Starting a new chapter

I’ve been building Quest and working on 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, 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.

15 thoughts on “Starting a new chapter

  1. Volker Hirsch (@vhirsch)

    Hi Alex, as one of the people who looked at this, let me elaborate as it may help you with your future endeavours:

    1. There is a fundamental difference between a product and a business. A product might well be viable in itself (and there are some – if few – successful one-product companies) but that does not necessarily mean that it has the potential to break out of its shell and evolve into a high-growth business. For venture investment as an asset class, high-growth is important as it determines the likelihood of achieving acceptable ROI from investments (and bear in mind that, on average, almost 95% of all start-ups fail).

    If there is only a product (albeit one with encouraging traction), then this is not necessarily given, and we felt that there was too much to do for this switch to happen. We were not convinced that you and your team had a clear enough vision to bring this through. And since Emerge is running a compact and highly condensed programme, we did not feel comfortable that we could help you achieve this in that short amount of time.

    2. The second point (balance of team) is an equally important one, in particular for very early-stage teams: it is vital that you have a team together that can take your fledgling start-up through the gears into high-growth mode, and we did not feel that your team was as strong in this respect as some others we spoke with. This does not mean that you guys don’t cut it per se but that you might need to add some business acumen to your team in order to make it stronger and more balanced.

    I hope you appreciate the sentiment of this note. I wish you all the best! 🙂

  2. george

    I can understand how this is very disappointing Alex, but as you say the effort certainly wasn’t wasted. Quest the software won’t stop working tomorrow after all, and I have to say that I’ve been very pleasantly surprised with Quest after living in the Inform/TADS bubble for years, so thanks for all your hard work!

  3. Textfyre, Inc. (@Textfyre)

    As a fellow IF-Entrepreneur, I share all of your frustrations and have many similar experiences with investors and accelerators. One of the things I’ve learned, especially where educational products and services are concerned, is that sales are critical. Forget about everything else, ed-tech success requires sales. It’s unlike any other industry in the many others can launch and get funding on an idea if they meet some basic traction (webs traffic) numbers. Ed-tech can’t succeed with great products or services unless there’s a critical mass of users, is probably in the 5,000 to 10,000 student range.

    I still have hopes for IF-related education products and services, but it’s a very long game and non-IF entities are catching up on developing interactive services. They’re not any good, but they have the money and resources to the types of things entrepreneurs cannot…not without funding.

    This is also a location thing. Being in Silicon Valley could go a long way to getting some IF-related venture funded, at least at the seed stage, but I just don’t have an ability to move there.

    For my own works, I’ve decided to fall back on games and perfecting a touch-based user experience in hopes that can make a difference in sales.

  4. jaynabonne

    Alex, it sounds like things are converging here, in a complementary way: not only do you need a source of income (which Quest won’t provide), but you also are reaching a point where it’s time for something new, from a creativity point of view. Given where you live and all the opportunities I’ve seen there, you should be able to find some exciting, rewarding work. I wish you all the best with what this next chapter brings for you!

    Having said all of that, what do you see as the future for Quest? Having less time due to working a job (and thus relegating it to “hobby” status) is one thing – the real red flag here is that you’re feeling you’ve done what you want to do with Quest. What do you see as Quest’s future, and yours along with it? Is there anything you still want to do, any plans you still have? I know you were speaking of Quest 6 and a move to JavaScript. Are you still looking to the future with Quest, or is this not only the start of a new chapter but the end of the current one? 🙂

    1. Alex Warren

      Thanks Jay!

      I’ve been having a bit of a think lately about the future of Quest, and I’ll be rethinking it some more in the light of the current news. There is clearly a future of some kind in interactive fiction, and it seems to be very promising indeed. I’m frankly just not sure that Quest will necessarily be the right product for a lot of authors though – and the experience of building Moquette has taught me a few things. I’m actually dabbling with a couple of non-Quest interactive fiction projects right now, so watch this space…

  5. Emily Short

    Aw, I’m sorry to hear that. I was just thinking about our conversations last week and that I should ping and see how this had turned out.

    Best of luck with the new directions! This sounds like an exciting transition time.

  6. ZUrlocker

    Although I’m not a Quest user, I do read your blog posts via Planet-IF. From where I sit, it appears that Quest plays an important role for a lot of IF authors. I’m a mere dabbler in IF (mostly Inform7) but I have made it a point to try to contribute financially to various IF projects, whether it’s by buying games, books, or sponsoring Kickstarter projects. Heck, I’ve even sent old 1930’s Dennis Wheatley Crime Dossiers to IF authors to encourage them. So consider whether there is some Kickstarter related effort that Quest users might be able to contribute towards in order to keep Quest going.

    1. Alex Warren

      Quest will keep going whatever happens, although the pace of change will inevitably be a lot slower. I’ve considered Kickstarter but it’s really difficult to imagine how to make it work – what I could possibly offer while still raising an amount of money that will make a difference. Most successful Kickstarters only raise a few thousand dollars/pounds and that only buys a few extra months.

  7. Mauricio Díaz

    Hi Alex, as you know I work in a company of software and we are are creating a tool that it might interest you. The tool can improve a lot the web version of Quest in minutes. The product is in development right know but I let you know as soon as possible. I’d like to know how lines of code Quest has, so I can tell you how much would be the license, please send me a PM. In the meantime, I still trying to spread Quest in spanish and translate everything I can. This is my way to tell you that I believe in the future of this software. I’m an accountant and not a engineer but a huge fan of text adventures, so I’ll support it no matter what.

    – M4u

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