A strange but true story of international adventure and calamity in the early days of the Internet
I was the co-founder of an online computer games company backed by a progressive and adventurous Internet company. It failed.
Nothing special. Lots of startups fail, right? But this was Singapore, 1995-1997. Games Online was ahead of its time. And, new to Asia, we were in way over our heads, technologically and culturally. We burned money and bridges in abundance and ultimately we blew up spectacularly.
It was the experience of a lifetime, and it launched my career in Asia, which lasted nearly twenty years. Blogs weren’t a thing yet, but I kept a hand-coded as-it-happens online journal of the entire experience. This journal made me notorious in Singapore Internet and tech media circles.
Reading it today is almost painful. I was ignorant. Culture shocked. Overwhelmed. Some of it is banal. All of it is dated. But some of it is amazing, and it is very much a period record. There are lots of factual errors in it regarding Singapore, especially early on. They’ve all long since been pointed out. Twenty years later Singapore is still my adopted home. I am married to a Singaporean, and have a half-Singaporean kid. I think that’s great, and it means that ultimately this was all worth it. I look back GOL as one of the defining experiences of my life. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
Part 1: September, 1995.
How Joe and Will journeyed to Singapore and, unfathomably, struck a huge deal. This installment was written on the airplane back from Singapore, after we spent a week there hammering out the details of the deal that would create Games Online. This has a lot of our first impressions of Singapore. It also displays our early enthusiasm, and our early naïvité.
Part 2: December, 1995.
We move to Singapore and adjust to life in Southeast Asia. You can read about our first interview and hiring experiences as we started building our staff, and see the very first signs of the trouble we would later face with our infamous computer purchase.
Part 3: January, 1996.
The rest of the US gang shows up, and the first inklings of trouble began. This is mostly a series of vignettes from our early acclimatization. There are some interesting portents concerning Singaporean business practices.
Part 4: April, 1996.
Against all odds a computer game company began to coalesce. Things begin to get interesting, as we welcome new staff and move into temporary office space. Work begins on our projects while I suddenly become a TV performer. More pithy observations on life in Singapore. Bonus culture shock.
Part 5: June, 1996.
The sailing gets rough. We move into our permanent office space at long last. In the face of progress, our computer procurement goes spectacularly wrong and plants the seeds of disaster. Our lack of cultural finesse starts to bite.
Part 6: September, 1996.
Our problems mount. Intrigue surrounding the computer purchase deepens, prompting a wave of conspiracy theory, cynicism and despair. The schedule slips, and projects are pushed around mercilessly. In the midst of chaos we find bliss diving in the tropical seas off of Malaysia. But doubt and stress hang over everything.
Part 7: August, 1997.
Posted nearly a year after the previous chapter, with the benefit of some hindsight. The climax of the GOL story. Everything unravels despite frantic attempts to save the venture, or at least save face. The axe falls. The band of six breaks up as some go home. We all move on.