Let’s take a trip back in time to 2007…
I was 17. I had just graduated from high school with no idea of what to do with my life. I was burnt out and tired from a decade of sitting in class, and I knew I wasn’t ready to start college yet. Depression was rapidly sinking in.
After a few months of this (and getting hounded by my mom to find a job at McDonald’s), I decided to start my own business. At first, this seemed like a risky choice, especially since I had spent my formative years watching my parents start several IT businesses, all of which collapsed within a few years.
Despite my apprehension though, I decided to forge ahead anyway.
When I told my friends about my plans, many of them voiced their doubts.
“That’s a neat idea Daniel. But you can’t start a company until you know more about business. Maybe when you’re older after you get an MBA or something.”
“But why?” I would reply.
“What does age have to do with it?”
Sure, I was inexperienced, but I figured the best way to learn more was to start and run my own business.
Besides, what was the worst that could happen?
I realized even if I failed, I could easily move on with my life.
So after some cursory research on Google, I set up a DBA and…
I started an “IT services” company…
This was actually a euphemism for me driving around in my rusty old Saturn Vue, fixing computers on-site at residences and small businesses with a few friends.
My small venture would go on to do relatively well, though. Or, at least it seemed like I was doing well for a 17-year old kid.
For client acquisition, I ran classifieds ads in the non-classifieds section of my local paper (which ended up being 20x less expensive than a normal newspaper ad).
This, combined with spreading flyers in parking lots next to computer retailers ended up generating me up to a dozen appointments a week. I would go on to acquire hundreds of clients over the course of two years.
I ended up “hiring” a few friends to fill a few roles, including assistant technicians and an assistant to man the phones.
Somewhat accidentally, I learned how to create, run and scale a semi-profitable business as a teenager.
I discovered the importance of finding the right niche, how to market my services to clients, and how to scale up by recruiting the help I needed.
But alas, this venture eventually stalled.
My team had grown to 4 people, but I lacked the experience and knowledge to scale the company up any further, and it eventually fizzled out.
The leads dried up, and my existing clientele only reached out to me when they had a computer problem (which was few and far in between).
I abandoned this venture, and tried to become a professional League of Legends player instead. Practicing more than a dozen hours a day, for months on end.
I came pretty close, and would go on to scrim with players of some of the largest teams in North America at the time (CLG and TSM respectively), but the hyper-competitive world of eSports took its toll on my physical and emotional well-being…
…and prospect of any form of sustained success was elusive at best.
That’s when I finally decided to just go to university.
I put entrepreneurship on pause.
Took out a bunch of student loans, and ended up spending the next few years studying Psychology and Sociology at CSUB, learning about how people made decisions and what factors could influence their behavior.
But while I enjoyed my studies, I was afraid that Psychology wasn’t going to provide me with any marketable skills in the real world. I mean, even my career counselor admitted that a Bachelor’s in Psychology didn’t really mean much by itself, and could only get me entry-level jobs at best.
At the time, I was working in entry-level tech support at my university’s IT department. Several of my colleagues were in the computer science program, and so I decided to take a few courses in software engineering to find out what the hubbub was all about.
I loved it. But, I found myself disappointed…
My first programming course bored me to tears. Although the professor was knowledgeable, the pace of the course was agonizingly slow, and I wanted to work on a more engaging project.
I’d always loved designing my own board games as a kid, though. And so…
I started working on a game…
I called it SanctuaryRPG, and it was an obsession. I labored over the project, working on it day and night. It was a complex dungeon crawler intertwined with many silly potato-based jokes.
It was funny.
Or at least I thought it was funny. But while I found inappropriate references to potatoes hilarious… I wasn’t sure if anyone else would share my odd sense of humor.
I put an early Alpha build up on Reddit, not expecting more than a few comments.
I was wrong. This early alpha version of SanctuaryRPG went viral overnight after the first post, with thousands of people enjoying themselves and joining my subreddit and raving about how much they loved the game.
Ok, so I had an audience. But what now? I decided to make the leap…
I decided to go all-in on software.
