QONQR (pronounced Conquer) is a mobile gaming company headquartered in Minneapolis, MN. That’s right. Minnesota. If you read the major tech press, it seems that all great startups and apps come from major cities that are thick with investors. Or, startups are only built in Silicon Valley. The logic seems to be that cities are super dense pockets of innovation. Everything else is not trying hard enough.
There is also the perception that the Apple Apps Marketplace is where you go for better performance and more downloads. According to QONQR founder Scott Davis, this is not true for his app. He says, “We were #2 in the Windows Phone Marketplace in the category of “Best Rated” games for a month, currently sitting at #3. Windows Phone out-performs iPhone 10 to 1 (or better) for downloads for QONQR. More people should be aware of this.”
QONQR focuses on location-based mobile gaming and currently has its first title, also called QONQR, in the Windows Phone, and iPhone marketplaces, with an Android private beta recently released. QONQR emerged from a Startup Weekend in the fall of 2010 after having won the weekend competition by building an early prototype of the game in 54 hours. Following Startup Weekend, QONQR was selected as a finalist in the SXSW Accelerator competition in March of 2011. After seeing the success of the beta launched at SXSW, three of the seven partners in QONQR quit their jobs to focus on QONQR full time. The following March the first official versions of QONQR for iPhone and Windows Phone were released, again at SXSW. QONQR is a 100% bootstrapped startup, having never secured an investor or borrowed funds from friends and family. Today QONQR is a profitable game company with a rapidly growing user base in countries all over the world.
We sat down with Scott to ask him some questions about how all of this came together. Here is his interview.
QONQR is a location-based MMO (massively multiplayer) game where players battle for control of the towns and cities in which they live, work, and play. Right now, an invisible war is raging all around you. A powerful Artificial Intelligence known as QONQR has emerged and propagated itself throughout the world. Those who first detected the presence of QONQR have split into viciously rival factions who are attempting to take over the world one city at a time. Players use these towns and cities to establish safe zones for their factions to operate and in turn determine the fate of QONQR.
QONQR allows players to battle for and capture their hometown in the real world using their GPS enabled smart phones. QONQR has over 3 million cities, towns and villages in the real world, across 250 countries included in the game. To date, QONQR player have captured 400,000 cities in 175 countries. Players use team work, strategic resource collection, and upgrades to defend their home towns from others who would attempt to capture it. QONQR is a free to play game, leveraging a freemium revenue model to satisfy both casual and hardcore players.
Do you build for scale first, or for revenue? How are those things related in your mind?
We built our app for revenue and retention before we built for scale. Of course we leveraged our experience in application architecture to ensure we were not making choices that would make it difficult to achieve scale in the future. However with limited resources, we held back the things that would be needed to support hundreds of thousands of daily users, and instead focused on the things that would get us to profitability. In any application you need balance. Create the things that will support scalability at a moderate level and prepare you for the future scalability needs, while focusing on the many other features your application needs immediately to be successful.
What questions do you think a startup non-technical founder needs to answer when considering a cloud architecture for his or her startup, and I am thinking specifically here during the business model generation period?
Many non-technical entrepreneurs look at hosting cost as a single and somewhat static number. Specifically when comparing Azure to many other cloud hosting providers, the distinction between an application platform and an infrastructure platform is completely lost on many non-technical entrepreneurs. What most don’t understand is that an infrastructure hosting provider is going to often require someone to maintain that infrastructure on an ongoing basis. Who is going to manage and monitor database backups and replication? Who is going to apply the security patches and system updates to the web servers? How much is that person going to cost month to month? Many non-technical entrepreneurs neglect this part of their planning, and often don’t budget funds and resources for the maintenance of their systems. Azure has been a huge benefit for us. As a startup full of software developers, we could have improved our infrastructure skills to maintain our own servers in the cloud, but it was not core to our skillset and with our already overloaded work days, quite frankly it was an extra headache no one wanted. Azure took a piece of work off our plates, gave us the security of knowing the infrastructure side of our hosting was managed by someone more knowledgeable about it than we were. Azure let us focus more of our limited time and resources on building our product.
What questions do you and your technical co-founder / engineering team feel are the most important to solve about the business aspects of your company?
Customer acquisition is the primary business challenge facing us today. Our user base is growing steadily and at a manageable pace. However analytics are difficult to track when looking at customer acquisition. The mobile phone marketplaces don’t give us analytics about how people found and downloaded our application. Web applications can track every user who visits their web application and can know exactly what marketing is driving traffic. This is a very challenging thing to uncover when talking about mobile phone applications. Without these analytics, it is very difficult to discover what is working best in our customer acquisition strategy. QONQR receives 10 to 15 times more downloads per day in the Windows Phone Marketplace, compared to the iPhone version. Both have been in the marketplace the same number of months, and both have a rating at or above 4.5 stars. But what is driving so many more downloads from Windows Phone? We think we know, but identifying what sources are driving customers to our apps is difficult to pinpoint, and therefore creates a difficult business challenge for planning marketing.
Where do you include technical members of your team during the building of your business plan?
The CEO of the company is a veteran software developer who still participates daily is some aspect of the software development. He also has an MBA and years of business experience in both startups and the enterprise. It would be difficult in our business to have a business decision not impacted by the technical staff. Every business decision made evaluates the technical cost to implement so we can effectively evaluate the ROI of the decisions made. As a startup, we need to identify the enhancements that required the smallest technical impacts for the greatest monetary return. Once all the “low hanging fruit” has been collected, the larger initiatives can be undertaken. In a mobile gaming company, few business decisions can be made without knowing technical risk and impact. This is especially true when managing features that must cross three mobile phone platforms.
