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Starting A Gaming Company While Getting A PhD In Neuroscience At NYU, With Wayne Mackey of Statespace – Part II

How do you grow to half a million users in 6 months? In Part 2 of our interview with Wayne Mackey of Statespace he details how he set out to build a different type of technology company, and why he thinks that’s contributed to his fast growth.

After joining the Expa accelerator Wayne and his team quickly focused on building their product and releasing it to real users as quickly as possible to get feedback. Their main distribution channel was Steam, but unlike other gaming products they were pushing live product updates 3 times a week, something that the engineers he recruited were not accustomed too.

In our conversation Wayne discusses the other methods he used to grow his users early on, his obsession with communicating with every user that reaches out, and how he was able to raise a million dollars in the course of a few weeks.

Show Notes

00:05 Wayne You know, a profession or company *tool* to create a work for, and you know we got into EXBA. So the EXBA labs program founded by Garret from Uber, Navine from FourSquare whom in VTour, Maloun and Roberto are the kind of the six EXBA partners that are all operators of the you know, found the companies, the early-stage employees at big top companies. We thought this would be amazing to be able to work with them.

What we really liked was it wasn’t like a typical kind of accelerator, there was no curriculum, it was really just like: here are these amazingly talented people, they’re just here to help you day-to-day. Eric Friedman was the GM, he was amazing, one of the great things he always said was we’re here to get everything out of the way that’s not build and shipped. We want you to focus on building and shipping and we kind of help you get there and everything else. And it was totally true.

00:51 Sergei That’s interesting, because a lot of programs try to push people to do customer discovery, doing more pre-sales, while here they were asking you to build and ship. So what was the advantage that you think that created for you and tell a little bit about some of those things you learn from those folks or those partners from EXBA.

1:10 Wayne I think it was just failing quicker, it just accelerated the learning process. Because I think it’s easy, partly coming from a scientific background where the academia is very slow and there’s a reason for it because there’s a level of precision that you’re trying to accomplish that you can be more reckless, I guess, in the real world where you can put something in somebody’s hands and get feedback, learn from that quickly and adopt the product.

Versus let’s talk to them about it, let’s hear about it, not let them touch and feel the product and make sure we get it just right before we give it to them. No it’s much more about, if you don’t ship something that you’re kind of embarrassed of, well then you’re shipping too late, and getting it in peoples’ hands and learning from that, and that has been a key principle that has worked for us from the beginning of this company that we’ve taken to the extreme a bit.

To be a little bit contrarian, specially in the gaming space that I think is what has really helped us grow, helped our user base kind of grow organically, helped us build such an amazing relationship with our community and our users is because we ship two to three live updates a week, which for a gaming company  is really unheard of.

When I bring in new engineers and tell them that we’ll be shipping two or three times a week, they tell me that its crazy and it’s not possible to do that. We’ve been doing that for eighteen months, I promise that it’s possible, it just takes a little flip of mindset, being okay with things not being perfect but being adaptable and flexible and being like what’s broken will get fixed quickly and that has allowed us to leverage a very unique useful relationship with our users where gamers are very opinionated and they are not shy, and that is a very good things because we don’t have to run focus groups, we don’t have to go and find people who give us their opinion, they give us their opinion day in and day out.

The important thing is just to listen and make it as easy as possible for them to voice their opinion directly to you. I get probably a hundred DMs a day on discord users, and I answer all of them. We have a bug-reported inside the game, where people can leave feedback. They could just press a button, tell us whatever they want. Most of the time it’s just not about bugs feedback, I wish you could do this, I wish you could do that. Every single email gets replied. We get over a hundred a day. And constantly we get responses `a game developer has never responded to me, I can’t believe anyone read this, let alone responded`, which is crazy because what an untapped resource.

As an early stage company, we’re trying find product market fit, you’re trying to build the best product for your users, why would you not just want to make this easy as possible to hear all their thoughts. And adapt the product to solve their needs right. That’s what we should be doing, not necessarily like, here’s the solution I think that we haven’t tested what will solve your problem, and I’m gonna try and sell that to you, specially coming from a sales background. I have a product I wanna convince you to purchase it. It’s more of `what are the real problems, let’s create the actual solution to those problems that works and that you find easy to use and enjoyable that you’ll love using. That’s what I want to learn and build and give you, not what I think it is that you need, and convince you to use it.

4:28 Vadim Can you give us the quick elevator pitch of Statespace. And also talk us through, because obviously you’ve gone through Expa, you were building features all the time, pushing three times a week. But how did you get those early users, what did you do to get some of that early success and traction and then so you can actually get that feedback in the beginning when you were pushing out these features?

