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Mission Control, a digital platform startup that allows users to create sports recreation league-inspired video game leagues, has relied on nothing more than a Squarespace website, Google Sheets and Google Docs, SMS (texting tech) and good old manual effort to build its MVP.
From idea, through friends and family fund raise, beta and alpha testing, the process has taken less than 12 months and has been built by mashing together existing technology. Now the founders are building a feature rich application to launch in this fall, but what did they do to get as far as they have with so little?
What is an MVP?
An MVP, or Minimum Viable Product, is a version of a startup’s future product that adds enough value for customers that they are willing to buy it. Unlike a prototype, that might not even work, or a beta test, which is intended to find defects in a product before it goes onto the market, an MVP is be marketable on its own merit.
A successful MVP provides the data necessary to expand the MVP into a competitive, feature-rich product that is targeted to actual customers.
A few critical steps go into planning the MVP to set it up for success: defining the problem, the target audience, and the minimum feature set. With those planning steps complete, an effective test, followed by analysis of the test data gives the startup what it needs to build the real thing.
Mission Control took a uniquely thoughtful and measured approach to the MVP that has positioned them right where they want to be.
Mission Control found the problem they wanted to solve at Stadia Ventures as college interns and post-grads from St. Louis University. A sports startup ecosystem within the larger St. Louis entrepreneurial ecosystem, Stadia Ventures offers training, networking, venture funding and expertise to sports business entrepreneurs from around the world.
It didn’t take long for founders Austin Smith and Byron Abrigg to zero in on eSports: a video game-based way to play competitive sports, encompassing fantasy sports leagues of all kinds, as well as other multiplayer games. It is a growing industry that was valued at $865 million in 2018, and is projected to reach $1.78 Billion by 2022.
Smith and Abrigg noticed a gap in eSports around competitive yet recreational play where the social experience is paramount, like work and friend-based leagues.
“You can go and play pick-up basketball and play with who’s there, but sometimes you don’t have enough people to play and you don’t really know who you’re playing with. Some of the fun of playing sports is playing with your friends which is why you join a basketball league,” Smith said.
“Even if you’re never going to make an NCAA team, you’re still going to join intramurals in college or a work kickball league, because it’s fun. But it’s not just playing the sport, it’s also social,” Smith continued.
“That’s why we created Mission Control. You can always just get online and play video games with whoever’s there. But what we’re doing is creating a structure for the social experience surrounding recreational video gaming.”
To validate the problem, Smith and Abrigg first talked with their friends, and eventually created a survey that they distributed to 150 people. Their hypothesis was that people prefer playing multiplayer video games with friends, and designed the survey to ask questions to try to disprove their hypothesis.
“Respondents came back and said, ‘I love to play with friends. I play 25 hours a week, but I only play five hours a week with friends’,” Smith said. “If they play only one fifth of the time with friends and they’re saying they highly prefer to play with friends, why aren’t they doing that?”
Smith and Abrigg deduced from their research that the reason people weren’t playing more with friends was the lack of structure in multiplayer video gaming, something fundamental to traditional recreational sports leagues. This deduction resulted in Mission Control.
The Target Audience
Beyond their immediate peers —recent college graduates— Smith and Abrigg started thinking about who else could benefit from structured video game leagues. They targeted co-working spaces, such as T-Rex and Covo, and university environments including UMSL and Maryville.
“We asked if they were they thought they could benefit from structure around eSports, and if they thought it would create a beneficial social climate,” Smith said. “The answer was an overwhelming ‘Yes!’ to both.”
It’s important to note that Mission Control isn’t necessarily targeted at people who consider themselves professional gamers.
“I don’t identify as a gamer,” Smith explained to EQ. “I love to play games, especially with my brothers. And we get together, we play different all sorts of different games, we play NHL against each other, just to hang out, right? That’s how we hang out. But I don’t call myself a gamer,”
“Mission Control targets the casual social gamer who doesn’t take it too seriously, but enjoys it as an activity and especially as an activity to enjoy with friends.”
Smith acknowledges that the demographic they have been working with in terms of survey results skews dramatically young, white, and male.
“We see it as a massive opportunity. Beyond the capital opportunity, we want to grow our company around the idea of a diverse group of people playing,” Smith said.
