Rocket Science 4: The Press is Our Best Product

At Rocket Science while my partner Peter was managing the tools and game development, I was managing everything else. Which at this stage of the company was marketing and financing.

Our “Hollywood meets Silicon Valley” story played great in Silicon Valley, they ate it up in Hollywood, and the business press tripped over themselves to talk to us.  The story had universal appeal, and we spun the tale and keep the buzz going.  It worked. Judging by the ink we had gotten, we were the hottest company in the game business, with stories in Fortune, Forbes, Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, and the cover of Wired magazine. Yet we hadn’t shipped a single product.

While it felt wonderful at the time, this was a very bad idea.

Wired 2.11 Cover

Everyone Else is an Idiot
The theme of our press blitz was all about how we were going to show the old tired game companies the right way to make video games. Our press infuriated the established companies who had spent years building games that sold well, but had zero press recognition.  (They all accurately predicted our demise because of our lack of game expertise.)  Ah, the arrogance of inexperience. Fortunately I’ve never been good at lying, to be effective in communicating a story I truly had to believe in what I was saying.  At the time I was a true believer that Rocket Science was going to change the gaming world. The positive effect of the tidal wave of press was as a door opener for us to raise money from corporate partners.  Companies in the entertainment business around the world knew who we were, and were interested in meeting us, if only to see what the hype was about. Our VP of Business Development had no problems getting meetings and fund raising was easy.

The Digital Dream Team
Way before the Internet phenomenon, we had created “Rocket Science the brand” that was much bigger in size and importance than Rocket Science the company. One magazine called us the “Digital Dream Team”, young, edgy and hip, and by the looks of the company (great building, nice furniture, and well dressed 20-year olds) we were trying to live up to the reputation.  All this activity occurring before we actually shipped a product.  We were larger than life, but as one potential investor told us, “You guys are all hat and no cattle.”

Believing Your Own BS is Toxic
Lots of noise and smoke before a product ships seems to be a toxic byproduct of enthusiastic entrepreneurs. Every generation of new technology seems to find a willing audience in naïve journalists and eager readers.  However, when the smoke clears the surviving companies are more than likely the ones that focussed on execution, not on creating a cacophony of press releases. If Rocket Science wasn’t a clear enough lesson in the danger of premature enthusiasm, the dot-com bubble that followed should have been. The only difference between us and the Internet bubble that would follow was that we did branding on the cheap by creating our image with public relations, whilethe dot-bomb era was to do it by spending enormous sums on advertising (those large venture rounds had to get spent somewhere.)

Hindsight is wonderful.  For years the one solace I was able to take from the Rocket Science debacle was that I had got the branding right. Then I watched the criminally expensive dot-bomb-bust branding activities to see how futile and wasteful it was to brand a company before it has shipped products.

To a Hammer Everything Looks Like a Nail
In hindsight my failure was that I executed to my strength – telling a compelling story – without actually listening to customer feedback.

It wasn’t that I didn’t know how to listen to customers.  It wasn’t that I didn’t have a smart VP of Marketing who was getting early feedback from customers and screaming that the games didn’t match the hype.  It’s that as CEO I was too busy talking to the press and raising money to hear customer comments directly.

I had outsourced customer feedback and ignored the input. In fact, hearing input that contradicted the story I was telling created cognitive dissonance.  So while the words may have passed through my ears I couldn’t “hear” it.  Not being able to hear negative customer input is an extremely bad idea.

Out of the Ashes
A few of the key tenets of Customer Development, came from the ashes.  The Customer Discovery lessons of “get outside the building and test your hypothesis with customers,” and “the founders need to hear the results,” came from this debacle.

The Customer Validation lesson of, “no formal launch until you have early sales validating the product and sales process” was also born here.  Given the lukewarm feedback we were getting from potential customers and channel buyers we should have dramatically dialed back the hype until the follow-on games could match it. Given the talented people we had, there’s no doubt they would have done so.  Instead the huge mismatch between expectations and reality of our first games diminished the brand and demoralized the company – we never recovered.

Lessons Learned

  • PR is not a product- it is a demand creation activity to fill a sales channel
  • The product needs to come close to the hype
  • Fire the CEO who insists on press and PR before they understand customer feedback
  • Branding is a process that should happen after you have customers

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10 Responses

  1. “Press is Our Best Product”: This line deserves to be immortalized!

    Rocket Science seems to be a bit of an extreme case though. Hype before shipping any product is an obvious flaw, but what about hyping products that have shipped but have zero business model? There are usually hopes of making it up on advertising, digital goods, transactions, consulting, but until the numbers are proven this is just as speculative.

    I do not want to necessarily start a flame war about particular creations of “Web 2.0 era”, but really interested in your take on these “free” models through the prism of Customer Development.

    • Dmitriy,

      I don’t advise or go near “freemium” models. I don’t believe they’re necessarily bad for an investor, they just seem to me to work on “the greater fool theory.”
      VC’s like them because if they can flip them, then they’re a successful business model – for them.
      I’m a bit old fashioned and think that’s like flipping houses that are appreciating daily. We all know how that ends up.
      Customer Development is a divide by zero problem for these companies and the process is not useful.


  2. […] Rocket Science 4: The Press is Our Best Product « Steve Blank >>The Customer Validation lesson of, “no formal launch until you have early sales validating the product and sales process” was also born here.<< (tags: startups) […]

  3. Interesting story.

    Rocket Science seems like they were just another group of people to founder on the rocks of injecting “Hollywood” sensibilities and story driven entertainment into video games. Seems that you were just some of the most visible of a long line of people and companies to see the game industry from the outside and fundamentally misunderstand why people play games.

    I’m in the game industry and from what I’ve seen the entire idea of customer discover and development feels like a poor replacement for actually being a gamer yourself and trying to dissect and understand what you like about games and project that into your products. I haven’t really seen (first hand) any other formula that’s worked well.

    That is, however, just my experience, and others have had success with other approaches.

    It all makes me wonder if the game biz is really its own kind of beast when it comes to this stuff.

  4. What about hyping to gain potential investor interest? Not everybody knows somebody who knows a VC….

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  7. I still remember the Rocket Science beaker glasses. I can’t remember if they were in the Wired article or on the web site, but every once in a while I still go over to ebay and see if I can find any for sale.

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