A friend of mine once decided that ice cream and steak would go brilliantly together. He just wouldn’t listen to reason, no matter how many people told him that there’s a reason it isn’t a widely available concoction. He eventually cooked up a steak with some vanilla ice cream and was disappointed. How on earth did it not work out? He was so sure it would be a hit.
I bring up this up not to inspire culinary experimentation, but to highlight the pretty obvious concept that, just because steak and ice cream are great on their own, doesn’t mean the two go well together.
That brings me to The Apprentice, a fairly baffling business obstacle course where arrogant entrepreneurs get brought down a peg or two by the bluntness of Amstrad tycoon Lord Alan Sugar, while fighting it out for £250,000 of his personal fortune as an investment. Each of the 18 candidates has a business plan, but it isn’t even revealed until there are five left, which – aside from being terrible business – means that you might have five reasonably able people, but their business plans could be atrocious. Just because you can sell dog treats at a pet show, doesn’t mean you’re sitting on the next Microsoft. Or even Amstrad.
A case in point is Vana Koutsomitis. She was probably the most talented of the contestants, but had an idea so terrible that it’s astonishing she made the final. The concept is Date Play (or DatePlay - the site spells it both ways): a dating app that combines dating and gaming. Koutsomitis correctly identifies that gaming is huge and growing, and that dating apps are huge and growing, so mixes the two into a wildly optimistic business plan that claims it’ll be making £7,000,000 of profit after three years. It’s like the old South Park meme made flesh:
The app will match members based on location, age and gender (so far, so revolutionary), but here’s the clever bit: you won’t actually be able to see what your match looks like. You’ll then play a series of games with your potential date – games that we’re assured will be “scientific”, “brainteasers” and “psychometric tests” – to unlock your match. Who wants the convenience of being able to see what our potential dates look like before wasting a day playing tedious games with them? You get one free match a day, or more if you pay up. Not getting replies to messages is one of the biggest problems online daters face, and Vana wants them to jump through a hundred mini game-shaped hoops before they even reach the rejection stage. Hmm.
"Just because you can sell dog treats at a pet show, doesn’t mean you’re sitting on the next Microsoft. Or even Amstrad."
“You’ll be able to play games and date simultaneously,” she excitedly explains in the interview stage. “The good news is I’ve decided to target it at quality men,” Vana argues, in a statement that intends to reassure, but just raises a whole bunch of questions. “You get the good quality men there, and that will attract the women.” No comment about the quality of women, of course, but details, details.
I have so many problems with this, but let’s start with the obvious. There are lots of dating apps around that work without restriction. Some, like Tinder, work so that you can cycle through hundreds of people a day, should you wish. Okay, it’s more superficial than Date Play (putting aside my extreme dubiousness about the science of their matching algorithm), but even if you believe in personality matching, eHarmony has made that their whole thing for years. You have to complete a massive survey just to sign up, with the intention of making your matches spot on. And guess what: you can see pictures AND you get more than one per day, even if you do have to pay for it.
That’s alright, though, because Vana’s service is paid too, right? Well, yes, but as Claude Littner – chairman of Viglen and Lord Sugar’s assistant in this whole business jamboree – says, they’re “wildly optimistic”. Littner points out that, after 12 months, her projections leap from 50,000 members to 400,000 with no plausible explanation, except maybe “typo”.
Mike Soutar, founder of Shortlist Media, is the one responsible of calling her up on this mad accounting. “So, your start up costs, actually developing the app, are £140,000. Then you’re burning £32,000 every month. At what point do you go out of business if you haven’t booked any revenue?” he quite reasonable enquires. “Six months. But I know that in my projections, I’m already making profit in six months,” Vana responds, treating her Post-it note projections as some kind of holy text. “Do you know how long it took for the world’s biggest dating app to book a single dollar of revenue?” Soutar persists. One year, Vana responds. Two years, Soutar corrects.
She won’t be derailed. “You probably won’t see another business plan that’s projecting to make £7,000,000 of profit after three years,” Koutsomitis boasts, as if having those kind of figures is a sign of business acumen, rather than an unhinged level of optimism. “There is room for gamification of dating.”
Making games worth playing is hard
"Vana wants them to jump through a hundred mini game-shaped hoops before they even reach the rejection stage."
Before I came to Alphr, I was a games producer for many years, and my personal feeling is that £140,000 to make a series of mini games for multiple mobile platforms is also pretty damned optimistic. Actually, let me clarify that slightly: making a series of mini games that aren’t absolutely terrible is pretty damned optimistic. And these games have got to be good. If they’re not, people will switch to another app, maybe one that doesn’t make them match hundreds of gems before they see if the man or women they’re matched with is even remotely their type.
Also, if you have to play games in order to see a single match, and the scientific matching process isn't 100% foolproof, then you're going to have to go through this tedious rigmarole a fair few times. It needs variety, which again requires more budget. Sure, they can add new ones and improve the existing games over time, but that’s going to require people to pay up and stay paying to fund development… and they won’t if the games are bad.
Don’t expect all these points to put off our Vana, though. To bring things back to the ice cream steak I began with, said friend decided, after his initial disappointment, that perhaps it wasn’t the concept that was wrong, but the flavours. Would mint choc chip go better with lamb? Back to the drawing board.
The difference, of course, is that he didn’t need £250,000 to get his madcap idea off the ground. You don’t get too many second bites of the investment cherry if your business plan isn’t quite as bulletproof as you believe.