Battlesnake Founder Brad Van Vugt on Programming Competitions

September 7, 2022

Welcome to Founded and Funded. My name is Coral Garnick Ducken, and I’m the Digital Editor here at Madrona Venture Group. This week, Investor Maria Gilfoyle talks to Brad Van Vugt, founder and CEO of Battlesnake, a multiplayer programming game for experienced web developers where your code is your controller. Battlesnake builds games for programmers that encourage self-directed learning and are challenging to master. In this episode, Maria and Brad dive into where the idea for the game came from, how they get the developer community so involved, and how they’re able to combine aspects of gaming, eSports, and traditional sports to create an engaging experience not just for developers, but for anyone to watch and enjoy. You won’t want to miss Brad’s stories and advice in this one, so with that – I’ll hand it over to maria to kick it off.

This transcript was automatically generated and edited for clarity.  

Maria: Hi everyone. I’m Maria. I’m an investor at Madrona. I am honored to be here today with Brad, the founder and CEO of Battlesnake, one of our portfolio companies. Brad, I’m excited to be here with you today.

Brad: Hi Maria. It’s good to be here.

Maria: So, I thought we could start with the story of how Battlesnake got started. You have this incredibly engaged community with over 800 developers in a Discord channel, actively playing and coding games on Battlesnake. What was the initial vision, and how has that evolved from where it is today?

Brad: It’s a good question. It’s an interesting story. Battlesnake started a few years back primarily as a developer recruiting event. I had co-founded another tech startup, and we were at a stage where we needed to hire lots of developers. We were like, okay, let’s do something interesting, specifically for intermediate, senior developers, which are historically challenging to retain, challenging to recruit, and we were like, let’s do something really interesting. Let’s see what we can do to maybe make some buzz locally.

And so, we wanted to hold the developer event, and we wanted to do something different than what you’d normally see. And at the time, hackathons were really cool. It was getting all your friends together, staying awake for 48 hours, programming on our laptops, drinking lots of coffee and energy drinks, and seeing what you could make. We thought that hackathons were fun, but they’re incredibly accessible to students or younger developers or folks that have free time on their hands. But hackathons are inaccessible when you start thinking about anyone with kids, anyone with full-time jobs, and other commitments outside of just coding. And so, we wanted to do something different from that and hold a developer event that felt different. We wanted to accomplish two goals with it. The first one was to have everyone work on the same problem. Hackathons generally — everyone goes off in their own little silos and corners and builds something, and then everyone presents on stage, and nobody cares what’s going on. But what if everyone worked on the same problem? What does that look like? And does that encourage collaboration? But then also, can we make it really fun for non-participating folks to show up and watch? And so, can we hold some sort of tournament, show, or challenge at the end that would be engaging and fun to watch? And we came up with the idea of Battlesnake. The core premise was to spend some time building a web server that plays a game autonomously on your behalf, and then we’ll hold a challenge or a competition at the end and see who wins, and we’ll celebrate this. And it took off in an interesting way — to a point where we had thousands of developers show up and try to participate and win first place.

We had hundreds of parents, kids, grandparents, and colleagues show up just to watch the tournament. And that triggered something for us where we were like, okay, this is really interesting. We haven’t seen anything like this before. We started to get inbound interest from much larger tech companies that were struggling to recruit developer audiences that were more senior and more experienced. And that pushed us over the edge of like, okay, let’s see what we can do in the space. Let’s see if we can grow this and see what that would look like. That was a decision we made in 2020, and we started working on Battlesnake full-time. And now, we consider ourselves a global game platform. We have developers all over the world. We have more than 20,000 developers that have played Battlesnake at this point. We host monthly competitions and challenges, and we do a bunch of different stuff with a bunch of different developers, but that was how we got started in the sort of humble beginnings of let’s try to do something that was better for more experienced developers specifically.

Maria: You have this incredible story of being the founder of another company, seeing a problem internally and then trying to develop the solution, which became your next startup, Battlesnake, which is such a cool story. Is there anything you learned from being a founder of a prior company that you’ve taken with you as a second-time founder?

