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The Man Who Brought You Draw Something Thinks He Has Another Hit

Dan Porter already had one of the craziest rides in app history. He's back for more.

Peter Kafka covers media and technology, and their intersection, at Vox. Many of his stories can be found in his Kafka on Media newsletter, and he also hosts the Recode Media podcast.

Dan Porter has already won the app lottery once. He thinks he can do it again.

In 2012, Porter was running mobile gaming company OMGPOP when the company developed Draw Something, a simple and infectious take on Pictionary. The free app became so big, so fast that it saved Porter’s company — instead of facing a desperate funding situation, Porter was able to sell OMGPOP to Zynga for some $200 million, just a few months after launching the game.

But Draw Something ended up becoming a cautionary tale about the risks of buying a hit app. The game’s popularity peaked at the same time as the sale, and Zynga ended up writing off much of the acquisition, then shutting down OMGPOP altogether.

Now Porter, who is running digital for Hollywood talent powerhouse WME, is back at apps again. He’s built Tally, which describes itself as a way to create “people powered newsfeeds.” And he says he’s taking some of the lessons of Draw Something and using them this time around.

Here’s an edited version of a chat we had this week:

Peter Kafka: You’re running digital for a giant Hollywood agency. Why are you building a consumer app?

Dan Porter: When I started at WME, the most logical thing that everyone talked about was “Oh! We should build an app for celebrities.” But it became very clear that what talent needed was not another platform on which to grow and own their audience. There’s a lot of terrific platforms out there.

If you’re talent, you can have a megaphone on these platforms. But there’s lots of of people who don’t have huge audiences, but have things that they want to say, and things that they want to share, and a lot of times those things aren’t necessarily aimed at friend groups –they’re aimed at people who are interested in the same thing.

We’re trying to build an app around streams of content as opposed to streams of individual users.

What’s it like, launching in app in late 2014? It seems daunting, given the sheer volume of competition.

It is so daunting. It is really different than it was just a couple years ago.

Two or three years ago, you’d try to launch an app, and you’d think, “If I can get in the top 100, I may have a chance. People will see me.” Now you’re literally thinking, “Can I even get in the top 100 for my category?”

There’s just so much more product in the market. And there’s so many people who have created applications around white space that didn’t exist, whether its photo sharing or messaging. It’s enormously difficult.

And from a press standpoint, how do you even cover this? It used to be like, “Oh, these guys made an app! And they’re a startup!” Now there are so many of them.

It’s like announcing that you have a Web site in 1999. Tough pitch.

It’s really, really different. And it also used to be that getting featured by Apple, by Google Play, was a such a needle-mover. It’s still powerful, but it’s not the same.

So how do you deal with that? Marketing money?

One thing is that you think about these problems obsessively, from day one, when you build the app. So you’re thinking, “How am I building this in a way that gets people to share about it and want to talk about it?”

Buying exposure is really hard, and really expensive. We’re in the influencer business, and that’s really hard. Every person who has a social following is already promoting every app that wants to pay them.

You can’t just demand that all of [WME head] Ari Emanuel’s clients go out and promote your app?

You can’t demand that. Even if you could, there’s no guarantee that it would move the needle. It does work if you’re Kim Kardashian, and you’re promoting a game called “Kim Kardashian.”

You really just have to find your core people who like what you have, and you have to build off of them. And it takes a lot longer.

The narrative for you guys at OMGPOP was that you had dozens of games over many years, and you finally got one that popped. Are you planning on the same kind of hit-to-miss ratio?

The thing about OMGPOP was that the game that popped was a third iteration. I think it will be similar here. There’s this idea people have that you’re going to poop out a bunch of stuff and something’s going to hit. I think, instead, the idea is that you keep iterating on an idea, and you figure out what people like about what you’re doing, and you optimize around that.

That’s the Instagram/Burbn story.

Yes. Instagram was a second iteration. Draw Something was a third iteration. I think that’s much more likely to be successful than, “Oh, let’s do an app that does this. Oh, lets do an app that does that,” and hope that one of them hits.

After you guys hit, you sold, and then OMGPOP became a great argument against buying hit apps, because hit apps don’t stay hit apps. What can you learn from your Zynga experience?

Two things. If somebody’s got momentum, and they’re doing things their way at their speed, and you buy them — the best thing you can do is let them keep doing it that way. I think that’s the way Facebook treated Instagram.

[Zynga] bought us at the height of our popularity, and the first thing we did was spend two months migrating to their backend. It totally took us off our game of, “What’s the next feature, what’s the next thing we should do?” We wasted so much time on things that, as a user, you would never see.

The second thing is that a month or two ago, I went into the app store and looked at Draw Something. There are still a ton of people who play that game. I would guess millions of people. And every day, more people are downloading it. Those types of properties are very rare. It’s not like people stopped playing it altogether.

It blows my mind. I read the reviews, and it’s like, “I just downloaded this app — it’s so fun!” And I’m saying, “Wow! Where were you for the last three years?” It’s a big world out there.

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