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

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Hi, I’m Derek. I used to make websites. Now I grow flowers and know things. I’m mostly harmless. More.