Illustration of Derek Powazek by Adam Ellis

Cute-Fight Hangs Up Its Gloves

Cute-Fight Gloves, illustration by Christ BishopAbout a year ago, when I introduced Cute-Fight, I shared the story of telling my dad about it. He asked if people would really fight each other’s pets to see who’s cutest. I ended the post with, “We’ll see.” Now I know the answer.

Yes, they would.

In the year since Cute-Fight started, first in private alpha and then in public December, about 6,000 brave souls became members, created 3,000 fighter profiles, uploaded 15,000 photos, fought 20,000 fights, which collected over 150,000 votes.

These are respectable numbers, and I’m proud of them. If I could buy every one of those members a beer, I would.

But they’re not the kind of numbers investors or sponsors got excited about. Investors wanted to see a growth curve that looked like Twitter year three, but ours looked like Twitter year one. And while a few awesome sponsors came on board to create venues, the activity was just not enough for me to sell. I dropped the prices and added more time for us to hit the numbers I promised, ultimately giving them value for their money, but it was clear the business model wasn’t working.

In March, with the small amount of friends and family money gone, my savings dry, and my debt growing, I had to stop paying the team. To their credit, and with my everlasting thanks, they kept on working as long as they could. But a few months ago, we all realized we’d have to look elsewhere for income.

There are startup hero stories aplenty in San Francisco. Tales of founders going against the odds, persevering in the face of obscurity, and then finally being rewarded with fame and fortune. But what they don’t tell you is that 99% of those stories end with the business shutting down and the founder moving away or getting a job or worse. Most of the time, it doesn’t work. And though it pains me to say it, Cute-Fight is one of those 99%. It didn’t work as a business.

So, dad, yes, people will do that. Just not enough of them.

So what now? Cute-Fight will stay online, as it is, for now. It still works, it’s still fun, and it’s still being used by its small community. It doesn’t cost a ton of money to host, and I don’t want to see all that hard work just go offline. Plus, I can’t help but hope the game will see slow and steady growth. Maybe without the pressure of fundraising, it can grow at its own rate. But we’re not actively working on it anymore, and if something breaks that I can’t fix I’ll have to just take it down.

The biggest bummer for me is all the things we had planned that we never got to do. For posterity, here’s the top of the list.

  • Retired Champions – Sadly, sometimes pets die. We had a plan to handle this. The manager would “retire” the fighter. All retired fighters were listed as champions and got a special profile and their photo on the wall of honor.
  • Themed Fights – Instead of just fighting to see who’s cutest, managers could challenge each other for battles on other themes – laziest dog, scariest cat, best driver, anything.
  • Parades – We had sketched out other games that were more collaborative. My favorite was parades, which were collections of photos on a theme, the page animating to show the photos moving down a street.
  • Teams – You could band together with all your favorite fighters and form a team. Which of course leads to…
  • Brackets – Organized events with sponsored prizes where one fighter could be proclaimed champion. The Superbowl of Cute.
  • Physical products – Real trophies for winners, print-on-demand books and posters, dog shirts and cat collar charms.

And then there’s all the obvious stuff we just never got to. A weekly activity mail. Notifications of comments on the homepage. Better tools for fans and people without pets. Better tools for adoption agencies. And on and on.

In the end, being a startup founder is about prioritizing stuff. I think I set good priorities, but there’s always that nagging feeling that any one of those things might have lit a match that led to a bigger bang. The annoying thing is not knowing.

The last few months have been some of the most depressing of my entire career. Having something you believe in so deeply, something you convinced your friends and family to invest their time and money in, something you spend every waking hour thinking about, and watching it flounder is like pounding your head into a mirror. It hurts, it shatters your vision, and you have no one to blame but yourself.

I think next time I might pay a little closer attention to my dad’s early questions.

The good news is that I’m coming out the other end of it now, and I have something I’m really excited to tell you about. More on that soon.

For now, I just want to thank the core team, Devin Hayes, James Goode, and Chris Bishop. You guys turned a silly idea into the funnest, weirdest, most joyful thing I’ve ever worked on. I can’t wait until we all get to work together again. (And if anyone out there is looking for the best designer/frontend coder I’ve ever worked with, go see James. He’s got some time open now.)