Brad: Yeah, there are a couple of things. So, we were a B2B SaaS company. We required an API integration, so a lot of our product engineering went into like API design and being thoughtful around how the API was presented and documented. So, we learned a lot about how to speak to the developers, how to engage more senior developers, and how to build an interesting developer experience, but also like no developer really wants to integrate with a SaaS product, so it was like, okay, how do we make this as quick as possible? Those learnings led to, okay, how do we grow Battlesnake in the early stages? Like how do we build an interesting developer experience? How do we get developers to fund fast, to use the cliche term?

But there’s also an interesting number of things that didn’t transfer to the developer gaming space. Fixed roadmaps are a big one. When you’re developing for a B2B SaaS, there is a problem your solving, you have phenomenal ideas for how to solve it, and that’s what you are going to do. That’s what you’re going to build. But, for consumers or gaming spaces, you have to be much more open to your audience and the community. And this is something that we learned early on, which was like, okay, it’s not just talking to the developers, but it’s listening to their feedback. It’s engaging with them directly. What ideas do you have? What would make this more interesting for you? How could we take the platform to the next level? Where do you see Battlesnake in the next five years? And how do we help you get there? That was, I don’t want to say, painful, but it was a bumpy shift in mindset between enterprise SaaS to developer-facing consumer gaming product. The other thing that helped is I partnered with a really strong CTO who has done lots of stuff in consumer gaming. He helps balance out that background and that previous knowledge, that previous experience with how we need to think about engagement on a daily basis or a weekly basis. And he helps a lot in that regard.

Maria: You’ve been incredible at listening to your customer and keeping them engaged. But before we dive into that, I would love to dive into how you think about the journey of the user in Battlesnake. So, you started with this new version of a hackathon, and it’s now evolved into this platform where anyone from anywhere in the world can log on and participate in Battlesnake. You’ve thought a lot about how you should focus on building an open-source community with extreme flexibility. So, anyone can participate with any programming language, any cloud provider. How do you think about that flexibility and user experience from the first time someone goes to the Battlesnake website to participating in a tournament?

Brad: I think it’s really challenging. And it’s something that we’ve worked very hard to improve. And I think we’ve done some great things in that regard, but there’s always more space for improvement. Battlesnake as a platform is all about exploring the technology on your own terms, and letting that mean whatever you want that to mean to you is good for us. And we want to support you in that. A lot of developers that get involved in Battlesnake, especially more experienced developers, are coming to Battlesnake already with an idea in their mind of something they want to do — they read a blog post six months ago, they heard a podcast about this new stack or this new technology or this new cloud platform. And it’s something that’s been in the back of their mind as like, “Oh, I’d really love to learn Rust,” for example. I use Rust, for example, because a lot of our players are using Battlesnake right now as an onboard ramp to learn Rust specifically. But if you’d speak to most experienced developers, they have a laundry list of things that they would like to explore more and things that they would like to try. And really, that’s what we’ve learned to latch on to. When you come to Battlesnake, we’re not going to teach you AI. We’re not going to walk you through AI. It’s not an ML competition. That’s not what this is. This is about giving you an interesting way to finally learn that thing you’ve wanted to learn forever. And most developers, especially experienced developers, have that list already. So, it’s about tapping into that and speaking to that directly.

The other interesting thing is — and this is something that we observed prior to making the jump to work on Battlesnake full time — there’s not a lot of opportunity for developers to go deep on specific technologies. If you are working professionally as a developer, the scope of things you get to work on is very small. You might be able to go deep on something that’s very specific, very siloed, but you don’t have a lot of say in how you explore outside of that or beyond that. What attracts senior developers to Battlesnake specifically is the ability to explore that over long periods of time. We’ve had developers play Battlesnake for multiple years now, and they’ve used it as a jumping-off platform to learn new languages, tech stacks, and cloud platforms. We’ll have an elite competitor do well in one particular tournament and then show up the next tournament with a snake that’s completely rewritten in a different tech stack of “Hey, I really wanted to try it this way, this time and see what that was like.” And that started to happen early on without our involvement, and that’s the core piece of growth, and that’s what keeps developers coming back.

Maria: That’s awesome. And how would you describe the profile of a super user on Battlesnake — the person you’re trying to target? You’re open to a lot of different profiles, but who ends up being the most engaged?

