Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
My name is Christian Tuskes and I’m a solopreneur. I started a casual gaming company called Dilly Dally Games, LLC. My flagship product is Mexican Train Dominoes.
It’s available on the web, the App Store (iOS), Google Play, and the Amazon Appstore. The game is free on all platforms. I have customers across all demographics but my main demographic is females aged 65+.
I have over 10k daily active users (combined across all platforms). My top country is the United States followed by Canada and the United Kingdom as distant second and third.
My top acquisition channels are Direct and Organic Search. I think what makes my game unique is, one, it targets a demographic that generally goes underserved in the gaming industry, and two, it lends itself to long playing time (ie, time spent in the app).
Generally speaking, users can spend between 30-60 minutes playing the game. I make between $16-17k/mo from ad revenue depending on seasonality and other market conditions.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
In 2006, while employed full-time as a defense contractor, I was working on my master’s degree in Computer Science when I needed an idea for a final project. Around the same time, I was meeting regularly with friends of my mother-in-law to play a game they taught my wife and I, called Mexican Train Dominoes. I wanted a project that would not only meet my degree requirements but be something I could continue to work on post-graduation and possibly monetize.
I decided to program Mexican Train Dominoes using Adobe Flash. All I needed was a computer, software, the skills to code, and time. I know these tools aren’t free but I tend to think of them as free since I already had them. For distribution, I was going to sell software licenses on eBay and ship the game via CD. After lackluster sales, I switched to an ad-supported web-based model, which made all the difference.
Take us through the process of building the first version of your product.
The first version of the product was fairly straightforward. I already had the software tools I needed to create it. Adobe Flash and Fireworks were my tools of choice. Flash was easy to program in and I could export my game for the web or as an executable file to run as stand-alone software.
The hard part was the user interface (UI) design and the user experience (UX). The physical version of the game takes up a lot of tabletop space. I needed to adopt a horizontal domino layout pattern to maximize screen space instead of the typical circular-spoke pattern used in the physical game.
After making some design compromises and fighting the urge for perfection, I decided to release the product. Good enough was both good ✓ and enough ✓. Later, I learned what an MVP (minimally viable product) was, so I felt vindicated.
Describe the process of launching the business.
This is an interesting question. I didn’t have a launch strategy per se. Nothing formal anyway. I kind of just tried things and let the successes and failures guide the direction of my product.
I guess you could say I had multiple launches. The first was to sell the game on CD. The second was to distribute my web-based game across a multitude of gaming sites. The third was the launch of the app on iOS. The fourth was a launch for Android. Finally, the fifth was the launch of my dedicated website.
These launches didn’t happen all at once. They happened over the years and were responses to changing market conditions. For example, ad-supported Flash-based gaming was going well, until it wasn’t. The world was going mobile and Flash wasn’t supported on the iPhone, so I pivoted and decided to program my game as an app for iOS and then eventually for Android.
Later, targeted advertising was restricted on iOS, so I pivoted back to the web with my dedicated website to make up for the drop in revenue on iOS. The lesson here is to remain agile and learn to read the tea leaves. I find change to be exciting, not scary.
One noteworthy point regarding my iOS app is that I tried several different monetization models. My first release was as a paid app. After some mediocre success and revenue leveling-off, I switched to freemium. I offered some free playing time, then presented a paywall. This model didn’t perform any better.
Finally, I threw caution to the wind and landed on an ad-supported free version of the game with some additional features offered as IAPs (in-app purchases). The ads proved to be the most successful, but not the IAPs. I’m not motivated to try subscriptions. I don’t think I need to try that experiment.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
Two strategies have proven fruitful in attracting and retaining customers.
First, in late 2019, I did something crazy. I decided to go all-in on Facebook ads with the revenue I was making from my game. I planned to spend 100% of the previous month’s revenue on ads. I found someone to create three short ad videos for the iOS version of my game. For the next eight months, my ad spend was like rocket fuel as I witnessed my user base skyrocket from roughly 2,000 DAUs to 15,000 DAUs.
