As the year comes to a close, I thought it would be cool to look back at GameMaki‘s happenings over the year. It started with a …
Concept (Jan – Feb 2011)
At the turn of the year, I informed the team (who was then, still working on FameMark, our gamified dating site) our acquisition of Lifegamed.com from Fernando, a client who is also now a dear friend. Lifegamed was a platform where anyone could make a game out of daily tasks. For e.g. a dad could start a game for his kids to receive points for completing a task, and perhaps earn a virtual item that can be used in a simulated fight online on the same platform with another sibling. The big idea was to make life a game, so it would be more interesting and fun.
Lifegamed … back in late 2010.
We wanted it because (1) We like the potential of gamification in motivating people to do things (2) We loved how disruptive and scalable the platform can be. At that point though, Lifegamed lacked a clear business model and more importantly, a clear problem and a solution. The dad, in the earlier example, had to first create a game, before he creates the tasks, pre-assigns points for specific tasks, and defines the unit of the points (e.g. cookies). These painful steps undermine the vision of making life more fun with all the hassle. Fundamentally, the branding wasn’t quite ideal (past-tense of ‘lifegame’).
The team sat down, brainstormed for days on tackling the mentioned issues, before we carve out a new branding, new vision, new business models and new features. We scrapped the entire Lifegamed for reconstruction. GameMaki was born, and we officially pivoted from FameMark (we’ll be back).
Beta (March 2011)
GameMaki debuted in SXSW on 11th March 2011 as a web app with just two features: (1) Create and (2) Claim a challenge. You type a challenge, choose a category and off you go. Someone would then claim the challenge by just clicking “Claim me!” – Simple in, Simple out. The idea was to create a MVP worth a second glance.
Conceptualized in Jan, developed in Feb, rolled out in March and guided by the vision to help people discover great activities through game mechanics. We were pretty satisfied with the godspeed.
We got featured on VentureBeat (after an interview with Anthony Ha, who was nice). It also synced to New York Times. More crucially though, SXSW was very helpful to validate the market – some brands, agencies were interested to create their own challenge-based whitelabel game, but I had to inform them we lacked that meat. Gamification was a big theme in SXSW and many companies were exploring how they could ride on this bandwagon.
Fernando and I in action at SXSW.
Refining the app (April – Oct 2011)
Armed with some feedbacks from the Bay Area as well as SXSW, it was back to the drawing board. We toiled, sweated, and re-iterated over the next six months with our early adopter partners such as Standing Sushi Bar, Ascendas and SMU Prinsep Hostel. There were some pilot ‘partners’ (who really were uninterested but were just too nice to reject us) that cost us much time/effort. We had since learned to work only with the right people. All in all, it wasn’t always easy to find adventurous adopters in SG, but they do exist!
We kicked off our iPhone app development in October after spending two months learning the basics, while the web app underwent continuous changes based on feedback. We corrected some wrong assumptions (e.g. we didn’t think challenges need to be accepted before being claimed – not true), and we glorified the right ones (e.g. users do care about getting badges!). Sure, six months is a long time for any product to be improved, but we were adamant that we do not want to ‘cock up’ with a product nobody would use. I should also add that this was a fresh new concept with no successful competitor to refer to. Backend wise, we firmed it up with a lot more structure, implemented Lucene search engine and added analytic features. Admittedly, the dev team kept knocking onto walls figuring iOS, and we finally caved in and hired an external consultant to pair program (great idea btw).
There were other refreshing changes for the team. In August, we moved our office from an out-of-town industrial area in Toa Payoh, to the heart of Singapore – a beautiful shophouse at Chinatown. In the same month however, we also lost a bunch of people – tech guys Steve and Alex, and super interns Spencer, Jingxian, (and later) Fauzi and Linhui. But we also gained Minghui who did some amazing animations for us (pretty darn good for a business development guy, I must say!). We now have nice size of five. lovely five!
The team with TV news presenter Tung Soo Hua – we were featured in the local news in April 2011.
The Final Quarter (Oct – Dec 2011)
Saving the best for last, the final three months represent the most defining moments for the entire team.
We were caught out cold by an investor who retracted on an investment agreement that was ‘concluded’ half a year ago. Thank God I applied for credit cards from at least three different banks earlier, because we would later relied so heavily on balance transfer from all three banks. (At one point, it did feel like we are going to exhaust all banks in Singapore!). I could not stop blaming my naivety, and undertaking loans (a slightly obscene amount) believing that deal could tickle in anyway.
The same investor defaulted on his payments to the his office which we were using, and we had to pacify the landlord. Another company who also shared the office space, quite disappointingly, did not agree to keeping this office together and sharing the cost. We could not pay the bills and the PUB uncle came and threatened to cut electricity/water supply. We were advised to move out by some friends, an unfeasible plan IMO as this ain’t like moving peanuts. I decided we would gamble and hang on. It was a fight to quickly find alternative investments, secure quick revenue from external projects or from our own product, and to also juggle with development of GameMaki. All these, while ensuring the team remained united with minimal morale loss.
