Illustration of Derek Powazek by Adam Ellis

Two Photos and 7,000 Miles

I spent a lot of time in this room today.

It’s in St. Mary’s Spine Center here in San Francisco. I’m lucky that I live close to one of the best spine centers in the country. I’m lucky that I’m not in as much pain as some of the people I met in the waiting room. But I’m not so lucky that I didn’t need to be there.

The Median nerve goes from the your spinal column to your thumb. Mine is pinched at my C6 vertebra. Which is why, for the last two weeks, my right shoulder has felt like a brick, my right arm occasionally seems like it belongs to someone else, and why I can’t feel my right thumb at all.

Turns out, I use that right thumb a lot.

I’ve been this way for over two weeks and almost cancelled the Australia trip because of it. Then I almost came home early. But a Cortisone shot to the spine alleviated some of the pain, so I pushed through. Some people come home from vacation with nicknacks – I come home with MRI scans.

I’m glad I stuck with the vacation, because I got to have moments like this.

That’s me and Wally the Humphead wrasse on the Great Barrier Reef, a 90-minute boat trip from Cairns, Australia, and about 10 feet down. With all due respect to the wonderful people at Web Directions South, meeting Wally was probably the highlight of the trip.

The internet tells me I’m about 7,000 miles away from that moment right now.

Seems like more.

Busy Bunny

Please excuse the interruption in Cute-Fight promotion for a little self-promotion.

'RoidWeek #3: rabbit (tequila, derek)I’ve been remiss in letting you know that I’ll be speaking at Web Directions South 2012 in Sydney, Australia, on October 18. I’ll be kicking off their Startup Track with a session called “The Personal Side of Starting Up.” I’m very excited about this. It’s a brand new talk and a chance for me to synthesize the last 17 years into some sort of cohesive hourlong narrative. Easy, right?

I’ve done a few interviews lately. I gave Lisa from Puppy Tales an exclusive first look at Cute-Fight, where I talked about meeting my in-laws for the first time. I also popped up on the Let’s Make Mistakes podcast to talk about “mansplaining” with Mike and Leah, where I made about half a point. And then I had a lovely chat with Jeffrey on The Big Web Show about my past startups, what I’ve learned, and how I’m applying all that now.

And speaking of Jeffrey Zeldman, he wrote something so nice about me on his site, it made me cry. Seriously. If you read only one thing online today, and you happen to be my parent or potential investor, make sure you read this: Unsung Heroes of Web and Interaction Design: Derek Powazek. Thank you, Mister Zeldman, I feel well and truly sung.

We now return you to your previously scheduled Cute-Fight promotion.

Alphas Are Experiments

cute-fightCute-Fight is currently in private alpha. That means the whole site is locked behind a password, and you have to request an invitation to join. People often think that a private alpha is just cover for an unfinished product, but that’s wrong. A private alpha is an experiment with a specific goal. And like any good experiment, it starts with a hypothesis, and failure is a valid result.

The main question in the Cute-Fight alpha was: Will anyone do this? The answer has been a resounding “YES!” Our small pack of early members has already created hundreds of fighters, fought thousands of fights, and cast over 30,000 votes.

But that “yes” had caveats. We included a form at the bottom of every page that said “Give Us Feedback.” Anything put in it was emailed to the team. And we’re learning a ton from our early Cute-Fight members (who are all smart people with adorable pets, by the way).

So I decided to write down three interesting things we learned from them and what we changed in response. Later, all of this will look obvious, as everything does in hindsight, but right now it’s an exciting series of discoveries.

“How do I start a fight?”

Discovery: A lot of early members had no idea how to start a fight.

Context: The site is set up for Cute-Fights, but we also wanted people to be able to opt-out if they didn’t want to fight. And you can’t start a fight unless you had a pet listed yourself. And even then, the pet had to meet certain criteria (like having enough photos). As a result of all of this complexity, you could start a fight from some fighter profiles and not others. If you were just looking to start a fight, it was difficult and frustrating.

Tweaks: First we added some help text to the fighter profiles and upload system to explain that a pet had to have three photos in order to fight. We also took new members right from fighter creation into photo upload, which helped ensure most fighters had the minimum three photos. But none of that solved the core problem: people still didn’t get how to start a fight.

Solution: We created a single fight creation process to help people start fights. All they had to do was click the “Start a Fight” button, which we placed in the sitewide header. If they didn’t have a fighter, they’d be prompted to create one. If that fighter didn’t have enough photos, they’d be asked to upload some more. If they had a fighter with photos, they’d be shown a random selection of other fighters they could challenge. Once they selected one, they went into the normal challenge process.

Result: Overnight, all the “How do I start a fight?” questions stopped and fight creation went through the roof.

Unintended Side-Effect: The rate of new fight creation spiked. Some voters complained about seeing the same fighters in too many fights. To fix this, we just implemented a throttle on new fight creation that hopefully very few people will ever bump into. (When a fighter is in three concurrent fights, if the manager tries to start a fourth, they’re told that the fighter is tired and needs to rest.)

“Losing makes me sad.”

Discovery: Even though Cute-Fight is a silly game, and we’ve designed the site to reinforce the silliness, some early members let us know that losing made them feel sad.

Context: Games need to have stakes, but our goal was to make losing as fun as possible. That’s why we have badges for the fighter that didn’t win and other random rewards. Still, we had a problem.

