Wednesday, I was at an interview organized by Schuyler Brown (who used to be on the sales team at Cross Commerce Media, where I am currently a software engineer). He interviewed two of the five co-founders of the company GoCrossCampus,Brad Hargreaves and Matthew Brimer. As the first of a series of meetups titled “Founders @ FAIL,” the theme of the night was what led to GoCrossCampus’s demise. For anyone involved in start-ups, understanding failure and having a certain level of comfort with failure is necessary (it is part of getting to plan B), and the one low-cost way to benefit from failure is to let someone else do it and hear them talk about it after the fact.
Hargreaves and Brimer started by discussing their venture Alowishus Properties (not sure of spelling). The idea was that Yale (which Hargreaves and Brimer were attending at the time) was off-loading wooden antiques for what they believed were below-market prices, so they purchased these antiques and found people who found more value in them. They discovered that, for whatever reason, women from the South really loved these antiques. However, their business was not really scalable – it was labor intensive, and Yale eventually ran out of wooden antiques (not surprisingly, old metal file cabinets did not sell as well). For college students, they were making decent money, but as someone advised them, “you don’t have a company, you have a job.”
The next step then was to try to start a “real” company. After a two hour long brainstorming session, Hargreaves and Brimer, along with Sean Mehra and Jeff Reitman, came up with an idea for an online turn based game based on a game of Risk that was played at Yale that used the campus as the board. They wanted to build a team based game (which they believed at the time and still believe is a space with not much in it right now) around rivalries. They also wanted the game to be casual in style. They then set their success metric to be to get as many users as possible. As Mr. Hargreaves described it, it was 2007, and in 2007, “you build company by getting a bunch of college students using it, and you raise venture capital… because that’s what Facebook did.”
Facebook, however, only had one founder – GoCrossCampus was starting life out with five founders – the group of four from Yale, and Isaac Silverman, who was at Columbia and had worked with Mehra and Reitman. Having five founders led to “bland decisions.” As they described it, start-ups often require bold decisions, and having a group of five smart, dedicated, opinionated people led to compromises that were not in the best interest of the company.
The process of developing the product had a few different problems. One of these was choosing the wrong metric. As I mentioned above, their primary metric was number of users, although they also seemed to strive for a product that would bring in venture money. After beginning product development in Spring of 2007, they received their first round of capital the following fall, which they immediately spent on hiring outsource development. They repeated this a couple of times. Because the product road map was geared towards obtaining future capital rounds, the planning was short-sighted. As Mr. Hargreaves put it, most companies have a 12 month outlook, but GoCrossCampus had a “negative two month outlook.”
The product was also hindered in part because they were living among their users. Since their product targeted the college students that were their friends, classmates and dormmates, their was no separation between them and their users. Another key take away that they had was a product team must be selective as to what feedback it acts on.
The final issue with the product development was that they were not sure what kind of gamer they were targeting with their game. Casual gamers and “hardcore” gamers have very different needs in terms of learning the game, level of involvement needed, and so on. At one level, they came up with a nice system for dealing with this: on each team, there was a democratically elected Commander, and the Commander had the ability to send a team-wide email and update a team wiki, both of which had the day’s strategy. More casual gamers could log in and check the team strategy and know what they need to do. The dynamic of the college campus helped them in this regard – the more dedicated players would remind more casual ones to play everyday when they passed them in the halls or saw them in class. However, the game itself was tailored to neither the casual or the intense group, and therefore missed both in the long run.
Besides the product development process, the product itself ran into problems during the Ivy League Championship. The weight of suddenly supporting over ten thousand simultaneous users brought the server to its knees. There were also several other bugs. Hargreaves and Brimer wanted the Ivy League championship to co-incide with the start of the school year, but admitted in retrospect they should have waited for the following spring.
The final topic that came up was the virality of their product. Once GoCrossCampus was established at a particular school, it tended to have between 10% and 15% of the student body participating, but only certain kinds of school lent themselves to this kind of traction. Small to medium sized private colleges (Ivy league institutions and schools of similar make up) mostly were the ones that saw traction, whereas larger institutions (such as large state schools) and community colleges tended not get the kind of traction they needed. At the schools that did see traction, however, the response was phenomenal. Due to offline interactions with peers, users were reminded to go online every day. Because the game was usually arranged by student programming organizations or the student government, GoCrossCampus got dedicated all-campus emails sent out from students who were passionate about making the game a success on their own campus. Hargreaves and Brimer definitely acknowledged that one of the product’s strengths were the advocates that it had inside schools, and they said that one of their take-aways from the project was the important of empowering these advocates of a product.
At the end of the day, the project’s biggest problem was that it was not oriented towards raising revenue. They tried selling game sponsorships and charging colleges for running a game, but the money involved in each was not sufficient given the audience size to justify continuing the project. There was also a problem with targeting a game like this at college students, since college students generally do not have money. Even within their target audience, college students, there was only a certain set of students who would be interested in the game, so they would never be able to get to millions of users.
This post is a little rushed – I know that some people could not make it last night and some of my co-workers were interested in the content. I tried to get all that was said down – let me know if I missed anything.