Brad: The most engaged tend to be senior developers with ideas about things they want to learn. But don’t have the time for a side project or are sick and tired of being told to do side projects. A lot of developers get told, “You want to learn React, or you want to learn Rust, or you want to learn this new technology, go do a side project on your own or go join open source.” And both of those things are very like lonely and intimidating, with huge barriers to entry. And our long-term core users right now — our power users — are folks that have these lists of technologies and things that they’d want to learn and things that they’d want to explore, and they just haven’t found a venue to do that yet. And those are the ones that stick around for a long time, and they help the community, and they get involved and continue playing for quite a while.

Maria: So, you’ve built this engaged community, and you’re great at listening to your users, and there are people from all over the world that are tuning into Battlesnake tournaments. How do you think about managing that community and growing it, and how the concept of community contributes to the overall growth of Battlesnake as a company?

Brad: I think it’s challenging. It’s hard to do, and we’re constantly learning. We’re constantly listening, we’re constantly learning, and we’re pretty good at acknowledging what we don’t know. But also, more recently, we’re learning that multiple channels are incredibly important — like highly engaged, multiple channels. So, it’s not enough to have a Discord. It’s not enough to have a GitHub discussion board. It’s not enough to be on Twitch. It’s all of those and more. One of the things that has worked out well for us is being on Twitch regularly. It puts real people behind Battlesnake. You can see me, or you can see someone on the team talking about how we think about the game, how we want to extend the game, the problems that we see, and what we think we’re hearing the community say. But then it also gives incredibly real-time and incredibly interactive opportunities to community members.

It’s a lower barrier for someone to show up on a Twitch stream and ask a question in real time. And I can answer right now. And that has been incredibly valuable early on and continues to be valuable even as we expand across other channels. I think that the idea of developer brands doing more live streaming or live engagement — it’s incredibly undervalued in the industry just in general. And it’s been one of our core advantages in growing and managing the community early on.

Maria: Is there anything that surprised you about growing and managing this community besides the importance of Twitch that you didn’t realize at the beginning? Or you’re continuing to explore as you build the community out.

Brad: Yeah. Developers as a community are going to do what they want, whether you give them permission or not. That’s the nature of this. Because we do so much open source, many developers will, if they have an idea, just act on it. And they’ll self-organize, and they’ll start building communities around this. A good example of this is that we didn’t have a Discord early on. We just hadn’t thought of it. I think we had a public Slack or something. And it wasn’t working, and we didn’t pay attention to it, and nobody joined it. And then what happened was someone tipped us off that a Battlesnake Discord had been started. And we joined, and there were like a hundred people in it, and they were talking about Battlesnake all the time. They just did it, they just self-organized, and they just did it.

Another good example this is more technically specific, but like, we didn’t have a CLI. There was no Battlesnake CLI to run games or run your own commands in a shell. And someone just built it and showed up on Discord one day and said, “Hey, I built the CLI.” And suddenly, hundreds of other developers started using it. We had no plans to build a CLI. We didn’t intend for that to happen. We didn’t think that was a thing we needed to work on, but the community just did it. And so now it’s like, do we fight that, or do we encourage that and engage with that? And obviously, the answer is the latter. And that’s surprising, but we’re working with makers, we’re working with builders, and it’s going to happen. And there’s a lot of lessons that we’ve learned around — rather than show a roadmap of where we want to go, or rather than build a feature and think this is the thing we need to exist. Our community’s going to build for Battlesnake whether we like it or not. So how do we encourage that? How do we leverage that and use that going forward? And we’ve got a good sense of that now, but we’re still very much learning how to treat the community like a living organism as we grow.

Maria: That’s incredible. It’s almost like you built this base platform and product, but then your communities decided the product roadmap versus you as the founder, which I think is a big difference between often consumer and enterprise companies — you have a bigger focus on listening to your community and then building the product with them. And so that leads me to your focus on building in public. So Battlesnake is great at building in public. What does open-source development contribute to the growth of Battlesnake? And how do you think about the focus on open source?

