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In the middle of 2018 I was sitting in the comfortable chair at my workplace, thinking about a way to use programming skills, I’ve developed over the last couple of years, to help a bunch of people. While implementing yet another task from JIRA board, it struck me: what is the simplest place to go to when you have a problem and suspect that you’re not the only one?
And one of the largest and most active polish groups I found turned out to be all about board games! Surprisingly, many of posts there focused only on one problem — finding people to play Inis, Scythe, 7 Wonders, Small World or any other modern unplugged game together.
In this post I want to share some of my key learnings, after 8 months of dedication to developing Boardly — a mobile app, that quickly connects you with local board gamers to play together.
#1 Market always wins
In a great market — a market with lots of real potential customers — the market pulls product out of the startup
This quote from one of Andreesen’s essays is often blindly tossed around, but it’s only when you experience a market full of passionate and demanding users that you realize its power. Boardly, at first, aspired to be a solution for connecting people, who want to lend a board game to a stranger in a neighborhood (e. g. for a party) and make some money while doing so. What I didn’t anticipate was the strong negative reaction from the community. Why? Fear of even a slight damage on a game, that could cost up to 100$. The only thing I needed to do after my “borrowing” idea failed was to shut the fuck up. I believe that the right way to find ideas for a side project/business/startup (you name it) is not to sit and think hard about them, but to simply talk with a defined group of people about their every day problems, listen and observe. It took about a week of natural curiosity about the phenomenon called board game renaissance and few casual talks with active Facebook group users to notice that the only thing most of them want is to play together with as many different people as possible.
#2 Importance of testing assumptions
Most of the founders I meet still have the same old problem. They overvalue their ideas and cling to them as if they were the most precious things in their lives. Every idea is merely a hypothesis, that you need to validate and learn from. After initial interest that my board games initiative sparked in the Facebook group, I started to think about a test, that would confirm these assumptions. Having in mind great history about Dropbox MVP, which is now a prime example of lean thinking, I created a simple fanpage with app mockups.
Hitting 300 likes in a week with minimal marketing effort, while getting messages from potential users eager to download the app and even help me plan the product roadmap or do some coding, made me decide to write this epic first line of code.
#3 Listening to users
To me, that’s the most tricky part of running any project, that aims to bring value to a defined group of people. Henry Ford once famously said:
If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.
Well, I asked Boardly users frequently what they wanted, and most of the time they received it. UX improvements, better push notifications, integration with RPG games etc., but there was one particular request, that kept appearing under all of my fanpage posts generating many likes and kind of spoiling Boardly’s PR.
WHEN WILL YOU RELEASE IOS VERSION?
At first I was diplomatic:
Hi, thanks for reaching out. Currently we’re supporting only Android users, but we can assure you, that after we define the scope of necessary features, new iOS version will be shipped even faster!
Didn’t quite work. After few months I decided to learn iOS development and deliver version with clean architecture and unit tests, just like I did on Android. It was fun for a tech-savvy guy like me, but results of 15 weeks of work were disappointing:
The entire “listen to your users” mantra is very noble, but the reality tends to be ferocious. Very often your customers don’t really know what they want. They give you hints, sure, but it’s never as easy as taking them literally and applying everything one by one. Bring them automobile instead of faster horses.
Few months after releasing initial version of Boardly I received a call from my friend telling me about a founder, who has recently received a small investment. He was doing exactly the same app, mentioning Boardly as one of his biggest competitors! The only difference was, this founder had great team, mentors and more years of experience. Few days later a fanpage similar to mine arose out of nowhere, posting in the same players social group and in the same manner as I did just 5 months ago, but it wasn’t the guy my friend told me about —yet another competitor. Could they be even better? I freaked out. After a short conversation with seasoned business developer Tomasz Mika I understood the importance of focus in this kind of situation and doing things, that you’re in control of. You can’t predict what your competition’s next step will be like, but you can be damn sure, that the winner of this fight will be the one who has better understanding of the user or customer and moves faster. Almost every idea: novel or not, will have its competitors. Google wasn’t the first search engine, Facebook wasn’t the first social network and, after I researched a bit more, Boardly wasn’t the only app connecting board game players.
#5 Vanity metrics
I can’t deny that being featured in mamstartup.pl (one of the leading polish news sites about startups) or giving interviews to podcasts like this one was pleasant and stroked my ego. I boasted about charts like the one below showing users influx, but was that really a meaningful metric?
Turned out the answer was NO. Those kind of metrics (also called vanity metrics) are good for the press, but usually won’t give you true insight into how’s your project doing. Each business should have one prime statistic, which is deeply correlated with its condition. For Uber it’s the number of miles driven, for Stripe it’s the number of payments and for Boardly, as I discovered after performing small post-mortem, it was the number of players accepted to board game events by hosts. Not very exponential as you can see:
Teams that see this type of graph on their key metric can be sure there’s no product-market fit yet.
After many ups and downs with Boardly I understood, that even small projects have too many complexities to be handled by one person, hence a few weeks ago I started to focus more on maintaining and expanding professional network (feel free to connect with me on LinkedIn). For some period of time my mobile app was quite known in Poland. I remember going to board game pubs or events with a t-shirt below and being recognized immediately.
I met developers, designers and players, who were very eager to help me, but unfortunately I thought I can do it better myself — that’s one of my biggest regrets. It made me realize, that the coolest opportunities and toughest support come from your network and people you know.
We all get the sense of what product-market fit is, but how can it be measured? When did we achieve it? Is gaining 1000 new users per day sign of fitness or should we wait with champagne for 100 times more? Well, it turned out that the one thing that glues it all together is MONEY. Something so simple, yet so hard to grasp for many aspiring entrepreneurs, including me. It’s not only about a sheer number of users (or any other metric) — it’s about value, that they provide to your business by sustaining it. I used to say, that I don’t care about money at all, because when Boardly will become popular, then $$$ will appear either way. Boy was I wrong. In the end I didn’t convince anyone to pay for any advertising that Boardly could provide. People considered the app as a nice-to-have rather than a must-for-board-gamer.
Summing up, it was a great rollercoaster, though could be finished a tiny bit earlier, if I stopped lying to myself. I met cool people, but also learned a lot about business and myself. Today I’m more sceptical towards startups and I’m calling bullshit sooner and more often, but I believe this will only help me in some new venture, to which I plan to commit soon.