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My Journey Into the Metaverse
When did I realize that the metaverse could be the next era of the Internet, what did I decide to do about it, and why it mattered to act.
Hey, I’m Yon. Welcome to Into The Metaverse! My mission is to help you understand what is the metaverse, how it will impact our lives, and what opportunities it unlocks. If you are a marketer, entrepreneur, investor or simply a curious professional, Into The Metaverse is for you. Subscribe (free) to get access to every letter and podcast show that I publish.
We all have a reason for why we’re doing what we’re doing and a story of how it all started. Here’s the story of why and how I ended up starting Supersocial on June 1st 2020 during the peak of the covid-19 pandemic.
The 1990s: A New Era for Gaming & Communication
In 1991 I received a gift from my aunt who lived in the US - a shiny new Game Gear, a handheld game console made by Sega, which was the best new thing in gaming at that time. With the Game Gear I was able to explore a whole new world of play, primarily spending hours over hours playing Sonic the Hedgehog. Using a magnifying glass I was able to experience the vivid colors of the game and be immersed in its delighting gameplay and sound. Growing up in Israel, likely being among the first kids in the country to own a Game Gear and play Sonic was a huge moment and took my passion for gaming to a whole new level. But the Game Gear wasn’t the only major thing that happened in these first several years of the 1990s, we also saw the arrival of the Nintendo Entertainment System, ushering a golden age for game consoles and truly reimagining what video games mean for a new generation of kids and teens.
These new devices and the games purposely built for them were better than a dream come true, they were a whole new level of entertainment and adventure. I couldn’t stop playing on my own and with friends. It was all about playing with friends and trying out the newest games that Nintendo had launched - Super Mario, Pokemon, Legend of Zelda - you name it. If you were a kid during those years, like me, all you wanted to do is play as many Nintendo games as possible - before, during and after school or basketball practice.
Alongside this golden era of video games, the PC continued to evolve and we witnessed the arrival of iconic PC games such as Doom, SimCity, Lemmings, Command & Conquer, and Final Fantasy, among many others. One additional major thing happened during that decade - ICQ was born. An instant messaging service launched in 1996 by an Israeli startup company. ICQ was essentially the online first social network, and with ICQ I was able to communicate with friends, and make new ones.
By combining the evolution of console and PC gaming and instant communication we saw the first signal for things to come - being immersed in virtual, imaginative game-worlds and being able to communicate with friends while playing our favorite games. Back then it was the closest thing to what today’s generation youth can do - talk on Discord with your friends while playing a game on Roblox. When I hear parents today complain about the amount of time and hours that their kids spend on Roblox and talking to their friends I cannot help myself but remembering those wonderful years in the 90s during which myself, and a whole generation, spent countless hours and days playing our favorite console and PC games and chatting to friends on ICQ.
Starting Kano; Minecraft Explodes; Roblox Grows
On a Saturday afternoon sometime during mid to late 2012, I came across a YouTube video about a 15 year old kid name Kelvin Doe who lives in Freetown, Sierra Leone’s capital, who taught himself to build electronics kits by finding components in trash bins and figuring out on his own how to build stuff. I was in owe with Kelvin’s innate curiosity and passion and wanted to build a company that can inspire and empower millions more around the world to think and build like Kelvin. And so in January 2013, alongside two partners, I co-founded Kano Computing, and we set to build the first computer that beginners of all ages can build and code themselves, just like Lego. Following a sensational Kickstarter campaign we spent the next several years turning Kano from an idea into one of the world’s most innovative companies in consumer electronics, and creating a new product category - creative computing, inspiring young people to create, not just to consume.
During those early years of building the company and the product, and focusing mostly on young creators under 18, I immersed myself in the different products and platforms that young people admired at that time. Among them I found Minecraft, Moshi Monsters and Clash of Clans to be very popular with kids and youth. With Minecraft especially it was clear that there’s something special emerging with a sandbox environment in 3D that is not only a “video game” but also a platform for expression, customization and socialization. It quickly became a sensation among kids and youth, especially those who wanted to experiment and create what they play with. You can see the explosive growth in the following years which helped Minecraft become the best selling video game in history. Prior to that growth, Microsoft acquired its parent company, Mojang, for $2.5 billion in 2014. The rapid growth and adoption of Minecraft was a signal for what’s to come.