Brad: Open source is really important to us. We made a very conscious decision early on to do as much in public as we possibly can. The entire game engine is open source. The visualizations we show during streams and that you’re seeing during competitions are all open source so that people can extend those. And also, we provide a lot of onboarding content through open source. For example, if someone wants to learn Rust or AWS SageMaker, we provide some code to get them started. And we can provide a lot of jumping-off points. But it initially served two purposes for us. One was like the game itself is technical, and the mechanics are interesting, so we had a lot of community members that had interesting and great questions around how the core game mechanics worked. Like, why did I lose in this particular situation? Or how does turn resolution work in this case? Or I thought of this edge case; what happens here? And so, we found ourselves fielding these questions regularly and thought, what if we just open sourced the entire game engine? And then the conversation becomes not — here’s our justification for it behaving this way. It’s here’s the code that runs your games. Here’s the code that runs your turn resolution; go check it out and explore it. And that became part of the early onboarding experience for most developers. It’s not just playing the game; it’s exploring how the engine works. It’s exploring how it’s deployed. It’s exploring how timeouts are calculated. It’s exploring how turn resolution happens. And you’re doing that through open-source projects on GitHub. You’re browsing the code. You’re compiling the code. You’re making changes. The other major way that open source has given us an advantage is obviously contributions back. And I want to be very clear because it’s interesting how this has evolved. It’s not like fixing bugs. We’re not like, “Oh, can you please fix this bug?” Or “Can you increase the documentation on this repo?” It really is like, — how can we extend the game to make it more interesting? How can we do more things with Battlesnake? My CLI example, previously being a good example of this, right? Because everything is open source, someone was able to develop this whole other way to engage with Battlesnake through a terminal that didn’t exist before. And that was because the game engine was open source. And now we’re starting to see developers build modifications and extensions and their own game maps on top of the engine itself. We see open-source contributions as the pinnacle of our power users being engaged. They’re going to get involved. They’re going to have ideas. If we’re doing this right, they’re going to want to give back to the community. And they’re starting to do that now through open source specifically. So that’s something we really had to figure out how to lean into and encourage more. And there’s a lot of stuff we can continue to do there as well.

Maria: And as developers use the open-source opportunity to build game engines on top of Battlesnake, how does that impact your product roadmap, and where do you see Battlesnake evolving in the future?

Brad: We’ve learned that our role is not necessarily to build for the players. Our role is to build for the developers and to encourage them to contribute and be engaged. Our players want that. Our players want to give back. They want to build modifications; they want to build extensions. And so rather than us being like, okay, this game mechanic needs to exist. Let’s build an engine for players to create and release their own game mechanics, right? That’s the mental shift that’s gone on, and that’s the impact that that open-source development, that’s the impact that the community has had on how we think about building the game and building the product. And I’m not sure of many other products or games that are built that way — where our core goal as a dev team, especially long term, is enablement. Rather than what can I deploy today that’s cool. It’s what can I deploy today that will let someone else make something cool six months from now. And that requires a very concerted effort to make that happen. But that’s where we’re at right now. And I think that’s incredibly compelling.

Maria: You’ve been so great as a founder about listening to your community of developers that are participating in Battlesnake. But you have a whole other customer that we haven’t even talked about yet, which is your partnerships with companies like New Relic and AWS, who are partnering to help engage their developers at the company but also recruit developers into those companies. How do you think about these partnerships in satisfying those customers as well?

Brad: I think that right now, our core focus as a company, as a team, is our player base. It’s experienced developers. It’s getting them engaged. It’s keeping them engaged. It’s doing things that are fun and interesting — things that allow them to include their friends and their family, and their colleagues. On the partner side, we’re specifically working with large brands that understand that — that understand what developer marketing looks like. What do developer relations look like? What it means to recruit long term. If you’re DigitalOcean, you might be trying to make some hires this month, but really what DigitalOcean is trying to do is increase platform usage, increase customer base and make hires for the next three years. And that’s a much different play than, say, traditional recruiting, so we work with them because they understand our longer-term vision. They understand how we’re able to attract and retain players and more experienced developers. And they’re willing to work with us to figure out how to make that scale. One of the challenges, when you’re working with developers specifically, is you have to think long term. This works for recruiting but also for product usage. If you want someone to adopt your technology, they’re not going to show up one day and then just start using your API. You have to think long term, it has to be, you know, a 12-month onboarding experience or more, and you also have to be authentic. Developers are incredibly good at seeing through marketing tactics. That doesn’t mean you can’t market to them. It just means you have to be really authentic in how you do it. We’re able to work with a handful of really great tech brands that understand the long-term value of that. And are willing to work with us as we build the developer-facing side of this game.

