Not many people would include their “biggest failure” in their portfolio. And believe me, it has taken a long time for me to be able to talk about it. But I think there are two reasons that I should include it in my history:
#1 – I honestly think people learn more from failure than success. When you fail at something, it is usually clear why? Even if there are multiple possible reasons. But when you succeed at something it is harder to pinpoint why. Maybe it’s just because we don’t usually scrutinize success. It sounds weird … but think about it and see if you agree.
#2 – There is a second part to the overall project that I don’t consider a “failure.” You can read about that in Product Development: Battle of Midway CD-Rom.
At the turn of 2002, I took a concept for an interactive project for The Battle of Midway to the executives at The U.S. Naval Institute where I worked. As it was not something they really did—they passed. While that was disappointing, they were kind enough to waive all rights to the idea and let me develop it myself.
My joy was short-lived though. It was January and that meant I had less than 5 months until the 60th anniversary of the battle. The 60th anniversaries of battles were all getting extra hype. So my first big decision was upon me:
Do I push to get a product ready by then, or not?
I decided yes.
Bear in mind, it’s the end of January and I had nothing but a concept. And I decided to research, write, make artwork for, build an interface for, test, build a website for, and market a new product with a release date of June 4.
All while working full-time.
Can you already see where the first part of the failure is?
This post will just cover the marketing/sales travesty. Again, please be sure to check out Product Development: Battle of Midway CD-Rom where good things happened.
The Advertising Plan
Being 2002, and the infancy (toddlercy?) of Google and reliable online keyword advertising, the core of my plan revolved around niche magazines. The good thing about the magazine customer as a target is that they have proven to actually spend their money on something they liked: the magazine. Whereas a big part of the “Internet Bubble” burst revolved around how many people on the web did not spend their money when they could find things for free. Also, all of the physical ads came with online ads on the magazine sites as part of the package.
The total added circulation of the magazines I selected claimed a total reach of about 500,000 subscribers and newsstand buyers per issue. I knew enough from working at a company that actually sold magazines that I could figure they all exaggerated their numbers by 15%. That puts us at 425,000. Next, I had to subtract the overlap of people who subscribe to more than one. While I believe this is also a ‘pro’ for added visibility and confidence-building, it does reduce actual reach. I would go as high as 20% of what’s left for that. So we’re at 340,000.
I figured if I could get sales from just 1% of that 340,000 I’d be golden.
The first problem I encountered was that at that point most of the prime slots for any summer issues that may have Midway-related content were long gone. I wanted to make a big splash with the ads. My calculations above all hinged on ensuring everyone holding the magazine actually saw the ads. So no tiny black & white ads would do for launch. I wanted full pages and back covers.
My first opportunity was to hit for Christmas. I never wanted to rely on the gift angle. As stated above, the magazine play was based on people who spend money on themselves spending more money on themselves. The only upside of this was that it forced me to take more time on the product development. (Not a lot more mind you—but more.)
This first wave
The plan was a blitz of back cover and full page color ads that would land prior to Thanksgiving of 2002. That was an expensive plan, but would get the guaranteed views and perceived legitimacy I needed. So I arranged back covers for Sea Classics for the December and February issues. And full page color ads for Military History (probably the biggest player in the market), Naval History (I didn’t even get a discount), and the special “1942” edition of World War II.
I wrote the copy and provided design guidance, but a designer friend of mine handled the ad construction.
The Second Round
If you’ve ever purchased advertising before, you know that every media seller offers bigger discounts for the larger ads and longer term deals that you make. By “bigger discounts” I just mean a higher percentage off on a great deal more investment. So part of all my deals were extended buys of black and white ads of various sizes throughout 2003 the would culminate in a ‘final run’ at Christmas 2003.
So What Happened?
Well, I got the traffic that I had hoped for. The plan worked to a T as far as that goes.
Where I failed was my price point. There weren’t a lot of similar products to compare to. I tried to figure on how much time it would take to go through the entire thing. Then assign a value that way. I thought $20 was way too cheap. That’s a movie, popcorn and soda (2002 prices) and two hours killed. I figured $50 was definitely too high. That was video game price. And video games can be twenty to hundreds of hours of entertainment. So I settled on a regular price of $39.95 with a pretty much automatic 15% discount that would bring it down to $33.95. I had set up a download version that was $29.95. Get it now, get it cheaper.
The buying public did not agree.
There were sales. Hundreds of sales. But hundreds of sales still left me in the red.
And by the time I could react and lower the price to where the discount put it under $20—the traffic was gone. The people who saw the full-page ads and came, didn’t see the follow-up black and white ads. Or they just weren’t compelled by them.
There were still sales through 2003. And if I could look at just 2003 I earned a lot more than I spent on the ads. But the deficit from the first ads and production costs never were fully recovered.
I pulled the products in 2004 and Sun Tzu Interactive closed its Internet doors at the end of that year.
What I Learned in TL;DR Form
- Unreasonable deadlines will always end poorly (this knowledge has helped throughout the rest of my career)
- You get one chance at pricing your product. Price drops don’t instill confidence or increase esteem.
- A soft launch and ‘wade in’ approach is much safer than an ‘all-in’ media blitz
- Don’t make CD-Roms (which I still believe to this day …)
I have kept a single unopened spool of these as a reminder …