Alex Norton from Trybl has a background in influencing people to buy things or spend money in the gaming industry. Now he’s using his powers for good, using the lessons he learned in those industries to help companies create higher staff engagement.
Simon Dell: This week, I am lucky enough to be joined by Alex Norton. I’m going to give you a little bit of Alex’s history, and I’m sure he’s going to fill in the gaps for me. Alex is a creative person, former graphic designer. Started off doing graphic design. Visual elements artist; he’s done content graphics developer. He’s user experience creative director. He’s made mobile games, and now he’s working on engagement and leadership with a tendency to look at it from a gamification point of view. Is that right?
Alex Norton: Yeah, largely. That and a bit more of a backend mathematical perspective as well.
Simon Dell: Oh, leadership and maths. That’s two scary things put together. Welcome to the show, Alex. How are you?
Alex Norton: I’m doing well, considering that it’s early morning at the moment and I’m a bit of a night owl, naturally.
Simon Dell: Are you? Yeah, well, game developers, you do your best work at 3:00 a.m, it’s that kind of thing.
Alex Norton: It’s fitting the stereotype a hundred percent.
Simon Dell: First question is: What was your first job, the very first job where you were actually paid money to do something?
Alex Norton: First one would actually be going all the way back, flyer delivery.
Simon Dell: Really, that’s a sucky job.
Alex Norton: It was terrible. It led to me having a horrendous fear of dogs.
Simon Dell: I did newspaper delivery, that was my first one, and I don’t have a good relationship with dogs either.
Alex Norton: Well, I now have a dog. She’s gotten me over it. It was my wife’s dog when we first met and the most beautiful natured creature you could ever imagine, and she got me over the fear very quickly.
Simon Dell: Whose flyers were you delivering?
Alex Norton: I don’t even remember, to be honest. I was so young at the time. I didn’t even bother caring whose information I was passing out. I just cared that they were giving me my two dollars an hour or whatever it was.
Simon Dell: Did you actually complete the flyer delivery or were you one of these people that sort of got halfway around and thought, “Bugger this” and threw them all in the bin?
Alex Norton: No. I was quite diligent with it. I even went back to houses that had the scary dogs to see whether or not the dog was around the back so that I could deliver it this time.
Simon Dell: Wow. That’s pretty diligent. Yeah. When there was a scary dog, I just skip that one. I just move straight on and went, “No, you’re not getting any newspaper this week.”
Alex Norton: Well, I grew up in the country, on the farm. It gets hammered into you that you’ve got to complete your jobs.
Simon Dell: Right. Is that something that you learnt out of that? What was a lesson that you learned out of delivering flyers other than delivering flyers is a shitty job?
Alex Norton: Often, nasty surprises are going to come up in your line of work, but you’ve got to either commit to finishing it or find something else to do.
Simon Dell: How long did you last delivering flyers?
Alex Norton: Oh, not long. I think I did probably three or four rounds of it around my local town, which is very small town as well, before I end up giving up on that.
Simon Dell: How old were you when you were doing that?
Alex Norton: Oh, I would have probably been around 11 to 12.
Simon Dell: Were you a creative person at that age or was that something that sort of developed a bit later on?
Alex Norton: I’ve been a creative person since I was a toddler, old enough to walk. I think I’ve driven my parents mad multiple times with how creative I get: everything from building elaborate LEGO sculptures, all the way through to disassembling the family television to try and figure out how it worked.
Simon Dell: Did you figure out how it worked?
Alex Norton: I did, actually. Quite an interesting career of electrical engineering for a while there.
Simon Dell: So, when you disassembled the television, I assume your parents weren’t notified in advance that you were going to do that.
Alex Norton: Oh god, no. They were out at the shops.
Simon Dell: What was the reaction when they came back? I’m sure we can imagine it.
Alex Norton: Quite extreme horror, I think, really. This is back in the days of CRT TVs. It was quite a large job.
Simon Dell: There’s also the electrical issues as well with disassembling a TV.
Alex Norton: That’s right. Looking back, I was quite lucky that I had the common sense to unplug it first. The reason that I unplugged it first was actually to get it more into the centre of the lounge room rather than for safety purposes.
Simon Dell: I was going to say, if the cable had been longer, you’d had never done that, would you?
Alex Norton: That’s right, and I probably wouldn’t be here.
Simon Dell: Okay, so always creative. Was that an obvious thing for you to get into at university and education-wise?
Alex Norton: I wanted originally to have a job in the sciences, but then I discovered, purely through just a school project, a desire to make movies. I got into making short films. That naturally led me to get into doing CG, special effects, and that led to me getting a diploma at Quantum, which is a local college. I did a Diploma of Screen Specializing in Animation so that I could actually learn more about doing the 3D animations, special effects, and started a brief though profitable career in making music videos for the local bands.
Simon Dell: Anybody we would know?
Alex Norton: Probably one that I worked with three separate occasions was a band called The Optimen. They’re a hip-hop group. I’m not sure if they’re even still together to, be honest. I don’t really listen to hip-hop music, but I love their stuff and they were a great bunch of guys to work with. Intercooler was another one. They actually made it to the world stage.
Simon Dell: When you approach a project like that, and I guess when you approach all creative projects, what’s the starting point for you? Presumably, when you create a music video, you’re just given the music. Did they give you any guidance as to what they wanted or anything like that?
Alex Norton: Bands always know what they want, but they don’t know how it’s going to look. They just know that theme, and they sort of put it into your creative hands. But they make it very specific what they what to achieve. You can give them suggestions and things, and sometimes they’ll take them on. But largely, they have a picture in my mind of what they want their music video to look like.
Simon Dell: Did you get your way creatively in those kind of projects?
Alex Norton: In a surprisingly large number of cases, I can be quite persuasive. I’ve always been fascinated by the science of design. Anytime I give somebody an artistic direction, I could give you a list 20 pages long of reasons why, and that’s pretty hard to refute for people.
Simon Dell: If you’re someone in that marketing space and you’re talking to people, say, senior people, or even clients, and things like that, how are you convincing them? I’ve worked with many, many creatives over the years who, when they don’t get their way, throw their toys out of the pram and act like a seven-year-old child. The better creatives have a decent rationale behind what it is that they want to do. How do you approach those challenges?
