Today I interviewed Stella Wang, Co-Founder and CEO Dazzle Rocks. With Stella we talk about her route into games startups and founding Dazzle Rocks with her co-founder.
The co-founders, Stella Wang and Joonas Jokela of Dazzle Rocks have always had a passion for innovation and entrepreneurship in their blood.
They first met in 2009 in Stockholm and saw the opportunity of the App Store changing this industry. Thus, they started a consulting company with a focus on digital media strategy.
While talking to clients in various conferences, the founders met Rovio at Assembly Finland, which was intrigued with Wang and Jokela’s forward vision and entrepreneurial spirit. They were invited both to lead the R&D department to shape the first mobile game entertainment brand in the market.
During their time at Rovio, they broke many boundaries and led the never-before-done concepts to market. They even had a nickname in the company of “the SWAT team” since they never left any project incomplete.
After 2013 Jokela left Rovio, but soon showed a prototype for a game to Wang. This lit an immediate spark in the entrepreneurs’ hearts, and so they took their learnings from Rovio and each other with them and decided to co-found the company Dazzle Rocks.
The founding of Dazzle Rocks
Their vision was to build casual social games for both Eastern and Western markets with a unique IP story.
They built several prototypes to verify ideas and they wanted to find something that was unique to the market, something that hadn’t been successfully done or seen before.
With a clear vision in mind, making decisions on their future path was clearer. However, they had to limit their scope, at least initially, since they had a small team and had to focus on one game at a time, and only then build up the portfolio slowly.
Currently, they are working on a casual, non-combat, social MMO game which is an immensely ambitious project.
Wang emphasises that they are gunning to become a games company that builds a portfolio of games focusing on the social experience for multiple players.
Through their portfolio, they will reveal the story of their IP and continue to engage players and the community. They continue to prototype and innovate the game experience since they want to bring new experiences for their players.
The founders take an analytical approach to decision-making by considering both the East and the West in their search for a ‘blue ocean’ opportunity in the market.
They place particular importance on analysing the changes and growth in the mobile games market and pride themselves for bringing familiar gameplay, yet they innovate to bring it to the next Social MMO revolution.
Building the company
Dazzle Rocks currently has 15 team members. Although the start-up life isn’t always a walk in the park, with its tough times and challenges to solve, the team has been nurtured into a familial spirit.
The co-founders take their time to make sure team members have the space to take initiative and grow. Many people like to have creative freedom but not many are accustomed to rapid changes and being solution-oriented.
Dazzle Rocks values people who take the team goal as a priority and are able to wear several hats, as well as reach the finish line with the team. This ‘several hats’ method is what they coin as the T-shape model. With this model, an employee may have deep knowledge in a specific area, but can and is willing to grow their expertise in other areas as well.
Dazzle Rocks values people who take the team goal as a priority and are able to wear several hats.
This method of learning is important for small start-ups that shouldn’t have just monotonously specialised people, but rather have people who can do whatever is needed and will make things happen. This creates a strong company culture and a growth mindset.
Although they have the T-shape model and a strong company culture, they recognise that with building a company from the ground up, there is a continuous battle of keeping ambition and morale high and sticking to deadlines.
The Dazzle Rocks approach to hiring and ways of working
Early on they tried to define who were the best kind of people for a start-up. For some, it means impressive resumes with experience, but Dazzle Rocks felt differently.
They saw that the best people for them were the ones willing to learn more and be passionate about making something special. They wouldn’t be deterred by challenges but rather face them head-on, especially in the young and fast-paced mobile games industry.
Hence they hired a diverse pool of people with one common denominator; they showed potential to grow in the T-shape.
The majority of the 15-person team has been with Dazzle Rocks for over three years. Wang believes that they have managed to create an environment where everyone gets the chance to grow and take on more responsibility through different kinds of tasks. The founders’ goal is to give them all the opportunity to become the future leaders of the team.
At Dazzle Rocks, the team doesn’t really wear titles; the focus is on what is to be achieved and what KPI goals they want to reach.
They accomplish these goals with feature teams where they take certain parts of the game and let it be developed by a smaller team. This team gets the creative freedom to finalise the design of the feature and work through solutions to get it delivered to the players. This results in a workflow that allows everyone to get heard and develop their skills.
If the team feels uncomfortable about a task that is new and challenging or they just have a question, Wang and Jokela’s approach is to always offer help from the founders’ side. That’s how people find the balance of comfort and responsibility, and they learn and grow.
