It’s not all unicorns in start-up world

Making math awesome is harder than it looks.

Before anyone jumps in to tell me that I have a charmed life, let me admit that I know that. I get to work with brilliant developers and designers, gifted and dedicated teachers and bright, fun kids. I get to do it all in the context of making adventure games that teach math.

It’s a great gig. I get that.

Some days it does feel like this.


Still, I don’t think many people see the Herculean task that start-up life can be. When I say Herculean, I am specifically thinking about the story about the Augean stables.

Take today, for example. Two of our co-founders are working on other projects that bring in cash. One of our employees is on vacation. We are very familiar with Paul Graham’s essay on how not to die as a start up and we take his admonition to “not do other things” to heart. However, I am also familiar with the need to make a payroll every two weeks for our artist, game testers, project manager.

Why do we have all of those people? Well, obviously we aren’t going to be sending out games without having tested them. We mail information to schools about our games. Someone needs to put up information on our Black Friday sale, Cyber Monday sale. As the typical start-up founders who are programmers, we would LOVE to just make games, but we also need to SELL them because if we don’t we’re not a company, we’re just a hobby.

When a customer is having a problem, whether it is installing a game, downloading it or with game play, we want to get back to them right away. Great customer service is one way we can differentiate ourselves from the larger companies. Someone has to provide that service, emailing or calling those customers back.

Here is a list of all of the things that I have to do in December:

  • Fix bugs in Spirit Lake (there are very few)
  • Fix bugs in Fish Lake (more here)
  • Write math challenges for our iPad game in progress (Myths & Math)
  • Re-do level 1 for Fish Lake using Unity 3D
  • Finish casual games section of Fish Lake
  • Improve educational videos section of Spirit Lake
  • Improve recommended links section of Fish Lake
  • Analyze pilot data from Fish Lake before we do school pretests for the beta
  • Write a more polished interface for the teacher reports for Spirit Lake
  • Create teacher reports for Fish Lake
  • Write a program to merge files and create school level reports
  • Review latest version of Myths and Math

This doesn’t include the meetings with schools, meeting with potential investors, getting geared up for our next Kickstarter campaign, writing blog posts, getting our Zazzle store up and running, adding to our teacherspayteachers site. Not all of the latter will be done by me, but I do have to see that it is assigned to someone and that marketing and management happens.

It’s not all bad, either. As our games become better known, more and more people, from schools to after-school programs to investors want to meet with me. The problem is that there is only so much of me to go around.

So, yeah, some days, it feels more like this

unicorn skull

Just in writing this post it has become clear to me that we are going to have to bite the bullet and take investor money if we want to grow to have a serious impact on how millions of children learn math. To this point it has been possible to develop our games and beta test them with our own funds, game sales revenue and seed funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to support our efforts in rural communities (thank you!)

A wise venture capitalist told me months ago that at some point to keep growing at the rate we wanted, we were going to have to take some outside funding.


Recently, I had to take a hard look at myself in the mirror and answer the question,

Do we want to stay a lifestyle business and help a few students here and there? Or do we want to expand and make a difference for millions?

I think we both know the answer to that. Back to work.


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