Maria: So, if we think about this category, you’re building at the intersection of a lot of different spaces. You’re building at the intersection of ed tech in a way that there’s an education component to it. Gaming and eSports because of the community around it and the way you engage Twitch creators. And you’re also building up the intersection of dev tools, and you’re defining this new category. It’s a dev recruiting tool for companies like DigitalOcean, but at the same time, you’re helping developers explore new cloud providers and coding languages that they haven’t explored before. And you’re also targeting not just new developers but experienced developers. How do you think about this category and how you’re defining it, and how this kind of niche between these different spaces will continue to evolve?

Brad: I think we’re very early in this space. And my best go-to example of this is that Twitch just created a software development category this year. And there are thousands of folks that are live coding and building games and interacting with developer audiences on Twitch, but it’s just starting to get large enough now that folks are starting to notice. In terms of how we think about this intersection. We think about it from a bunch of different angles. We think about it from the eSports angle, from the traditional sports angle as well, but also from the gaming angle. Something that’s core to our mission and beliefs as we approach this space is making something that is innately incredibly technical and challenging but also incredibly accessible to most people. And I don’t know if that comes through, but an example is, say you’re watching competitive StarCraft, StarCraft being a very large eSport. Most folks watching a StarCraft game, especially if you play it at a very high level, have absolutely no idea what’s going on. You’re not going to casually watch competitive StarCraft. You have to be a player. You have to understand the strategy that happens at a high level, and you have to be available at that time in order to view that. And I think that needs to change. Gaming is kind of figuring out different ways to do that by adding different spectator modes and adding different on-ramps to different things.

But if you look at more traditional sports — most people can watch professional basketball. And they might not understand what’s going on in the strategy, but they can go home, or they can go outside and play basketball. They can try it, and they can understand what’s going on. And it gives them a sense of, when that shot is made, or that play is made, that was really hard to do. And that was impressive. And that was fun to watch as a result of that. And what we’re trying to do is how do we bring that spectator angle? How do we bring that accessibility to something that is more developer-focused or something that is more gaming-focused or eSports-focused. And this really leans into the game itself. The way that we’re building the game is universally recognizable to most people. I can spend time building an incredibly complex, incredibly competitive Battlesnake, and then when I go to play competitively, my parents can watch, and they can understand it’s just a game of snake — my options are to move around the board and try to outmaneuver my opponents. Or my kids can watch with me, and they can cheer, and they can understand what’s going on. If I’m live coding or if I’m playing StarCraft at a high level, no one’s watching me. I’m not bringing anyone along for the ride on that.

I think that the sort of intersection of the accessibility of traditional sports and the deep complexity of eSports — we work hard to combine those in an interesting way. And I think that’s where this industry is going for sure.

Maria: Let’s dive further into this focus on accessibility. How did your creative vision in terms of the visual parts of Battlesnake and this concept of using a snake? People know battle and game and snakes are understandable to any user. How do you think about the visual components of what the snake should look like? What the user experience should look like that makes Battlesnake so fun, visually appealing, and accessible at the same time?

Brad: Part of the choices around snake and the, especially the visual aspect of snake, we got lucky early on. We didn’t set out to build competitive multiplayer snake — that wasn’t the goal. The goal was to do something for developers that was fun. And the sort of core game mechanic was just chosen at random. And then we learned that it was universally recognizable. The way that we learned that was — like I mentioned, early on, Battlesnake started as this recruiting event. But people started to bring their kids. We have photos early on of 2,500 people watching this live Shoutcast Battlesnake game, and there are kids in the crowds that are cheering, and there are parents that are standing in the back, and they’re clapping, and they don’t understand how these things are built, but they understand that someone is doing well. And that’s impressive because they’re playing a game that they’ve played before at a much higher level than they’re able to play it. And that really tipped the scale for us. You know, we sort of have a third user that we pay attention to, which is the spectator. Someone who is not necessarily going to build a snake or isn’t interested or isn’t capable of building an incredibly competitive snake but still has a lot of fun watching and wants to follow the storylines and wants to cheer for their favorite.

I guess the other angle of that is we look to more traditional sportscasts, and we also bring an element of analysis and Shoutcasting and live entertainment that you wouldn’t necessarily see it at a developer event. And the way that we approach speaking about the game at a very technical level, at a high level. We try to be very accessible with that. Our target audience is roughly a 16-year-old that might be watching and might be interested in what’s happening. And we make a very focused effort to make this more interesting and tell storylines that sort of like overarch the tech itself.