I mean, SanctuaryRPG was never meant to be more than a way to practice my programming skills, but the game had gathered a loyal cult fanbase, many of whom were suggesting that I start selling the game as opposed to giving it away for free.
I would spend the next year or so finishing touches on the game and posted it up on itch.io, letting people donate whatever they wanted to the project.
This ended up generating me several thousand dollars in a few short months.
In retrospect, this wasn’t much. But, I mean, this was an incredible amount of money for someone living with his mother in a tiny old apartment, dependent on food stamps to buy groceries. I was living in squalor, but I figured I could try to do something about it. It was here that I decided to double down on growth marketing.
The transition to being a marketing started small. Heck, I didn’t even know that it was even called growth marketing at the time. But I knew I liked getting traction and internet points on reddit (that’s what really spoke to my soul at the time).
Building off the momentum I had on reddit, I led with more grassroots marketing campaigns, posting it on other relevant subreddits such as /r/dnd and /r/roguelikes, and letting people play the game for free in return for reviews and feedback.
Pretty soon, word got around that my little game was making waves in the games space, and even Markus “Notch” Persson himself (game development mogul and creator of Minecraft) decided to come in and help us out with a generous financial blessing (and granting him “Executive Producer” credits in the game).
This eventually led to me assembling a small team working for equity, getting a distribution deal with a publisher, and a fully fleshed out version of the game on Steam, called SanctuaryRPG: Black Edition.
The game would go on to sell over half a million copies, and cement me in the indie games industry as a somewhat “successful” game developer.
The game achieved worldwide acclaim…
At launch, I received a flood of positive reviews from some of the biggest video games outlets in the world.
SanctuaryRPG’s fan base began to rapidly multiply.
I slowly added influencer marketing, social media viral campaigns, and email marketing automation into the mix.
I also started combing through YouTube and Twitch. I began gathering the email addresses of prominent influencers and streamers, sending cold emails and reaching out to as many of them as possible.
Twitter turned out to be extremely powerful as well.
I quickly built up a network of overlapping accounts, using organic growth hacking with targeted connections to attract more followers.
I made sure to keep in regular touch with SanctuaryRPG’s fanbase, sending out email announcements via email every time I added an update to the game. I continued giving away free copies of the game on different roguelike and dungeon crawler forums in exchange for feedback and reviews.
The initial success of SanctuaryRPG was a bit unexpected, but I rode that wave for as long as I could. And then it hit me…
I realized that if I could make my own game stand out and go viral, I could help other game developers achieve their own dreams of success as well.
And so, I set on a course to help others.
I partnered up with one of SanctuaryRPG’s earliest followers, Raghav Mathur. Even though he had admittedly never played the game for longer than a few minutes at the time, he had spent countless hours helping out with the game’s marketing campaign up until that point as a volunteer.
I thought he’d make a great candidate.
Together, we launched Black Shell Media, a video game publishing and marketing agency.
Despite the fact that we would not meet in person for another several years, I had full confidence in his skills and knew that he would succeed in his new role.
To generate new leads for Black Shell Media, I used a combination of social media marketing and outbound prospecting.
I found that Twitter was an excellent tool for getting traction at the time, and so I built a network of these accounts, each one slightly overlapping the other in interests and demographics. All were targeting independent game developers in some aspect.
I also scraped a lot of emails.
Digging deep into independent game repositories such as Itch.io, I’d send tens of thousands of somewhat personalized cold emails, with a reply rate of around 25%, and hired SDRs to help qualify the leads.
I started growing a Facebook group as well called Indie Game Development Feedback, which would go on to become one of the largest gamedev communities in the world with over 21,000 members and growing
On top of all this, I also started writing blog posts on a daily basis, providing valuable advice and resources for fellow game developers.
I would cross-post them to reddit, LinkedIn, and relevant Facebook Groups, carefully inserting links into each post that would lead to the front end of my sales funnel.
Soon enough, I had acquired a steady stream of warm game development leads, all wanting Black Shell Media to help them with their marketing efforts.
The next step was to discover which pain points my initial group of clients had in common, and adjust my strategies accordingly.
Black Shell Media was thrust into growth.
