Recounting a 14-Year Career in Software, Part II

Part I is available here. As before, I’ll bold insights and lessons I’ve picked up from those experiences.

A Scrum in Social Networks

I joined Tagged in the beginning of 2008. It billed itself as an up-and-coming social network, at a time when what it meant to be “social” on the internet was not defined and a bunch of sites were competing for user signups. MySpace and Friendster were the old-timers; Orkut was popular in certain countries; Facebook was just starting to get popular; nobody knew what Twitter was yet. Each site had its own take on what its users wanted to do once they started establishing their social graph within their service, and since the field was wide open, sites haven’t started each other’s features quite yet.

Tagged’s take on social, back in 2008, was a combination of online dating1 and simple games that added a degree of personalization by drawing data from your friend’s lists (e.g., the most popular one while I was there took its cues from Hot or Not). I was hired as a full-stack web developer, but I ended up spending my time building features on the front end and helping other engineers figure out CSS layouts and JavaScript animations and IE6 compatibility bugs. This would become a familiar arrangement; finding gaps in skillsets and filling them is a good way to keep yourself useful.

I was much too junior at the time to understand the business and product nuances, but upon reflection now, it seems obvious that the company would struggle. It tried to compete with larger social networks, but refused to take venture capital money to scale out quickly and focused on short-term profitability—only a couple of years in—borrowing from social games at the time2 but without fully committing to that model either. It eventually rebranded to if(we) and then exited via a sale for $60 million, some 13 years later. Venture capital isn’t a panacea and some companies prefer to grow more slowly and sustainably, but when the competition has a huge capital advantage, survival means being forced into a narrower and narrower niche.

I only stayed at Tagged for 6 months, as I joined a few acquaintances at their startup midway through the year. It was called LolApps.

The Wild West

LolApps started as a white-label quiz and gift application creator on Facebook. It was an early-adopter to Facebook’s platform ambitions, and leveraged the loose initial APIs to make itself viral. At this point in Facebook’s history, it didn’t know how its users interacted with apps built on top of its own platform. LolApps’ white-label distribution, basically tutorializing how to create a Facebook app via FBML3, had also obfuscated the total user reach, so we flew under the radar for some time.

In an early-stage startup, emotions get amplified. I distinctly remember our various successes and failures at LolApps, because the lows were lowers but the highs were a huge rush. For instance, we had pursued a dating site pivot for a couple of months for no good reason other than to try to branch out from Facebook white-labl apps; it flopped and it wasn’t even a good learning experience. On the other hand, over one fateful weekend, we had stumbled our way to “growth hacking” the Facebook News Feed a couple weeks after it launched. I think my boss and the IT team had to spin up 4x the number of servers4 that weekend just to keep up with traffic.

Riding the Social Gaming Wave

Eventually, LolApps found its way to games on Facebook. Early on, there were apps like Superpoke and Grow Your Friend that, like the aforementioned Tagged games, were mostly single-player experiences that happened to use data from friends’ lists. Once people figured out that they can create “gameplay” sprinkled with friends data that got people hooked and thus compelled them to send friend invites for temporary boosts, the entire Facebook gaming phenomenon took off. This was when game designers figured out mechanics like consumable items and the addictive nature of seeing numbers go up.

Zynga is the defining company for that time period, and their first major hit was Mafia Wars, a simple RPG which featured static art and gameplay that consisted of clicking on a button to “complete a mission” and fights were played out also by clicking a button to compare stats. Fewer people knew or remember that Mafia Wars was a clone of Mob Wars5, which I think was the first to figure out the overall formula but lacked the precision and optimization capabilities of Zynga’s approach to this space. We at LolApps met up with the Mob Wars folks, and decided that we’d jump into the action, with the added twist that we’d apply the same white-label principles that gave the company its initial success.

It turns out that white-labeling a game, even one that’s as simple as uploading bitmap art and inputting a bunch of parameters (e.g., number of hit points, leveling progression, etc.) is much more demanding of creators than 3-question quizzes. We eventually pulled in the creator and made our own games off of it, and garnered enough attention that we built a FB game tie-in that helped launch a console game, Dante’s Inferno by EA.

The history books would record that Zynga was really the only social gaming company that got big enough to go public, and everybody else either shut down or got acquired. Like with Tagged, the company with the most capital controlled the terms of engagement; in social games, that ended up being the cost of user acquisition via Facebook ads. Zynga simply had the biggest games (and hence, whales they monetized), heavily cross-promoted their games, and then bid up ad prices to make acquiring new users very expensive for competitors. Even though most games just ended up copying one another’s gimmicks, LolApps tried to compete on quality and strength of art + writing + gameplay. They meant well, but it ultimately failed, as the company merged with a publisher and then shut down its development soon thereafter.

I had left LolApps before those final days, as I found a new gig with Google. I was glad to have had the experience, but I never wanted to touch social games again, or go through the roller coaster of super-early-stage startups.

Part III

Going from a small startup to one of the biggest tech companies in the world was quite the culture shock. More on that in a future post.

  1. Essentially for free, which was an attractive alternative to expensive subscriptions.

  2. This was well before Zynga became huge, but even back then, virtual gifts and goods were a thing.

  3. A brief attempt by Facebook to create its own markup language for its apps.

  4. No easy feat, pre-AWS.

  5. I also found an iOS port, made by the same guy who made the FB original.