Yotie was a social fantasy sports app that aimed to be the fan’s guide into fantasy. In contrast to existing sports bookies and fantasy apps, Yotie sought to frame the propositions on sports in the context of the daily drama in the leagues, therefore increasing the emotional incentive to play fantasy sports. It was an extremely ambitious product; we wished to have fans responding to fantasy challenges while the game was on TV, providing a second screen experience that only increased buy-in from users.
All of this tied to a thesis that if you positioned a sports product that didn’t follow the usual motifs already captured by FanDuel, MGM, and ESPN. In theory, you could carve out a new user base similar to how the Nintendo Wii could introduce millions to video games where Sony’s PS3 and Microsoft’s XBOX 360 primarily focused on their existing market segments.
To deliver on this experience, the founding team and I set out to build nearly everything in-house with a suite of cutting-edge technologies. What follows is a collection of thoughts on how we thought about the product development process and the countless lessons we learned along the way.
I have been thinking about sport for the better part of my life. I owe a lot of my early formation to the diet of Counter-Strike scrimmages and Football teams I supported growing up. Later, I would join my high school’s cross country team, where I tried to build a small little platform that would do a few fantasy sports leagues for the small but tight-knit running community in South Florida. My friends and I who met in college also had their formative participation in Sports; fellow co-founders Ash and Kennet played more than their fair share of basketball, Jonathan followed Chess very closely.
Around this time, several factors led us to think it was an opportune time to work in this space.
- The supreme court ruled in favor of relaxing national sports betting rules
- World Cup frenzy in 2018 introduced many people to soccer, showing many fans that if there were a compelling reason to root for a team, people would become lifelong fans
- A sports media landscape filled with bombastic commentators who would make intensely wild predictions yet wouldn’t be held accountable to their punditry
- Prior experience with small betting pools and poker groups that showed the fun of skin in the game type games
Over tacos on a late Summer day in Brickell in 2018, we expressed frustrations around how insufficient most fantasy sports apps were. They were hard to learn and most betting sites had hostile UX to most new users.
Drawn on “a back of a napkin” (the notes app), the rough spec was an app that allowed you to pick a proposition and a dollar amount to bet on.
We initially named the app WOLVES because of the social component to the betting; however, around mid-2019, we changed the name to Yotie. There are references to both terms, but I will use Yotie throughout this article to reference the product.
In the discussions immediately after, we realized that there were multiple compelling approaches to reaching the market while building a product that was a staffing experience for ourselves and our potential users. While we were performing research, we noticed a few trends that seemed to be working in our favor.
Initial discussions led us to around three different approaches that had somewhat distinct go-to markets.
- Peer to Peer Sportsbook
- This idea was enticing because it allowed us to take advantage of regulatory loopholes we found in various Staes. Funnily enough, the Texas State Supreme Court also rules that bar wagers are enforceable debts to service.
- Team Style Betting
- This was a planned product style where users would bet into a pot; this allowed a group of people to win a payout without having to be too scared of asymmetrical loss within reason.
- Fantasy Focused
- This removed money from the equation entirely; we felt it would be good to use it to introduce fantasy behavior in sports fans.
The team and I then decided to mock up some app screens to determine what approaches might work.
Peer To Peer
We initially believed that the main draw to the platform was on the rewards of monetizing the behavior. Initial mockups focused more on the flow while not paying much mind to the information architecture.
Initially, we focused on what information was needed to make a bet and what legal restrictions we had to consider.
As we read about the restrictions on Sportsbooks; odds making between two private parties was generally unrestricted provided that they were under a specific limit.
As a result, initial mocks allowed the user to define a spread and determine the payout. However, we found that most sports fans were unaware of the terminology of sports betting.
If we were to better market the drama around sports, we needed to try a different path that respected the new user while making things approachable and fun.
Pot Based Betting
After discussions with friends and potential users, we found one critical insight on how most people consumed sports. We noticed that most people got into sports through their friends. We then added a more social component to the application designs. Users would be able to spin up bets and then share the risk with multiple parties- this allows users who might not be comfortable with shouldering the border of a single wager or, better… let the contrarians among us get smug self-satisfaction.
To support this motion, we added the concept of a social profile that kept track of a user’s positions.
Adding this aspect to the app would potentially set up a network effect that could draw more users.
While we were experimenting with the positioning of the application, we could use the system to incentivize participation at bars by adding a social aspect to the experience.
We imagined a social experience where you could show people watching the game who had stakes on what: making the experience expand beyond the application. Bar’s could then have kiosks where people can sign up for the app and keep on playing from the comfort of their home over time. I even went to local bars in my area and got some excellent verbal feedback from the owners of these establishments after I would punch out of work.
From afar, the business seemed to have some good foundations, but there were too many open questions about facilitating payment and what to do about building a social graph when there was no social proof yet. We decided to pivot once more in our approach.
We decided to deemphasize the brand aspect of the mockups to avoid any biasing around who we were serving, allowing us to focus on building a fun game.