I continued to grow the company rapidly, throwing in growth marketing speaking engagements, paid acquisition, content marketing, share-incentivized giveaways, cross-promotion, partnerships, quiz funnels, and other forms of outbound strategies.
Over time, we started using more and more advanced growth marketing techniques to both bring in new clients on the B2B side, as well as promote and sell more copies of their games on the B2C end (this included a lot of cross-promotion between different games, and gaming Steam’s charting algorithm by sending qualified traffic from external sources).
We seemed unstoppable.
Heck, I even threw in a PR stunt, coming up with a “Blue Screen of Death Simulator”, which ended up getting attention from multiple gaming industry news outlets, with backlinks in tow.
Black Shell Media would end up growing from just a founding team of two guys who met on reddit to a team of 10 people over the next 4 years.
Most of the team focused on doing content marketing, Steam SEO, landing page optimization, and social selling.
This ended up growing the blog from 0 to 30,000+ readers per month (this consisted of a good mix between social and SEO traffic) during its first year, which was mind-blowing to me at the time.
We continued with hyper-growth.
At this point, we had just launched a micro-site called Indie Juice, an indie game reviews website designed to generate more traffic and raise brand awareness for our agency.
I directed a team of writers and a content marketing manager, and we had a steady flow of blog posts that were cross-promoted on Facebook, LinkedIn, and other game-industry communities. This did wonders for our traffic at the time.
Now, to keep up our growth, we had to innovate and tap into additional experimental traction channels.
One of which at the time was Facebook Live. I would run these live sessions with my co-founder Raghav for communities of game developers, teaching them the basics of how to market their games, and pointing out they were unlikely to have the time for both marketing and game development at the same time.
LinkedIn was also uncharted territory at the time, and I took it upon myself to “hack” the system to generate tens of thousands of targeted leads using Sales Navigator and some automation.
Now, this was back when Dux-Soup wasn’t really a thing, and so I had to create connect request and messaging macros myself using DIY software that I’d whip up in C# (having that software development background really helped at this time).
We dug into the events circuit.
As we grew, we attended more and more game development events, even helping to sponsor many large events across California. My team and I would get recognized at these events — I felt like a rockstar.
This led to partnerships with large companies such as Microsoft and Dell.
We leveraged those connections to turn it into one of our primary traction channels by tapping into their communities.
By this point, our SEO picked up as well from over a year of consistent blogging and driving backlinks. We ranked on the front page of Google for many long-tail keywords when people searched for keywords related to indie game development.
It was at this time that I began to get deeper into community building. I realized that gamers who enjoyed our roster of games could use a place to socialize as well as learn more about new releases from BSM’s catalog.
Community building was next on my list…
I created a Steam Group and drove traffic towards it by hosting giveaways of Steam games and promoting the group on social media.
This grew Black Shell Media’s active gamer community on Steam to over 45,000 people in about 6 months, and I continued to nurture this new community with engaging content, which was structured like a Slack group with gamers as its primary users.
The group was a big success, as we could effortlessly use it to cross-promote our games. I even recruited a team of 10 people from this group to help game the reddit algorithm to seed upvotes.
We’d realized that the key to success on reddit was to craft a compelling story and/or use humor with each giveaway, and so we put together a group of about 10 people who helped post similar stories and messages to over 20 gaming related subreddits.
These posts ended up hitting the front pages of these subreddits over 10 times, driving hundreds of thousands of unique visitors and a ton of sales.
We threw in a podcast as well.
Hiring on a podcast host, we delved into interviewing top movers and shakers in the game development industry.
This eventually led to us being connected with the founder of Atari, Nolan Bushnell (famously known as Steve Jobs’ former boss). The podcast managed to drive tens of thousands of listens and helped serve as another marketing touch point for our clients.
In addition, we also jumped onto the chatbot train early and developed a few of them to drive game developer traffic to our lead magnets and landing pages.
One growth hack I devised was a mini “engagement pod” of sorts. We had four team members post blog articles alongside expertly crafted copy on four rotating Facebook groups on a daily basis.