I also want to thank Patrick Mahoney of the SF MusicTech Fund for his early and astonishing support. I’ll never forget it. I’ll also never forget the people who helped with their advice and introductions, especially Chris Tacy and Janice Fraser. And, of course, thanks to my wonderful wife, Heather Champ, who loved and supported me all the way through.

Special thanks to our sponsors, Shibashiba, Twitterrific, and Tonx for their support. We couldn’t have done it without you. I heartily recommend you give them your money.

And finally, I want to thank every one of our awesome members. We built this for you and we’re so glad you liked it. Meeting your pets and seeing your photos was the best part of this whole adventure. I’m truly grateful for your participation.

Ever forward,

— Derek

How To Apologize Online

Hint: Do it like Kickstarter, not Paula Deen.

If you’re human, eventually you’ll have to apologize for something. How you communicate that apology will say more about you, your company, and your community than anything else.

Two high profile apologies hit the web today, one from Kickstarter and the other from Paula Deen. Without getting into the specifics of what they were each apologizing for, they make for two fascinating case studies in how to apologize online.

(Yes, Kickstarter is a company and Paula Deen is a person, but in this context, they’re both corporations with angry communities, and their businesses hang in the balance.)

With today’s examples in mind, here’s the Fertile Medium recipe for apologizing online.

Step 1: Restate the problem.

I know, you’re embarrassed. You probably don’t want to remind everyone of the thing that pissed them off. But apologies online take on a life of their own, bringing in people who are unfamiliar with the details. Restating the problem not only gets everyone on the same page, it also shows that you understand what you did wrong.

Kickstarter begins their post with a brief summation of what happened, complete with links so that the interested reader can follow up for more information. Paula Deen skips this step, only referring to “inappropriate language,” leaving those unfamiliar with the situation to imagine the worst.

Step 2: Own it.

Before you do anything else, prove that you know what you did. This shows that you’re not just apologizing because someone told you that you have to – you’re apologizing because you have genuine remorse.

Kickstarter says, in a paragraph all by itself, “We were wrong.” It’s a sharp, frank admission. Paula Deen says she “made plenty of mistakes along the way” but doesn’t say if she thinks this was one of them. She says “I apologize,” but never simply says “I was wrong.”

Step 3: Say you’re sorry.

Now that you’ve demonstrated your understanding of the situation, your apology will have more meaning. Never, ever follow the word “sorry” with the word “if” – as in: “I’m sorry if you’re offended.” That only shows that you don’t really mean it.(Nobody did this here, I just hate that.)

Both Kickstarter and Paula Deen did this part, but it was basically all Paula Deen did, which is why her apology has so little weight.

Step 4: Explain what went wrong.

This is a tricky maneuver. Do it right and your explanation will add valuable details that help the reader better understand your perspective. Do it wrong and it’ll sound like defensiveness.

Kickstarter did this part very well. They explain why they acted when they did, and shared more detail about their internal process. I especially like that they admitted that they’re “biased towards creators.” As a platform for creation, of course they are.

Paula Deen didn’t do this at all. She could have said, “You know, I grew up in Georgia in the ’50s and let me tell you, I heard some horrifying stuff. I’m sad to say, some of that language and some of those jokes got stuck in my head. I’m ashamed that I repeated them.”

Explaining what went wrong doesn’t mean excusing it. But, if handled correctly, it can serve to humanize the apologizer.

Step 5: Make a vow.

Explaining what happened shows you understand the past, making a vow shows you’ve thought about the future. Make a promise to not repeat this mistake. Do it at a permanent URL and be clear about what you’re promising. You’ll be judged by how you keep your word.

Kickstarter also did this with aplomb. They took direct action, explained why, provided proof, and changed their guidelines to ensure it doesn’t happen again. Paula Deen … didn’t. She apologized in multiple videos, some of which kept disappearing throughout the day, adding an unnecessary layer of aggravation to the whole ordeal.

Step 6: Make amends.

Prove you get it.

Apologizing isn’t just about words, it’s about deeds. Do something to prove that you understand the magnitude of your mistake.

In Kickstarter’s case, they made a large donation to a nonprofit that’s directly related to the issue at hand. They put more money into the nonprofit than was involved in the mistake. This shows they understand the value of their community goodwill.

Paula Deen, again, didn’t do anything of the sort.

Step 7: Apologize again.

Apologies don’t have a 1:1 ratio with mistakes. You may have to apologize more than once. Don’t like apologizing? Pick a career that doesn’t involve other people. Apologize and keep apologizing as long as you have to.

