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The Story So Far: Four Lessons from a Start-Up Virtual World
We’re just like you.
We’re a start-up, so, like almost all start-ups, we’re operating under conditions of extreme uncertainty in a competitive marketplace.
We’re a games company: MiniMonos.com, a virtual world for kids who love to play and love the planet.
And, while we’re happy with our results so far (we’ve just passed 50,000 registered members), we see ourselves at Mile One of a marathon — and there’s a lot of uphill on the road ahead.
In this post, I’ll share with you some of what we’ve learned so far.
Lesson 1: It takes a lot of effort
The first thing we’ve learned is that a virtual world takes a phenomenal amount of effort to create. I mean, phenomenal. Putting up a website is easy. The challenge is building out a “real” virtual world: one with currency, clothing, furniture, and enough games and areas to feel like there’s actually something going on.
To make matters more complicated, every small thing you add requires tons of complementary development. Want to add currency? You’ll need things to spend it on, a way for players to maintain inventory, a security system so you don’t get hacked. You’ll need to figure out the exchange rate: how many minutes of play does it take to earn a banana chip? You’ll need to think through whether the currency is earned, purchased, tradable, redeemable, or expirable. In short, you pretty much need to think of everything.
Our Games Story Writer, Deborah Todd, came on board after we’d already been working on MiniMonos for several months. “Wow, you guys have a really lean operation,” she told us. “The industry rule of thumb is, ‘One game, 40 people, 40 months.’” We looked at each other. You could count our dev team on one hand.
All things being equal, the better informed you are the better decisions you can make — but if we had known it was supposed to take 40 people 40 months to make a game, we would probably never have gotten started, which leads us to…
Lesson 2: That iterative stuff is really powerful
We were really lucky early on to attend a workshop with Eric Ries of IMVU and Startup Lessons Learned fame, and to adopt his Lean Startup approach. Essentially, what that entails is embracing the reality in which you’re operating: namely, that you don’t know if people will pay for membership until they actually start paying; you don’t know if kids will connect with you on social media until they actually start following, liking and tweeting; and you don’t know what drives membership until membership actually starts going up. Until the possible becomes the actual, all you have are hypotheses.
The upshot of this shift in thinking is faster reflexes and a steeper learning curve. If you know your new membership offer is a test, you’re prepared to tweak it quickly. Likewise with AdWords, partnerships, and everything else about the business. The unquantifiable art lies in finding the balance between staying true to your core while adapting to the unfolding realities around you.
Lesson 3: Development and marketing have to move in lock-step
A corollary to the iterative development approach is that the marketing team and the development team have worked together far more closely than we might have otherwise imagined. If development gets ahead of marketing, you won’t have the numbers to be able to test your hypotheses, meet your targets, and stay on track. If marketing gets ahead of development, your product won’t be engaging enough to keep players interested and you won’t have the infrastructure to support them. But marketing and development working in close alignment? Bliss.
Lesson 4: Learn from everyone you possibly can — but make your own decisions
We had been turned on to Eric Ries by the awesome Nat Torkington, whom we met at XMediaLab, another workshop we attended. We read, watch webinars, do courses, and talk to everyone we can. We are voracious learners. But in the end, the decisions we make are ours.
The whole “uncertain conditions” thing means that nobody has the answers, not for our company and our market and our team and our budget and this particular moment in history. It is up to us, and no one else, to make it work.
I expect to come back here in a year and tell you all the ways in which this post was wrong, but, for now, I’ve got two hopes: one is that our experiences can help you in some way, and the other is that you share your own experiences in the comments. I really look forward to learning from you — but I promise to make my own decisions.