How Card Games Funded Our Startup

by | Feb 24, 2017

It was the Friday before MLK Weekend. Like many entrepreneurs, we were draining our personal savings and struggling to find the light at the end of the tunnel. It had been five months since we founded our company Hatch (a mobile app builder) and we hadn’t had many good days since. We weren’t ready to fundraise, but we couldn’t move forward on Hatch without an immediate cash infusion.

That afternoon, we were at an all-time low. All of our accounts were drained, and we had resorted to borrowing on personal credit cards to pay business expenses. We desperately needed money to keep us going.

Taking a hiatus from our startup to get ‘real’ jobs was out of the question. Honestly, neither of us even considered putting Hatch on pause and getting jobs or picking up consulting gigs. That would be admitting defeat, and we weren’t defeated yet. We were pushed into a corner but we knew we could fight our way out.

Meanwhile, we found escape from our stressors in the reality TV show playing out in our political system. The 2016 presidential election was undeniably hysterical, and everyone we knew was talking about Donald Trump’s most recent Twitter feud (a new one everyday). Debate-watching parties had turned into sloppy drinking games, and laughing at candidates on both sides had become our daily refuge from the pressures of startup life. It seemed that every day some outlandish quote would go viral.

And that’s what we needed. Something we could sell that could go viral. So that Friday afternoon, Amelia pitched launching a version of Cards Against Humanity specific to the presidential election. “What if we could turn all of these crazy quotes into cards and capitalize on all of the media attention that the presidential election is getting to sell our product?” Within ten minutes, we drew out a plan to create, promote, and sell the game. Within an hour, we had purchased a domain name. Within two days, we wrote, printed, cut, and photographed our first twenty cards — that would be enough to launch a website and start selling. We only spent $68.32 on our requisite launch expenses: cardstock, printing, url, merchant page, and beer.

Then we started selling the 2016 Election Game.

It was brilliant. We were geniuses. We were going to sell so many card games. We were sailing high on cloud nine, patting each other on the back for our ingenuity for a few days before realizing that our amazing, ingenious, hysterical card games were not selling. In that first week, we sold only fifty games, mostly to sympathetic family members. And then we were out of family.

Maybe we weren’t that brilliant. We were certainly still broke. The card game rapidly went from super fun to super stressful — just another set of responsibilities with no foreseeable upside.

So we started desperately emailing reporters, calling in favors, and tweeting at late night comedians. We contacted over a hundred reporters in three days. Finally, we landed a piece in Forbes. It got over 50,000 reads. Two days later, we were trending on Facebook. The week after that, a producer from NowThis reached out about covering the game. The video they posted got a quarter million views on Facebook alone.

Within a couple weeks, we had sold 2,300 card games at $20 a pop plus shipping. We didn’t even have a bank account yet, so the $50,000+ in cash was sitting untouched in our Stripe and Paypal accounts.

Around that time we came to the realization that we’d actually have to write, design, print, and ship the cards. We sold a product that didn’t exist; pre-sales allowed us to keep our capital costs low at the onset. Then, once we had sold a ton of games, we needed to figure out how to get them all printed and shipped. Knowing nothing about card games and very little about politics, we spent a couple days rewatching debates and late-night comedy shows, finally coming up with about 300 cards, which we then printed and play tested with a group of politically-minded friends (we live in DC, so pretty much all of our friends qualified). Once we had narrowed down our top 250 cards, we put together a simple design for cards and our box — nothing too fancy because neither of us is a design whiz, and we weren’t about to start paying a designer.

Printing, however, was going to cost us. Fortunately, a printer in Dallas reached out to us after reading the Forbes article and quoted us a much lower price than any printer abroad. Param flew down to Dallas to ship the games directly from the factory, saving our customers a week of waiting time. At one point, his grandmother was taping 2,000 shipping labels. At another, his parents and brother were sitting in the back of a Budget truck frantically packing and shipping 2,000 card games. Our operation was far from systematic; we certainly took Paul Graham’s “do things that don’t scale” mantra to heart. To get through it, we just attacked each challenge as it appeared, and never let ourselves get overwhelmed by the challenges that were still two days away.

This whole experience has been absolutely absurd. We got a free trip to the Toy Fair in New York, spent time talking to reporters as“experts” on the millennial vote, and received a surprise semi-endorsement from Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson. We won’t pretend that this card game was an easy fix— it was a slog of unfamiliar obstacles and tedious grunt work. But we’ve learned a ton about how to develop a product, run a business, and work with each other. When it comes down to it, we have zero regrets about this little side project. It was fun, it was challenging, and we made a bit of cash.

After the fact, people would ask if we were inspired the Airbnb founders’ storied political cereals. In 2008, when every investor they spoke with told them they were crazy, they started selling Obama O’s and Cap’n McCains— basically they put Cheerios in a box with Obama’s face on it (“hope in every bowl”) and Cap’n Crunch in a box with John McCain’s smiling salute (“a maverick in every bite”). They sold $30,000 in cereal.

Our inspiration came from elsewhere (thank you, Donald Trump) but our motivations were the same. When it seems like your challenges are insurmountable, you’re faced with a decision: get up or give up. As Paul Graham said to the Airbnb team, “You guys are like cockroaches. You just won’t die. If you can convince people to pay $40 for a box of cereal, you can probably convince them to pay to sleep on each other’s air mattresses.” Y Combinator, founded by Graham, was their first outside investor. (Seven years later, Y Combinator was also the first funder behind Hatch.)

We’re not measured by how difficult our path is, but instead by how we respond when confronted with its toughest obstacles.

There are still days where we want to give up, but we never let ourselves. At our age, we have nothing to lose and everything to gain: Worst case, we leave this entrepreneurial adventure with a bit of debt, bruised egos, and many lessons learned. Best case, we build something that changes the world forever. So when the hard days hit, we plant our feet and hit back.

Now, we’re back to working on Hatch full time. Every day presents a new challenge, and we’re never sure what’s coming next. But whatever that next challenge is, we’ll figure it out.

And if things really get bad, we can always sell more card games.

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