A life of cranking out code with [insert favourite brand of soda] and late nights.

Success or failure. From what I understand, a startup can go either way. There’s some control, but there’s still a fair amount of volatility. For all I know, a butterfly flapping its wings here in Singapore devastated a startup in Silicon Valley.

What you need is to understand at least the fundamentals of a business. The fastest way to learn is to start a business yourself. But you don’t have to start it with your precious web application. Your first business attempt is probably going to suck in an epic nuclear explosion. Don’t make it your precious web application.

I’m writing a guide to teach programmers how to start a small online business. It shouldn’t take you more than a month to start, and it shouldn’t take you more than a couple of hours a week to maintain it. This is what Tim Ferriss calls a “muse”. If you’re not too picky, my calculations put your total investment to be no more than US$ 200. And that pays for at least a year (mostly web hosting costs).

The fun part is that the knowledge you gain from running your own small online business, is that most of it can be scaled to larger businesses. Maybe that startup you’re thinking of.

The business guide will be ready in a couple more weeks. Maybe sooner. This is a heads up in case you’re interested. If you have questions, just contact me.

Success and failure business stories

I think people sometimes attach too much emotional importance to successes and failures, even with other people’s successes and failures. “I don’t want to hear about failure stories.” With the implicit suggestion that hearing about failures somehow attract failures into their lives. While true to some point, I feel for the most part, it borders on something called superstition.

So Andrew Warner of Mixergy started a series on interviewing founders and entrepreneurs about their failures. He already interviewed James Altucher and Scott Gerber. Andrew said his audience seemed to avoid or hate these types of interviews.

I don’t really have a distinct separate line dividing success and failure business stories. They’re just stories. “This happened, then that happened, then I learned something, then something failed epicly, then I learned something more, then something awesome happened, then I learned something…”

While there are general themes and lessons to be learned from success stories, there are also general themes and lessons to be learned (and mistakes to be avoided) from failure stories. I don’t propose that you will fail like those people in those interviews and stories. But there’s one important point that most people seem to forget.

You will never succeed in exactly the same way as those successful people either.

You read the success story of how Google became Google. You learn how Facebook started and became the social media giant it is now. You read a book on how Starbucks revolutionised the way coffee (a commodity) is consumed by people, and made it an experience.

When people say “that company will be the next Google”, they don’t mean literally that company will become the next Google. Because nobody else can be Google except Google. They mean that company having a similar success like Google.

And you will never have that particular success, because you will never have the kind of audience, products, problems, opportunities, founders at that particular point in time. That time has gone.

A failure story is more enlightening when it’s followed with a success story. An entrepreneur failed abysmally in one venture, and was left with practically nothing. Then he picked himself up and succeeded with another venture after that. What motivated him, drove him, gave him hope that he could still continue and succeed? That’s the real lesson.

From listening to the interviews of Y Combinator co-founders Paul Graham and Jessica Livingston, there are 3 qualities a startup’s founders have:

  • They’re smart
  • They’re determined
  • They can communicate with each other

From the way Y Combinator decide whether they should fund a startup, determination of the founders is the hardest quality to determine. How do you know if someone would be able to bounce back after a failure in just 10 minutes of a screening interview?

An entrepreneur with a failure-then-success story has shown that he’s capable of bouncing back. An entrepreneur with a success story just have a success. The latter can certainly still have worked hard for his success. I just respect the former more.

And I bring us back to unique successes because of the unique set of conditions of audience, products, problems and opportunities available to an entrepreneur or startup founders. I can’t remember where I heard this, nor the exact quote, but Bill Gates was giving a talk at a college. A student asked him what to do when starting a business or startup. Bill Gates said,

Oh for goodness sakes, don’t do what I did. That money’s already made by me.

Entrepreneurs and polymaths

Entrepreneurs and polymaths have something in common. Entrepreneurs need to be knowledgeable in many areas, though mostly in the management of business, and mostly being knowledgeable enough is enough (delegation then comes into the picture). Polymaths are knowledgeable in many areas, though the reasons for it may be different. I pin the common reason as simply being curious.

Scott Adams (who draws Dilbert) wrote an article on entrepreneurship.

The first thing you should learn in a course on entrepreneurship is how to make yourself valuable. [...] The world has plenty of better artists, smarter writers, funnier humorists and more experienced business people. The rare part is that each of those modest skills is collected in one person. That’s how value is created.

We still need better artists, smarter writers, funnier humorists and more experienced business people. But to have one person advise you on art(istic inclinations), writing, humor and business? Priceless.

The 10 types of scientists

Diana Garnham identifies 10 types of scientists.

  1. Explorer
  2. Investigator
  3. Developer/Translational
  4. Service provider/operational
  5. Monitor/regulator
  6. Entrepreneur
  7. Communicator
  8. Teacher
  9. Business/Marketing
  10. Policy maker

I can identify with the “Developer/Translational” and “Entrepreneur” scientist types. Possibly with “Communicator”, “Teacher” (?!?) and “Business/Marketing” too.

Which types do you identify with?