When they hire people they also make sure to involve the rest of the staff and let them share the culture and explain how the team works at Dazzle Rocks. It’s important that the culture and personal chemistry are aligned. Wang also believes people will continue to openly share their feedback and opinions when the studio grows bigger.
Planning the future
Making decisions based on the plan and the future
Dazzle Rocks’ focus is threefold. First, it follows the blue ocean strategy by finding growth trends in the market, taking an existing game and innovating it to further the players’ experience.
When Jokela and Wang started the company they did plenty of research on successful games companies and their backers.
Second, it’s metrics-focused. It looks at player funnels and iterates based on the funnel. Third, the team tests their product. They do player testing to verify their design and impact with actual player experiences.
Pitching to investors and picking the right investors to talk to
When Jokela and Wang started the company they did plenty of research on successful games companies and their backers.
Crunchbase was highly utilised, looking at how companies raised money, at what stage and who backed them at what stage. Not only that, but they looked at successful companies’ visions and what made them stand out in the crowded space.
They took these learnings and iterated their pitch decks again and again. They took the rejected meetings as a step forward to think deeper and prepare better for the next pitch.
Wang specifically mentions one of the best parts of pitching is that it challenged her to revisit their strategy, games and teams each time.
“You might get 100 rejections from investors but you need just one to believe in you,” she said.
When they started they had a couple of investors in mind that they wanted on board to help in the early stages. They got Initial Capital and Sisu to invest in them.
Building the best relationships with their investors
Wang tends to see investors as being on the same side of the table with them. It is important that founders can share all the ups and downs with their investors. Good investors have seen it all, they always have advice for founders during crossroads.
Wang is straightforward. She tells it how it is and does not fear telling the bad news when necessary. That may be a reason why she has been successful in getting investors on her side. The key word here might be expectation management, where it makes sense to highlight the risks that the founder is dealing with.
What is the right time for a games company to raise a big investment round?
Wang takes some time to think about this one as it is a tough question. Every company has a different DNA. Some are more focused on the senior teams, some on the unique game ideas and successfully raising at the right time with the right vision.
Wang notes a lesson she learned early on is that if the start-up needs money, and only then you start talking to a VC, it’s too late.
Compared to 2012, Wang sees some changes in the investment landscape. Currently, investors want more metrics. However she still believes that with the right vision a company can always find the right type of investors to invest early.
Spending time with new investors versus existing investors
Wang notes a lesson she learned early on is that if the start-up needs money, and only then you start talking to a VC, it’s too late. She tries to always meet new investors at conferences so that she will have a relationship ready, especially if they show interest in investing in the future.
Even if there is an interest Wang sometimes states in an honest matter that it’s too early for that investment and instead just shows the progress they have made. It is also important to learn the investor’s investment strategy and hear their feedback. She points out that most want to see the growth progress of the start-up.
With Dazzle Rocks’ early-stage investor, Wang kept the manner of updates casual and frequent. They have recently closed new rounds with new investors. They have now started with more frequent board meetings with clear agendas.
The current mobile games market
Wang notes that the current mobile games market is crowded and competitive. However, she is optimistic since there is always a space that people have yet to discover.
Take Fortnite for example. That is showing us that social interactions in games are just getting started. Wang believes that this casual social gaming space is just going to grow and stresses the importance of looking at market trends, what is hot, but also looking at the areas that are not filled yet.
This is the starting point when Dazzle Rocks thinks about the games they want to do.
Joakim: Hi, everyone. It’s Joakim Achren, your host of the Elite Game Developers Podcast, a podcast about the entrepreneurs and investors who are building the games companies of the future.
Joakim: Today I’m meeting up with Stella Wang. Stella is the co-founder and CEO of Dazzle Rocks, a Helsinki-based mobile gaming startup. Stella has been in the game industry for several years, and she has a lot of interesting stories to share with us.
Joakim: So, pleasure to have you, Stella, on the podcast.
Stella: Thank you so much.
Joakim: Let’s start off with this simple question of how did you make your way into the game industry and eventually to found Dazzle Rocks?
Stella: Well, as you know, I was not originally born here or raised here. So actually, Rovio recruited me from USA. So I joined Rovio quite early in 2011. So that was actually the time I started my game industry. Before that I was more in advertising, working as a creative directions. So that was actually the starting point. And the reason that Joonas and I … We decided to start our company was games have been a very interesting topic because most users, they saw the game just on the graphic part, the experience part. The game is actually … As a company, as a service, you have a lot of thinking about monetizations, user acquisition, a lot of different things that you can puzzle. And what I like about game industry is that there’s no existing business model. There are a lot of things that you can innovate and actually progress to it.