Minimum Feature set, MVP Build and Test
As they defined the minimum feature set to include in the MVP, Smith and Abrigg immediately wanted feedback. The flexibility of their chosen platform for the MVP allowed them to try different features and functionality without too much trouble.
“We created spreadsheets and all sorts of our own simplified back end technology,” Smith said. The approach allowed them to pivot quickly. They tracked all the feedback from the surveys in Google Forms, and for signing up for the MVP.
In the MVP, data entry was done manually as the result of text communication.
“We started out with email and text notifications,” Smith said. “Pretty soon we changed it to text only since that’s what the users preferred.” To handle this part of their product, they used a text client that allows them to text multiple people and send out mass texts.
During a league season in the MVP, players received a variety of texts instructing them what’s happening with their activity.
What The MVP Did
The day before a game, Mission Control sends out a text message similar to this:
Tomorrow’s Week #1 in EQ’s FIFA league!
Your game’s at 12PM vs Byron “BAcmhsoccer9” Abrigg.
You’re HOME, so YOU invite HIM.
If you need to reschedule, please REPLY to let us know.
After you play your 1 game, text us…
1. Your name & gamertag
2. Your opponent’s name & gamertag
3. A screenshot of the final score
Please send these to us by 11:59PM tomorrow.
Before the next game, Mission control sent out a text message similar to this:
Here’s how you fared in Week #1 of EQ’s FIFA league: L 2-1 v Byron “BAcmhsoccer9” Abrigg.
This Saturday is Week #2. You play at 12PM vs Austin “AnimalPuppet” Smith.
If you need to reschedule your game, please REPLY.
Smith and Abrigg updated game scores manually on the Mission Control website from the screenshots requested in the text.
To funnel feedback from the MVP, they used the same texting app they used for scheduling games combined with Google forms to keep all the information organized. They starting texting people to determine what they liked or didn’t like about the experience.
“A lot of people gave us feedback that way. They would just text us their thoughts. Also, if someone was super excited about it and played every game and we could tell they liked it a lot, we would just call them up and say, ‘Hey, what do you like about it? What should we change,” Smith said.
One feature that shifted during the MVP was what Mission Control calls Leap Scheduling. “At first, if our proposed schedule didn’t work for someone in the league, we said here’s the phone number of your player. If you can’t play at the time we scheduled, you text them and set up a time, “Smith said.
People weren’t crazy about that. “The logistical weight of having to enter the number of someone’s phone and then having to instigate to change… it was just an unnecessary thing for a user to have to do.”
When Mission control took over the rescheduling games, they saw positive results. “We changed it so we were essentially saying, here’s a rescheduled time. Once we did that, our engagement shot up,” Smith said. Now they consider Leap Scheduling is one of the most important features they have.
Feedback regarding the frequency of the texts during the MVP has also been important. “Some people didn’t like all the texts we were sending,” Smith said. In future versions, the app will allow customization of communications.
Organizational Response to the MVP
Some of the most important MVP feedback came from the organizations Smith and Abrigg had partnered with. In general, there has been universal enthusiasm for the platform.
At UMSL, Mission Control created a new way for students to meet other kids on campus. Dan Bettmann, Assistant Director of Competitive Sports at UMSL was impressed.
“Mission Control is easy to implement, flexible in how it can fit within your program, and students love it. As a college administrator I was able to offer eSports through Mission Control without it increasing my workload or my budget” he said.
At Covo, the players have expanded from just Covo workers to spouses and significant others.
“Members of the co-working space are meeting each other that have never had a reason to before. It’s building a community in a way that hadn’t been done before,” Smith said.
Alex Anderson, Director of co-working at Covo agrees. “Mission Control intramural gaming leagues have been a fantastic new addition to the Covo co-working community. For Covo staff, Mission Control has been a powerful new tool for promoting community engagement that helps us reach a wider audience in our space. For members of Covo, it has offered a fun and curated experience that fosters new relationships and encourages collaboration,” he said.
Building the App
Armed with the MVP feedback, Mission Control searched for a technical partner, and began working with them in April.
“We looked for about six months starting in November. We found a group in Boston that had great experience with sports clients, but also had good experience in eSports,” Smith said.
Their chosen partner—technology services company, NorthOut, holds daily standups that Smith and Abrigg participate in to guide their product’s execution. This allows Smith and Abrigg to have control over the development process and make sure all the feedback they collected during the MVP is being applied in the application.