May 14, 2013

Right after OMGPOP released DrawSomething to rave reviews (and traction), I was catching up with my friend Nabeel Hyatt and chatted a bit about the game’s meteoric rise.  I joked that the success was eerily well timed with him joining Spark as a Venture Partner, although of course, the development of the game was well in the works before then.

I asked Nabeel (who was previously the GM of Zynga BOS) how the company developed the hit game after a number of years with more moderate success.  His answer: “They just decided to throw a fastball right down the middle”.

What he meant was that the company had previously tried to be innovative in a number of different ways in their game development. That led to a catalog of beautiful games that were edgy and different on many dimensions, but ones that didn’t quite have the growth everyone was hoping for.  With Draw Something, they took a pretty plain vanilla, tried and true playbook.  They started with a popular and familier offline game (Pictionary), added asychronous social components (a-la Words with Friends), and of course, built it beutifully with good viral loops.  They focused on building the best drawing game they could, instead of trying to be too cheeky, cute, or implement a bunch of other innovations on the edges.  It helped Draw Something become one of the fastest mobile games of all time, even if that growth wasn’t sustained long term.

Since then, I’ve noticed that many really interesting companies start out as fastballs right down the middle.  And many pivots look like that too.  The reverse is that I often see less successful companies start out very complicated, or require customers to make too many leaps.

Mobile payments is a good example. A lot of companies have gone after this opportunity, and tried different versions of stored value on phones, wireless payments, etc.  But what’s the company that has really broken out here? Square.  They started with a little white dongle that allowed merchants to just take credit cards.  They are moving beyond this, but they started with a fastball right down the middle.  As Angus Davis (the founder of our portfolio company Swipely) has said, “millions of people are walking around with a mobile payment device in their pocket… it’s called a credit card.”  Similarly, Swipely is starting to show terrific traction based on a that simple premise

Increasingly, when I speak with companies that seem to be in a promising space but aren’t quite getting the traction they hope for, I ask myself “what’s the fastball down the middle for this business?”  It’s hard at time to give up on the elegance and innovative-nature of the more complicated solution, but sometimes, the best way to earn the right to be completely transformative is to do one simple thing really really well.

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    RT @joshelman: Soldiers are very different than mercenaries. You need people committed to the cause
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