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In the modern world, depression is becoming a trend: one in four people already have mental health problems. People want to feel happier: fast and on request — on average 2-6 times a day. Soberman - The Happiness Game startup team offers a simple solution: a virtual user tamagotchi avatar that can be made happy with simple actions in the real world. Konstantin Netylev, CEO of the startup, talks about the features, transformation and monetization of an unusual project.
We talk to startups and investors, you get the value.
At Wargaming, I created virtual reality (VR) products: during the four years that I was working there, I went from director to product director. But a year ago, everything changed when I was admitted to intensive care. Then the understanding came that life is quite unpredictable and could end very soon. Stop doing what you need to do, it’s time to do what you want and what you really believe in. It dawned on me: I want to create a product that will help people become happier.
In September 2019, my future life partner and ideological inspirer, Nikolai Serdotetsky, called me, and it turned out he faced a similar life situation. We hadn’t seen each other for 7 years and laughed that both had to die to really start living. Then we did not know yet that this would have to be done more than once on the way to creating a startup about happiness.
Then, in August 2019, Kolya had an idea for a future project and, in addition to it, incredible persuasion skills. We phoned several times and realized that there was a “spark”. I flew to him for a meeting in Moscow, we locked ourselves in a country house for 3 days and held a strategic session, where we made sure that we see the same things in the same way, totally share the same values - and it was already then that we found the first product vision.
For the sake of a project about happiness, I left a stable and high-paying job at Wargaming, taking a “leap of faith” to devote myself entirely to a startup. We started by researching what happiness is and how to become happy. We read dozens of books, talked with more than 30 experts in various fields: from Stanford University professors and neuroscientists to Tibetan monks. They found that regular physical activity and proper nutrition help people feel better mentally. Many people themselves understand this perfectly, but often lack motivation.
Healthcare & fitness startups were at their peak in 2019. Kolya and I designed a common fantasy into the Soberman fitness app with game mechanics to motivate the user. Basically, this is your digital version, an interactive 3D avatar showing what you might look like if you eat well, exercise and meditate. It has already been proven that people get a powerful motivational boost from seeing their avatars become happier. This is how mirror neurons work. At the same time, the user produces fast dopamine — the “hormone of happiness”.
It soon became clear that we would not be able to launch chatbots and test hypotheses on this product in two weeks. We have been creating MVP (a neural network that quickly generates your interactive 3D avatar in the application with just the user’s selfie, height, weight and gender) for 6 months. All this time we were accompanied by all the delights of 2020. The first round of fundraising synchronised with the first wave of the pandemic, and the second — guess with which one? We joked it’s a butterfly effect, and we keep joking.
We were beat 10 times, ran out of money twice, but we never lost our faith.
In June 2020, we rolled out the MVP and released the beta version. After collecting feedback from our investors, friends and users, we realized that … our concept was wrong.
A product that shows you what you can be and thereby motivates you to do something is aimed at results. The fitness app is the ultimate low retention game as the result is a goal achieved. You can learn the exercises quickly and not return to the app.
A little later, we realized that happiness is not a goal, it is a path, enjoying the moment here and now. Happiness is the joy of the simplest feelings, actions, and things. It is an endless game, the result of which is a process, a continuation of the game itself. And after that we made a pivot. From a fitness app that motivates the user to lose weight, Soberman has transformed into “The Happiness Game” with the slogan “Play your life”.
How does it work? In just one selfie, the neural network generates a virtual 3D user avatar. This “tamagotchi” needs to be fed with simple and fun activities, performed by a person in real life and designed to bring instant joy.
Every day the user gets a random list of four Joys. All of them are very simple and accessible, they do not require super-effort and special conditions from a person. Look at the sky, listen to your favorite track, take a walk, eat a fruit, make a child laugh. For each action, the user receives happiness points, which pump the avatar and keep it in good condition. If you miss a task, your level of happiness in the game drops, the avatar starts to feel sad.
