Feb 15 2012

After two years where I was working on Get Your Game On largely alone, Martyn finally finished up at Catalyst a few weeks ago to work on it with me. One week later, we decided to give up.

On the surface, this sounds mad. Did Martyn throw in his job for nothing? Do we not have an ounce of intelligence between us? What happened to our big dream? As of a few months ago, we were still evangalising GYGO; we were even preparing to bring another co-founder on board. Now... it's over. The site lives on only to serve our customers while they decide what on earth to do, a conundrum I now share with them.

Some background. Martyn and I have shared a journey for a while now: can we use our skills to fashion a future where we no longer exchange hours for dollars? To me, this is a powerful form of freedom; while you can live in a free society and learn to think for yourself, not having to worry about money multiplies your options. It is the oxygen of modern society, and it seemed (note the past tense, I'll return to that later) to me that having piles of it would leave you free to make whatever kind of difference you wanted in the world.

GYGO failed not because the idea sucked, but because we didn't comprehend how hopeless the idea was for achieving this goal.

It's not that it would never work. We have two paying customers who love it (and so do _their_ customers - players etc.), a bunch of interest from others who run sports competitions, an existing market to resegment and the positioning to do it (all online, easy/professional system - as opposed to the free, ad-sponsored or windows-centric competition). What we don't have is $500K, and quite frankly, if I want to pop my angel investee cherry and throw away five years, there had better damn well be a $100mil company at the other end. The market for GYGO is far too niche for that.

Our mistake: we underestimated the work involved in beating Excel. Here's an example. In a kid's football league, a good team is scheduled to play a bad team, and the bad team defaults. This would normally count as a 3-0 victory to the good team, but they complain that "we would have beaten them by much more!". The solution? Count the game as a 7-0 win for the good team, but a 3-0 loss for the bad team. I know, I cried into my relational database too [1]. Then I added support for it, because massaging results is rife in social competitions. It's the kind of thing you do in excel simply by changing the number in a cell. Excel matches how most people think about data - hack and kludge until it says what they want. This is precisely why it's so hard to beat.

Perhaps if the real world was sane, we could have developed GYGO on the cheap, and turned it into a 4-5 person company doing $1mil turnover. That would have suited me fine - we could have automated it to the point where I was drawing a salary for doing nothing: mission accomplished. It seems obvious now that targetting SMBs would result in a massive support headache [2], which we couldn't spread over thousands of customers, and as you just heard, real world data laughs at your attempts to corral it. Large support costs, a small market and investment required are a fatal mix.

So, what next? I have no idea. Between this and general life upheaval, I'm not even sure that my goal of being free from money is a good one. I was just at the most excellent kiwifoo, and it's got me thinking again about New Zealand and earthquakes, and whether we couldn't prepare to save some lives. If Wellington was flattened, I'd love to be able to tweet from beneath a crushed building, and know that volunteers would see it and alert first responders who could dig me out. No money in it, but frankly right now, I'm not sure I give a shit about that.

Postscript: Reading through this again, it occurs to me that I didn't say anything positive about the experience. I don't regret a single day I spent doing it. I've learned a lot about business, relating to people, solving problems; I've joined twitter and absorbed heaps of great lessons from inspiring people via it; I felt what it was like to be wildly optimistic about the future; I gained heaps of life experience I never would have gained otherwise; made heaps of friends, and played a lot of football!

Yes, I do recommend you start your own business, especially if you have a skill and want more out of life. Treat it as an investment in yourself, and you won't be disappointed.

PPS: My largest regret is letting our customers down. They're fantastic people, and they struggle with high workloads and sometimes angry people so that our kids and community can have fun. They both took the news gracefully, and one of them even gave me a jigsaw puzzle as thanks. If I can give you one piece of advice, it would be to to always tell them the truth and work your ass off for your customers. It's not just good business sense - when they're trusting you, it's the right thing to do.

[1]As Martyn dryly observed, we should have used MySQL.
[2]I envy Xero, they have an army of accountants with a vested interest in supporting their userbase.

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