Each member would post to a different group, and each other member would seed with upvotes.
By the end of the campaign, our team members were posting twice a day on several groups, increasing our website traffic by 200% over the span of a few months.
It was ridiculously effective.
Apart from these platform-specific growth tactics, though…
We learned about over-delivering.
This happened when we overdelivered by 2x with one of our clients when he purchased a marketing package from us (we ran a sponsored posting campaign for twice as long).
He was surprised and absolutely ecstatic, telling other people on Facebook about how we tripled his ROAS with one of our sponsored post campaigns.
Through his single post on Facebook, we brought in more than 10 new referrals in a single week. This was insane.
Business was booming, clients were coming in fast, and we were scaling up faster than we could handle.
At this point, we had partnered with over 85 game developers, helped hundreds of developers, and shipped over 2.1 million copies of games.
The majority of our revenue at this point came from publishing games and receiving a portion of the revenue in return, but a significant portion of our MRR came from selling services.
We handled landing page optimization, copywriting, paid social and organic social media marketing efforts for game developers who simply didn’t have time to promote their own games.
But, things wouldn’t be this good forever.
This was the beginning of the end…
Up until this point, we had been focusing on building our business around publishing games and getting them past Steam Greenlight and onto the Steam store itself.
On Steam, new indie games required a certain number of votes from other gamers in order to make the game available on the Steam store.
Once a game got on Steam, there would then be a chance that it might be featured on the front page.
Getting a game on the front page would sometimes drive sales in the multiple six figures if the game was well-received, as Steam’s organic charting algorithm would take over from there.
Black Shell Media thrived because of this single growth channel.
We were able to provide massive value to our clients by helping their games reach the top of the charts, giving them a shot at mainstream recognition.
But towards the end of the fifth year in business…
We ended up getting abruptly disrupted.
Steam decided to remove the Greenlight process altogether, and just allow every game on Steam, irrelevant of quality.
Which resulted in the market being saturated with shovelware and poorly-made games. It became significantly harder to gain traction.
If we were to survive, we would have to significantly re-brand and pivot upmarket.
Unfortunately, we didn’t have the luxury of time on our hands.
The indie game industry crumbled and fell to pieces right before our eyes, and some of our most important revenue streams were destroyed. We were forced to lay off all our full time employees and part-time staff as our revenue took a massive nosedive.
This was dubbed the “indiepocalypse” by the community.
I would step down from the company, and am no longer a managing director. Instead, I re-shifted my priorities and doubled down on my consultancy, Doan Consulting Group.
This would lead me to find my place in the industry as a growth strategist and marketing consultant for numerous tech and eCommerce companies outside of the interactive entertainment industry.
Through this, I would go on to serve as Head of Growth at a disruptive cannabis eCommerce startup, helping them to generate more than 280,000 subscribers, and lifting their conversion rates across the board.
I also served as an interim growth director at one of the fastest growing digital agencies in the world, with clients spanning from Google and MasterClass, to Olgivy & Mather. Here, I’d spearhead dozens of copywriting and email marketing projects, and lead the growth marketing division with paid acquisition campaigns for big brands and startups alike.
I would continue to help dozens of clients in a consulting and advisory capacity, helping them navigate through the challenges of achieving product-market fit and initial traction and continued growth.
All in all…
I’ve learned a tremendous amount…
Not just about marketing video games, but in how to use growth marketing principles to get traction for dozens of tech and eCommerce startups.
I’ve put these skills to use every day for the past half decade for my clients, and I’m always continually looking for new ways to better hone my craft.
As a growth consultant, digital marketing, and someone who has been in the trenches with growth marketing for well over half a decade…
…I’ve been in a lot of challenging situations.
And truthfully, even though I’ve had a lot of successes over my career, I’ve probably had twice as many failures.
But even though I’ve struggled a lot at times, and even though I might not be able to predict what happens in the future, I’ve always been able to pivot, learn and grow from my experiences.
And to me, that’s all that really matters at the end of the day.
The pursuit of growth.
But yeah, hope you enjoyed the read.
If you’re looking to grow your business faster, I might be able to help.