Alex Norton: What I find a hundred percent of the time, it’s misunderstanding. And often, the misunderstanding comes from the fact that the people wanting a job done don’t realize that marketing is not an art form. It’s a science. The choices of colour that you make, the shape, the layout, it affects the brain on a neurological level. There’s a reason that things are universally beautiful or universally ugly.
And as soon as you clarify to them the science behind why your decisions are being made and what the ramifications of their decisions would be, often times, it blows their mind with the science behind it. It makes them feel a little bit inadequate. They had no idea what intricacy was actually behind every decision that the graphic artist was making. And more often than not, it blows them away and they think, “Clearly, I’m out of my depth. I’m just going to let you do your thing.”
Simon Dell: Do you think some graphic artists fall down because they haven’t actually thought about that in the first stages. They’re just chucking something on a page and going, “I like this.” But they haven’t thought about why they’re doing it.
Alex Norton: Some people are just naturally blessed with the gift of design. From a young age, they’ve been able to draw fantastically, and they can create beautiful things. But until you actually stop and learn the why behind every one of those decisions, you can never really truly do something like marketing to that epic level that some companies achieve.
Simon Dell: I noticed in your early days… Well, actually, you spent eight years doing that, doing the Max Gaming place?
Alex Norton: Designing the jackpot systems, yeah.
Simon Dell: This will come onto the gaming conversations, but can you just give us an understanding of what you did in that space for those eight years?
Alex Norton: Basically, the short version that I like to give people is that it was my job to convince people to gamble.
Simon Dell: It’s all your fault!
Alex Norton: Well, the funny thing is, my career has always been in coercion. No matter what industry that I’ve touched on, my position has always been a position of coercion. It’s what I do, whether it’s marketing, or sales, or the gaming industry, or video games, or even what I do now, it’s all just, you know, convincing people to do what I want them to do or what my superiors want them to do. So, designing jackpot systems. I mean, when you walk into any gaming arena of casino, or of even a just a local pub, there are so many different jackpots going on and so many different poker machines. There’s a pretty deep science in how to get people to go to the one that you have produced rather than the one your competitor have produced.
Simon Dell: Give me an idea about some of the things that you would do to actually convince people in that specific space, in the gaming space.
Alex Norton: Most venues will have some sort of player loyalty system where you’ve got your membership card for your local pub or club. And when you go in, you sign in, and flash your card at them, or put it through the little scanning machines that they’ve got now. When I started, it was a lot lower tech than it is now. But that system is actually used to sort of gain a bit of a picture of who you are as a person.
There are a lot of safe assumptions you can make about people based on their gender, their age group, even things about what sort of food they order when they go into a pub or club. You can find out what your clientele are looking like, what your biggest target audience is, and then tailor something to that.
For example, one venue had that 35 to 55 male crowd that drives a lot of Mercedes and BMWs going to their club. And so, we would design a jackpot for them that was sort of little James Bondy, you know, lots of steel, and red velvet, and laser beams, and safes, and things like that because it gives that sort of tailored suit wearing appeal that would stand out to that particular crowd. And so, you can design that, put the graphics for it there, advertise it in specific places around the venue, and you attract them to your system.
Simon Dell: There’s a lot in the news these days about pokie machines, and their addictiveness, and all those kind of things. Is it dangerous? Should we be doing more to clamp down on these things to eliminate the sort of things that you were doing that sort of tailored these things so closely?
Alex Norton: Simon, I didn’t expect this to get political.
Simon Dell: No. And to be honest with you, I’ll be completely honest with you, I don’t think we should because I believe in an element of freedom of choice and that kind of thing. I believe in less governance than more governance. But I’m just interested to hear from having someone who’s worked on it inside, how you feel about it now.
Alex Norton: I’ll preface my opinion on this by saying that I actually have never played a poker machine in my life.
Simon Dell: Really?
Alex Norton: I hate the things. Being somebody who grew up with video games, I find them absolutely boring. And so, you could put me down in front of one after spending a decade in that industry, and I honestly would have no idea where to even begin simply because I find them fairly moronic devices. I’m all for gambling. I feel that humans have an inherent need to have an element of gambling in their life, some more than others. But I find that there are many much better more exciting ways to gamble than a poker machine.
That being said, I have seen in that time, some horrific things of people just absolutely wasting their lives on these devices. However, largely, hugely, it is the vast minority of people that are actually being badly affected. The problem is I think that they become so badly affected that they tend to stand out.
And a lot of people miss the fact that the vast, vast majority of people that play poker machines are just there for entertainment and social gathering with their mates. They just pop in $20 in the machines to pass some time and have a bit of fun, have a little bit of a punt, and it’s really not a problem.
However, the small contingency of people that are putting away their life savings have deep gambling problems. They’re going to find that outlet and pursue that negative course elsewhere if you try and stop them. From doing it with pokies, they’ll go to the horse races. Cut that off, they’re going to go to the tables at a casino.
If you keep shutting those off to them, they’re going to start doing personal bets with friends and colleagues. Gambling problems are a problem no matter what happens.
Simon Dell: Yeah. The problem is associated with the person, not the machine.
Alex Norton: That’s right. And actually, the gambling industry at least, the element of it that I was exposed to, which is quite large, is very committed to actually trying to mitigate that small minorities issues.
They put on spend limits on people’s accounts and things like that that really go great way to trying to prevent people from ruining their lives and just stick to the fun level of gambling.
And unfortunately, when you see the media, not to defend the industry — I have very many bad things to say about the industry after working at it for so long — but one thing that is positive is that they genuinely don’t want people wasting their lives there. Those efforts that they put towards fixing that are never highlighted in the media.
Simon Dell: I can imagine. Moving on from the gambling, I want to talk about the gaming in the other sense, the computer games. Do you still play?
Alex Norton: I do a little bit, but mostly older games from my childhood. I’m not too big on the more modern games that have sort of gone in a direction that I find a little bit pandering.
Simon Dell: What do you play from your childhood?
Alex Norton: I’ve actually been re-going through the Quake series lately. Remember those?
Simon Dell: Yeah, I do.
Alex Norton: A lot of times, I’ll go even further back. A big influence on my career were the Might and Magic series. They’re one of the original role-playing games that’s first-person, but the computers weren’t fast enough to actually have a proper smooth first-person view.
So, the world would be divided into almost like a grid and you move in a big chunk. You move from one grid square it forward to the next one. If you want to turn, you’ll suddenly turn 90 degrees and the whole view will just shift 90 degrees. Very, very old things from the late 80s, early 90s, and just beautiful creations, really.
