Starting a new chapter

16 December 2013

This post was originally published on the textadventures.co.uk blog.

I’ve been building Quest and working on textadventures.co.uk full-time for a couple of years now, on and off. Despite my best efforts to turn this into my living, I can no longer continue to work on this basis. As of January, I’ll be moving on to work on something else, with interactive fiction becoming a side project once again.

We applied to Emerge, a new startup accelerator focusing on education, with our aim of building up ActiveLit. I’m told about 80 companies applied, and we were one of the 20 selected for interview.

Unfortunately we are not one of the 7 or 8 that have been selected to join the programme.

We would like to thank you for taking the time to apply to and interview for Emerge Education '14. Places are limited and the applications were excellent. It was difficult to select participants from such a strong group. Unfortunately on this occasion, we are not in a position to offer you a place in Emerge Education '14. We hope you will apply to our future programs. We include below a brief summary of how we arrived at this decision and hope this is helpful to you:
  • Your product was more developed and had more traction than that of any other applicant to Emerge Education and we were impressed by the user demand it has received;
  • The selection committee's main concern was a lack of clarity around whether your team had the strategic intent to take ActiveLit from an (already) successful product to a high-growth business;
  • In addition, applicants that did better in the selection process tended to have more business experience as part of the co-founding team.

I find it difficult to understand the logic here, and in fact this email makes less sense every time I re-read it. The highest traction product of all applicants, but a question mark over our “strategic intent”?

Whatever. You can’t expect too much from rejection emails. Any “reasons” given are always post-hoc justifications of the decision made. I expect the most typical would be “your product is not sufficiently developed”, so at least it’s novel to be turned down because our product is too developed.

It would only require one reason to say yes - “we think there’s a good chance of making money if we invest in you”. At least in this way it’s a more straightforward and honest process than awarding grants - it’s refreshingly simple compared to working out why, say, a government body won’t award funding. Any rejection from an accelerator is fundamentally because they couldn’t find this reason to say “yes”, rather than any reasons that may be given for saying “no”.

This is the feedback we’ve been waiting for, then - the simple yes/no answer to the question “Can we convince people that know about money and business and stuff that what we’ve been working on is viable?”

And the results are in, and the answer, at least from Emerge (and also Wayra), is “no”. And that’s fine.

They say that it takes grit to succeed, but what if you never give up on an idea that is fundamentally never going to work? Maybe it simply makes more sense for Quest, textadventures.co.uk and ActiveLit to be run as side projects. I’ve sunk a lot of time into these now - 2 years of full-time effort. I’d be much richer now if I hadn’t done this.

Of course, I’d be unhappy. I’m really pleased with what I’ve achieved. I used to sit at work, seething in frustration, because there were things I wanted to do with interactive fiction that I didn’t get time for. That’s changed now - I’ve built a lot of software, explored a lot of angles and spoken to a lot of people, trying to work out how an interactive fiction business might succeed.

And what I’ve discovered is, I can’t make it work. Not right now anyway. Maybe it just needs to live and grow organically for a while. Maybe something external will change, as more and more people discover interactive fiction, or as more teachers use Quest and text adventures in the classroom. I’ve got nothing left to “push” from my side, and I’ve run out of money anyway.

And even if nothing external changes, and it never grows beyond what it currently is, it will still have been worthwhile. I don’t regret anything. I’ve built what I wanted to build. I’ve scratched the itch. I’ve created software that is being used by all kinds of people for all kinds of things. Children are learning programming, being engaged with reading and writing. More and more people are playing and creating games on the site. I’ve met some great, interesting people. It’s been a lot of fun. It’s been totally worth it.

But I can’t do this for a living, so it will have to become my hobby again. There are plenty of other things I can do - there are loads of opportunities for software developers at the moment, and there are some great companies out there doing interesting things which I can contribute to. It’s an exciting time, and I’ve now got some great experience that will hopefully prove useful in whatever I move onto next.