How much of what you are building is based on leaving a legacy and how much of it is based on technical challenges, or the ability to make something just for fun? In other words, where do you fall on the seriousness scale? For fun, for profit, for life?
QONQR is a game. It is hard to move beyond the “fun” aspect of what we do. However, like most entrepreneurs we hope to one day be recognized for doing something great: for impacting someone’s life. This may be as simple as inspiring someone else to believe they can achieve success too. We have received messages that QONQR is a game the whole family plays together and plans family trips together to play in new cities. We’ve been told QONQR brought old friends together as a reason to reconnect and communicate more often. We have players who have built an online “family of new friends” through QONQR. These are the things that amaze me with our “fun” little project. Watching the human connections that are made and the discovery of moving people outside their little part of the world is very exciting to see.
When did you decide that you were “startup material”?
I grew up in a very entrepreneurial family. My parents were dairy farmers until I was an early teen, and later small construction and retail business owners. I started my first company within weeks of taking my startup law class when I was getting my MBA in my early 20’s. QONQR is a company with seven founding partners, most participating on a part-time basis, but we are a company full of entrepreneurs, having started more than a dozen different companies among our ranks. However, QONQR is perhaps the most ambitious startup any of us have attempted.
What impact or legacy do you hope to make in the market and in the business world?
I hope people hold QONQR up as one of the examples of how to do location-based gaming the right way. While there are some titles with good traction, as a whole, the location-based gaming genre is a struggling game genre. There are many reasons for this, and I believe QONQR has accounted for many of the problems that plagued other games that failed to gain traction. There is tremendous opportunity for QONQR to expand our game to connect with businesses, historic and modern landmarks, as well as events around the world. Perhaps someday QONQR will be known as much for connecting people to the world around them, as it is known for being a fun game people love to play.
What are some of the challenges you face as a founder or developer at a startup, when it comes to dealing with family life, or socially? Does working on a startup change the way you associate and interact in these areas?
I work all the time. It can put stress on a family. There is no doubt having a supportive spouse is a requirement of maintaining family cohesion for an entrepreneur. My wife and I have two pre-teen children who are becoming very active in after school activities. I often set aside work that can be done from my phone, if I know that I will be away from my computer. It is amazing how many support requests can be handled while hiding in your tent from the rain at Boy Scout camp or during warm ups at a baseball game. The reality of being an entrepreneur means you often take any time you can to try and stay ahead of the work that must be done. My best tip for people in my situation is to put a couch in your home office and work from home when your family is home. My kids will often come home from school and sit on my couch in the office, doing homework, reading a book, or playing on one of the many mobile devices we have for testing. I see my kids more now working longer days, than I did when I had a “regular” job and an office, because they like to hang out with me in the home office.
What characteristics do you possess that make you an entrepreneur? What makes your startup a startup?
I enjoy working long days on hard problems. I am a problem solver, an organizer, and multitasker, as are all the partners in QONQR. We are a startup because we made something from nothing and we did it with almost nothing more than pure determination. We are an unfunded startup. We were unable to secure an investor and did not borrow money from friends or family. We put our own limited funds into the business and lived on savings for more than a year to get QONQR up and running. We didn’t have a big enterprise customer who had promised to buy our product once it was finished. We had to go get all our customers one at a time and hope they would spend a few dollars on our freemium game. In every sense of the word, QONQR was a big gamble, but our team put our heads down, charged forward and executed.
Can you describe the relationship that you have had with Microsoft in building your startup?
All but one of the founders in our business have organized Microsoft focused user groups and/or have been local/regional/national speakers at conferences on Microsoft related topics. As such, we had already built a strong relationship with many Microsoft employees before QONQR began. However, it was very easy to connect with many other people within Microsoft. Some of our best connections came with meeting several members of the BizSpark team at conferences such as SXSW. We have never had an issue seeking a Microsoft resource to help us with a problem and finding our way to someone who could answer our question. The benefits we have received as being part of the Microsoft BizSpark program have been tremendous and I hope to leverage more of the resources before we graduate from the program this fall.
Why would an entrepreneur turn to Microsoft for help in building scale, a team, or using software?
Because you can actually get help. I’ve even received calls from people within Microsoft, with whom I’ve never had a prior relationship with, offering me the opportunity to working within free programs at Microsoft that could help us in our business.
Tell us about your Azure-based solution.
QONQR is a massively multiplayer, mobile, location-base game. We have a Windows Phone and an iPhone client, with Android recently released in private beta. Because we are massively multi-player, everyone plays in the same game, at the same time. This requires a large and complex API running on a game server for the mobile clients. We chose to run our server platform in Azure. QONQR has a database containing 3 million cities, towns and villages in 250 countries. Our players use their GPS enabled phones to capture and defend their hometowns through strategic gameplay actions and mechanics. This requires a flexible and scalable system to handle the complex geospatial data and the millions of requests the servers receive daily. In the past year, our players have battled for and captured 400,000 cities in 175 countries.
How is Azure implemented in your solution?
QONQR is leveraging nearly all components of Azure, including multiple web and worker roles, Azure caching, Azure message queuing, SQL Azure instance and Azure blob storage.
How did you get excited about Azure?
BizSpark gave us a great opportunity to get into Azure with no costs, once we saw the benefits of Azure it was easy to invest heavily in the platform. Much of our data requires a relational data model. The complexity of building and maintaining a scalable and redundant data environment in a traditional infrastructure hosting model would have been cost prohibitive for us as a startup. SQL Azure gave us that solution in a reliable and cost effective package.
What advice do you have for companies that are thinking about building in the cloud?
Consider the ongoing maintenance cost of an infrastructure platform. Don’t just compare the monthly fees associated with the cloud providers. Consider what it will cost in both time and money to maintain your own virtual servers and all the associated backup and replication that goes with it.