Simon Dell: I never really had many video games in my life growing up as a teenager. It really sort of hit me at university, and the big influence for me at university was the Civilization series, Sid Meier’s Civilization series.
We had four computers in our university hall of residence. This was back in the day when a computer was still a big thing. There was people that would be on that for 24 hours. A friend of mine, Colin, we’d leave him there at night, and we’d come back and find him still there in the morning, just one more turn. That and doom. Doom was successor to Wolfenstein, but Doom was…
Alex Norton: Doom literally stopped the world. A lot of people nowadays that have never really paid attention to the video games industry don’t realize that it caused universities to shut down. It actually caused a couple of power plants to shut down. The staff were too busy playing it than actually running their posts, and in the United States, whole grids were shut off.
Simon Dell: We had a guy who’s good at building local area networks we used to live with at university. This was back in ’93-’95, those kind of years. As soon as we discovered Doom, like the next week, there was all these cables hanging out of everybody’s windows connecting all the rooms by a local area network that he’d built.
We couldn’t obviously run them out of people’s doors and down the hallway, so they were out windows and things like that. People were moving into halls of residence specific rooms and specific blocks so that they could all get the local area network built outside and they could all play Doom until some ridiculous time.
Alex Norton: And you try to explain that to people who were never part of that culture. They can’t understand. I mean, multiplayer gaming when it came out was huge, phenomenal. Having to dial up over the phone, and you get the massive phone bills…
Simon Dell: I think one of the other things that I always look back on those times, is it was all completely viral. The marketing for Doom was the game itself, but…
Alex Norton: It was the shareware model. They literally gave out the first part of their game for free, and then handled the purchase of the rest of it over the phone. And it was their mum that actually took the orders.
Simon Dell: That’s amazing. But the model for marketing hasn’t changed in 20, 25 years. For everybody listening, we use a piece of software at the moment called Cast, and I’ve been looking at separate piece of software called Ringr, which does something very similar to Cast, slightly ugly UX, and all that kind of stuff. But that’s exactly the same process.
It’s get 30 days free on Ringr and then upgrade to the full version at the end of it. Things haven’t changed in the way that people sell software in 25 odd years, really
Alex Norton: It’s a ballsy way of marketing. It’s saying, “We believe in our product so much that we’re willing to give it to you in this much capacity for you to explore it to your heart’s content for quite a generous amount of time. And we believe that if you do that, you’ll want to pay the money.”
Simon Dell: And to me, there’s a lot more businesses that if they’re confident with their brand, if they’re confident with their product, could potentially take that angle. I think a lot of businesses in other industries are scared of doing it because they go, “Well, what if we let people try it out and they will hate us?”
My point back to that is that, “Well, then there’s an issue with your product if that’s the case.” I talk about it every time on this podcast, nearly every time. I go and buy burritos from Guzman y Gomez, and every time they open a store, they do a day where they give away free burritos.
That’s ballsy because you could have 500 people go through that day who don’t like your burritos and you’re never going to get them back as a customer at that point.
Alex Norton: Yeah, absolutely.
Simon Dell: Talk about some of the stuff that you did just in the gaming space. There’s a long list on your LinkedIn profile of games that you’ve developed. How involved were you with all of those?
Alex Norton: Fairly integral with most of them. I worked with a business partner, Nathan Hall for weekend at the Himalayas and whizzed off two other games. The others I just sort of did as a solo project. I started my game development in the PC arena with an RPG called Malevolence, which was actually Australia’s first kick-started video game back before Australia even had a Kickstarter.
I actually had to go through a friend in Seattle and have him run it so that it could actually be listed as an official Kickstarter project. That alone was enough to make the game go viral and me conversely go viral led to huge amounts of interviews, and podcast appearances, and even appearing on the local news a couple of times.
I made a few books and that sort of kicked off my game development career that I really wanted to get more involved in it. And I was giving a lecture at the Queensland University of Technology on the science of interaction, how with mobile games all you have to actually interact with a game is literally a big sheet of glass. How do you create a sort of cathartic effect between the user and the game when you all you’ve got is a piece of glass in a screen?
Somebody in the crowd at the end of it when I got to the questions section said, “Sir, do you actually make mobile games?” Which I actually had to turn around and say, “Well, no. I’d always liked to, but I’ve never actually paired up with anybody that knows the tech. I just know the design.” And so, getting to talking to that person afterwards, he put me in touch with Nathan and we sort of started working on mobile games together. Now, we’ve put out a good half a dozen games.
Simon Dell: How was Malevolence from a revenue point of view for you? Did that make you rich enough that you never have to work again type thing?
Alex Norton: It made $30,000 in its opening weekend.
Simon Dell: Okay, so it must have done okay then.
Alex Norton: This was five years ago. I look back on it now and I’m the sort of person that just constantly tries to improve my skill set and constantly tries to learn, but I look back at it now, and I would love to rewrite the entire thing from the ground up. I look at it as held together with bubblegum and hope.
Simon Dell: All the best things are, mate.
Alex Norton: That’s right, but it was sort of luck that got it to as popular as it was. The thing about the game is that it’s the world’s first and still the only procedurally infinite video game. So, the game’s inside world is infinite in size, but also consistent between players.
If I find a location 10 billion miles to the east, I can actually give somebody the coordinates, and on their copy of the game, they can go there and they’ll find the same thing. And I thought that that was a really cool selling point of the video game.
When it got very popular and exploded, I thought, “Yeah, you people are actually recognizing this technology.” It took me quite a while to realize that people actually don’t give a damn about that amazing technical marvel, that it actually is they just like the fact that it was an old-school retro-style role-playing game.
Simon Dell: A couple of things out of what you’ve just said there. It’s interesting that you say that you created something with a feature that you thought everyone was going to like and nobody cared about it. How do you feel after you sat there and went, “Okay, right. Well, nobody cares about this infinite world that I’ve created. They just care about the graphics, and the look, and the feel.”
Let’s say you rebuilt it or you did a Malevolence 2 or whatever, would that change the way that you approached how you created it?
Alex Norton: In a technical sense, there’s infinite and then there’s effectively infinite. Effectively infinite is that the world is not infinite; it’s just so big that even if you were to play it for the rest of your life, you would never be able to reach where the actual end of the world.
Minecraft is a fantastic example of an effectively infinite world. Effectively infinite worlds are easier to make. They’re much, much easier to make. Because when you have an actual end to the world, no matter how big it is, you can find out where the centre point is, which means that you can build a coordinate system and thus control where the player is.