Research: I contacted members who reported feeling bad and asked them some questions. Was it the fact of losing that made them feel bad, or something more specific? Where did they first have that sad feeling? (Side note: being comfortable talking about feelings is pretty helpful in startup life. Hooray for therapy!) The members reported that it wasn’t the losing that hurt, it was being reminded by the loss in big, orange numbers on their fighter profile page. They were already feeling ownership of the page (good thing), but having proof of losing on the page was a bumming them out.

Tweak: As an experiment, we removed the win/loss numbers from the fighter profile pages entirely. We wanted to see if anyone noticed. Only one person asked where they went. No one complained. And no new reports of “this makes me sad” have come in since.

This is only a temporary solution. Cute-Fight is a game, and games have scores. But we need to find a way to reward players for winning without making people feel bad for losing.

Aside: This is why so many games have unlocking achievement reward mechanisms. It rewards play with random reinforcement (more powerful than consistent reward), but does not punish poor performance publicly.

“Where are my friends?”

Discovery: Cute-Fight is a social game, and social games are more fun with your friends. But, in the beginning, we had no way for anyone to find anyone else. This was no big deal when there was one page of fighters, but when it became 20 pages, people started to ask: Where are my friends?

Context: The long-term plan has always been to have copious connection to social networks, with importing of your social graph and exporting of fight information. But because the site was locked behind a password during alpha, we removed that functionality.

Side Note: It amazed us how much people talked about Cute-Fight on Twitter and Facebook, complete with links, even though the site was inaccessible to most people (and we warned them in email this was the case). This is just more proof that you don’t need a pile of “SHARE THIS” buttons to get people to talk about your thing – you just need a thing worth talking about.

Research: I spoke with members making this request, and they were pretty evenly split. Some wanted to log in with Facebook or Twitter credentials and see who in their network was playing, some didn’t care about that. But everybody wanted to be able to search the site for people or pets they knew.

Solution: We’d had search on the To Do List for a while, but it was a fair way down. We’d thought it wouldn’t be important until we had a ton of members, but our members told us they needed it now. So we’ve moved it to the top of the list and hope to launch it soon. It’ll be simple and won’t solve the whole problem, but it’ll help. Full Facebook/Twitter integration is still on the list, but not until public beta.

Those are just three examples of changes we’ve made in response to feedback. There are lots more (like the player cards, revisions to the voting and cheering mechanism, and the slow load-in of photos). Like I said, the best part of skating to the puck is that, when it works, your community will tell you where they’re going. Your job is just to keep up.

Thanks to our early members for being part of this wild experiment. There’s more – much more – to come. Wanna play?

ps – We’re also looking for angels.

Starting Up: Nobody Go Near A Bus

cute-fightWe’re working feverishly on Cute-Fight right now, so I’m thinking about startups. This is one of those thoughts.

There’s a lot to say about how hard startups are. They require an enormous investment of time and energy. And even when you go in prepared, there are still moments when you say, DAYAM this is a metric fuckton of work. (Cussing helps relieve stress. Science said so.)

So why do it? Here’s one reason.

There are four of us working on Cute-Fight right now. If any one us were hit by a bus, we’d be fucked. (Again, cussing helps.) We are all doing several jobs at once, and every one of them is absolutely critical.

Devin is responsible for everything on the backend. He’s programming, administering the servers, and doing tech support. James is the designer, but he’s also writing serious frontend code. Chris is drawing as fast as he can, as well as thinking through how those illustrations work on web pages. I’m kind of the conductor and the cleanup crew. I’m art directing, designing the game mechanics, talking to investors and mentors, writing the site text, and responding to feedback from our members. (Side thought: All CEOs should have to respond to support email. It’s impossible to maintain any illusions in the face of an inbox full of people with the same feedback.)

If any one of us was hit by a bus right now, the whole thing would fall apart. This is not the way “real” businesses work, but that’s also why people like us start companies. When is that last time you felt completely irreplaceable at your job? Like the company’s life or death depended on you doing your very best work?

The insanity of starting up is crushing, but so is the boredom and monotony of “regular” work. If you’re someone who feels replaceable and extraneous at your job, try a startup. It’ll make you crazy, but you’ll never feel unimportant.

Starting Up: The Love

cute-fightWe’re working feverishly on Cute-Fight right now, so I’m thinking about startups. This is one of those thoughts.

If you go to business school, they teach you about indicators and predictive analysis. You’re taught to identify a market opportunity and exploit it. Your personal affinity toward the particular market doesn’t factor into the equation.

I did not go to business school. I learned everything I know about business from making websites, working at startups, and experimentation for kicks. I learned the most watching startups fail. I’ve had a pretty good education.

I once half-started a company. I identified a market opportunity, built a business plan, bought some domains, and started building. And then one morning I woke up and realized that, if everything went perfectly, I’d spend every day doing something I hated. The market opportunity was awesome – I just wasn’t the guy to do it. I had no love for it.

One way of looking at entrepreneurship is this: What will you look forward to doing every morning? You should start a company around that.

Because, truth be told, startups are hard. Like, really hard. So if you don’t have The Love for what you’re working on, you’re going to fail. Or, put another way: most startups fail, so you might as well spend the time working on something you enjoy, just in case you succeed.

If Cute-Fight is successful, I’ll wake up every morning to look at adorable pets. Not bad, as dayjobs go.

You made it to the bottom! You must be very good looking. Wanna go back to the top now?

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

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