Start-up Marketing Lessons Learned from Cecil the Lion

Since it has been a while since my last entrepreneurial post, I thought I would blend three of my devotions (kids, work, and outdoors), and spout off a few nuggets of entrepreneurial marketing advice.

Advice for Marketing Your Start-up

Marketing your start-up can be scary, just like how this stuffed lion scared my then one-year old son.

What can we learn from the Cecil the Lion story to guide founders on how to market their start-up?

  1. Stay in Your Territory– Cecil the Lion was shot after wandering off protected habitat chasing a hunter’s bait. Many start-ups go out of business because they chase too many potential customer segments. Their founders boast about how lean and nimble they are, and how they are pivoting their start-up at a frenzied pace. Most successful entrepreneurs think deeply about who they are targeting, and they design their products with this specific audience in mind. For example, Matt Hall who created the 2015 App Store breakout hit Crossy Road said in an Unconsoleable podcast interview that he designed an earlier successful horse game with a specific young girl in mind he found in a photo with a pony. When someone suggested to Matt he should add an equestrian feature to his horse game, Matt was able to quickly shoot down this feature because he knew that this girl he was targeting wouldn’t want the equestrian features in her game. Crossy Road also has some great, user friendly monetization practices too.
  2. Be Resourceful When Going after High Probability Prey– Cecil the Lion did not follow his previous successful path when he chose to follow the hunter’s bait. Cecil lived to a mature age because he was successful at killing certain prey (probably antelope, or whatever). Cecil should have stuck with the prey that worked for him and avoided going after whatever flashed in front of him. In the start-up world, founders need to quickly assess which potential customers are closable and then be resourceful in targeting them versus constantly spraying random attempts at all kinds of customers. Usually involved in this process is finding good lists of qualified leads to go after. For example, a start-up friend of mine which is targeting local restaurants told me about some success he had had in getting Groupon sales reps to moonlight reselling his software. These Groupon sales reps already had many local relationships which he coveted, but he didn’t know how he could contact them. This founder looked into Zoominfo’s database and could quickly get contact info for all of the Groupon sales reps which he could market his reseller program to.
  3. Don’t Fall for Big Game Hunter Tricks– As your start-up starts to grow, a lot of “proven” sales managers will contact founders asking for a big salary based on their track record of success, usually at some other, much larger company. I’d highly advise against hiring these types to your start-up. Your initial hires should take a large salary decrease and be motivated by upside in commission and equity-based compensation. Don’t let these pre-madonna sales managers latch on to the lightening in a bottle you have without taking risk just because they have a nice looking resume.
  4. Don’t Believe Everything You Read until it is Verified– It was initially reported that Cecil’s brother lion Jericho was found killed by a hunter, then later retracted as it was then confirmed that Jericho was not Cecil’s brother at all nor was Jericho dead after all. Many blogs are quick to rush out stories about some major policy change which may impact your business. Often times there is some evidence to back up their initial post, but that doesn’t mean it is a wholesale policy change. For example, TechCrunch ran a story on how apps with a certain type of video ad format were getting banned. Over the days and weeks that followed, thousands of apps with this video ad format receive Apple’s approval without any issue. (Not that Apple doesn’t change its mind about what is acceptable, and what isn’t.)

Okay… okay. This whole notion of combining advice for marketing your start-up and Cecil the Lion is a joke. There is no relationship between the two topics but all this Cecil the Lion madness got to me. It is a lion people. Get over it. There are far bigger issues globally than a lion who is accidentally killed by a hunter. As for my specific views on this whole Cecil the Lion madness, the perspective I most agree with was written by a local hunter Dave Orrick here.

Are You Punishing Players Who Pay? Rethinking Monetization Strategies.

Rethinking Monetization Strategies that Are Choking Valued Players Out of Your Game.

I am proud to be a ‘whale’ when it comes to free-to-play mobile games. (That means I am a player who is willing to pay for in-app purchases that help my enjoyment and progression in the games I play.) But lately, some free-to-play games have made me feel punished for paying.

Game Monetization Strategies

Game Monetization Strategies

To explain, let me share a bit of background. I used to be a big console gamer in my youth. But now that I have a family with three young kids, it’s hard for me to find time to play console games anymore. And when I do play them, I end up being destroyed by younger players who are far more skilled than me. Not fun.

So, free-to-play mobile (F2P) games now fill that gaming void in my life. I play a range of games – match 3s, arcade-style, endless runners, and tower defense; or I’ll check out whatever is trending on the charts regardless of the genre. I am quite willing to buy virtual currency or items in mobile games, as long as they add value to my playing experience. If paying a buck or two helps me crush a friend, upgrade my character, or finally get through an unbeatable level, it’s worth every penny to me.