However, in an infinite world, there’s no centre, and thus no ability to create a coordinate system. And because of that, from a technical perspective every step of developing Malevolence was a huge technical challenge because the math behind it became sort of redonkulous. Yeah. If I was to remake it knowing that people didn’t care that it was actually genuinely infinite, I would have just made it effectively infinite which would make the development speed twice as fast. It would make all of the maths, you know, 10 times easier.
If it’s not something that’s going to be made noteworthy in the release, then there’s no point putting in that extra effort.
Simon Dell: Talk to me about the first weekend before you launched that project. What were you doing to build awareness of it? How did you get $30,000 worth of sales in the first week?
Alex Norton: I used a platform called Steam, which you may be familiar with.
Simon Dell: Just for the people that don’t know steam, give them a quick overview of how Steam works.
Alex Norton: It’s sort of a video games store that has tens of thousands of games on it. It’s a platform where you can get digital content delivery. Pay for everything with PayPal or credit card. Browse the huge collection of games. It’ll even recommend games to you based on past purchases that you’ve made, and you just get it delivered digitally to your computer without ever having to leave your pajamas.
Simon Dell: Cool, perfect. So, first week that weekend before you launch, what were you doing and where was your head space in that?
Alex Norton: I had been building up the hype for it for about a year before the actual launch went out. And it had developed this sort of cult following, and that cult following was based on the fact that it was infinite. So, it was a small contingent of maybe about 1,500 fans that had built up just by hearing that there was this actually infinite world being built.
And I’d put out a tech blog to follow my progress in building it, showing lots of video clips of how the generation happens in the back end, and rendering it like that. And so, when they latched on and it went public for sale, they then told other people about it and it’s sort of extrapolated out from there.
Alex Norton: You talk about building hype. You talk about the tech blog. What would have been some of the other things that anybody who’s listening to this goes, “Right, well, I’ve got a new product or I’ve got a new business. I want to build some hype around it.”
And they may not necessarily be a game or they may not necessarily be a tech product. Is this something that they could learn, from that process that you went through?
Alex Norton: There’s two things that they could learn. The first one is what I did and the second thing would be why I wouldn’t do it again.
Simon Dell: I’m intrigued about the second one, but go for the first one, yep.
Alex Norton: The first one, it was pure footwork. Having a background in marketing and essentially coercion, I know the first step is to actually find exactly who my target audience is. And so, I did the footwork. I went around the internet.
The internet is basically a collective of communities. And so, I went around all of the communities that I thought would have any sort of even remote, emotional connection to what I’m doing, what I’m trying to achieve here. Some of them from the perspective of people that like old-school RPGs, some of them from the perspective of people that would be fascinated by the tech behind it.
Even ones who would be fascinated by the math behind it without giving a damn about the tech, because there’s a lot of math geeks that don’t care about programming, all the way through to people that are just interested in indie developed games rather than big studio games. I found all of these communities, and I just quite literally reached out to them.
I sent them emails. I posted on forums. And I’d pre-prepared pictures videos talking about the project. But the biggest universal thing that I did was that I humanized the entire process. It wasn’t just a project. It wasn’t just a product. It was me, and it was an extension of me.
So, when I actually approached these people, when I put up anything about Malevolence, it was a video of me talking about it, and people could actually see my passion, and hear it in my voice, see it in my face. People started realizing that, “Hey, this is a not just a person making this. It’s not just some faceless entity, but it’s somebody that genuinely loves this thing.” And people responded to that hugely.
Simon Dell: That’s really important. That’s interesting that putting that genuine face to it means…
Alex Norton: People put so much emphasis on, “We’ve got to have that good logo. We’ve got to have the good colour palette to theme everything we do. We’ve got to follow the rule book and only do what everybody else is doing.”
But until they actually see you and are convinced, it’s very difficult to be cornered by that one guy at the corporate event who is super passionate about what he does without getting a little bit on board with why that passion exists.
Some people are just nutters. I’ve count myself among them, really. But really, that passion does not come across in a well-designed logo. That passion does not come across in an ad that you’ve spent $10,000 producing. That passion comes from people, the people behind it. And a lot of people forget.
They get so wrapped up in, “My product is really cool and you need it.” And they forget why they made that product in the first place. And sometimes, the answer to that question is, “We want to make money and we saw a gap in the market.” But realistically, that’s not always the case
Simon Dell: What you said then, the next thing that you wouldn’t do again, what would you not do again?
Alex Norton: Keeping up with that level of footwork. It’s sort of one of those things that looking back on it, hilarious; at the time, awful. I was in my 20s at the time. I was getting grey hair. I was probably getting three to five hours sleep a night. I was burning the candle at both ends.
I was literally answering every question that was asked of me. I was visiting every one of the forums I was talking about it on and personally responding to everybody. I was following up with every email that was requesting a podcast or an interview and doing them all.
If I had a PR department, it would have taken five or six people to keep up with it. And I believe that if I had have done that and gone that route, it wouldn’t have translated the passion that I had for the project enough. I believe that what I did was effective. I mean, clearly, it worked.
I’m still amazed by the fact that on my bookshelf at home, I have published books that I’m in, there’s photos of me and interviews. And I keep them just to remind myself that I did that, but if I was to do it again, I would have fairly genuine concerns about my health.
Simon Dell: I’ve had conversations about a business that I was involved in a couple of years ago and I wasn’t running it. I was a shareholder of it. There was a team of two involved in running it, and it eventually failed. And the conversations I often had had with some of the other shareholders is around what one of the team was actually doing a lot of.
And I’m going to preface this by saying one of the team’s a developer, so you completely understand that developer was obviously immersed in improving the product, and so on and so forth. But the other one who is a CEO and wasn’t a developer and wouldn’t be able to code.
To me, I look at what you say that you did to launch your product, and I look at what these other people were doing to run this business. I go, “They’re poles apart.” I say to some people, “When you’re in a start-up mode, and when this is your passion, you’ve spent so much time on it, and you’ve poured so much love and effort into it, it’s only natural to go to those extreme lengths that you went to to launch it.
I completely understand what you would never do it again. But sometimes I think some people who run startups, I almost want to say to them, “Just get out onto the street and knock on some doors, or make some phone calls.”