Joakim: That’s cool. Did you guys meet at Rovio? How did your founding story happen?
Stella: So we almost worked together for 10 years. So we actually met in Stockholm, and we were trying to start a company. That was like 2009 when App Store started happening. So we were helping, basically do a lot of R&D projects to help companies transition from traditional media to digital media.
Stella: Then we were pitching to different conferences. Then Rovio spotted us, saying that they needed an R&D team. So that’s how we got recruited. So basically Joonas and I were very entrepreneurial mindset before we joined at Rovio. And we kind of worked our way as a kind of small team in a sense that the when the company was not as big, big … Kind of did the project from negotiation table all the way to market. So that’s basically how we work together.
Stella: And in Rovio I was the product owner. Joonas was the project and tech lead. So we had been Rovio time and also the current company time. So it’s almost around 10 years.
Joakim: Wow. That’s a really interesting founder story of you guys doing stuff together for such a long time. Did you together pick the first game that you’re going to make when you started Dazzle Rocks?
Stella: Well, the story was pretty interesting. So one note about that because we worked together for so long. So sometimes when we have a different agreement and a little bit or argument, the team always thinks that we’re like brother and sister, the cat fight, because we’ve known each other for too long. But the good thing is we never hold any grudges, and the next day is a new day.
Stella: So back to how did we start the first game, actually it was Joonas, started with his 2D prototype. And he showed it to me when I was in Rovio, and he was like … He was very excited about this. And I looked at the graphics. I was like, “Dude, this is too ugly.” So that’s not even knowing that. I was like, “Why don’t we start the company that we never actually finished.”
Stella: And he was like, “That’s a good idea.” So it was actually a couple boxes in 2D. So the company actually started with … In the beginning was this 2D game with a runner. And actually, we quickly saw that 3D is on the rise, and then we felt that as a company we should probably start the ground on 3D.
Stella: And in the beginning, we had a vision that we want to build games for social generations that players can play together. So the runner was actually synchronized so you can play with other players. So we always have ambitions that the game is built for social generation. And also we want to make sure that west and east, to tailor the kind of portfolio for west and east market. So that was the starting point.
Stella: And then during the journey of the company, we did a couple prototypes. And then we kind of saw what would be unique to the market, and then we made the decision on all of that.
Joakim: Nice. Did you guys … Going into kind of like your operating model, do you prefer to work on one game at a time or do you have several in the pipeline at the same time?
Stella: We are a really small team. We have kind of an extreme focus on one game. The current game we are working on is a social MMO, it’s quite ambitious. So all our effort is actually focused on this one game. However, we do see ourselves as not only one game company. So we did have using the same tech platform and the art pipeline to create some prototypes. But that’s kind of like a backlog that we can always revisit, that if we want to build the expansions and the team wants to scale. So we are focused on one game, but then there’s kind of in our pocket, there are a couple of prototypes that we have in our hands.
Joakim: Where do you see the opportunities in being a small company? Like you guys are less than 10 people, right. So is there kind of like a clear thing that you guys see that you can do more effectively?
Stella: So we are 14 people right now. Of course we started with the two founders. I think one of the best parts and also the great part is when you’re 14 people, it feels more like a family. And you know as a startup … I mean, Joakim, you have started your own company and you know that every day is not roses and spring. It’s a pretty tough row. So basically you kind of build this kind of trust and build this kind of working relationship with the 14 people that people can take multi-discipline when the product or the company needs it. So basically as a small startup, I think the benefit was people are not specialized, but people are kind of taking whatever needed to make it happen. And that creates a pretty strong company culture. So I do see the benefit that when you try to break through …
Stella: If you think about starting the company, not only the product needs to succeed. But you also need to think about how the team works together and how we are able to expand. So basically, these 14 people, they carry the original culture. They also carry the concept about, okay, we have a problem we need to solve. So it doesn’t matter if you’re an artist or a tech, we are going to test it together and find all the solutions together. So that’s actually a benefit of being a small company.
Joakim: Do you see … Because you’ve been hiring people in Helsinki area. Do you have an approach to finding the best people? What’s kind of like the process? Has it changed over time? How do you see that?
Stella: Well, in a really stage, I … Because I’ve been in the big company and the small company. In an early stage, we kind of tried to define what are the best people for a startup. For some companies, the best people means the resume of experience. But for startup, we feel that the best people are the people who are willing to learn more, and they’re passionate to do something. And also they are able to face the challenge and able to solve around them.
