Michel D’Sa of Picture Cards Online: “Games are a tough business”

Games are a tough business. Too much competition, because everyone and their grandmother wants to build games and it’s too easy for people to move on to the next new thing. Stick with enterprise software. Solve real, high-value problems at massive scale. As a part of our series called “Meet The Inventors”, I had the pleasure […]

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Games are a tough business. Too much competition, because everyone and their grandmother wants to build games and it’s too easy for people to move on to the next new thing. Stick with enterprise software. Solve real, high-value problems at massive scale.

As a part of our series called “Meet The Inventors”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Michel D’Sa.

Michel D’Sa is the inventor of Picture Cards Online, an online game that experienced tremendous growth during the worldwide COVID-19 quarantines. The child of two Indian immigrant PhDs, he learned the value of perseverance and intellectual curiosity from a young age. He is currently a senior engineer with YouTube who enjoys taking a “kaizen” continuous-improvement approach toward product development.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?

I was born in Houston, Texas to a couple of PhDs who emigrated from India. Education was a priority growing up. I went to a Montessori school up to grade 4. If you’re not familiar with them, they’re a special type of school focusing on self-directed learning. Looking back, I think this had a huge impact on the way I think today. Fun fact: Larry Page and Sergey Brin, co-founders of Google, were both Montessori kids. Anyway, I later moved to Minnesota, participated heavily in high school Math Olympiads, and got a BA in math from UC Berkeley.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

There’s a phrase popularized by Navy SEALs: “It pays to be a winner.” The individual or organization with the best product or service in a given field is very likely to end up with the most recognition and revenue. I’m always looking for the edge in anything I offer — from my services as a full-stack engineer to games like Picture Cards Online — and I’ve been incredibly successful.

Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

Black and White: The Way I See It, by Richard Williams. The father of tennis superstars Venus and Serena Williams endured an unbelievable amount of adversity, and it’s a wonder he made it out alive. Growing up dirt poor in Louisiana, being hunted down by white people for sport, and surviving gang-ruled Compton — all while maintaining a mind for business, looking for opportunities to gain skills and fix broken businesses. Fun fact: he had no idea how to play tennis, but saw a player win a $40,000 check on television and thought to himself “if I have two kids as tennis champions, I’ll be rich.” Before they were even born, he learned how to play tennis and wrote a 100-page plan for training Venus and Serena.

Ok super. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion. What was the catalyst that inspired you to invent your product? Can you share the story of your “ah ha” moment with us?

Growing up, I used to play Apples to Apples with my younger brother. You can’t really play with two people, so we had a variant where we picked the winner by collectively deciding who matched the green card better. Fast forward to 2014 — as an avid StarCraft II minigame creator, I prototyped a Cards Against Humanity-style emulator with the same “vote on the winner” twist plus a custom card editor. It got some traction! I decided to learn web development and give web apps a shot.

There is no shortage of good ideas out there. Many people have good ideas all the time. But people seem to struggle in taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. How did you overcome this challenge?

As with many bootstrapped startups — low overhead! It ran on a $10/month cloud server while I went out and pitched gaming influencers. It gained traction, and at that cost, pretty much any revenue model will make money. It was also a side project while I had a salaried job, so I didn’t depend on the income.

Often when people think of a new idea, they dismiss it saying someone else must have thought of it before. How would you recommend that someone go about researching whether or not their idea has already been created?

There’s always a way to do it better. The easiest method is to identify your own pain points with an existing product you use, because you’ve already subconsciously wrapped your head around the problem space and are motivated to push through adversity to deliver. If it’s something you don’t personally experience, you can always pick apart existing business models and rebuild them without built-in assumptions. Elon Musk is famous for this, but I think anyone can take that general strategy and generate value from it.

Did you have a role model or a person who inspired you to persevere despite the hardships involved in taking the risk of selling a new product?

Not a role model, but a group of friends. I did most of my work at the local 24-hour Starbucks and befriended a group of hungry, self-directed programming students there. I think this was critical to my success — they provided the initial sounding board and ample motivation to continue building a product I wasn’t sure anyone wanted.