And a lot of people I’ve spoken to at the past have said, sometimes, that is what they’ve had to do, is they’ve just had to make a lot of phone calls, or they’ve had to knock on a lot of doors, or talk to a lot of people. And it is a horrible, painful, boring, tedious thing to do, but it’s the difference between success and no success.
Alex Norton: That’s right. And I mean, an analysis of past action is a huge part of that, and self-reflection, which a lot of startups don’t do. I mean, most startups fail. I mean, let’s be blunt about that. A vast majority of them fail horribly. I say they fail, I don’t like using the word fail because even if it doesn’t go anywhere, you make no money off of it, you never get a customer you have learned a lot of things.
There’s a lot of data that you can now break down for your next attempt. And like I said, I mean I burned the candle at both ends promoting Malevolence. I believe it seriously damaged my health at the time and very nearly jeopardized my career in the gambling industry as well, which is a totally different story. It even affected my marriage.
And now, I’ve got my new startup, my latest one, Trybl. And in a very short space of time, because I picked and chose what actions I was going to take based on the evidence that I built from promoting Malevolence, I figured out which things are worth doing at which things are just not worth doing, and I have achieved just the same amount of PR and publicity about it with a tenth of the effort.
Simon Dell: Before we get onto that, I just want to ask you about one of your games. I need to understand what Extreme Lawn Mowing is about.
Alex Norton: That’s actually our most downloaded game. I think it’s because of that same reaction people get when they see it.
Simon Dell: What’s extreme about the lawn mowing in this game? I’m going to download it later on, but I just need to know before I do that and before everyone else out there. What is extreme about lawn mowing?
Alex Norton: The premise was, I was actually mowing my lawn. And as most people think while they’re mowing their lawn, they get halfway through it and think, “This is just bollocks. Surely, there’s a way to make this easier and faster.”
And I thought, “Well, let me sort of extrapolate that out.” I invented this guy who mowed lawns for a living with his little ride-on lawn mower. And he just got a gut full of it one day and decided, “You know what? There is a more efficient way to do this.”
So, he hot rods his lawnmower, big popped engine, and he’s got a big V8 in there now. And he basically has a lawn mower that travels at about a hundred miles an hour, and you’ve got to try and mow lawns as quickly as possible because his new engine modifications make the petrol tank run out really fast.
And so, you are tearing through these giant paddocks trying to mow the entire thing. It’s got a little percentage meter in the corner that shows how much of the lawn and you’ve mowed, and there’s things you can collect along the way like the brush cutter, where it’s a power up that actually straps to brush cutters either side of the lawn mower. So, you’ve got a wider cut as you’re going through the lawn, things like that. It just starts getting more and more ridiculous. But the funny thing is, that game, it’s our most downloaded game.
Simon Dell: How many downloads is that?
Alex Norton: I haven’t actually looked at numbers for a while, but I’d say probably close to around 5,000, 6,000 since it came out in July, which for a little indie studio is actually pretty good.
But the thing is, as far as I know, nobody’s actually managed to complete a lawn
Simon Dell: So, the extreme lawn mowing is too hard.
Alex Norton: That’s right. The control system is designed to be a toilet game. It’s designed to be played sitting down, leaning forward because you hold the phone like a spirit level. And depending on which way you tilt your phone, you move in that direction. There’s no buttons to it. It’s just tilting.
Simon Dell: Well, anybody listening to this, please go and download Extreme Lawn Mowing. If anybody completes it, I’m sure Alex would absolutely love to know who they are and all that kind of thing.
Alex Norton: The closest I’ve heard is 98%, which was pretty impressive. They said it was the most frustrating experience of their life.
Simon Dell: It’s like you’ve come full circle, hasn’t it? You were creating frustrating experiences when you were in the gambling industry, and now you’re creating frustrating experiences on the lawn mowing in your mobile phones.
Alex Norton: That’s right.
Simon Dell: Talk to me about Trybl. What brought you about setting that up. So, that’s being running 14 months. What was behind the idea about putting that together?
Alex Norton: I actually had quite a terrible time of it in the gambling industry. And as I said, my career has always been in coercion. And I realized that I sort of had this idea in the back of my head that surely there must be some sort of universal system that can actually keep staff happy and engaged in a workplace. I mean, all workplaces are essentially the same thing, same process that happens every day.
It doesn’t matter what the field is. If it’s an office environment, a corporate environment, there’s the same steps that happen every day. And so, I had a go at formalizing that, and I came up with a system that you can quite funnily enough mathematically predict the actions of your staff based on various markers that you can observe.
And I came up with Trybl, which allows you to make your staff happier. And I essentially wanted nobody to have to go through being miserable in their job anymore. And so I thought, “Well, why don’t I actually formalize this?” And I started a consultancy that put this process into a formal set of steps that people can follow, and it’s yielded fantastic results.
People have been reporting incredible shifts in their staff attitudes and performance based on just making the focus be less about KRAs and KPIs, and more about engagement and happiness at the staff. Because the theory is if your staff are happy, they work better.
Simon Dell: I don’t want you giving away your entire intellectual IP on this show, but give us a couple of ideas that you know, people might be able to sit there and implement, or at least look at implementing relatively quickly within their sort of team environment.
Alex Norton: The core of it comes down to identifying the currencies of your staff. When I say currencies, let’s say that a company pays every employee twice. They pay them with money once a week, or once a fortnight, and once a month, or whatever the setup is, and they also pay them in their currency.
And when I say that, I mean every employee, no matter who they are, goes to a job to get something out of it. There’s some reason for it. Some people, it’s the camaraderie of having their fellow colleagues. Some people, it’s a sense of performance. Some people just love to really push it and get the best possible outcome, especially sales people tend to be like that, professional salesmen. They want those stats absolutely every day.
Other people really enjoy helping others. And so, because there’s a finite list of things that actually happen in a corporate environment, there’s a finite number of types of employees, and they all have very predictable motivators. And so, tapping into those motivators and rewarding the staff by giving them those motivators, basically, it sort of creates a Pavlov’s dog effect where they reward good behaviour with the right motivators, and they keep doing that good behaviour while being happy at the same time.
Simon Dell: I was thinking about what my motivators are aside from money. What are your motivators? Putting money aside, in a job, what’s the second currency you’re paid in?
Alex Norton: Creative control and time, they are my two biggest motivators.
Simon Dell: Talk to me about time, because I suspect that’s mine as well.