The tasks are divided into four categories: physical activity, nutrition, mental practices, and little good things. All content was written with the help of project advisors: professional psychologists, neuroscientists, psychotherapists, coaches, nutritionists. The tasks use only time-tested and research-based practices and methods, but in a very accessible and easy-to-perform form.
So far, all content in the game is textual. In the future, we plan to launch interactive elements of the game with built-in storytelling: scenes, fragments from the life of your avatar, who seeks to learn something, interacting with the world, acting in a simple and fun way in real life.
While implementing meta-gameplay, we will eventually come to a certain version of The Sims. For completing tasks, the user will earn game currency, which can be spent on customizing their avatar: buying clothes for them, changing hairstyles and accessories, as well as the scene around the avatar itself. The game will have multiplayer: the ability to invite friends and relatives and feel happier together. You can share your avatar on social networks as an interactive link that you can play with.
Today more than 500 million people in the world are depressed or on the verge of it. The global Well-being market is estimated at $ 720 billion. In the United States, up to $ 190 billion is spent annually on the treatment of mental problems.
Our target audience is men and women aged 25–50, casual gamers who want to feel happier and are looking for simple tools to do it. According to various estimates, the audience is about 40% of the world’s working-age population who have a smartphone and access to the Internet. We are not just focusing on “seasoned” meditators who practice daily and read many books on personal growth — this audience already has all the necessary tools.
The Mental Health market is constantly evolving and offers new solutions. It is worth noting that our game will not replace going to a psychotherapist, and even less will it save a person from clinical depression. On the contrary, Soberman’s goal is to captivate a person with life and its endless possibilities and not let them end up in such a state.
Our main competitor is the Happify application (on the market since 2012, have more than 4 million users, earned more than $ 300 million). Happify also positions itself as an app about happiness, but tasks require a certain level of preparation and awareness and are offered to be completed only in the virtual world, while SOBERMAN combines real life and a virtual avatar, combining 2 fast-growing trends: Mental Health & Digital Human.
The hardest part turned out to be the simplest thing: take the overarching and complex topic of happiness and package the best techniques into intuitive game mechanics that we know since childhood.
Unlike our competitors, we are not an application about theory, we are about practice. In theory, everyone knows everything, everyone has known and understood everything for a long time. It is good to read about the practice of gratitude, it is more effective to say “thank you” to the person you are grateful to. Acting is better than just thinking how good it would be to do something.
This is how, in actions, in constant movement, a person, playing, learns the world and themselves. We are not a game about finding yourself, but about creating yourself! Soberman is all about action; about the activity of life and not the passivity of reasoning about life.
We are a virtual game that brings the player back to real life. What is real life? 24 hours minus sleep, minus the screen time of all your devices.
Soberman — The Happiness Game project is now in the Pre-seed stage. At the initial stage, we raised € 180,000 from 6 investors: four business angels and two funds who believed in us and invested in the project. With this money, we managed to build a team, create an MVP, launch a beta version, make a pivot, turn gray a couple of times and bring the project to release in the Apple Store (the MVP was released at the end of September).
We are currently polishing the product and are preparing a user-engagement launch in the US in a few weeks to conduct marketing tests and collect metrics. In January 2021, we plan to reach $ 30,000–40,000 MRR and raise a Seed-round.
The application is already available not only in the USA, but also in the CIS and Cyprus, but it is in the USA that we will start pouring traffic, since this is our target market, and there are most people there who are ready to pay for such products. The next region is likely to be South Korea, as in Asia, in general, people react very positively to avatars.
To monetize the project, the team plans to use a hybrid model typical for mobile games. The basic functionality of the application (creating an avatar, the ability to share it on social networks and two “joys” a day) will be free. You will need to subscribe to unlock premium features or additional content. To customize the avatar, the user is offered in-app purchases.
We are building a unicorn. Our task is to reach several million paying active users in 2–3 years and exceed ARR 100 million, respectively, having received an estimate of more than a billion. With good growth indicators, we will be able to gain access to capital and human resources in order to develop the product quickly and efficiently and bring it to the widest possible audience.
Despite the good mission and product values, the team understands that any startup is a business that should make money.
