Disrupt Cards

Jordan Gonen explains how his team has grown their card game business to $1,500/mo (without paid marketing!) through scrappy engagement with their niche.

Hello! What's your background, and what are you working on?

Hi, my name is Jordan Gonen! I'm passionate about making things better — lately, using technology. I've worked on product and growth teams at a variety of companies like Uber, Scaphold (YC), Pluot (YC), and others. I like writing. Also I love working on side projects that impact as many people as possible.

Some of the projects I've worked on are focused on saving people time. Others enable people to be better at what they do at work.

Today's story, however, stands out from the rest. This is about how a few friends and I made Disrupt Cards, a ridiculous card game that parodies what goes on within the bubble that is Silicon Valley. Since launching 8 months ago, thousands of people have played our game around the world, we've been featured on Forbes and CNN, and we're passively generating roughly $1,500/mo.

To this day, we really have no idea what we are doing. I suppose no one really does, right? But nonetheless, we have learned an incredible amount!

Disrupt Cards Website

What motivated you to get started with Disrupt Cards?

Back in October, I had this idea to create a card game that made fun of all the things I hated (yet somewhat loved) about Silicon Valley. LaCroix. Pet Hotels. Cat Gifs. The list goes on.

In the most millennial of ways, I reached out to two "internet friends" I didn't know very well at the time — Daniel Singer and Jeremy Maluf — and asked if they wanted to get involved. For some reason they said yes.

For context, I had never met Daniel before, and I had met Jeremy once a few months previously. But none of us were close friends by any means.

We had a great team by many standards, with one glaring exception: none of us had any experience shipping card games, let alone manufacturing them. Believe it or not, they don't teach you about this stuff in school (not that it would have helped anyway, with Daniel and Jeremy being dropouts).

Our naiveté was the only thing that drove us forward and inspired us to take on this impossible challenge.

Interesting aside: I think if we knew what we were getting ourselves into before the project, we would have never done it. This is true for projects generally; if you've ever launched an app in the App Store, you are probably less likely to dive in and do it again because you know just how hard and demanding it is. This was a great learning experience — doing something new is not all bad. Sometimes inexperience is an advantage! (Incumbents will tell you otherwise.)

Our first step was quite small. We made a Google spreadsheet with ~100 card combinations. Some were funny, like "We just found product-market fit for __" "Cat GIFs" and "Airdropping your mixtape in Philz." Others were not as funny, but we still tried to laugh.

We gradually found out which type of humor was particularly funny to our target audience by reaching out and talking to them!

Invest in your customers… Learn about them. Empathize with them. This is the most important thing you can do.

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Our hypothesis was that tech nerds in the Valley would love this game. (We would later expand this thought to include but not be limited to: venture capitalists who wear Allbirds, people who identify as business developers that handle the business side, and food delivery entrepreneurs).

To test this, we reached out to our most "in the bubble" friends and asked them to play a game. We played online with a virtual deck and just experimented with demo games while interviewing potential customers.

Of course, our "friends" said they liked it… but did that really mean our target audience would like it? We'd find out, soon enough, that buying something is very different from saying you want to buy something. Interest does not equal sale. Interest validation is different than price validation. This is important, as many founders confuse the two!

After many all-night game sessions, we came up with hundreds of cards (some very NSFW). Eventually, we narrowed it down to 600 of the very best (and worst) cards that both we and our beta testers liked the most.

Disrupt Cards

What went into building the initial product?

Doing something you have never done before is always interesting and challenging. Why? Because you do not really know what you are getting yourself into. Setting expectations is really hard. There is not really a prescriptive formula to follow when it comes to building and shipping card games, so we did what we do best: we just started.

We launched the product on Product Hunt without a clear plan for exactly how we were going to manufacture the cards. Which is crazy… right? Talk about breaking all the rules?

Most people quit because their expectations were way off… The overnight success story is a fantasy.

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Once we launched, we realized we had to go heads down to figure out how to actually make the game. We reached out to tons of manufacturers across the globe trying to figure out the best way to pull this off.

We got crazy high quotes for the cards, something we did not really expect off the bat. And then the cost of shipping the boxes across the Pacific was sometimes even more than the printing!

Eventually, after many phone calls and hours of negotiation, we found a connection who could print the game for a reasonable price. The caveat was that we had to sell 650+ boxes to cover the cost.

Again, our naiveté shined through. We thought we would reach this milestone easily. We thought we had found a "hit idea" that would sell out in a few days. In hindsight, the aha moment never came and, rather, our success has been a sheer product of persistence and quick learning.

How have you attracted users and grown Disrupt Cards?

Disrupt Cards has been far from an overnight success. Our initial launch on Product Hunt, from the outside, looked incredible. We received the second most upvotes all-time for a game. Our twitter feeds were going crazy!

Yet, as our Stripe dashboard showed, we received very few sales. In fact, we received an alarmingly low amount of sales during our first days. The pressure of that 650 box threshold grew with each day of stagnant sales.

Was this game going to exist? Was the phrase "moving fast and breaking things" not meant to be taken quite so literally?

Two weeks after launch, sales were still far below the threshold needed to get enough money to break even.

