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The dangers of startup success and brilliant strategic exits: a case for Flappy Bird


This weekend Dong Nguyen let the world know that his wildly successful mobile game Flappy Bird was ruining his “simple life”. In a series of tweets, he explained that it had nothing to do with legal issues and he does not want to sell it — he was simply done with it.

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As is the case with many of the more successful startups out there, Flappy Bird came out of nowhere and became a viral sensation. The little game that was incredibly difficult to play was more successful in a couple of months than other internet sensations (yes Instagram I am looking at you) were in the same amount of time, and it was actually making money while still being free. Nguyen created what most people spend years hoping their companies will become in a matter of months — a bona fide success. According to social media analytics site Topsy, Flappy Bird has been mentioned over 15-million times in the last month, peaking at 1.3-million tweets per day on the day before it was take down. In that success lay its biggest problem.

In many ways, playing Flappy Bird is like starting a company: at first you’re not quite sure what you’re doing. You stumble a lot then eventually understanding dawns and you get it. The first couple of stages are difficult: you hit a lot of walls and fall often but you carry on and then you get into a groove and soon find that you can manoeuvre your way through with a little patience and some dexterity and accuracy.

Flappy Bird on its own is not a startup. It is published by .GEARS Studio, the one-man company that makes the same 2D retro style mobile games. But let’s for a moment treat the game as a startup and Nguyen as a gaming entrepreneur. If we do this, then we need to examine a few things: what are the challenges of building a startup? What are the challenges of keeping momentum in an industry that can be so fickle (mobile gaming)? Then there is that pesky bit about actually running a business.

The pressure to succeed: games demand challenges

Nguyen plays on nostalgia — anyone who has played Flappy Bird will notice some striking similarities between the game and Nintendo’s old school Super Mario Bros. Truth is, anyone who enjoyed the latter will enjoy the former — keep jumping, avoid falling and that’s about it. The indie developer found his audience and built it a product that it would love. Trouble is, that audience would soon get bored and require more. Just as Angry Birds needed new versions of the same game to keep its audience, so too Flappy Bird would have needed to get more creative. What would Nguyen have done next? Flappy Bird goes to space?

In the world of startups, the pressure to succeed is second to none — something that Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and many other tech startups learn sometimes only too late. Getting a user base is easy, but keeping that user is hard and soon something bigger, better or more interesting will come along — just ask Myspace, Friendster and FruitNinja. This was probably anticipated by Nugyen and he chose to leave before he was forced to by the competition.

Startups are a dime a dozen: welcome to the one hit wonders

Say Nguyen kept the game and found ways to build on extra layers that kept it interesting aside from the initial novelty of playing the game. Say he persevered and really made a go for it with this game. What about his other games? Say this became his only successful game and he joined the likes of Sean Parker in the world of the one hit wonder startups. He will more than likely create many more games but he will probably always been known as “that Flappy Bird guy”. Taking it down has guaranteed him infamy though — no matter what happens now he is the guy that decided to stop one of the most successful mobile games before it lost its mojo.

The 24 hour sale of this limited edition

Contrary to what has been reported, Nguyen has not “killed off” Flappy Bird, he has simply made it unavailable for new users. The game reportedly brings in around US$50 000 a day, and will continue to bring him that and maybe more through its already downloaded copies. If by design or by sheer exhaustion, Nguyen made a very strategic play with his decision to dump the game.

Think about it: he won’t sell it but he gave new users a full day to get it before it was no longer available. This same tactic is used by the movie industry (especially Disney), when it opens up its sealed vaults for limited edition re-releases. In the 24 hours that the developer gave users to get the game, downloads went through the roof, then he took it down. He didn’t kill it, he simply made it unavailable to those who didn’t have it in the first place. Current players continue to play the game, he continues to make money and the game goes down in infamy.

When you are that good clones will come

There is another game in the app store taking Flappy Bird’s place, kind of. Ironpants is pretty much the same game without a bird or the Mario green cylinders. The games are pretty much identical — the player uses the same style of controls to dodge some crates and instead of a bird there is a weird creature in iron pants flying about. The game was added to the app store last month just after Flappy Bird hit the number one spot. Then there is Fly Birdie – Flappy Bird flyer. When you are that good, clones will come.

Not a business guy in the end

All of the above said, the truth is anyone who has played Flappy Bird and followed Nguyen’s tweets will know that he is not a business guy, if he was he would not have shut the game down. He is an artist and a creator. He built a game he would play and then it became a thing. For most startups this is a real problem — the line between creating a product the creator wants and product that users would like. Nguyen got it right and with that probably came offers of investment, acquisitions and maybe even legal matters. All that would have required him to think of it as a business rather than a game he loved and built to be loved.

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