6 Lessons Every Entrepreneur Can Learn From Flappy Bird (R.I.P.)


Regardless of where you turn or what website and social network you find yourself on, it’s unavoidable to come across a mention of “Flappy Bird” right now. What started as another indie-game project by a lone developer in Vietnam has managed to become a global sensation causing an unbelievable amount of buzz, controversy, mystery, confusion, estrangement, and outrage. 

Was any of it intended in the least by the game’s creator Dong Nguyen? Not in the slightest. With the dust settling after the storm, Nguyen broke his silence after pulling the game from both iOS and Android app stores by saying he did it for the sake of people playing the game, afraid it was too addictive for their own good. Hypothetically speaking, not a bad problem to have for a game developer. 

But pulling back the lens a little bit, I think there are some invaluable lessons for budding and current entrepreneurs across the board, not just indie game developers looking to create the next Flappy Bird. With that, let’s pay homage to the deceased bird by remembering what it taught us, and how we can carry that legacy forward by applying some of its teachings.

1. Keep It Simple

There is a slight chance that maybe for some odd reason, you haven’t played the game yourself (if this is the case, you can play it here). Essentially, there are three basic rules the drive the game: 

  • Your bird gains downward speed as it falls and will flap up by the same height
  • Your bird’s horizontal speed stays constant
  • The pipes that your bird must fly through have different heights but have a constant vertical clearance and horizontal distance

These were the game mechanics that were reportedly earning Nguyen $50,000 a day. So how does this apply to you starting a business? 

Let’s imagine a common scenario, you’re listening to a significant other rant about a product they can’t stand and how they wished it might be instead. You then go out for a stroll and you get hit with that “eureka” moment. The clouds part and it’s as if the heavens were placing the next billion dollar business idea right on your lap. You can’t believe it, in fact, you become paranoid and start worrying about someone stealing your idea.

What happens next? We all know because we’ve all be there. We start doing research, we start thinking about the competition and the million moving parts that all need to be set in motion for the idea to be a success, and after pitching the idea to a friend and hearing how stupid it is, we give up. That’s right, before taking a single step, the stroke of genius fizzles out.

The problem is that we get bogged down in detail and get intimidated by the complexity of it all. Nguyen could have added 100 other variables in an attempt to make the game interesting, but he kept it to a simple “tap” gesture. Similarly, you could do yourself a favor and take note from the likes of Tim Ferris when he suggests micro-testing the demand for a product before investing or Eric Ries when he cautions against going all in without first building a minimum viable product (MVP) to get feedback. In fact, it's highly plausible and advisable to start a business without spending any money at all.  

So for your next brilliant idea, remember the timeless truth gleaned from good old Flappy, keep it simple stupid (KISS).  

2. Strike a Nerve

This is where Flappy Bird may have taken the cake. The game was ridiculously hard to play, taking first time players (myself included) several minutes just to make it through the first couple of pipes. People began hating the game, hating the person who recommended it, and venomously hating the people gloating about their scores on Twitter and Facebook (see point 4). But with that hate came an enormous amount of attention and more importantly continued drive to keep playing with the maddening rush players would get after passing each successive pipe and increasing their score. Take a look at this tweet below:

Striking a nerve your audience is something Guy Kawasaki recommended in his book “The Art of the Start” and something Seth Godin has embedded as a staple for good marketing and product development with his idea of creating the “purple cow.” 

In fact, some of the most successful stores on Shopify are entrepreneurs selling products you couldn't help but stop to take a second look at. Some of the items you’ll find are:

2. Strike a Nerve

2. Strike a Nerve

2. Strike a Nerve

3. Create Compulsion

Following-up from the point above, no matter how hard it was to navigate or “flap” the bird through those darn pipes, people couldn’t put the game down. Again, as noted above, the compulsion amongst players was a driving factor in Nguyen pulling the game in the first place.

In fact, the addiction behind Flappy Bird was best explained in an article I read in the Guardian: “One good way to ensure compulsion is to make the operator believe that they can always do better, and if they don’t, that failure makes them angry enough at themselves to trap them in the loop.” 