4:48 So StateSpace, we are founded by a couple of neuroscientists, we focus on leveraging our neuroscience, machine learning and we have some computer vision experts on the team as well, leveraging that to provide standardized benchmarking, scouting, performance analytics data in gaming and e-sports. Like the SAT Score of esports in gaming, the fundamentals ways to kind of you know how I mentioned earlier about traditional sports or things, you can measure how fast someone can run, how high they could jump, how strong they are.

That data is very valuable when used along, many spectrums of traditional sports, scouting, training, contract arbitration, media and storytelling it’s just a fundamental piece of data that has so much value. So, we’ve built our business basically around that data and not necessarily a single solution. We’ve gone through great lengths to make sure that we collect that in a proprietary way, so that’s it’s our data. Which we can get into later, it solves multiple problems. That’s was the hard choices from the beginning, was that we knew what we wanted to do, we knew what large problem we wanted to solve, which was develop a way to measure and use this data, but which of these problems, what are the applications of this data that we wanna go after first. I think as a gamer I thought that well, matchmaking: If I knew everybody’s constituent skills, we could use that to create a much better matchmaking service. Because matchmaking sucks in games, it’s a huge pain point-it has been for years. Everybody’s looking for solutions.

The Pro teams that we started talking to in the beginning where all like, well we like a scouting platform. Can we  use this data to be able to find you know the young players with raw abilities that we can bring into our system and groom to be an amazing player, I think that both of those you know had the problem of starting a dating website. If you go to a dating website there’s five people there, you’re not gonna stay, it doesn’t matter. You have to build up a large user base before there’s a lot of value there and stickiness for new users. So we thought well, what could we do that solves big problems with this data that we can start collecting this data. Learning from this data and give you users something very valuable in return. And training was the obvious first step for us. And you know having spent time doing with the brain training stuff in the undergrad. It was like a perfect fit. It was like of course you know, let’s do this, how this failed, how it works and lets kind of implement that here.

The initial product that we built, right now called AimLab, soon to be rebranded in the near future. You can think of it as like a little AI-based coach for first person shooter player. So whether its you know, Fortnite, Overwatch, Apex legends is the big thing now. Its software that you download that simulates those games, the physics of those games, but runs you through basically little fun things that inject the neuroscience aspects of the lab of like how we would measure things like reaction time, accuracy, visual bias. As humans we all have kind of any visual biases, let’s say I may be worse at reacting at things that are presented in the upper left corner portion of my visual field, so if the enemy is in the upper left corner of the screen, I may react slower somewhere else or I may be less accurate.

Moving my mouse to the left side of the screen versus to the right side of the screen, you know I may perform differently. So kind of diagnose all those things, give you the feedback and then the software itself adapts in real time adapts that training to kind of push you at your threshold, a difficult but not frustrating level of difficulty to help you improve and then tracks those things over time. So we thought that was kind of the perfect way to start one, collecting this data and learning from it, so that we could know what is the average players’ skill set. And how could we help people in their journey from you know, starting out playing Fortnite for the first time and how do we make them better playing with their friends. But if they wanted to become a professional player, is that possible, what are those feelings and how do we help people along that progress. So that was kind of our first product, developing some tangential things related to that as we go and then through this learning process both from professionals and collegiate level, high school level and the everyday user level. Just coming from listening to their problems and their concerns and the coming up with ideas that we think we could address those problems.

9:05 Vadim But how did you get in peoples’ hands at the very beginning? Obviously you’re in the gaming community so I’m assuming maybe you went after folks that you have been playing with for awhile or was there another method.

9:14 Wayne So I think we, two-fold. So one, we put the game up on Steam, the largest PC market place to purchase games. Working with Steam has been great, especially as like an unknown developer. They kind of have tools and abilities to give you a bit of a voice, you can at least be seen by a subset of people that could try the product. So I think there was one, Steam kind of had its own mechanism to at least get some people to be able to see you and know who you are and at least give you a shot and try an download it. We went on like product hunt, I don’t think that was the right audience necessarily for what we needed. We got some users from there but it was not a ton of users. But we had a little bit of press in the beginning, we did like a TechCrunch article, sports insider, sports observer. We did a little bit of press to help generate some basic interest.

10:14 Vadim Did they find you or did you reach out to the others there?

