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Tuesday April 17, 2012

Draw me a dream

For most technopreneurs, luck plays a huge role in success.

IF YOU haven’t heard about Draw Something by now, a trip outside that rock you’ve been relaxing under is way overdue.

Just to bring the rock-dwellers up to speed, Draw Something is a Pictionary-like game app where you play against a friend by drawing a word and then pray its good enough for them to guess.

Its rise to the top is nothing short of mesmerising: 50 million downloads in 50 days, over 3,000 pictures drawn every second and over six billion pictures drawn to date.

Heck, I had calls from my mother going “Ah Bee… what is Elmo and how to draw ah?”

(Okay, for those who had the same thought my mother did, Elmo’s the red fuzzy one from Sesame Street).

About eight weeks after the game app was launched, Zynga (the company behind FarmVille and Words With Friends) paid out US$180mil (RM552mil) for OMGpop, the 40 person-strong New York studio that created the game plus an additional US$30mil (RM92mil) in employee retention payments.

OMGpop’s founder Charles Forman was quoted in news articles stating: “I had US$1,700 (RM5,209) in my bank account yesterday and now I have a whole lot more.”

This fairytale of a success story adds fuel to the shiny mantra: “If we build it, they will come and buy us.” Many a bootstrapped start-up operation live by that maxim.

More than a handful of technopreneurs I’ve encountered have stated that as the preferred end goal for their efforts.

They want their solution or idea to be bought over by a larger, richer entity that would allow them to “cash out” and move on to other projects.

I’m about to burst a few bubbles here but the answer to that is “maybe”.

The thing about the technology (or in this case, mobile app development) game is that a standard formula for success does not exist.

Ask the OMGpop people and they would be hard pressed to explain their sudden popularity — it just happened.

There is honestly a one in a billion chance that your app or product would get lucky and hop on board the magical “overnight rocket ride to the top.”

You can of course, manage the risk of failure by doing things such as analyse market conditions, gauge consumer sentiment, aim to fulfil a niche in the market and build accordingly but it’s still going to be a dice roll on launch day and beyond.

But then again, last week’s breaking news about Facebook’s billion-dollar purchase of photo-sharing app Instagram doesn’t help, adding even more fuel to the dream of getting that huge payout.

Launched in March 2010, Instagram built a user base of 30 million in two years, with another five million signing up in less than a week, after an Android version of the app was released.

The company had about US$57.5mil (RM176.2mil) in funding and staff totalling six before Facebook came into the picture.

This accelerated growth trajectory — enjoyed by apps such as Draw Something and Insta­gram — is truly the stuff of dreams. For the majority, however, success will come in incremental steps, stretched out over years of hard work and waiting for all the pieces in a complicated and dynamic puzzle to fall into place.

That well-worn cliché credited to Thomas Edison, which goes “genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration”, has persisted through the decades for good reason. It’s true.

The message of today’s column is this: Don’t begin your start-up with the goal of getting bought over by another company because it won’t get you far and be prepared to fail, several times, before you discover your own winning formula.

OMGpop clocked up six years, US$17mil (RM52mil) in funding, 35 games and a close brush with bankruptcy before Draw Something came along.

During a recent interview session I had with Mikko Hypponen, the chief research officer for digital security company F-Secure Corp, he shared that he was friends with the men behind Rovio, the creators behind another massive success story — Angry Birds.

He was immediately bombarded with questions (by his own colleagues): “How did they come up with the idea?” (It was just something they were working on, though the slingshot wasn’t in the early version, that came later) and “Did they know it would get so popular?” (No, they had no idea, but did you know Vladimir Putin was a fan?).

Towards the end of the interrogation he sighed, shook his head and noted: “You know, no one ever talks about the 52 other games Rovio made before Angry Birds … which all failed!”

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