For the benefit of our readers, can you share the story, and outline the steps that you went through, from when you thought of the idea, until it finally landed on the store shelves? In particular we’d love to hear about how to file a patent, how to source a good manufacturer, and how to find a retailer to distribute it.

This is a web game — you build the server code, client code, deploy to commodity cloud VMs and you’re set!

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Trying to pitch the game to livestreamers via public chat as they were playing a similar game. It sort of worked — I got about a 10% conversion rate, but it led to no long-term traction and created a ton of awkwardness all around.

The early stages must have been challenging. Are you able to identify a “tipping point” after making your invention, when you started to see success? Did you start doing anything different? Are there takeaways or lessons that others can learn from that?

Get creative and try everything. I came across the profile of a million-subscriber YouTuber who left a P.O. Box address on his YouTube page for fan mail. I decided to snail-mail him a handwritten letter about my game and asked him to give it a shot. One month later, my server crashes and I find out he played the game live on Twitch in front of 10,000 people.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Invented My Product” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. Games are a tough business. Too much competition, because everyone and their grandmother wants to build games and it’s too easy for people to move on to the next new thing. Stick with enterprise software. Solve real, high-value problems at massive scale.
  2. As a game developer, communication with YouTube influencers is often one-way and highly stressful. I only find out about a problem after it’s already happened, and they will never respond when you ask them about it. You just have to put the pieces together yourself from the information you have.
  3. Set up extensive server logging. One day you’ll run into a once-in-a-million problem that you can’t reproduce and can’t diagnose through the code logic — that’s when an event log is useful. The more detailed, the better.
  4. Too much logging can cause sensory overload and make you blind to legitimate problems. I once had a fatal error that was being logged, but was surrounded by useless JSON payloads, so I overlooked it.
  5. Try to have fun. Elon was right: at times, it’s like chewing glass and staring into the abyss. You need some positivity amidst the chaos, and fortunately I get positive feedback every day from Twitch streamers and YouTubers who enjoy my game.

Let’s imagine that a reader reading this interview has an idea for a product that they would like to invent. What are the first few steps that you would recommend that they take?

Determine product-market fit as cheaply (time and money) as possible. It’s easy for web games, but for physical products you have to get a bit creative. Tim Ferriss, author of The 4-Hour Workweek, recommends setting up a pre-purchase page for your product before you even commit to producing it.

There are many invention development consultants. Would you recommend that a person with a new idea hire such a consultant, or should they try to strike out on their own?

Not my area of expertise, but the way invention development consulting “as-seen-on-TV” ads are presented suggests that the industry is thoroughly exploitative and should be avoided. If you have to use a consultant, make sure it’s someone you trust.

What are your thoughts about bootstrapping vs looking for venture capital? What is the best way to decide if you should do either one?

I’m bootstrapped and never had to seek VC funding. I’m a firm believer in doing whatever you can to control your own destiny. However, if the industry you’re in requires massive amounts of capital to get off the ground quickly, you might not have a choice.

Ok. We are nearly done. Here are our final questions. How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

It’s more about time than money. I’ve been fortunate to have a high-demand engineering skill set, so every week I teach algorithms and data structures on LeetCode to software engineering students. I’m sort of an anomaly among my peers — going back to my high school Math Olympiad days, it turns out I actually like this stuff. Most engineers view it as a dreaded requirement to get hired.

You are an inspiration to a great many people. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

If you’re thinking “most amount of people”, I’m astonished at how poorly Google search functions compared to the early 2000’s. A clean, highly-functional search product would do a tremendous amount of good for virtually everyone.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

Manoj Bhargava of 5-Hour Energy. I watched his TED talk (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_VEg9veHXLg) and thought to myself, “that’s me in 30 years.” I like the way he thinks through business decisions with a no-nonsense logical approach and his commitment to directing all of his wealth to combatting fundamental human problems.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Picture Cards Online is available at https://picturecards.online. Grab some friends and try it out!

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