Alex Norton: Nothing quite highlighted how much my currency is time quite like Malevolence project and going through that. I inherently love being able to just take time where I can do whatever the hell I want. I don’t have anybody dictating what I’m supposed to be doing. I can just choose.
I’m one of these people that’s notorious for doing 16-hour days, 7 days a week, and always having three different things on. So, if I get a break from one, I’ve got to go and work on the others. And if I do force myself to have a holiday from it, I can’t really be there a hundred percent. My mind is always on what I’ve got to do next.
And so, genuinely having nothing to go on to next and just having free time where there’s literally nowhere I’ve got to be, nothing I’ve got to do, that is a massive driving force for me.
Simon Dell: I think one of those driving factors for me is probably time but in a slightly different sense. I worked for three months for an agency the year before last year, and I only worked there for three months because it just didn’t work out. That’s all I’ll say on that one.
And it’s that gut feeling. You know when you’re sort of walking in there day one, and you just go… They say something to you about how the business is run, and straight away you just go, “I’m not happy about that.”
Alex Norton: It’s almost like you hear a glass breaking sound in your head.
Simon Dell: Yeah. You might not think it sounds stupid at all, and I certainly don’t think it does, but when they turn around to me and told me the hours that the office they worked right, and it was 8:30 to 5:00, I kind of went, “I don’t want to be here till 5:30. I’ve got no desire to be sent in this office till 5:30.”
5:00, sure. I’d rather piss off at 4:30 and possible 4:00 and do some couple of hours work in the evening. I’ve got a small son, 22-months-old, he goes to bed at 7:00. I have the choice of either doing some work, or sitting with my wife and watching My Kitchen Rules. I’d rather do some work.
I’d stab myself in the eyeballs watching My Kitchen Rules. But to me, it was about the flexibility of saying, “You know what? I’m going to achieve what I need to achieve, but I don’t really want to be sitting here feeling obligated in the office until 5:30 because everybody else is doing it.”
Alex Norton: That’s right. I refer to it as the madness. It seems like something out of the Mad Hatter’s tea party in a lot of corporate environments where, “Oh, no. Everybody’s got to turn up at this time and go home at this time, because otherwise the whole world will end.”
And then you say, “I’m just a coder. I could do this from home with a laptop. I could do it from a park, really.” And they go, “No, no. You’ve got to be here and you’ve got to be here during these hours.” “Well, why?” “Well, that’s how we do it and that’s how it’s always been done.”
Simon Dell: I understand the purpose of having a team together in the same building at the same time for things like meetings, and workshops, and stuff like that. And I think extreme remote work where everybody’s working remotely I think is counterproductive. I think a lot of people are starting to understand that now as well,
But I was sort of going, the day they said, “Oh, it’s 8:30 till 5:30.” And I kind of looked… And that was the other one, they said, “Oh, you get an hour for lunch.” And I’m going to go, “What am I going to do with an hour? I don’t got anything to do for an hour.”
Alex Norton: That’s a long sub.
Simon Dell: It is. I just need half an hour and then I’ll be back at my desk. You suddenly go, “But then I’m doing an extra half-hour’s work.” All of a sudden, you got into this constraint of measuring your time. And I’m going, I don’t want to measure my time. It’s more about my performance in that space. And quite frankly, I could probably perform better in two hours than I could in eight hours.
And the other thing was, I was always about… You know, certainly when you’re in Queensland, and for those of us that live in Queensland, understand that in the summer, the sun comes up at some insane time in the morning because we’re still in the Dark Ages when it comes to daylight saving.
But to me, we’d be going, “Look, in the summer, I’d probably be in here at 6:30 in the morning because I’ve been up since 4:30, and I certainly don’t want to be getting in here at 6:30 and going home at 5:30. I’d rather be going home at 4:00.”
Alex Norton: I remember in a past job being roused at for turning up at 9:20 because I was traveling probably an hour and a half every day to get to work. And if the traffic was bad on a trip that long, it can it can stretch out quite a bit. And their rationale was, “Well, get up earlier.” And I said to him, there was a defining moment where I sort of had a brain click, and I said to them, “Is there any problem with my work not getting finished on time?”
And they said “No, you’re always on time.” And I said, “Well, where’s the problem here?”
Simon Dell: I understand what it is because I’ve run an agency and I go, as soon as one person starts coming in late, then everyone else starts coming in late.
Alex Norton: Well, they gave me that rationale, and I said, “Is anybody having a problem getting their work in on time?”
Simon Dell: Yeah, and that’s the problem, is it does. Sometimes, it may affect the weaker-performing members of the team, so they’re wondering in at 9:15 and then they’re not getting their deadlines. And I can understand where that is. But it’s a brave company that sort of goes, “You know what? Everybody, come in when you like and go home when you like as long as you get your work done.”
Alex Norton: But it’s actually starting to happen more and more commonly. With Trybl, I’ve actually been doing some work with Suncorp lately, and they actually have a work from home model where everybody sets up a home office that has to be approved by OH&S, obviously. They all have standardized software using Citrix and remote desktop, all nice and secure, and their engagement levels are great.
They have a different set of problems, that happens, and mostly just communication breakdowns. But it sort of falls on the team leader of each department to actually maintain those levels, and it means that you’re really essentially just managing a set of team leaders rather than trying to manage everybody.
Simon Dell: Just taking a real step back to the point when you started Trybl. You said to me there’s certain things that you did with Trybl that you also did with Malevolence, but there’s also a lot of things that you didn’t do. What are the things that you found best for you in growing Trybl as a business? What works to get those customers emailing you and calling you?
Alex Norton: There was a point with Malevolence that I realized that, if I was to just show up at various events, things happen. Movement starts happening. And a lot of the times, I would say no to opportunities that would come up just because I knew that I was also pursuing four other avenues that I just wouldn’t have the time to.
I have the time to be here and now and then move on. Whereas with Trybl, I’m being choosier with where I end up going. But every opportunity that has been given to me, I’ve just said yes to, regardless. I don’t care. It’s like, “Oh, come to this luncheon with these people.” Normally, in the past, I would say, “Well, what do those people do? What industry are they from? Is it anything to do with me?”
And way up, whether or not it was worth going to that over going to something else instead that might be potentially better. But instead, with Trybl agency, yes, let go.
Simon Dell: I noticed also in the little blurb there as well about the first consultation’s free, and I just go, “There he is. He’s 25 years ago. He’s given away the shareware version of the business and then get them to upgrade.”