10:16 Wayne A mix of both so, though some of them were us reaching out and others where through EXBA or seen us through Steam. I think what we were doing was a bit strange and weird enough that we started getting inbound interest from press. And did some really great articles with Mashable. It was really helpful. We’ve done no Ads or marketing or anything like that. We’ve been very anti that from the very beginning, I think that that taints all of the, you know from the beginning you wanna be able to listen to polls, see if something’s there, we think that all the does is add noise like any type of paid marketing, you’re just kind of juicing your stats, and maybe that is for vanity metrics, looks good if you’re trying to raise something, but you know you’re just fooling yourself.

From the beginning, not to say maybe we don’t do that in the near future, luckily we haven’t had to. I’m trying my hardest not to do anything like that at all, even like paid influence we don’t do any of that stuff. It’s just been purely organic and I think that to answer the question, one that’s how we got those initial users, how we’ve grown. We open an open beta on Steam, it was like end of July I believe. Hoping to get ten or fifteen thousand users, to start to learn more, test some things and really just learn, we are fortunate because we ended up having a hundred and twenty thousand users within that first month, we’ve doubled every quarter since then. Right now we have half a million users today on the product which is great.

12:00 Vadim Is this mainly a thing through the word of mouth, or you guys are doing some sort of engineering as marketing?

12:04 Wayne No Its all through word of mouth.

12:07 Vadim In the Steam platform.

12:08 Wayne Yeah so it’s everywhere. We have a lot of videos, blogs that people have written, streaming on Twitch. We’ve gotten really good reviews. We’ve got nine out of ten review score for the last thirty days on Steam. It’s partly about the product, but a large part of it is also I think, how we engage the community and how we treat our users and I think that is what has helped us grow. Our community tells us what sucks, what doesn’t and because of our quick iteration, like we publish a couple of patches a week. It allows us to show them that we care and that we’re listening because it is valuable to us. And so if someone comes to us and says, I wish that it was possible to have a yellow crosshair instead of just the other colors, and we come around in under just twenty four hours and say, great, here it is. We pushed this live for you, shows them that we care and that we’re listening. And that just facilitates them, telling us more.

13:17 Sergei And telling other people about it.

13:19 Wayne Exactly because they have that experience of being listened to by a developer and responded to my bug report and fixed it within twenty-four hours. Of course and then they turn into an advocate not necessarily just for the product but for your company. And this is the first product, hopefully a long line of products and solutions that deal with the different aspects of the data. I think our first hire was a community manager and that’s our number one priority is absolutely our users and that relationship with them and I think that kind of the no-brainer most important thing that you should do.

13:52 Vadim Can you share us some quick metrics with us, how big is the company now, how many users did you guys charge for your product as well so?

14:00 Wayne It’s free right now. So again, because all we really care about is learning and getting as much of that feedback. We thought that charging is, you know while that solves one thing, well is it something that people are willing to pay for this solution? Well we know that this solution is not complete yet and what we wanna do is build that perfect solution and so adding that bar of you have to pay for it to be able to use it, you know limits how many users that you could pool from in the beginning so we didn’t want that barrier, just wasn’t the point and all that we really cared about.

You know growth has been great, like I said we’ve been doubling every quarter we have over a half a million users over the last six months, which has been great but we really focused on just engagement and stickiness, you know the product is only about thirty-five maybe forty percent done, so it’s still much being built alongside the community as we continue to listen and find out kind of what problems are and try to solve them. We’ve actually had to push back on growth a little bit. In January, for a few days we were the most watched game broadcast on Steam. We were like on the front page of Steam and things like that, which was great, but we were getting ten, fifteen thousand users a day. We’re like no, no, no. We know our onboarding process and where it needs to be, our user experiences and what we want. And that’s what we’re working on right now.

We turned off the stream, the reason that we started the stream in the first place was we’re trying to really lower the users’ expectations in a good way so instead of  creating this flashy trailer of ‘this is some amazing thing you should download’ and like super hype them up, let’s just show ‘em what it is, let’s take video from the community. We’ve got about six hours of users in the community and just them playing it. Just stitched them altogether in this six-hour long loop. Puts it right on the store page, so that when someone comes ‘should I download this or not’ we’re not hiding anything from you, this is exactly the state of the game. For us it more about expectation-setting and we learned a valuable thing though was that people who are interested in, well what are other people doing to get better.

I know what level I play, but what does someone who’s really good look like? And what are they doing better, and I think that is an important lesson for us to learn. We turned it off and turned it back on in February. Same thing, we hit number one. Most viewed game on Steam for a couple of days and had to turn it off again but I think that was an important lesson to learn. Again it was interesting, completely unintended, but an important thing to learn.

