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Article 3 min read

Virtually Human founder Chris Ebeling: Building the horse before the track

Don't wait until an idea is 100% baked if you believe in where it's going.

By Adam O’Donnell, Host of the Sit Down Startup podcast

Last updated July 27, 2023

When Chris Ebeling co-founded Virtually Human in 2018, Blockchain technology was coming into its own and digital entertainment was entering its immersive era. With a skillset in digital creative work, Ebeling and his co-founders met the moment with a concept for a digital horseracing platform.

But first, the horses. Just like champion thoroughbreds are considered investments, the digital horses in Ebeling’s concept are also investments: non-fungible tokens, or NFTs. These digital assets can increase in value over time, which is what most owners are banking on. The long-term strategy for Ebeling and his crew was to also create the track and racing experience: the world in which the digital horses and their owners lived and competed.

The company has since raised more than $21 million, and their online horse-racing game ZED RUN has impressive engagement with more than 3.5 million races run. Ebeling joined the Sit Down Startup podcast to talk about uncharted waters in entrepreneurship, entertainment, investment, and more.

They built it–and people came

Ebeling and his team created digital racehorses without a game, where people could own, breed, and manage their horses. At the time, he says people bought into the speculation that it would eventually become a game.

On the heels of the sale of Everydays: the First 5000 Days, an NFT artwork by Beeple that went for more than $69 million, being a crypto pioneer carried some street cred. As such, Virtually Human didn’t spend much on marketing.

Building the track with the user community

Ebeling advises getting as much user feedback as possible when a product is in beta. This is a good way to build a customer-centric product and company from the start, as many founders advise. Yext founder Howard Lerman became really good at listening to customers talk about their problems, honing his ability to make his product the best solution. Braze co-founder Mark Ghermezian tuned into what customers weren’t saying in order to optimize his product for the market’s future needs.

Ebeling still reviews Twitter for a pulse check on customer sentiment and feedback, sometimes responding and engaging directly in direct messages.

Virtually Human was becoming known for highly anticipated product drops, but with the good came a number of failed drops: emerging tech can be a challenging space to play in. But the word “fail” isn’t scary to Ebeling, and he encourages fellow founders to feel the same.

“Four years later, we’re still building and making amazing iterations to this ecosystem,” Ebeling says, nodding to the immersive future of entertainment where designers iterate and build alongside their community–metaverse with a small m.

“You win some, you learn some. I don’t believe in ‘you lose some.'”

Off to the races

The game is still in beta, and Ebeling is comfortable staying there until they’re happy enough with the product. He reminds others that Google was in beta for years, and getting out of it ASAP isn’t necessarily a goal for every founder.

“You have to uncover where [the horses] run best, and you race them. It’s a simple concept, but building it is not that simple, especially for new technology,” Ebeling says.

Furthermore, Ebeling advises founders to strike the balance between advocating for themselves, being self-critical, and being rational.

“I like to have fun, and I like to make people smile,” Ebeling says. “I think it’s important that we have fun when we build.”

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