Stella: So in a really early stage, because we started with me and Joonas and Alexander, I think at the time the senior function was enough. So we actually hired a lot of people who are young and passionate with the junior, but they have the interest in certain areas, and we grow them to multiple discipline. Because in the mobile game industry, even though a lot of people consider themselves as a senior, but it’s not. Mobile is a still very young industry. So we are looking for people that have more tolerance to challenge themselves, but also really open to learn things.
Stella: So we actually … I’m very glad to say that most of our 14-people team, half of them have been with us for around three years. The other half have been a very solid two years. So basically this period of time, we kind of challenged them to take more responsibility and also challenge them on different, new tasks to turn them to be the future leaders of our team.
Joakim: That’s cool. I actually talked with one of your investors, and he told me to ask you about how do you guys develop skills internally. Do you have a process for that?
Stella: Well I think to be quite open, I think one of the key things I realized was we didn’t have a particular title about game designer, producer, the traditional role in a company. We kind of … We have people who design economic. We have tech and art. But we kind of break down the company into feature team, which means that let’s say this release we have a couple of the KPIs we want to hit, each feature team, they’re responsible for something. And the feature team consists of tech and art. Then basically they need to design together, and they need to propose that this is their solution to the visions. And then we verify them. So in that sense, everybody has the same, but also the teams are small enough in the feature team that they can have the debate between themselves. So that’s how we develop the skill.
Stella: But I have to tell you that it’s not always easy because challenging people to take … They’re uncomfortable. So it’s not easy. I do remember that sometimes we bring this task to the team, and the team was like, “Oh, I’ve never done it before.”
Stella: And I’ll say, “Yes, yes. You can do it. And we’re going to help. We’re going to support.” So it’s a tough path that me and Joonas choose. But when we look back, instead of the responsibility of producer, to actually time-box their project. Or instead of the game designer to designer the book, the whole team is actually taking responsibility of that. So that’s our porch, and in the sense that we are also prepared for the growth.
Stella: Let’s say if we are going to increase a couple more people, I’m pretty confident our core team is able to share the culture, how we do things with other people and also able to voice out their opinions when we actually have more people in the team. So that’s actually how we grow them. Of course, as a startup you always have to juggle with funding challenge. And that’s why we definitely need more people who are more solution-oriented in the team.
Joakim: Like if you would double the team, do you think that you can keep the control, like control of how the culture develops? Or are you very kind of like dynamic in that sense that the culture where it goes as you bring on new people?
Stella: So this is actually a very touching topic. Recently when we were thinking about hiring new people, my question to some of the key members who actually first [inaudible 00:12:20] leading or leading tech, I asked them what do you think we need, the personality type and also skillset type? And I want to give them an opportunity to kind of look into their workflow and see where they want to grow, and also making sure that they have themselves knowing that six months, one year, where they want to be, what kind of a complimentary partner they’re looking for.
Stella: So when I was actually discussing a couple roles we were mentioning, I was really happily glad that not only they talked about the skill they need, but they can also point out the personality that they don’t want or they would like to have. So a couple of thing that our team was mentioning, that the team works really well together. There’s no difference between you’re a senior or you’re better. So they want to have much more team-oriented and also able to listen to feedback. So these are the traits that they know [inaudible 00:13:20] work in the company. And they can see this is what we need as as team.
Stella: They also had concern that if we had new people, would they change the dynamic and all those things. So during that conversation I was positively feeling that the past two and three years that all the people who have been with us know the culture by their heart even though they probably cannot mention key points with our culture. But they know what kind of people they want to work with.
Stella: So I would say that when we are increasing our team, I have pretty much confidence on what our team would like to see on the new people and how would they influence the new people as well. I feel that’s quite solid feedback on our team.
Joakim: Do you bring in the team into discussion when you’re talking about the road map for the company? How do you make decisions based on the plan and the future?
Stella: Joonas and I, we used to be quite hands-on. But then the past one, two years, every year we told ourselves there’s an objective that we need to learn how to let go. So right now, for example, we still have the high vision because the product market fit is something that we want to tackle down. But with the roadmap and also looking at the games, for example we use a lot of play test cloud to actually see how players play. So when we’re actually looking to the player test cloud, the whole team looks at it and they write feedback, what they want to change. And on the roadmap level we have objectives of what we want to do. So we included someone representing from our, someone representing from tech, and also economic designer in the discussions. It’s a smaller group. But when we have the vision, we show it to the team to have feedback. And they can actually voice out that, “Hey, this is not the priority I think we should do,” or, “This is not the feature that I feel we have at this moment.” Then we kind of do the iterative changes.
