Overcharge.tv

Stew Houston talks about the importance of user feedback during product development, and of fighting hard for every user to kickstart growth.

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

My name is Stew Houston, and I'm a full stack developer from Toronto, Canada. I've been working on the web in one capacity or another for the better part of 15 years. Most notably I was the lead developer at PrecisionNutrition.com for 3 years.

Most recently I have launched Overcharge.tv, an enhancement suite to the popular Twitch streaming platform. Overcharge is a progressive web application that is used by gamers who watch Twitch on a regular basis and have a deep familiarity with a given gaming community, whether it be Dota 2, League of Legends, Hearthstone, CS:GO, etc. The primary value proposition of Overcharge.tv is its information-rich and immersive interface, which allows users to maintain full engagement without needing to tab away from any given broadcast.

Our primary source of revenue is through platform partnerships. Overcharge currently runs on the Overwolf (name similarity coincidental) app platform and further development is being funded by the Overwolf team at roughly $600 per month. We have several other partnerships being discussed, but are being selective so as not to restrict our flexibility or inhibit long-term growth.

How did come up with the idea for Overcharge? What's the story behind how you built and released the early versions of the app?

While recovering from an injury throughout 2014 and early 2015, I began watching Twitch broadcasts on a regular basis. As I became more comfortable with the platform, I saw a number of ways in which it could be augmented and mixed with content from other web services.

My initial goal wasn't to start a business but rather to build a small self-contained app that would allow me to watch Twitch with Reddit posts being updated beside the stream. At the time I was using a single monitor laptop, so screen real estate was very limited. After building the original concept, the app's utility quickly became apparent, so I continued iterating.

After 3 months of building out the first version of the application I had an MVP ("minimum viable product"). However, after putting the site up and sending it to potential users, I quickly realized that the app's core concept had become obfuscated by an ill-suited layout. I'd built the site with no clear brand identity and long-term roadmap, simply sketches and day-to-day meandering tasks. People would ask me something along the lines of, "It looks nice, but what does it do?"

Another challenge was that several of the content sources were self-curated and required manual editing. The app was far too extensive in scope, and as such would have required several members on staff to keep a fresh content flow. Given that I was the sole developer, I was unable to manage both development and content. This lead to large blocks of incomplete or stale content that confused users. I much prefer development to personnel management, and knew that if I went the latter route that I would eventually burn out.

After some discouragement, I let the project sit for a month before re-evaluating the app from the average user's perspective, then defining what was essential and what was unsustainable or simply cruft. By posting screenshots on a daily basis to a local Slack network, I was able to gather feedback and guide my focus for the next 3 months until the second version was complete.

In retrospect this entire period was absolutely critical, so I don't feel bad about garbage binning 300-400 hours of work and starting fresh.

What resources did you rely on in terms of time, funding, tools, people, etc?

The period I described above covered roughly 8 months of full-time work. Development was funded by the remainder of relatively small savings from my previous job as well as some freelancing on the side. I was doing an additional 10-15 hours/week of freelance work to help cover rent, food, and utilities.

It can be frustrating being called away from the task at hand to direct a client or hack on WordPress for half a day, however the extra $1-2k per month was necessary to keep working without having to stress about meeting other financial obligations.

I worked from home and kept costs to a minimum. For example, the Google Cloud Platform offers a $300 credit for 60 days to new users, mLab has free sandbox databases, etc.

The first version of the website used a PHP 7 microframework that was fine for a while, however as the scope of the project grew, so too did the codebase. Eventually it was too much mental effort to keep track of what was where. Luckily this strain coincided with the discontinuation of the first version of the app. I then had carte blanche on which technology to use for both the back-end and front-end. I chose JavaScript across the board with Node for the server and Angular 2 for the client-side.

As for people, I've had good luck reaching out to moderate influencers in the gaming community. Some folks are genuinely good-natured and offer advice, insight, and motivation when they receive a cohesive email with a promising idea.

It may be scary, but sending cold or lukewarm emails is sometimes necessary to get honest feedback from people who can contextualize your product.

What strategies have you used to attract users and grow Overcharge?

As a developer, marketing has always given me a knot in the stomach. It can be discouraging spending 500+ hours on a project and then having no more than 10 people drop in on your big launch day. This type of thing can be a real kick in the ass motivation-wise, however.

I realized that in the beginning you have to fight for every single user. This entailed bugging a whole lot of friends to have a look and pass on your link. When this fizzles out, you need to build the courage to approach strangers to explain your product and its inherent value as succinctly as possible, all while remaining natural and coherent. Aye, it can be tough.

The first major push on the approach front was when attending the League of Legends Championship Series. I had 1,000 brand cards printed with an invitation code on the back. The invitation code directed users to a landing page with an email capture field which was the basis of our newsletter list. Enlisting the help of my gregarious friends, I was able to give out nearly 800 cards, of which roughly 250 users signed up. Given the expense of printing the cards, buying tickets to the event, and the effort and anxiety of handing out 800 cards, the cost per acquisition (both financial and emotional) was very low, however it was the first wedge we drove into building a userbase.