Value Exchange Video Ads

Value Exchange Video Ads

But, I also really like having ad-funded options like watching a video to earn extra currency, as that gives me an opportunity to improve my playing experience without always having to open up my wallet. In fact, I often find that the ad-funded options to earn currency enhance my gameplay, as I can advance in the game more quickly than I otherwise could, which generally causes me to purchase items more frequently than I typically would. Rewarding me for my attention is a positive bonus that I welcome that makes me feel good about paying because I don’t feel forced to pay to play.

But there is a recurring monetization strategy that makes users stop playing. We are literally choked out of games we that we otherwise enjoy playing. How? After I make my first in-app purchase and become a player who paid for content, I am considered converted to their “paying player” monetization strategy. At this point, many games now choose to eliminate any free ad options I have that allow me to earn currency going forward. So I no longer get the same extra bonuses other non-paying players get unless I pay every time. Ugh! As a player, why should I be penalized and no longer have ad-funded options the minute I become a payer?

Logically, developers may feel that if they identify users who are willing to pay for a premium experience, that they need to remove free rewards which should push those paying players to buy more. But it’s flawed logic. First, if a user feels cheated or that the game is shaking him down for more money because he is an easy target, he will leave your game with a bad taste in his mouth. Second, there may be a misconception that users prefer ad-free games, when the reality is that many find the ad-funded options a benefit to gameplay and would encourage more ad-sponsored options to improve the free gaming experiences.

Here are just a couple of player reviews I found from some popular mobile games talking about rewarded ads and video.

“Great game! I love run games. Huge Tomb Raider fan… Yes there are ads but they don’t last long and it doesn’t interrupt game play and I love the idea of watching a ad video to revive. Works for me every time.”
M.W. June 13, 2015 (Google Play Review: Lara Croft: Relic Run)

“I really like the way they do their advertising. No banner ads to accidentally click on, no mandatory videos to watch…just a 15 sec optional video at the end of every level that rewards you with a difficulty-linked amount of in-game money if you choose to watch it.”
Nependerp, Jan 4, 2015 (Google Play Review: Tower Madness 2)

“This is one of my favourite games…Thank you for adding the new way to get extra moves with gold. It shows that you have been listening to our reviews.”
D.M. June 5, 2015 (Google Play Review: Best Fiends)

As “Crossy Road” co-creator Andrew Sum stated in a recent article, “Treat your players with respect. Make a game that people will want to share, and encourage them to come back tomorrow.”

So, in order to monetize me, you need to respect me. You can’t cut off the bonus offers you give to non-paying gamers just because I have paid once. Don’t punish me for purchasing and I’ll happily keep coming back to play.

Rob Weber,
CEO, NativeX

* NativeX is a provider of monetization and / or user acquisition solutions for the games mentions in this post, including Crossy Road, Lara Croft: Relic Run, Tower Madness 2, and Best Fiends

NativeX Launches New Video Ad Format

Sponsored Post

Introducing a new Mini Multi-Offer ad format “Triad.” Triad combines the latest mobile video ad technology with NativeX’s industry leading selection of native advertising formats to give users the choice of which ads to engage with. Triad joins the NativeX Discovery Suite to give developers the right ad format to optimize strategic placements in their apps for a more native experience with higher impact.

Read the Full Post Here.

See Video:

Apple is now rejecting iOS games which contain adverts that mention other platforms

[Originally posted on, April 21st 2015]

Apple’s App Store Review guidelines for developers state “Apps or metadata that mentions the name of any other mobile platform will be rejected”

Developers have recently seen Apple enforcing this policy – not for the app’s name, content or metadata, but for their monetization solutions.

These apps are rejected for showing ads that feature references to other mobile platforms.

Developers are told they will not be approved until all tags, references and images related to Google Play and Windows Store are removed from the ads.

Continue to read the full post here

NativeX names new CEO and launches multi-offer mobile video ads

[Originally posted on VentureBeat, March 12th 2015]

NativeX, a maker of ad technology for mobile games, has named its cofounder Rob Weber as its new chief executive. On top of that, the company told GamesBeat that it is launching its new Triad video ad format that offers mobile gamers their choice of which video ads to view.

Weber, who previously headed business development, replaces Andy Johnson, who will remain chairman. Weber cofounded W3i with his twin brother Ryan in 2007. In 2013, they rebranded the company as NativeX to focus on native advertising, or ads that are built into mobile games and appear to be a natural part of the app itself. Andy Johnson joined the company in 2007 to head the PC business, and he was appointed CEO in early 2014 to help bring more big-company discipline to NativeX.

In an interview with GamesBeat, Weber said that he prefers a flat management style, and he may make some changes to the organization as a result. He also hired Mike Wallin, formerly of PlayPhone, as vice president of business development as Weber’s replacement. Ryan Weber remains chief product officer.

Continue to read the full post here

Data Science, the Latest Weapon in Mobile Monetization [GamesBeat 2014]

Will Harbin Kixeye CEO & Rob Weber NativeX

Kixeye CEO Will Harbin and NativeX Co-Founder Rob Weber speak at GamesBeat 2014 in San Francisco.

