Sunday, February 21, 2010

Jazzed About Puzzazz

It took me a surprisingly long time to come to this conclusion, but I'm taking the experiment that is currently Puzzazz and turning it into a real business, hopefully a big one.

I've been passionate about puzzles for most of my life. In my spare time, I'm a professional puzzle constructor, with puzzles published in the New York Times, GAMES Magazine, and plenty of other newspapers, magazines, and books. I've constructed thousands of puzzles. I also co-founded Microsoft Puzzle Hunt and Microsoft Intern Puzzleday, two events that are still going on long after I left the company. So what was the holdup? Did I think I was too passionate about it?

Honestly, that was part of it. I wasn't sure I had the proper distance. I was concerned that, because I loved puzzles, it would cloud my judgment and I wouldn't be able to accurately assess the potential business. But there were two bigger components.

Helping the World

Throughout my career, there's been a common thread. I do things which help people, enable people, or empower people in some way. Usually, it's been stuff which made them more productive, like word processors, web publishing software, databases, and personal information managers. But I've also done educational software (twice, most recently at DreamBox Learning) and even an embedded system for hardware that assisted the kidney dialysis process. How can puzzles stack up with any of that?

It took other people to help me realize what is now obvious. Mostly they just echoed back what I was saying, but hearing it from somebody else really helps. Puzzles aren't just fun. Like my current Puzzazz users who visit the site every single day, many people find the fun and challenge of puzzles an essential part of their life. There's a reason fifty million people in the US solve crossword puzzles regularly!

And, in the online world, there are an awful lot of crappy puzzles and puzzle games out there. Providing people who want puzzles, who can't live without puzzles, a better experience is definitely making their lives better.

Building a Big Business

How can puzzles and puzzle games be a big business? It took me a long time to see this, too. Sure, lots of people solve crosswords. Sure, people go nuts for Sudoku. But a big business? When I did some research I learned that the casual and mobile games markets combined are about a $5 Billion market and growing strong. About 20% of that is puzzle games -- honestly, not very good puzzle games. So, the market is there.

I had started Puzzazz as a fun experiment. I picked a narrow range of puzzle types and I did a number of different things to learn what would work, from the different perspectives of puzzles, site features, and revenue generation. Over time, I've come to realize that it's not just an experiment -- it's a successful one. Even though it's a tiny site at the moment, it's making a large amount of money on a per-user basis. Even if I did nothing else, Puzzazz could be profitable by just increasing the number of regular visitors. But I've got much bigger and bolder plans than that.

Learning from Failure

It turned out that by trying to make sure I didn't let my passion cloud my judgment, I allowed it to stop me from seeing what is now pretty obvious. Puzzazz has the potential to be a really great, profitable business!

I spent a lot of the time between the time I launched Puzzazz, in September, 2008, and now, trying to start another business that didn't make it. I'm avoiding the same mistakes. I have a good, practical plan, without unreasonable deadlines. I'm not trying to "boil the ocean" and the plan involves steady growth, with multiple solid revenue sources. I'm doing something I'm passionate about, where I already have a ton of knowledge, both in puzzles and in building large, scalable, quality web services. I've already gotten traction and revenue without requiring skills that I don't have (although I have started looking for my first business person). And I'm having fun with it. That doesn't mean it's a cakewalk. Nope, there are plenty of hard problems to solve to get it done right. And, though I've started the process, there's a long way to go before Puzzazz is what I want it to be.

In other words, like any good puzzle, it'll be both fun and challenging!


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