From prior conversations, we knew that the concepts around betting were complex and off-putting. We decided to do some additional research around fantasy as well. However, the propositions are somewhat the same; there is a degree of complexity to fantasy that makes it off-putting to some.
We then shifted the thesis to making fantasy approachable by removing the currency unit from dollars to points. In response to removing the social graph emphasis, we allowed users to play against ‘the house.’
We made subsequent changes to the in-game experience by emphasizing the live game aspect. We set up menus where a user can follow the game in the app, hence providing a second screen experience while a user is watching the action on the screen.
After we showed off this concept to a few of our friends and got positive feedback, we entirely built out this concept. At this stage, it was around August 2019 where we have been working on prior iterations. In retrospect, we should have stayed in low fidelity before writing a single line of code but end of the day: it was immense fun to implement and grow these ideas continuously.
We ran into some key areas of tradeoffs when it came down to designing the mechanics around the product.
I believe that consumer social apps are just games by another name. The reward mechanism strongly resembles MMOs. Facebook structures their experiences through interface rather than providing unstructured tools like Twitter. For a sports experience, Yotie tended to fall in the more structured end of the experience but for a game we ran into a dichotomy when it came to planning the experience.
Social vs Asocial
There remained a key balance about the social graph that we kept running into. For many apps, you need a good number of seeded users to use the product to provide value. A great example of this issue was one that Sonar and Clubhouse experience. Clubhouse solved this problem through exclusivity, Sonar solved this by providing multiple utility outside of chat. Yotie chose utility, we understood that if no events were happening- not much use can come out of the app. A lesson we learned the hard way as we faced the pandemic.
Branding and Positioning
One item we struggled with was understanding who our true user was. Our initial assumption about being able to grow the market was a naive one. Rather, we had to consciously find and position ourselves to a market. Initially, we felt that a soft branding would be warmer and inviting to casual sports users: yet didn’t have the patterns to even make them look for an app like Yotie.
I went through a rabbit hole learning a lot about branding, notably from current freelance Brand Experience designer Phil Chang and heralded logo designer Sagi Haviv.
What came out of the result of this exploration was a refined brand that felt more in line with customers were expecting users to see us as- yet distinct from the rest of the market.
Refining from what was already there: the result was a logo that resonated with our early users.
When you have a big ship and as many co-founders as we did: 5 of us. You later realize that it's an immensely big amount for us to get aligned to agree something. Although this allowed us to in-house nearly everything we needed to do and operate similar to a co-op, it affects velocity. We found that sometimes getting to a unified agreement on outcomes would take, at its worst, months. This experience made me understand why there is usually someone solely responsible for defining the product with stakeholders holding their expertise elsewhere.
End of This Road
The team was ready to start a closed Alpha in early March 2020 with a focus on NBA games after working on this concept for the better part of a year and a half. The pandemic complicated the launch. We instead looked to supporting eSports in anticipation that those events resume.
After I designed and implemented the screens we conducted a test in July for an early set of users. In the meantime, the work required to build out the backend and new logic was quite immense adding to increased pressure and support on an already stressed team. After the test, the users didn’t find the experience fun or compelling enough to warrant repeat usage. We added in-app chat to add to the social experience but it wasn’t enough from a team that felt the effects of the pandemic. For myself at Citrix who had to work increased hours to support an additional product- I couldn't sustain the start-up, the rest of the team were in similar situations as well. Yotie went on sustained hiatus, the last commit made in September 2020.
Despite the inability to get product market fit, the lessons I’ve taken truly to heart from this experience are
- Be Real About The Market - Don’t invent your customer profile to serve someone who doesn’t exist. We incorrectly assumed that there was appetite for an application off of a hunch. When it came time to deliver that experience, the reality will show in the metrics.
- Manage Scope - It’s great to be enthusiastic about the ideas you are working but we weren’t disciplined on what we added to the roadmap. The end result was a bunch of features built that got killed instantly.
- Use Boring Technology - Although this isn’t a technical breakdown on Yotie; although its architecture is impressive. We were too excited to try out a bunch of newfangled services and technology. We built out backend with Serverless Node on Now v1 which got deprecated and triggered a whole migration. We also built in house libraries where regular clients would have sufficed effecting execution speed. End of the day, customers care about the experience, not what languages you use.
- Vision - There was a lot of references to user testing, and although good, we did too much of it rather than trusting ourselves. Instead of thinking that the responses to user testing was a validation of market, we should have instead build as compelling a vision of possible with a market that exists rather than blindly following the whims of stated preferences. Startups are experiments in applied magic, the magic is revealing something to someone that didn’t even know they wanted it. Thats where delight comes from.
Although I am no longer building in this space for now, I am content that others are looking at this space holistically. Apps like Stadium Live and Green Park Sports are trying to evolve the fan experience. In the meantime, Discord communities and subreddits remain lively environments to hang out in.
It’s never been a better time to a be a fan.