Finally, it’s interesting to note that Kickstarter apologized in text and Paula Deen did it in a video. While this could be because her primary relationship with her audience is in video, it also may have been an attempt to humanize her.

Apologies via video is a dangerous strategy. If the video is too polished (as her first one was), it can seem inauthentic. If the video is too amateur (as the second and third ones were), it looks like you’re not taking it seriously. Perhaps, if she’d written it instead, she could have given it a bit more thought. Changing her usual medium from video to text would have shown a degree of consideration that the videos didn’t.

Mistakes are inevitable. How you respond is what defines you. Use the apology opportunity to reinforce your core values.

If you do it right, you’ll create a stronger bond with your community, one that will earn you the benefit of the doubt the next time you screw up.

Do it wrong and you may just lose your job.

Fertile Medium is an advice column for people who live online. Each edition tackles a topic or question from you about building social spaces online. Want to ask a question? Tweet to @fertilemedium or call (415) 286-5446 and leave a message.

Elsewhere: My Review of the New Flickr at TechHive

The new Flickr: Goodbye customers, hello ads

Flickr didn’t actually explain itself. It took away a core part of its original product (unlimited uploads), replaced it with a free version and an expensive and limited upgrade, and declared it “spectaculr,” and hoped that we’d be too distracted by big photos and purposeful misspellings to notice.

Yeah, I’m not a fan.

Cute-Fight: New Fighter Profile Pages

cute-fightOver at Cute-Fight, we’ve completely revamped the fighter profile pages. Check out Bug’s page.

We’ve been working on this update for months. The goal is to make our pets look awesome, as well as make these pages a fun place to visit for all. Here are some of the notable features.

profile1
When your fighter is in a fight, one of our specially trained pilots flies by with a banner tell the world.

profile2
The main area is now designed to match the cards that appear in fights, showing your fighter’s bio, photo, and other information. If you’re the manager, you get some special stats and features. And note that little orange bump on the right side. I wonder what it does?

profile3
Fans appear! You can now see all the members who are fans of your fighter, right on the profile.

profile4
And finally, the trophy case and badges box, where your fighter proudly shows off all their winnings.

We’re really proud of this update and hope you dig it, too. And if you have a pet you haven’t yet added to Cute-Fight, what are you waiting for? Bring ‘em on!

Why I Blocked You on Twitter, A Compilation

I’ve been using Twitter since 2006, and thanks to their new archive feature, I was recently able to download all of my tweets. I’ve blocked a lot of people over the years – I love my Magic Button – and occasionally I’ll make a mental note of why I did it. Here’s the list so far.

  • Replying with “That’s what she said.”
  • Shotgun replies (like 10 in a row).
  • Being the pope.
  • Being Charlie Sheen.
  • Being my mom.
  • Pedantics. (IE, anyone who knows that should be “pedantism.”)
  • Asking me something you could have found in Google in two seconds.
  • Repeatedly replying to tweets with your URL.
  • Taking me too seriously.
  • Demanding that I take you too seriously.
  • Anything about Jesus.
  • Anything about Gangnam style.
  • “PLZ RETWEET!!!”
  • Replying with a URL and nothing else.
  • Mindless flag-waving “more patriotic than thau” bullshit.
  • Hitler jokes.
  • Making me explain the joke.
  • Supporting Prop 8 (AKA bigotry).
  • Bad taste in TV.
  • Bad taste in music.
  • Bad taste in men.
  • Apostrophe abuse.
  • Telling me not to be grumpy when I am obviously grumpy.
  • Becoming the mayor of anything that’s not a city.
  • Unironic use of “LOL.”
  • Starfucking.
  • Excessive punning.
  • “Get a hybrid.”
  • I was having a bad day.
  • You were having a bad day.

So if I ever blocked you on Twitter, it’s probably one of those things. Or maybe something entirely new. Remember, it’s not you, it’s me. I just think we should follow other people right now. I only want you to be happy.

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SEE ALSO: Press the Magic Button! My “one strike” rule for Twitter/Flickr and why you shouldn’t be offended when someone blocks you.

AND: Twitter for Adults.



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Hi, I’m Derek. I live in San Francisco and make awesome community-centric web stuff. I sometimes post things to Flickr and Twitter. I’m mostly harmless. More.





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