The game design of Flappy Bird appears to be so ridiculously simple that people can’t believe they can’t get a score higher than 2.

One of my favorite books that breaks down habit formation is The Habit Loop, in which the author breaks down any habit as consisting of a cue, routine, and reward. Flappy Bird did just a great job elongating the distance between routine and reward, resulting in players taking every chance they got to play the game. 

Traditionally, entrepreneurs have attempted to tap into that craving to consume more through a number of means, including drip email campaigns, promotional discounts, limited time offers, and pre-orders. Getting your target demographic to become addicted to your products and content requires several posts in its own right, but start thinking about how you can get your customers hooked.

A great example is Blue Goji, a wearable technology company that allows anyone to turn any piece of cardio equipment into a game and is taking the fitness world by storm by building compulsion into physical activity (and sales). 

3. Create Compulsion

4. Social Proof Increases Virality

One of the driving factors noted for the game’s virality was the bashing, gloating, and moans of frustration players were sharing with their respective networks. It all started with Nguyen’s own tweet upon the early release of the game sharing his score. Getting players to share their scores, statuses, or achievements has been a traditional staple in the field of game design and gamification, but there’s a great deal here that anyone looking to start a business can learn from. 

Perhaps, one of the easiest and quickest ways online stores pull feat off is by integrating photos shared on social networks like Instagram and Facebook onto their product pages and therefore increasing the virality factor through demonstrating social proof. You can also offer incentives such as products, discounts, or exclusive giveaways in contests or campaigns asking your audience to share images of your products. 

4. Social Proof Increases Virality

5. Don’t Reinvent the Wheel

Now there’s been a lot of talk about the pipes and other graphic elements being “borrowed” heavily from Mario Brothers, a game that’s been close to gamer’s hearts for more than three generations. There’s even further talk about the game ripping off older titles like Piou Piou and the Helicopter game. However, if we were to look back at the history of video games, it could be said to be filled with cases of plagiarism and we’d have to tell all block-sorting puzzlers that they should leave that realm to Tetris.

5. Don’t Reinvent the Wheel

The fact of the matter is that a lot of entrepreneurship, or innovation for that matter, is incremental and built off existing ideas rather than something that people start from scratch. How does this help you in your quest to build a million-dollar business?

Find something that sells, find out what people hate about it, and build something better or “slightly” different. 

A great way to gauge demand and get product ideas is to use Google’s Keyword Planner tool. Pick an industry, brainstorm some keywords and plug them in the tool to analyze search volume.  Then go to Google Search and see which company’s consistently ranks on the first page. From there, see if you can identify any “gaping” holes and fill them in with some smart and genuine solutions. 

6. Keep Them Guessing

The best part behind the rampant success and rise of Flappy Bird in the app store chronicalled to the smallest detail in a great article by Mashable is how adamantly game developers and journalists wanted to know the secret behind Nguyen’s success. They guessed at everything from cross-promotion with other addictive games to Nguyen using bots to game the app store through fake reviews. All of which led Nguyen to the same response “The reason ‘Flappy Bird’ is so popular is unclear to me.” 

However, what really took the world by storm was Nguyen's decision to pull the game despite the level of virality it reached. I mean talk about striking a nerve (see point 2). 

Was he actually going to do it? Was he serious? Nguyen had the entire mobile gaming world in the palm of his hand guessing at whether he'd actually pull the trigger. Now that's something. 

The one things entrepreneurs can learn from this is that it pays to retain a certain level of mystery, even if there is nothing behind the curtain so as to say. Not only does this lead people to come up with wild, entertaining, controversial, and buzz-worthy rumors about your success, failure, or product development (cue *Apple*), but most importantly, it gets and keeps people talking. 

So before we let modern day myopia completely wipe out the memory of Flappy Bird from our minds, I hope these tips help you with that next big idea or help take that current business venture to the next level. Feel free to share any other lessons entrepreneurs can learn from the whole Flappy Bird dilemma by commenting below. 

About The Author

Humayun Khan is a Content Crafter at Shopify. He writes for the Shopify Blog covering social media, retail trends and ecommerce strategy. He is also the author of The Ultimate Guide to Business Plans.  Follow him @humayunnkhan.