In total, I spent $78k running the ads. This was the ultimate gamble. At the very least I would know whether Facebook ads worked or not. The verdict was ‘yes’. They worked. I was happy with the increase in DAUs. My only regret was I should have tried aggressive growth marketing sooner.
Second, since the aggressive ad spend wasn’t sustainable and because I wanted to focus on growing my website, I decided to embrace SEO with an emphasis on content marketing/writing. At first, I thought I would write the content myself, but it’s not something I enjoy. I’m a coder at heart, so I decided to outsource the task.
I found a great copywriter and website consultant, Justin Harter, who knew all the best SEO strategies. He was able to get my site onto the first page of search results in six months for some key search terms. I’m happy with his service and am still using him to attract and retain users for my site.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Today, I’m doing well. I’ve been self-employed (no more side hustle) since early 2020, just as covid was hitting the US. Ironically, my target date for full-time self-employment coincided with the pandemic-induced work-from-home migration.
My timeline was based on finishing my last software contract, not the pandemic. I started working from home but so did everyone else! The transition didn’t feel monumental. The only difference is that while others are going back to the office, I don’t have to.
The future Dilly Dally Games will be focused on releasing new games/products. I”m not sure I can grow Mexican Train beyond what it is, but if anyone has any ideas, I’m all ears. Recently, I released a new game, playbunco for the web. I’m working on its SEO growth using the same tactic of content writing/marketing. Without running ads, the growth will be slower but more sustainable.
You might be wondering which games I decide to build. I generally look for opportunities where a game is already well known (helps with marketing), there are no copyright or trademark issues, and I feel it’s underrepresented in the marketplace. I’m looking to build a better mousetrap, not invent something new. For mexicantrain and playbunco, I felt the options for playing online were lacking, so I simply created a better option.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
I learned I can’t do everything myself. Technically, I probably could but I would be doing myself a disservice. Outsource the tasks you can’t do or don’t enjoy doing. For example, I decided to outsource my ad operations to Freestar which specializes in optimizing ad revenue.
I was trying to manage ad operations myself, but I didn’t know what I was doing. I had a “set it and forget it” approach, but, to get the most out of ad revenue, it requires more attention and industry knowledge. This too proved to be a good decision. I’m earning more now than I did doing it myself.
There is one other thing that’s worth mentioning, which is cliche, but true. Working hard is the single most important trait to be successful. You don’t have to be the smartest person or the most talented or skilled. Recognize that you are going to make mistakes but motivation and determination will help you overcome them.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
Xcode - coding environment for iOS app
Android Studio - coding environment for Android app
WebStorm - coding environment for the website version of the game
PhaserJS - coding framework for the website version of the game
Tower - source control tool for managing all code bases
Trello - project management
Google Analytics - analytics for iOS, Android, and web
Google Sheets - track revenue and expenses
Google Docs - content writing and business docs
Firebase - web hosting; other BaaS services
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
Stop reading books and listening to podcasts. Get to work! Learn by doing. Yes, you will make mistakes but every business is different. No one can tell you exactly what you need to do. You have to figure it out for yourself.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
Don’t get bogged down by unnecessary things. Always think of what is minimally or necessary to launch your product or service. Focus on those things.
A good way to know if something is necessary is to conduct what I like to call the assassin test.
Imagine you have a whole list of features you want to get done before you release or ship your product. Now, imagine an assassin visits you and says, “You have 24hrs to release this product or I will come back and assassinate you”. Things will come into focus quickly and you will undoubtedly find a lot of unnecessary things to eliminate. You can always go back later and add or change things, but get that product out the door!
Also, don’t fall into the Field of Dreams trap. “If you build it, they will come” is not true! You need to work as hard at marketing as you do the building. You could discover a cure for cancer but if nobody knows about it, no one will buy it. Plan for marketing to take time, effort, and some money.
Where can we go to learn more?
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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