Maria: How do you think about converting that spectator into someone that ends up coding in Battlesnake?

Brad: Oh, this is awesome. And this is happening already. I’ll go back to the basketball example. So, let’s say you’ve never heard of basketball. You’ve never watched the game. You watch a game for the first time, and then your friends are like, “Hey, you want to go try that?” It’s incredibly accessible for you to just go play. How do we enable that for programming? Like, how do we get to a point where you can watch this game? You can understand that someone is doing well. You can understand what it means to have an interesting strategy. How do we capture that interest and be like, try it, go home and try it, just try it right now and see what we can do? And like enter a beginner league or enter a beginner ladder and see how well you do. Our goal isn’t to build you into a competitive Battlesnake player. Our goal is to introduce you to programming — introduce you to the core concepts of what’s happening. And again, sort of marrying these two concepts of like traditional sports has this incredible accessibility to it that programming typically doesn’t, and so how do we bring those two things together?

Maria: I love the sports analogy because Battlesnake fills two things that are more native to traditional sports like basketball versus coding, which is that it’s accessible, you can watch it, you can then try it. And in Battlesnake, someone could watch and then decide to try learning to code and coding their own snake. But you could also become a professional basketball player, and you could play at a very high-level Battlesnake also great and appealing for someone who is an experienced developer but wants to continue to improve their skills. And so, there’s this broad range of users and ways that people can engage with Battlesnake.

Brad: Yeah. And I think it’s important that we acknowledge and serve both of those personas as we build. Our focus right now is on experienced developers. Like how do we get high, complex, strategically interesting games that we can watch that we can analyze because that gives us content to show on Twitch, to have on YouTube, to do live casts around, to do live analysis around — that can then expose many more folks down the road to what we’re doing and get them involved in the game itself. But it very much is — let’s tell the stories of these programmers and make it interesting to make it really compelling for anyone to watch.

Maria: So, you’ve built these different levels within Battlesnake, but you’ve also mentioned potentially another game is on the horizon. So, what are you most excited about in Battlesnake’s future?

Brad: I think that the thing that we’re most excited about is the community contributions back to the core engine. And going back to what we were speaking about before and our primary avenue for growth, we see the pinnacle of power user engagement is actually building your own game or game mode or game engine on top of Battlesnake itself. And snake being one implementation of what we built, but like what else could we do with it? I see our role in that as not necessarily becoming a game studio and being like, here’s the next iteration of Battlesnake. It’s more like, how do we enable the community to do interesting things and build their own renditions and build their own modifications and build their own communities around that. We look a lot to Minecraft. We look a lot to Roblox and these sorts of larger, contribution-based communities. When I was growing up, I was heavily involved in the early Counter-Strike scene, and I produced mods and got communities built and working behind those. I love that sort of natural extension to gaming in general of, you know, great we’ve we built a community rather than let’s go build a second community, how can we inspire folks to start their own communities?

How do we show core values around accessibility? How do we show core values around learning and collaboration and open source? How do we push that out through the communities rather than try to have a heavy hand and just dictate from the top? Let’s build a series of sub-communities and enable developers to do their own things and spread these values organically.

Maria: That leads me to the next question, which is, as a former founder and going into building Battlesnake and continuing to build Battlesnake and seeing where the future may go, what has inspired you that is dictating where you want the product to evolve to in the future?

Brad: We look to a couple of different places for inspiration. But the largest one above and beyond is the community. It’s listening to their ideas. Being active, being engaged, giving feedback, working on enablement rather than features. We also look to traditional sports. We look to things like basketball, or Formula 1 is another place that we look to regularly. Also, we look at other communities that are doing this sort of in a more niche sense. Kaggle is an example of very AI, very ML-centric, very monetarily driven developer communities. But I think they’re doing a lot of interesting things in terms of community growth. And we look at what they do and like, how do we do that bigger? How do we do that at a much broader scale at a wider spectrum of technologies? We also look at products like DeepRacer. They have a very Shoutcasty sort of live analysis, live show angle to it. And then we also looked at eSports very much so in like League of Legends and Overwatch League and MTGA (Magic: The Gathering Arena) and all this sort of stuff.