Back in early 2014 while Minecraft was booming with kids and youth, there was another platform that arrived at the scene albeit in very small steps and very much under the radar - Roblox. In somewhat similar way to Minecraft, Roblox’s unique characteristic was that it enabled anyone to create 3D multiplayer games. At that point of time, as interesting as it was, no one really believed how this nascent platform will later grow to become a powerhouse with millions of creators who build millions of 3D multiplayer games and experiences for nearly 60 million daily active users, and becoming an era-defining platform.
As you can see from the chart above, although Roblox (the company) was founded in 2007, it wasn’t until late 2016 that it really started to see significant user growth, reaching an estimated 30 million monthly active users in December 2016. It is estimated that Roblox now has more than 300 million monthly active users, 10x what it had only 6 years ago.
In early 2017 as I moved on from building Kano, I started to think about what I’d like to build next, and during a trip to San Francisco in April 2017 I met with Dave Baszucki, founder and CEO of Roblox. Given my background and founding Kano, I was captivated by what Roblox were building, essentially a platform that enables anyone to build 3D games and experiences on its platform without prior engineering knowledge. While it wasn’t a no/low-code platform, it was nonetheless a platform that attracted kids as young as 12 to come and start building games for themselves and their friends. The games didn’t feel high quality (in a AAA sense) or sophisticated (from a gameplay standpoint) but there was a real community of creators who were clearly passionate about the platform and some of them making money from their creations while they are still kids in school and living with their parents. Exciting as it was, it still didn’t merit, for me, an opportunity to build a business around Roblox but it was surely an eye opener. Furthermore, while the notion of a “creator economy” didn’t exist yet, user-generated content platforms, such as YouTube and Twitch, were growing immensely in popularity.
Covid-19 and the Acceleration of the Future
In March 2020 I was at the early stages of building an educational technology company, focusing on using Virtual Reality to reimagine the way kids play, learn and create. I started the venture (Kodo Interactive) in late 2019. We aimed to build a whole new learning experience with a unique methodology that enables children ages 7 to 13 to develop creative skills and capabilities through programming, robotics, virtual reality—all while having a lot of fun together. With covid-19 starting to rapidly expand throughout Europe and arriving to North America, my wife and I decided to head over to Columbus, Ohio to stay with my in-laws for a few months. On the road to Columbus from New York, about a 10 hours drive, realizing the potential implications of a pandemic that most likely will require people to stay locked at home for an unknown period of time, a few things dawned on me: (1) anything that has to do with IRL is now irrelevant; (2) people, especially young people, will spend an ever growing amount of time on their screens; and (3) they will use technology to do more of what they enjoy doing - work, learn, play, socialize, shop and be entertained. It was clear to me that the unfortunate arrival of covid-19 will accelerate what we’ve seen in the prior 10 years - broadly speaking the role that technology plays in our lives, and more specifically, the way in which video games and virtual worlds serve as a new kind of social networks for today’s kids and youth. I knew this was time to make a move.
At this point I reconnected with everything that I’ve done and observed in the past 8 years since starting Kano, primarily assessing the role that platforms and games like Roblox, Minecraft, and Fortnite played in young people’s lives around the world - from Sao Paulo to Shanghai, from London to Los Angeles. And I didn’t need to go too far - in the venture we were building still during these early months of 2020, we clearly saw that kids and youth are obsessed with Roblox. As I searched for more information about why Roblox became such a hit with kids during 2018-2020, as well as assessing what opportunities a platform like Roblox provides to creators and builders, I also took the time to read again books that I already read before, such as Snow Crash and Ready Player One, where I saw for the first time terms like the “metaverse”. Then the dots started to connect: metaverse, virtual worlds, social media, roblox, minecraft, gaming… I was hooked, but I need more information, and I needed it on two things: (1) Metaverse; and (2) Roblox. This was the beginning of putting together my hypothesis for where I think things are heading, what I’m seeing in the marketplace that is interesting, and what’s the best move for me to enter the playing field. Matthew Ball’s essay “The Metaverse: What It Is, Where to Find it, and Who Will Build It”, which he wrote in January 2020, played an important role in my early education about the metaverse.