Alex Norton: Here’s a funny point. I’ve never had a no after getting in that door. Once they have heard what Trybl does, and the science behind it, and I actually give them examples with their team, and answers to questions… Because it always comes down to that.
The reason that they’ve brought me in is because they’ve got some burning questions like, “We’ve got there’s one guy that we just cannot motivate. And I just flat-out tell them how to do it.” I’ve never had a no. The trick is getting in the door.
Simon Dell: Yeah. And I think the trick for me in my industry is getting in front of people that then have the budget to spend on you. And there’s a danger that you end up spending, going to two or three meetings every week and their people are going right, “Well, how can you help us?”
And then they’re really impressed by you, and they like you, and you give them some good ideas, and they implement those good ideas. And then they turn around and say, “Oh, well, we haven’t really got any budget moving forward” or “We’ve got $500 a month. What can you do with that?” And you just go, “Not a great deal?” That’s the danger of that shareware model in a consulting sense or a services sense.
Alex Norton: It’s funny that you bring that up. As I used before the example of finding people’s currencies when trying to motivate them, you have to find a company’s currency when you’re marketing to them.
If you’re trying to sell yourself you could actually show whether or not you’re going to provide any value. And a large amount of time, that comes down to the budget that’s available to them. The people that you’re in the room with aren’t the ones that decide that budget. They’re the ones that have to just deal with it. And oftentimes, you have to sort of adapt and overcome Bear Grylls style in order to survive.
I’ve been doing that myself because I’ve been running into that exact same problem where they say, “Well, we’ve got maybe $5,000 we can put towards this for the next half-year.” And when you’re a consultant, that doesn’t get you that many sessions. Trybl is based on solid mathematical principles, and so, I’m adapting it into an app, a machine learning app. And that way, people can actually just buy a license for the app and use it in their business. That way, it’s much more cost effective, and it’s sort of like having me in their pocket.
But that way, it comes across better. Because if they have a subscription to it, if they need to put that to their board to say, “Oh, we need this budget.” They can actually say, “Look, we need this much for a subscription to this machine learning app that’s going to up our engagement.” It’s a lot more easy to get past the finance department than saying, “Look, we need $10,000 for this consultant to come in and give us personalized workshops where we have to take time out of people’s day. We have to schedule meetings. We have to do all this sort of thing.” That’s this huge big thing that people have to go through.
Simon Dell: Is there a danger then that people default to buying the app and not buying your services?
Alex Norton: To be honest, I don’t mind. I’m doing all right.
Simon Dell: I’m just thinking for those people out there who might be listening and going, they want to command a decent price, and they think, “What if I create a lower, easier engagement level that people can perhaps get involved with, let’s say for $99 a month?” They get lots of good stuff. That you’re worried that those people that do have the budget to spend on a consultant coming in and helping them suddenly go, “Well, why would I bother? Why not just get the app?”
Alex Norton: What I like to point out is if you are able to make a digital product that can perfectly replace you and be just as good or if not better than you, then you shouldn’t be doing that line of work. So, I do communicate very clearly to my clients that nothing is going to be better than having me in that office giving you that face time and being able to answer questions real-time, and those that can afford it would benefit greatly from having it.
The app can do things that I can’t, but in particularly large companies, I mean, it’s machine learning. It’s constantly watching, it’s constantly learning, and it comes up with conclusions that even I haven’t been able to see simply because I can’t view everybody at once. There are benefits to having the app there. A lot of times, people will actually maybe opt for both to have me there as well.
But it’s giving them the options. I mean, if all of your customers end up switching over to the app rather than using you because it’s cheaper, then you haven’t sold the value of yourself at all.
Simon Dell: Very good point. My last three questions for today. Number one, what are some brands out there that you love? That you buy all the time, that you admire, that you like what they do in any category in any industry. What are some of the ones that you like?
Alex Norton: I’m a big loyalist when it comes to buying brands. I’m the sort of person who makes things myself quite a bit. However, as I’ve said earlier in the podcast, marketing is a solid science. There’s no two ways about it. There’s nothing esoteric. It’s a solid science. While I don’t always approve of their business practices, I admire industries who perfect the use of that science such as Apple.
They focus on the why of the cell, before the how, or the what, and the use of colour, emotion, the target audiences that they apply. I mean, anybody that’s ever watched one of those launch videos of the new iPhone, it’s hard not to get swept up and thinking, “This is the coolest thing that’s ever been made.” Even though I don’t use an iPhone. I only have a Mac Mini and that’s just for publishing my apps. Because in order to get onto the App Store, you have to do it through a Mac.
I don’t buy them because I believe that they’re overpriced nonsense, but their marketing is on point and I have to admire their marketing department is spot on. And as somebody who knows the science myself, I can see that they are following the rules. You can’t fake that.
Simon Dell: I think it’s funny you say that. There’s two types of people in this world. There’s the type of people who want to know why things work, and then there’s the ones who go, “I don’t care why it works. I just want it to work.” I fall firmly into that latter set, and that’s why I would buy Apple stuff all the time. The former set, which you fall firmly into doesn’t want to buy Apple because you want to understand why things work and understand that backend, and perhaps tailor it and tweak it to suit yourself rather than have Apple tell you how you should be doing things.
Alex Norton: Also, having developed software for Apple, I know that their phones are actually garbage with a really slick operating system on top. It’s a nightmare.
Simon Dell: You heard that here first. Please, Apple, still sponsor me in the future. Don’t sponsor Alex. Okay, so Apple will be one. Are there any others that sort of stand out to you from a brand perspective?
Alex Norton: There aren’t many. I know that might sound haughty and a bit up myself, but there are many that really follow… The science of marketing is purely the science of coercion. Are you familiar with Edward Bernays?
Simon Dell: Nope.
Alex Norton: He’s the nephew of Sigmund Freud, and he’s often considered the Godfather of Marketing. He was the one who, to prove his point that marketing is such a science that it can be done like a mathematical equation, he actually convinced the women of America to start smoking and universally saved the cigarette industry, which was actually dwindling. And he did this in the course of a couple of months just through using the firm science of how to coerce people into doing what you want them to do, just by positioning it to the right.
I find that there’s very, very few companies that universally follow those rules. And more and more, it’s just sometimes a company strikes lucky on one particular ad, or maybe a new logo design where they’ve brought somebody in and paid them a disgusting amount of money to come up with a rebrand for them. The people that run that company do nothing to bother to understand why that branding works. They just want to pay the money, and have the new logo, and then they misuse it.