16:36 Sergei Can you talk a little bit about that because you just mentioned that you’re seeing that people are curious to see what it actually takes to be good. And can you talk about this next iteration of your product, but an add-on to your product that you’re gonna be testing in the next couple of months that’ll let people do that?

16:50 Wayne Yes, from the beginning we focused heavily on mechanics, so that’s a small portion of what makes you good at games and know there’s a lot of things out there so in this past year we’ve been listening and seeing what are people doing to get better. They’re asking questions on our Discord, they’re watching Twitch streams and stuff like that. What is going on and how can we address some of those issues. And knowing that there’s such interest that we added leaderboards to the game and immediately we saw like an influx of cheaters. You know people cheating in a training game of course is a little bit weird but people taking screenshots.

We saw people sharing screenshots of their score to Steam and our Discord, what if we added a share to social, but then we don’t wanna grow, so why don’t we add a button that’s just like share your results and it dumps it to our discord. We average about two-thousand screenshots a week being shared. So there is definitely something here, people want to compete. And people wanna learn from other people, so how best could we solve this problem given the technology that we have.

So a new feature that we’re rolling out internally called the Academy, you could think of it like a master class type of instructor content where its like a professional player saying here’s how you focus on flick shots versus track shots. How to find your perfect sensitivity, game training 101 with instead of just video content the go off and do it, its companion aim-lab training that goes with that. So it’s really like a hand-held walkthrough to help you go through things and instead of just a course that you could complete, its infinite replay ability because it adapts to you as you continue to grow. It helps us solve additional needs beyond what we’ve been solving.

Again we kind of have this rising-tide mentality where we’re trying to bring the community up with us. It’s also our first dipping our toes in revenue, but we’re doing it alongside the community and content creators so it’s a 50/50 revenue share split. Similar to some online course like Corsara or something like that where the content creators create the content and they share all the revenues off it.

19:44 Vadim Its sounds to me like it’s a big app to me. You guys are 30-40% done with the first product, you already have half a million users. Clearly you were able to be attractive to an accelerator, did they give you some funding? Obviously you have to support engineers and yourself, so are you guys raising money now or have you raised some already?

20:02 Wayne Yes so we did a half a million dollars with Expa and then it was about July or August the same time we opened beta, we were like okay, let’s go get a little bit more money, so we’re  gonna do another half million dollars with Expa, we thought let’s get another and additional investor or something involved to expand the network or to get some more help and we were fortunate, we had a lot of interest. We ended up doing a million, with like 2.8 committed, but we don’t want to get ahead of our skis and we didn’t need that much money so we did a million dollars first mark involved, which is also great. I talk about it like the early stage about conviction. We had a total of two meetings and it was like eight days apart from initial meeting to let’s rock and roll.

20:55 Sergei Why do you think they made that decision so quickly, what is it about you guys?

20:57 Wayne I really think It was about conviction, a little bit about early traction that we had. I really do feel that they just believed in me and in our team and what we did, how we solved the problem, our approach that we took and the skill sets that we had and the timing and the opportunity in the space. They told me that a lot of it is about me and it was about the team and believing that we solved the problem and that we can kind of kill it.

21:03 I really do feel that they believed in me, in our team and how we solved the problem. The approach that we took and the skill sets that we have. Users are so important to us so it’s important to keep up with their demand.

22:09 Sergei Where can people find you, especially if I’m a talented developer?

22:11 Wayne Always looking for talented developers. So you can just email me: wayne@stakespace.gg. You can go to the website, stakespace.gg we have some job postings on angellist. And also feel free to join in our Discord again I’m talking to people there all the time, it’s the easiest place to find me, you can just DM me on there.

22:37 Sergei So Wayne, I think the big recurring thing for me throughout this conversation is that you followed your passion, but you also find different people in your life who’s  gonna support. Those mentors or investors or advisors who helped you figure out that you can do this. And then of course, you paying attention to what’s important to get you to your next step. Is there anything else you can leave us with about how do you get those kinds of people to support you. And which people to surround yourself.

23:34 Wayne A hundred percent I tribute a lot of our success to the hard work and my mentors. It’s important to have those people that you can go to and ask questions. I’m hopefully very coachable and that’s very important. I think it’s really important to have that learning and growth mindset. You have to ask for that tough feedback.

25:36 So talk to people, network with people and surround yourself with the right people even in life in general. Having those people around you who believes in you is just invaluable.

26:13 If you don’t have the people in your life who’s gonna say yes to your crazy ideas then you’re not going to figure out whether it would work out someday.

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