Turning Points: Failed Startup

I’ve been thinking about the failed Top Sekrit Projekt that I’ve written about off an on for years. (TSP was my personal code name, as I never blog using real names of projects or companies.) TSP was my shot at creating something amazing, and it broke my heart when we finally lost funding and folded. The history of this project, and the story of the turning point that led to my inadvertent retirement from web development and managing web projects, is as follows:

At the time we started, you couldn’t watch or read the news without seeing a story on how schools and parents were trying to deal with keeping kids safe on social networking sites such as MySpace. (Yes, this was before MySpace tanked and Facebook rose to ascendancy.) Everyone was wringing their hands about all of the online predators waiting in line to access kiddies’ social media profiles, and every adult was considered to be a threat to children. I was hired as project manager for a startup founded by a man who had made his money in corporate incentives. His initial idea was that if you could incentivize salespeople to succeed, why couldn’t you incentivize children the same way? And so we started.

Quickly the project grew into a social networking site. As you have to build account management and profile functionality as part of any membership site, it was a natural step. And then it dawned on us that what we were actually building was a communication platform between kids, parents, schools and businesses. It was the perfect opportunity to build a safe, secure social networking site that allowed kids to express themselves and have fun in a safe environment. It felt like an epiphany, or a revelation: the only way that you can be sure that a child is actually a child is to have the schools verify identity. You can’t have parents do it, as they may not be parents, and the child may not actually be a child. Problem solved.

The project took two years, and during that time we created an absolutely amazing system. I learned a very important point about feature creep during this project, as we actually went on to build all of the cool things that we thought up. The resulting site was perhaps too feature-rich, as it was difficult to present and sell concisely. In the end, we had a networking site that offered:

1. Safe social networking, as above. Kids could connect with other kids all over the world, along with businesses that wanted to mentor kids (future employees, of course!) and teachers. I kept using the analogy of the traditional village, wherein kids had contact with people of all ages from child to elderly, which I think is very positive if handled in a safe, secure manner. Basically, no communication could happen privately unless it was between two verified children. Everything else was open and public, which makes it difficult to groom a child.

2. Profiles where you could update statuses, blog, share pictures and video, and have a friends list. The normal stuff. Schools and businesses also had profiles and community areas.

3. The incentives section, where parents or schools could set goals or tasks for kids, and reward them with points for achieving those goals. We were in discussion with Amazon for the shop backend, which would have given us a virtually limitless selection of rewards.

4. From the start I designed the system as a game, loosely based on MMO activities. Gamification is a hot topic right now, but at the time only Raph Koster had written about it in his A Theory of Fun. Along with the material incentives, users also gained points by social activities. I’ve unfortunately lost the white paper that I wrote as part of my project plans, features and functionality specs, and so on; I was very proud of it. Basically, there are several basic game mechanics that related to our site: collection, wherein people collected material points, or friends; levelling, wherein users gained different levels of respect, titles and so on; vanity goods, which aren’t tangible but fun fluff to add to a profile, etc.

5. Virtual spaces in the browser as part of the page. This was a cool area, which I loved building – but when I mentioned feature creep above? Yep, this is it. :) Using X3D, which at the time we had a lot of hope for, we built personal rooms that could be added to a profile and furnished. We used Flash in the admin area where users designed their rooms and chose their avatars, and then displayed them using X3D (which unavoidably required a plugin, something I was never happy with).

6. Parents had a clear view of what their kids were actually doing in school, and could communicate with teachers regarding any potential problems. As a parent, I can tell you that if you ask a kid if they’ve finished their homework, they’ll usually tell you yes. Trust me, it’s not always true.

7. The virtual spaces were also used in the VLE (Virtual Learning Environment) areas. A VLE is used by a teacher to build lessons online, test the students, and capture information regarding completion, time spent, and test score. They can be as clunky as a framework to upload Word files into, or a cool as…well, as what we built. The interface was very similar to WordPress, and teachers could easily add text, images, videos, and create a virtual space to drop into the space. Teachers are notoriously technophobic, and making this simple enough for a teach to use was HARD. Excuse me if I’ve offended any teachers, but you all know what I mean.

An example of the VLE area that I used often in presentations was: Imagine that you are teaching about ancient Egypt. Rather than dry text and some images, imagine a page where kids could watch videos of Egypt and even do a virtual walkthrough in a tribal marketplace, or through a burial tomb. That is immersive – you can practically smell the spices in the air and feel the sun on your head. It was easy and fun. Choose an environment, choose objects from the libraries, drag them around on the screen to suit and save – you’re immediately a game designer and also the coolest teacher that any of your kids has had!

8. Virtual classrooms with video and shared whiteboards for distance learning, tutoring, and so on. This was also intended to act as a way of keeping in touch with far-flung family members. A dad in Iraq could read a bedtime story to his child, and so on. Teachers could get together and hold meetings from home.

Google contacted us out of the blue and asked to see a business plan, which is the scariest frackin thing that has ever happened to me. Trust me, you feel a bit like Nemo facing the giant shark…are they going to eat us up? Will they invest, or will they see what we’re doing and create their own in a fraction of the time with the massive resources available to them? In our case, they received the business plan and never wrote back. Disappointing and a bit of a relief at the same time.

We presented to the Boy Scouts, and they were interested in bringing all six-million-whatever members on board. We started working with their backend people.

And then, just as we were in a frenzy of pitching the project to schools and organisations around the country, the recession came along and bashed our little heads in.

The company had been funded by a single person, who put everything on the line. He had investors, but tried to hang on to the bulk of the company. By then I’d been offered a spot on the Board of Directors for my contributions. There were warning signs that we were running out of money…and then it was over, and all of our hopes and dreams gone with it.

A week before Christmas, I had to stand in front of a very large group of loyal people, who had all worked their guts out over the project, and tell them that paycheques were going to be short. I could feel my knees trembling as I spoke, and afterwards I went to the bathroom and threw up. Four or so months later, we were gone.

I don’t have the heart to write the rest of it. Creating this amazing, mammoth site was my biggest accomplishment professionally, and failing tore me apart. I’m thankful that I had the chance to work on a project of that level, and am eternally grateful to have worked with so many very talented people. But it still hurts.

And that is my startup story.

 



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