Simon Dell: It’s funny. The last podcast I did, we spoke to a lady who does marketing strategy, and she says often marketing agencies and marketing companies are just selling what they want to sell to the client as opposed to what the client actually needs. And that’s one of the biggest challenges there. But it’s also that nobody stops and says to these brands or these companies, “Why is this brand important to you? What is it that people want? What are the needs of the consumer?”
Too many people have gone off and gone they think they understand their target market, or they think they understand any of the market, and build solutions when they haven’t really done the research to start with.
Alex Norton: That’s right. I like to look at it a bit like marriage counselling. What’s the first question that any therapist have actually asked the couple? They ask them to think back. “How did the relationship start? Why did you guys fall in love in the first place?” And a lot of bigger companies, they forget why they’re doing what they do. Because it started out as a couple of guys in their garage going, “This would be cool if we did this. The world needs this thing.”
And then you jump forward 30 years, and they’re in a bloody 80-story building with 6,000 employees, and they’ve totally forgotten. They just want to make money. They just want to hit those deadlines. And you’ve got to remember: Why are you there? Why are you doing that? Because your branding speaks.
Simon Dell: And those successful companies are, when you look at the top tier companies in the US, the Amazons, and the Apples, and the Netflixes, Facebooks…
Alex Norton: They know exactly why they’re doing what they’re doing.
Simon Dell: Absolutely, and it’s inbred into every person who works there.
Alex Norton: I can’t say this for sure, but I would put money down on that there are a lot of things, directions they could have gone which would have led to a lot of money but they said no to simply because it doesn’t match up with that why.
Simon Dell: I think you’ve only got to go back and look at Microsoft five to ten years ago who did exactly that.
Alex Norton: With the Zune?
Simon Dell: Yeah, chase the money instead of staying true to what they’d originally created.
Alex Norton: They forgot.
Simon Dell: Absolutely. Penultimate question. What’s next for you? Growing Trybl is obviously a focus, but is there anything else that you’re working on or looking to work on?
Alex Norton: My main focus at the moment is just developing that machine learning app. I actually am not going to be holding on to it. I mean, I’m one guy. I’m a realist. This is a big project. When it’s done, I do plan on finding somebody that I can pass it onto, and get rid of it, and let them take it to where it should go. And once that’s happened and gone out of my life, I actually do have a next project which is pretty top secret, but it does have to do with the Internet of Things, and robotics, and automation. It’s pretty exciting for me. I haven’t been able to dedicate too much time to it yet because Trybl has been taking up most of my days.
Simon Dell: It sounds exciting. I hope we can get an exclusive one day when you’re ready to announce it.
Alex Norton: Follow me on LinkedIn. You’ll see it all.
Simon Dell: I’m going to do a part B on that question. Obviously, you’re a tech person. Obviously, to a degree, a futurist as well looking at the Internet of Things and all those kind of things. Sum up to me in a couple of sentences your feeling on cryptocurrency.
Alex Norton: It’s a fad. It’s funny how many people actually ask me that question. I’m kind of shocked by it because I’ve never had anything to do with financial markets whatsoever in any part of my career. And yet, so many people come to me for some reason and ask me that question. I always say to people the same thing, “Treat it as a stock. All of your behaviours around cryptocurrency should be identical to your behaviours around the share market. No difference whatsoever. And just like any stock, it will ebb, and it will flow, and it will disappear.”
Simon Dell: Interesting. Last question, then. You mentioned LinkedIn, but where else should people reach out if they want to ask you a question or if they want to engage Trybl?
Alex Norton: LinkedIn is the big one. I am pretty vocal on there. I write a lot of articles detailing finer points of staff engagement and game theory, things like that. Nothing to do with video games, game theory, by the way. It’s a pretty fascinating field. But if they want to learn more about Trybl or get in touch with me, the website is trybl.solutions. However, Trybl is spelt weird.
Simon Dell: Yeah. I think you ought to tell people how you spell it.
Alex Norton: Yeah, it’s T-R-Y-B-L. If they connect with me on LinkedIn, I don’t reject people. The more and merrier.
Simon Dell: Accept anybody. I often say to people at the end of this show, I say, “Connect with me on LinkedIn” and that kind of thing. I get some strange requests coming from people. So I’ve had to now say, “Connect with me on LinkedIn, but tell me where you met me, or where you heard from me.” Because if you’ve heard the podcast and you’re in a country I’ve never heard of, then I’ve got no issues with that. But please tell me, otherwise it looks like I’ve got some strange stalker from overseas.
Alex Norton: I’ve actually developed a new hobby on LinkedIn. I mean, how many times have you gotten the connection that you have no idea who it is from some far-off country, and within seconds of you approving the connection request, they’ve sent you a message trying to sell their services to you? I start trolling them. I actually will give them pro tips on how to market themselves because what they’re doing is currently ineffectual, they can’t possibly get enough return for the effort that they put into it.
And so, I drag out the conversation really, really far, over days sometimes. It leads to some very interesting things. It never led to anything business-related. I think the most bizarre one was somebody wanted me to go on a man date with them, to have coffee outside the Taj Mahal.
Simon Dell: Wow. I’m hoping you took him up on that, whoever that was.
Alex Norton: Well, I said, “If you’re willing to buy me the ticket, I’ll be happy to fly over and give you some pro marketing tips.”
Simon Dell: I used to do the same with SEO agencies from India who used to email me, and try and drag that out as well, and try and say, “I’m actually really interested in your services, but you’ve emailed me from a Gmail address with no web address on the bottom, so I don’t know much about you.” And then when I finally get their actual proper email address and proper web address, I then just report that to Google as spam.
Alex Norton: Yeah. Since registering my most recent domain, I’ve been going through that awful process of getting the calls on my mobile saying, “Oh, we noticed that you’ve registered this domain. Do you need the web design services, or SEO services?” And that sort of thing. And physical calls on my mobile, just nightmarish. You’d think it would end, but it’s been about six weeks and it still hasn’t ended.
Simon Dell: Anyway, mate, it has been an absolute pleasure. I’ve learned a lot listening to you today. I stress to everybody out there, if you get a chance, connect with Alex because listening to him talk and listening to some of the stuff he reads has been absolutely fascinating. So mate, once again, thanks very much and good luck with the future.
Alex Norton: Thanks very much.