We started to raise investments for a pure idea, using our experience of founders and personal network. Many investors simply believed in us, our mission and direction, not understanding what would happen in the end. The Happiness Game format has no analogues, so it is not clear whether the game will “take off”. “The idea is cool, but there is no analogue, compare yourself with someone, we are waiting for metrics!” — we send such messages to each other with Nikolai every day. Investors inclined to minimal risk are discouraged by this. Therefore, our project is based on soul money — money from people who share our worldview.
People come to the project through a personal network. Most of the time we communicate with investors, business angels, entrepreneurs — if there is a spark between us, the interlocutors suggest a couple more people whom we can talk with, or simply give money.
Many people advise us to look for investors in Silicon Valley, and now we are negotiating a seed round with several of them.
Now the team has six full-time employees. We have a distributed development team from the very start: Cyprus, Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, USA. Remote work does not interfere with effective work if communication is well established, and all team members share a common mission.
As I said, SOBERMAN is our common idea with Nikolai Serdotetsky. Kolya acts as a creative director and business mentor. He has his own vision and curious background in communication with real people and content delivery: experience of working as a radio host and creative producer on Comedy radio, TNT. Moreover, 5 years ago Nikolay and his partners founded the Lepim and Varim dumplings network, which is considered the best in the world.
He very brings hospitality and emotion of the restaurant business to our project neatly, and his experience of building a startup from scratch, experience of working with a team and investors inspires and helps to make fewer mistakes and not give up when everything seems to be lost.
Recently, Vladimir Polyansky, formerly Wargaming User Acquisition manager and Marketing Director at Prisma Labs joined the team. He launched the acclaimed PRISMA application. Vova is engaged in building a general marketing strategy, a conversion funnel and conducting marketing tests at the start.
The team also includes frontend and backend developers and a UX / UI designer who are inspired by the idea and actively participate in the creative process.
If you are creating a product that requires a serious Proof of Concept of the first MVP version, I highly recommend looking at ready-made solutions in Zero Coding or APIs on the market, which may be used for other purposes, but solve your problem and can help you prototype quickly.
At the beginning, we made the mistake of deciding to create our own unique AI technology: it would take us several years and a couple of million dollars to implement it. We found several existing solutions on the market, chose the best ones, adjusted and integrated them, which helped us build a complex technological MVP relatively quickly and cheap.
Talk honestly with your partner and answer the following questions with the same honesty:
Are you ready to work on this project for the next 10–15 years?
Do you see the product the same way during this time?
Forget the project. Do you see life the same way with your co-founder?
Are you ready to go on vacation together or live in the same house and eat at the same table for a long time?
Your attitude to audio messages.
Details are no trifle! A startup is a territory of total sincerity, one day a tiny clash can ruin your magical future.
For startups like ours, it is very important to initially formulate a mission and whenever doubts arise, ask yourself: “Does what we are doing right now move the scenario forward, help to realize our mission, make me personally happier?”
In a year of work on the project, our team’s life has changed greatly in a positive way, because it has changed in a negative way many times. And every time, when there were those very days, we reminded ourselves of our slogan: “Play your life” and continued to play. Of all the deadly sins in a startup, the first thing you need to do is stop discouragement. By the way, if you replace the word start-up with the word “life”, the meaning will not change both in the last sentence and in the whole text.
Startup management is a constant need to make responsible decisions in the face of a lack of resources and data. Unconditional faith in what you do helps you not give up when something goes wrong. That is, nearly every day. The mission attracts the right people. When you see successful and calm people as a reflection of your values and understanding of happiness, it helps a lot to stay afloat.
As you know, work is done out of duty, and mission out of love. Mission is joy! It is a great joy to give yourself to other people.
It is very important to be honest about the mission. At first, we avoided this: it is not the done thing in the Russian-speaking society to speak openly about happiness. It seemed people would perceive us as crazy. But as soon as we began to speak more and more openly about our mission, “our” people began to appear and help, simply because the mission grabbed them.
And it looks like there are way more of us than we thought. If you can relate to what you read, text us and join this exciting journey!
Play your life!