So I now had an hypothesis - a new generation of platforms will reimagine and reshape the way a new generation of users experience the Internet to work, play, learn, shop and socialize. Next I’ve decided to start with Pedro, Tatiana and Luiza a new company that will create iconic, groundbreaking experiences for this next generation of users on next generation platforms - we called it Supersocial. I believed that in the next era of the Internet we must build products and services that will not only bring people closer together but do so in meaningful, inclusive and authentic ways to who we are as humans. The name Supersocial was a perfect match, and we were ready to embark on a long journey of helping to shape what type of metaverse we will have.
Starting on Roblox
While I like to dream big as an entrepreneur and think about the big picture, I also like to be pragmatic and move as fast as possible. Realizing that we’re entering a whole new category of multiplayer virtual worlds it was essential that we build on the shoulders of giants. This was a similar realization to the one I had 8 years ago when starting Kano and making the decision to start by building our Kano PC on top of the Raspberry Pi. And so, after carefully assessing the major player back in early 2020 (Roblox, Fortnite, Minecraft) it was abundantly clear that Roblox is where we should start our journey. Why? because Roblox was not simply a gaming platform for kids. Rather, it was clearly becoming an era-defining platforms, completely underestimated by the industry and by the media. Even at that point, in early 2020, no one was taking Roblox seriously despite its major growth during 2018-2020 but what was especially important to realize is that on Roblox we can build multiplayer 3D virtual worlds at a fraction of the time and cost of any other capable engine or platform. Last but not least, it was clear is that beyond its capable game engine, its distribution platform, its thriving economy and cloud services, the Roblox ecosystem had one critical component that separated it from the others - a passionate, committed and super talent developer community.
Alongside these foundations, we also believed that we can bring something new into the Roblox ecosystem - of the six components outlined in our internal assessment back in May 2020, Radical Assimilation if my favorite: “Building like pros, launching like Robloxians”. It was already clear to me that before we write a single line of code or hire Supersocial’s first employee, that a key success factor would be to truly immerse ourselves in the developer community on Roblox and build an organization that can become a magnet for the very best talent. That hasn’t changed.
Why It Matters
Since coming across the story of Kelvin Doe, which led me to start Kano, I became passionate about using technology to unlock human potential, primarily with young people. Learning scientist Alison Gopnik said that “children are the R&D department of the human species” - not only I whole heartedly believe in that statement but also made sure over the past decade to build companies that put that statement into practice. During the past 10 years, with the Internet gradually becoming a space where anyone can create anything, build an audience and make a living, new opportunities emerged for young people to acquire new skills and turn them into a career. I' will always remember what Khalid, an 8 year old student in London, told us in one of our first workshops with the Kano computer in 2013:
In the gaming industry, modding has evolved into user-generated content creation and over the past 5 years Roblox has emerged as the undisputed leader of this category, enabling millions of developers and creators to build anything they want in 3D and publish it for free on the Roblox platform. While many looked at Roblox as a gaming platform, I saw Roblox as the biggest learning platform on the Internet - kids as young as 10 can learn to code, learn to build a game, learn to make money from their content, and learn to build a business. This flywheel explains why millions of young creators and developers are so loyal to the platform. The power of using technology to unlock human potential and empower young people to help shape the future is clearly at the core of what the Roblox platform is about. This important factor played an important role in my decision to focus Supersocial’s first chapter on the Roblox platform and why I believed Roblox is such a unique ecosystem.
And that was it. Into the metaverse we go. Roblox as where we start, but the bigger picture was clear to me since day 1 - virtual worlds are going to be the next major application ecosystem of the Internet, after websites, facebook pages and iPhone apps.
So much has happened since Supersocial was born on June 1st 2020.
But that’s for the next letter 🙂
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