Our first big break was in putting together a press release and accompanying promo video. This landed us a story in VentureBeat and about 4 other gaming-specific outlets. It was crucial in establishing our brand and getting a consistent flow of new users without having an active campaign.

We later launched a Rewards Program that incentivized referring friends. The first product with immediate cost was a $10 gift card after referring 20 users. The turnout for this was excellent, driving nearly 2,000 user signups in 3 days. Be warned though that if you are offering tangible goods as a reward over the internet, people will cheat. Make sure to build safeguards so as not to lose face when confronting people who attempt to make an illegitimate claim; you need proof of their misdeeds.

The gaming community is incredibly suspicious of any and all marketing, so we have been cautious in how we go about our campaigns. One of the holy grails of marketing in our industry is getting to the front page of reddit. The problem is that if you try to force it, your brand can (and likely will be) sullied for life. We've therefore foregone any posts to Reddit ourselves, and instead have waited for and defended organic posts made by others.

Lastly, the guys at Overwolf have been great marketing the app on our behalf, as it provides value to their platform. Symbiotic relationships are very valuable.

How does your business model work? What's the story behind your revenue?

As mentioned, our primary revenue source to date has been through partnerships. We have been in touch with StackCommerce, the "deal engine" that has worked wonders for TheNextWeb.com, however we are putting off advert or product-based revenue until our user base hits critical mass. We want to maintain our pristine image for potential partnerships with the big boy companies like Nvidia and Intel.

What are your goals for the future, and how do you plan to accomplish them?

As alluded to above, our end goal is a partnership or acquisition by a company like Nvidia. Their GeForce Experience platform would be a prime candidate to subsume the Overcharge app.

Our approach working toward this goal has been reaching out to incrementally larger companies seeking loose or collaborative affiliations. There is a plethora of startups and mid-sized organizations in the gaming ecosystem that are open to brand partnerships and extended reach.

We also have a second product that is nearing completion which is similar in form to Overcharge, however is friendlier for beginners or casual gamers. This is significant in that it is more digestable by general technology publications and journalists in general. While we were featured in VentureBeat after pushing out our first press release, we weren't picked up by TechCrunch, CNET, or PCGamer, all of which are target publications. We feel our new product will be better suited to flow through these channels.

What are the biggest challenges you've faced? What would you do differently if you had to start over?

As I've mentioned, the first iteration of the site was both a challenge and learning experience.

While somewhat tangential, a personal challenge that I've had is trying to communicate professionally on open communication platforms such as Discord. There is a tremendous amount of toxicity in the gaming community, and I've been careful not to put the website or brand in harm's way when interacting with such people or groups.

Nevertheless there have been several confrontations that have resulted in strong words and personal rivalries. Healthy competition breeds innovation, but the trick is to keep the competition healthy and not insidious.

What have been your biggest advantages? Was anything particularly helpful?

The biggest advantage that I have is my adoption of new frameworks and technology. While there is lots of hype and dogma about this or that programming language or paradigm, there is some truth when talking about new web frameworks like React or Angular 2. The level of productivity and maintainability that these frameworks allow has been unprecedented over the course of my entire development career.

Second is my age and overall life experience. I now know how to calibrate myself to situations where younger or less experienced people might stumble. Most important is pacing yourself, showing up each day, constantly iterating and re-evaluating, and relinquishing pride when receiving criticism (whether constructive or malevolent).

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

Work hard but don't let work define the entirety of your character. Being well-rounded is invaluable — it helps you step back when hitting an impasse, to shift emotional and intellectual gears when the circumstances call for it.

Try not to get swept up in the mania of daily headlines or be seduced by a grandiose vision of your product or your future. Success is built one brick at a time. Ocassionally those bricks come tumbling down or need to be consciously deconstructed. Tony Robbins has a saying that most people grossly overestimate what they can do in a week but greatly underestimate what they can do in a year.

I am a big fan of Neal Stephenson's fiction, most notably Cryptonomicon and Reamde. Both are marked with protagonists who achieve tremendous success as entrepreneurs. Tim Ferriss also does excellent work and just released a book called Tools of Titans. I have been reading his blog on and off for over 5 years and in general he keeps your head in the game. Lastly, I recommend reading about Peter Thiel, Elon Musk, and the PayPal Mafia — no BS success stories.

Where can we go to learn more?

My name is Stew Houston and I am the creator/founder of Overcharge.tv, the Twitch enhancement suite. We will also be launching Streambook.io, which is a lighter version of the Overcharge application that is friendlier for beginners and casual gamers.

I tweet through the company's twitter account at @overchargeapp and moderate our Facebook page at facebook.com/overchargeapp. If you have any questions about myself or the Overcharge project feel free to leave a comment below.

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