[Originally posted on NativeX Voices September 16th 2014]

This week NativeX participated in the 6th annual GamesBeat conference. Organized by VentureBeat, GamesBeat is one of the leading events in the mobile games industry, gathering “top execs, investors, analysts, and entrepreneurs from the hottest companies to explore the gaming industry’s latest trends and newest monetization opportunities.”

The theme of this year’s GamesBeat was “Total World Domination,” focusing on gaming’s journey to becoming the dominant medium of entertainment. As part of the discussion, NativeX Co-Founder, Rob Weber shared the stage with Kixeye CEO, Will Harbin. Together, they talked about data science and its role in mobile app monetization from the perspectives of an ad network and a F2P gaming studio.


VentureBeat described the session by stating, “as the mobile market continues to grow and mature, the conversation around making money has become something fans hate to hear and developers despise discussing. The industry has changed to the point where “casual gamer” is being re-defined and companies are learning how to cater to consumers accustomed to receiving content for free.”

Highlights from the session are below in quotes for those who couldn’t make it to San Francisco for GamesBeat and didn’t catch the live broadcast on Twitch:


Rob Weber: “Our data science team looks at thousands of variables and analyzes the predictive value of each one — basically A.I. [artificial intelligence]. Then they boil down the data to 15-20 key indicators that tell us which ad and ad format has the best chance of converting for each player.”

Will Harbin: “I can’t fully speak to what our data scientists are doing now but I wrote the original algorithms. Now they just wake me up for the important meetings. At this point we only use data science half the time. A year ago, we probably were doing way too much, you know, data-driven decision-making. I think that hurt us in some ways. Now we’re probably going to err on the side of doing something which is fun even if the data doesn’t justify it.”

Rob Weber: “We built our own data science systems at NativeX. To get the ball rolling, we hired an experienced Chief Data Scientist, Dr. James Shanahan. Then he hired a full team of 14 data scientists, many with PhDs.”

Will Harbin: “LTV is sort of a chicken / egg problem for mobile game developers. You need to collect a lot of data to get it right. This makes it nearly impossible for developers starting out with their first game. At Kixeye, we are very conservative about measuring lifetime value (LTV). For example, our average retention is well over two years but we estimate it to be just nine months.”

Rob Weber: “If game developers can earn a few dollars from the 90 percent of non-payers, that can go a long way to share the burden of payers who are shouldering the cost for these games.”

Will Harbin: “Too many F2P games focus on whale spending. Pay to win is not a sustainable model for the games ecosystem.”

Rob Weber: “It’s inevitable that bigger AAA game developers are going to create separation over indies through the use of data science. That’s why we’re building the tools they need to compete.”

For more quotes from Rob Weber and Will Harbin, check them out on Twitter @robertjweber and @willharbin

Increasing In-App Revenue with Metric Driven Design and Emotional Targeting

Here is a 25 minute lecture I gave at Casual Connect in San Francisco on July 20014. The focus is on how to leverage metric driven design and emotional targeting to improve the performance of your mobile app or game.

Following Glu’s Kardashian Success, 6 Celebrity Games I’d Like to Play

[Originally posted on NativeX Voices September 3rd 2014]

Partnering with a controversial and social media savvy celebrity like Kim Kardashian can save game developers hundreds of thousands of dollars in user acquisition. You have an immediate advantage over other games because of the likeness of the celebrity, their ability to promote your game, and the impact their brand has on editors from the various app stores who like to feature games with popular figures.

This strategy can also backfire because celebrities are really expensive and some of them might not be receptive to your ideas. They also might get caught up in a scandal right after you release the game. With that said, the astronomical success of Glu’s Kim Kardashian: Hollywood has more developers thinking about creative ways to leverage the popularity of celebrities.

To help you get your creativity flowing for your next hit game, I put together a list of six celebrity games I would like to play.

Continue to read the full post here

What the media industry can learn about native advertising from mobile games

[Originally posted on The Next Web June 7th 2014]

If you only know about native advertising as it’s described in most major media coverage (such as this recent Wall Street Journal report), you might assume the ad format is little more than ads that resemble Facebook updates, or sponsored articles attached to genuine editorial. Indeed, native ads were implicated in the recent strife at the venerable New York Times.

There’s a rich irony to this narrow definition: The New York Times itself, along with every other major media publication, is desperate to shore up its revenue base, especially as the market shifts to mobile – but still largely view native ads as a devil they may need to make a deal with, but only at a painful compromise to their editorial values.

It doesn’t have to be this way, because game developers (as they often do) have pioneered a workable direction. If media companies followed their lead, perhaps they’d earn more revenue without further blurring the lines of advertising and editorial. And in the process, help save our struggling media industry as a whole.

Continue to read the full post here

Interview: The Way Forward for Native Ads

Here is a little video interview I did while attending VentureBeat’s Mobile Summit 2014. The focus is on how my company NativeX got into creating native monetization tech for games, and what needs to happen to see native monetization scale.