Maria: We have other early-stage founders that listen to this podcast for inspiration. So as a founder of an early-stage company, what do you wish you knew sooner or had implemented at an earlier date?

Brad: Oh, geez. We should have made our own Discord a lot sooner. We should have started streaming on Twitch a lot sooner. I talked about this before, but I cannot emphasize this enough. It’s not about live streaming. It’s not about content production. It’s about live interaction with your users — in our case, our players. Finding interesting ways to engage with them live and put a face behind it. Like it’s way different to have, you know, me write a blog post about where I think we’re headed versus see me answer questions live in real time on stream and be like, “Oh, that’s Brad” or “That’s the other member of the Battlesnake team. And this is what they think about this. And they’re a real person, and they’re incredibly accessible.” I say Twitch, but it doesn’t have to be Twitch. Obviously, go where your players are, or your users are. But I think live engagement is incredibly underutilized and undervalued by most early-stage companies, especially with developers.

Maria: Yeah. And I think that can be transferred in any consumer company, which is the importance of interacting with your users, like face to face, as early as possible and seeing where they are, learning from them, connecting with them. But also, this focus on, maybe it’s not creating a Discord channel right away, but it’s just testing different platforms that users may be engaging and getting involved, and creating a channel and seeing how people interact within it. And is it a place that you should buckle down and prioritize, or is there another space, like a Slack channel, better for your customer?

Brad: I think that’s a really good insight and a good clarification. It’s not about creating a Discord channel and being like, “All engagement will now happen on Discord. Please do so in real time with your real name attached, such that we can have an engaged community.” It’s about finding natural feedback channels, natural congregation points for your community, especially in consumer-facing, obviously. And also being open to the solutions being things you haven’t thought of. Again, using Discord as a very small or specific example of that. But like we had a Slack, and turns out more people were talking about Battlesnake on Discord behind our backs than we realized. And we could’ve just been like, “Please come to Slack.” But okay, how do we make this work? How do we not adopt this? How do we engage with it? We still don’t own the Discord server. Like it’s some community member that admins it and monitors it.

Maria: And so, speaking to that community engagement, as we wrap up, one of my favorite things about your email updates to investors is you always have these community highlights of someone talked about Battlesnake during their job interview with Google or someone got a job through participating in a Battlesnake tournament. Do you have any favorite community stories you want to highlight?

Brad: Oh yeah. Oh, so many. Okay. So, I think this happened earlier this year in the competitive spring play. We had — I’m not going to say their name because I wouldn’t want to draw unwanted attention to this particular player — but they had done incredibly well. It was like their first-ever competition, and they were just figuring things out, and they’d realized a unique strategy. And their partner baked them a Battlesnake-shaped cake. And the cake was their customized Battlesnake color and like their head and their tail. And there were like little cupcakes that were the food on the grid. And had this viewing party to celebrate the success that this one developer had in this competition. And again, that speaks to the accessibility of it and the fun behind it and that third sort of spectator persona. But when you see that kind of thing, like that just blows our mind. That is awesome. How do we do more of that? How do we encourage more of that? We want more of that to happen. That’s incredible. I could go on with community examples for hours.

Maria: That’s an incredible example of just how much your users love you to a point that they’re baking a cake around it, and they’re getting their friends and family involved, and it’s this significant part of their lives. And people are making friends through it, getting jobs as a result of Battlesnake, and developing new skills. There’re so many great outcomes. Brad, this has been so awesome. As we wrap up, where can people find Battlesnake, and how can they get involved in a tournament?

Brad: Everything you need to know is at You can also get involved on Twitter. You can get involved in GitHub. You can join our Discord channel, and multiple people will be happy to help you and answer any questions you might have. If you are a developer looking to get started, check it out. If you’re interested in just watching some Battlesnake games and seeing what this is about, our YouTube channel or our Twitch channel has a lot of great videos of what competitive Battlesnake looks like in the fun we have during more of the live tournaments.

Maria: Awesome. Thank you so much for being here today.

Brad: Yeah. Thank you for having me.

Coral: Thank you for listening to Founded & Funded. Like Brad said, if you’re interested in learning more, visit Thank you again for listening, and tune in for our next episode in a couple of weeks.

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