Buying something is very different from saying you want to buy something. Interest does not equal sale.

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We had to make a really tough decision. Business and projects are a combination of really tough decisions — and this one was not unique.

We had to decide between two options:

  • Refund everyone and release the PDF of the game for free
  • Invest our own money (~$10,000), hustle for the next few months selling it, and then afterwards find a way to break even

Thanks to Daniel's encouragement, we chose the latter option.

The five months that followed were crazy. TL;DR — we shipped the game, have broken even, and are now making pretty much passive income. Here is how we did it.

Social Media:

While many think Twitter is dead, we knew that our target audience not only used the site. They lived on it. We were marketing to a bunch of Twitter power users.

So we spent a ton of time and resources building our brand's voice on Twitter. By tweeting almost every day and engaging with our followers, we were able to build a community that loved our game.

We also used the platform to have fun and showcase how dumb our brand could be. By doing stuff like roasting our co-founder Daniel every week and responding to customers with offensive GIFs, we'd try to do the opposite of what a typical brand would do and make the overall experience with us fun.

Events:

Because Disrupt Cards is such a social game, dozens of events around the world have come together because of us. Though we've hosted and supplied cards for our own events, Disrupt Cards have been featured at other gatherings independent of us, including hackathons, Product Hunt meetups, startup launch parties, and just random tech get-togethers. Tens of thousands of people have played Disrupt Cards!

There's no better way to keep a bunch of tech people entertained than by giving them a couple beers and a handful of cards making fun of their life.

Disrupt Cards Meets Silicon Valley

Content:

Turns out people like hearing crazy stories about how people build companies — so once a month or so we would put out a piece updating people about how our game was going. Many a Medium post has been written about Disrupt Cards. We also send the occasional email just to keep the 4 people who still read those things in the loop.

I also it's worth noting something unique about our marketing strategies: we've spent, in sum, zero dollars on marketing the product. Every sale has come from organic or direct outreach, and has been a product of some sort of hustle or growth strategy.

Why am I saying this?

I want to emphasize that you can pretty much sell anything so long as you find a niche that loves your product. When I showed this game to my friends (who are not at all in tech), they, of course, said it would be stupid. But what we learned quickly was that our customers were all we should listen to.

What's your business model, and how have you grown your revenue?

We launched Disrupt Cards with a very messy business plan. We were unsure of the pricing we wanted, and we launched with an unfinished website that had some serious flaws on the back end.

A few weeks after launching we decided the $30 price point we had originally chosen was too high, and we were losing customers, so we lowered it to $25 and haven't changed it since. We also decided to spend some serious time cleaning up the back end, which had previously cost us (e.g. we lost a few shipping addresses, which is a big thing when you are shipping a product).

Since getting over the hump last winter, our sales have been somewhat constant, with a slight average decline in monthly revenue as a higher percentage of the niche tech community gets their hands on our game. A large number of sales have come from a few certain peaks — our launch, the week we were nominated for a Golden Kitty award, and the holiday season. (That last one was a mountain, apparently Disrupt Cards is a popular Xmas gift.)

What are the biggest challenges you've faced and obstacles you've overcome?

There are many challenges, both operational and technical, that come with building a business or project. They are all often very tactical, meaning you can find their answer by googling them or asking a friend who has built a lot of things.

The hardest thing, which is far more abstract, is learning how to set your expectations from day one. I think most people quit because their expectations were way off. Most people give up when they think their product will be an overnight success, and five months later they are just starting to break even.

The truth is that the overnight success story is a fantasy.

While we knew it would take work to get this thing off the ground, empathizing with the struggles of a founder is truly impossible without living it — day to day.

My one wish is that we spent more time, early on, thinking about us. Thinking about what we wanted out of this project, defining our goals, and creating metrics for our success.

Of course, we made many other mistakes along the way, most of them fairly technical and avoidable.

Have you found anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

The Product Hunt community has been amazing to us.

I cannot say it enough: whether you are building a product for tech nerds like we were or trying to sell a product to rural farmers — invest in your customers. Figure out where they hang out. Figure out why they hang out there. Learn about them. Empathize with them.

This is the most important thing you can do.

What's your advice for indie hackers who are just starting out?

I think the best advice I can give you is to just start.

Building anything is really hard. Everyone you ask has an opinion on what is best for you and your product. They will tell you it is dumb and hopeless. They will tell you it is awesome and going to be a winner. Neither is likely true.

At the end of the day, it comes down to you and your team executing on your assumptions and learning from your customers. There are lots of reasons why you should not build a project. Look for one reason to just go for it.

Another thing — don't shy away from competition. There is always room to be more niche.

Where can we go to learn more?

If for some dumb reason you still want to buy this game, you can do it here.

We've heard a rumor that the more boxes of Disrupt Cards you own the higher your startup's valuation will be! And if you're not a founder, shoot your employer an email — you'd be surprised what startups are willing to expense.

If you'd like to hear more from me, you can find me on Twitter.

I'd love to hear what you think! Specifically, I'd like to hear if you've ever had any ideas that you thought were too dumb or too "out of your comfort zone" to work on. What stopped you?

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