For two co-founders whose first job is being a, well, co-founder out of college with little savings, it was a bitter pill to swallow especially when we had to source for personal loans for the company. I flirted with depression because of the enormous guilt for the mess and letting down the team. Gratefully, we have a team who willingly bit the bullet and took pay cuts to ensure survivability. Resilience was also displayed when we switched momentarily to being a service company for external projects – from coaching, animations and offshoring work. We even met a loan shark who needed a website! (Okay, I exaggerated. He was more like a marketer for legalized moneylenders).
All this hassle and trouble meant we could barely focus on GameMaki for the final quarter (slowing down our progress tremendously), but there are positivities: Tough times establish true men (and women) of valor in the company, and we all reaffirmed our faith and belief in GameMaki.
Brenda became a co-founder in the company after we witnessed her dedications. (Jesslyn was offered too, but she declined our humble offer due to personal reasons). In myself, I have learnt a good lesson in risk management, certainly an unforgettable one.
Post Angel’s Gate.
Today, I’m happy to share that we are up and running again, with a potential investment deal closing soon which promises a new lease of life for us working with some really smart and fantastic folks (this is record-breaking time for closing a deal afaik). We also scored our first commissioned project utilizing GameMaki‘s API, while we continue to work on increasing our pool of partners from brands, F&B merchants, institutions, corporations and charities. Our beta iPhone app is on track to be launched in early Feb, and we have some fun ideas on integrations with Twitter (watch out for it!). I’m also grateful to veterans like Eddie Chau (Brandtology) whose words of wisdom to me rang in my ears again and again: “Survive first, Fight later”.
We found true friends who stood by us. Special shoutouts to Jimmy from iAxil who continuously supported us and paid for some of my coffee
(and beer), and Clement who offered me a personal loan from his pockets (which I politely declined but yes bro, I remembered that :)) To other friends like Melissa and Anne, you have been wonderful too in your encouragements. I also thank the inDividuals who made things Difficult and almost Destructive; because without you, this journey wouldn’t be a story. Oh yes, I should add this – I still have a lot of respect and gratitude for the same investor who couldn’t fulfill the deal. He believed in us at a time when no one else did, and his passions for entrepreneurship are undeniable. I pray he would resolve his problems soon :)
In the last two months, we received a surprise positive review from MakeUseOf (without any interview :), while we also participated in Angel’s Gate (which was fun!). My mouth got duct-taped re. the show, but I could whisper we did our best and we are proud of our efforts. I heard from Jimmy a story of a founder who sold off his screen protector to buy lunch, and also how the company had to ration for lunch at $2 each for everyone who went without pay. I’m glad we didn’t have to do this – so yes, we count ourselves blessed. Even though my two bank advice slips (pinned on my board) show balances enough for two Starbucks latte grande sized, at least I had my piggy coin bank! We would probably be a damned good service company if we wanted to be one, but making products remained a key passion for everyone, and for now I’m just relieved we did not fall into that comfy trap (yet). Our new investor joked I could start a site comparing cheapest rates/fees for personal loans and balance transfers, since I have these data all in my head (sure…. but I hope no one ever had to visit it).
Niet, GameMaki isn’t successful yet, but I think it is fair to summarize this year as a micro-success in a nutshell. In fact, without this saga, we probably would not be forced to find revenue and charge via our own products. There were many challenges thrown in our path, and we claimed them wholeheartedly along the way with all our might and fight. I’m proud of the team for what we have been through, and it has been a real honor to serve beside each and everyone one of you – Minghui, Jesslyn, Brenda and of course my buddy who recently became a proud father, Damon. The main takeaway of 2011: Don’t sweat the small stuff. On hindsight, it wasn’t too difficult for us – because we chose to think otherwise. Life is a game, you just gotta learn make fun out of it (; #shamelessplug
Our first DnD ever at Singapore Flyer, June 24th with alumnus, partners and friends. (The team size is really just 5). This event was entirely funded by an insurance claim for my delayed flight back from Austin to Singapore :))
Merry X’mas and have a great 2012! Remember to also thank the very people who have made a difference to you and your life!
* Edit 20th Dec 2011* I missed out on sharing our plans going forward in 2012. We will continue to focus on our vision of making the real life a lot more fun through GameMaki – a social app that lets anyone start real world challenges (and games out of challenges) to be claimed for points and rewards. The key objective in the next two months is to ensure a natural experience with minimal user education in GameMaki’s web app and iPhone app. Currently, we are helping our client to develop their gamified social network via GameMaki’s API and we are pretty excited about it too (;