Digital media veteran Jeremy Toeman launched a new startup to democratize video production last year. Before embarking on that task, Toeman challenged his team to make and ship a small Wordle-like web game as a kind of warmup.
That game, Moviedle, unexpectedly became a viral success, to the point where the company licensed it to media recommendation startup Likewise this week. A viral hit that generates some real money: For many startup founders, that would have been a pretty good reason to pivot. Toeman tells us why he decided to stick with his original plan.
Toeman’s story, as told to Protocol, has been edited for clarity and brevity.
I was putting together this great team. Really talented folks, but they had never worked together before. If you were to hire four great musicians, before they go on stage, you would probably have them do a session or two, right? I wanted us to have the experience of shipping a product together, and I set a few rules for the team: It has to be something we can do quickly, it has to do with video and it can’t cost a lot of money.
At the same time, the Wordle clone craze happened. I'm a movie nerd, and I had this idea: What if we make a Wordle-like movie game? So we built it in about a week. We sent it to our friends, put it on Product Hunt. It was growing nice and steadily. The number of active users went from 100 to 1,000. And then I woke up one morning, and instead of 1,000, it was 65,000. Then 100,000, 200,000 — and it kept on growing.
It all came down to this one Australian TikToker. I guess the algorithm picked up his video about it, and it went viral and was shown about 2.5 million times. That translated into all these players that loved the game and started tweeting about it. Then Questlove tweeted about it, and a bunch of other celebrities got on board.
All of a sudden, we had to really think about this. When I shared the first stats with the team, I told them: I don't want you to just think of the game. I want you to think that we've made this little game to advance our own company, and we've created tons of joy for all these people. Watching the tweets come in was just so exhilarating, and the team's morale went just crazy.
But we also realized: This is actually monetizable. This is legit traffic, a few hundred thousand movie fans on a platter. Whether you're a studio or a streaming provider, somebody should want to be part of this. I started reaching out to some people I knew in the industry, which is how I ended up striking a deal with Likewise.
Ultimately, I decided that this is not a pivot. I'm not going to deny that came to mind. But we're so close to shipping our core product that not seeing that through would be a terrible mistake. Secondly, I am 100% convinced that this micro gaming space is going to be here for the long term — but I am not convinced that I know which games will matter in the long term. Will people get tired of Moviedle after six months, or will they play it every day for 10 years? I don't know. We ended up hiring a contractor to focus on expanding the game technology. This way I keep my core team really focused on the core product.
If it had never gone viral, I would still look at this as a great decision. Just by spending the week building it, the amount of learning we had as a team advanced us by about 20 business days. And having been able to give so many people moments of joy just feels good. I believe those things are contagious, and they'll help us make better products.