A major faux pas of the start-up world is all too common: Building the product before building the audience. Marcus and Malcolm Howard saw that this was especially true for the video game industry, a market where independent developers were often dominated by major game publishers like Nintendo, Electronic Arts (EA), Sony and Microsoft.
Time and time again, indie game developers would spend all of their time and money building a game and have little to show for it at launch because they had neglected to build their audience simultaneously. To make matters worse, they often got lost among the giants on major gaming sales and review sites.
Marcus and Malcolm Howard wanted to change that. Full-stack developers by trade, they knew they had the skills to build an online community that could bring independent games, and the gamers who want to play them, together.
The brothers, who are twins, built ProjectMQ to connect indie video games from around the world with their customers through an app, but they knew they couldn’t make the same mistake the game developers made – they needed to build an audience first.
The Howards started building Project MQ’s “proof of concept” by building an indie gaming community on Twitter. Now with 35K+ followers, Project MQ has helped more than 280 games get funding from their community on Kickstarter. They’ve also been hard at work building the core offerings that are now available in their invite-only pre-alpha stage app.
Despite being selected for four accelerator programs (the latest is Tampa Bay Wave’s TechDiversity Accelerator), the Tampa-based company has struggled to find the right investors. They didn’t have the network for a friends and family investment round, and seed investors have been hard to come by. “We’ve been all over the place,” said Marcus. “Charlotte, Savannah, Chicago, Los Angeles, everywhere.”
To make their app a reality, Marcus and Malcolm have invested $100,000 of their own personal salaries from their full-time jobs into the research and development of Project MQ. “It’s been a challenge, effectively working two jobs,” says Marcus, “especially when the second takes all the money from the first.” A challenge he combats with incredible hustle and “a lot of coffee.”
But they’ve had some major wins, over the last three years, they’ve won nearly $21,500 from various start-up and pitch competitions. On Monday, Project MQ got some more good news. Paypal Business announced that the Howard Brothers’ idea was one of three winners of the Paypal Business Makeover Contest.
More than 20,000 businesses applied for the highly competitive PayPal contest, which credits the winners’ PayPal account with a $10,000 grant.
In such a visible and competitive contest, Marcus says he wasn’t counting on a win. “We were hopeful – but at this stage, five years in, we’ve learned to try and move on quickly if things don’t work out. So we were pleasantly surprised when we learned we had won.”
In Project MQ’s case, PayPal will also provide a stipend of $4,500 for a developer to give the brothers’ website a makeover. During the makeover, the web developer will be integrating Shopify/Paypal to the site. “That adds e-commerce and payment functionality that we don’t yet have,” Marcus says, “and it would have taken us another year to implement ourselves.” The integration will allow Project MQ to sell indie game merchandise directly from the app.
Project MQ already seamlessly integrates with Steam, a digital subscription platform for video games (Marcus calls it the “Amazon of video games”) along with a few others that allow gamers to purchase games directly.
But not everything in the start-up world is as glamorous as it may seem. The $10,000 cash prize will mainly go towards bills, says Marcus. Expenses like legal fees for trademarks, patents, and partnership agreements are necessary for any business. As they prepare for their seed round, the brothers will need to complete the necessary filings to accept seed investments as well.
All of that costs money. Not to mention monthly expenses. “Our monthly burn is about $500 a month,” says Marcus, “so the rest of that money should cover our operational expenses for the remainder of the year. That money is already spent, and we don’t even have it yet.”