Stella: So there’s no set goal that I set this is where we go. But of course, too many people involved in decisions is chaotic. So we set the baseline and we have the team feedback to it. And the most important thing about that was because we have feature owner team, so basically they need to commit it, and they also need to agree what they want to do to produce the best outcome. So that’s where we are right now.
Joakim: That’s awesome. I want to talk a bit about the way that you’ve been working with your investors and fundraising in general. Do you have an approach of how you select the investors you want to work with? Like it’s a long-term relationship anyway, so do you have certain criteria in mind when you use it to look at, okay, we’re going to go and do a pitch? What do you think about that area?
Stella: I think if I look like in the past few years, we definitely were totally a newbie when we started. But we kind of learned our lessons in the hard and soft way. So in the beginning before we started the company, we looked at the best company. We go to Crunchbase to see who invests in them. And then we list out … For example, in early stage, you have an initial capital and a VP. Joonas and I, we have a goal for ourselves. If we pitch to one of them, and all this kind of game oriented VCs, if none of them like what we’re talking about, probably it’s fate that this is not for us. So we gave us quite a high bar that we want to focus on. Because we know that even though we have passion to do what we want to do, but we definitely need experience in VC for the early stage. It’s especially a gain to guide us through.
Stella: So we were really lucky to gain investment by initial capital in [inaudible 00:17:21]. So that was a good starting point. But most people thought that you race the first round, then you’re done. That’s actually an urban myth. Afterwards we kind of thought that his game VC will bring us more networking. They did, and they also bring a lot of new names. But actually, it’s the funders job to actually define the pitch to find the right target, and also funders job to go to the crowd and meet the right people. So I think last year we started to kind of cross-reference. We basically did at least 100 version of keynotes. But we basically every time, when we had a meeting with someone, we kind of take note what do they want to know, and also what happened.
Stella: So in the beginning, I actually have the same pitch to everybody. But afterwards, I actually have … For example, I have 70 pages of keynotes. But I jumped the slides depending on if this a game-focused VC, product-focused, or this is more business model VC. So I kind of tailor made the pitch based on who I met. And this is a lot of hard lessons we learned during the early time.
Stella: So I would say that we did the first step right, to challenge ourself to pitch to the game-focused early investors because they also have … The best part about them is because they have portfolio of other companies where you can always ask questions and also ask for feedback and see their path closely. So that was a really good learning experience.
Stella: The next stage, we’re still focusing on people who have invested in games, and also are able to have a little bit different approach of that. So in our financial, we have been always looking for VC appetite for games because we know that we are still quite early. So we definitely want the people who have experience to take us to the next stage.
Joakim: How do you guys work to build the best relationships with your investors?
Stella: Well, I didn’t know … As I said, I have a funny story to tell you. You know that when you search LinkedIn too much, they will block you? So of course you get introduction by your own VC, but it’s also your job to find … There are so many new funds happening. There are so many [inaudible 00:19:51] investors, and there’s not only Nordic. Europe, and also USA. So the past one year I did a very intense search on LinkedIn. An then they actually asked me … I already have a Premium account, but they asked me to upgrade to HR because they thought that I was hiring people.
Stella: So I did a little cross-reference to understanding what are the VC investments [inaudible 00:20:15] game, and what kind of portfolio they have invested and why. So I kind of do my analysis. If my account got blocked, I use Joonas’ account. So that’s basically we’re looking to a lot of VCs that we try to work for. But we also look at their history, why bring them to the games, to understand better. So for example, I follow a lot of new news. And then when there’s new fund, we start to do the search on that. And then we have a long list of people. Sometimes I drop them an email from LinkedIn. Sometimes I ask the network if I know any of them and introduce them to us. But that’s how we kind of prepare our homework on that. Yeah.
Joakim: Thinking about being a company that’s raising funds, and you guys are in the growth stage definitely there with launching a game soon, what do you think is the right time to kind of pour the fuel, like do a really big venture capital investment round?
Stella: I think we have been a startup more garage-style. We have never had enough funding, which I think the benefit of that is you make the company and team work smarter and more agile. But of course we don’t always have a luxury to have enough runway to think through. So when we actually think about financial realm, I think one of the best things right now was we are in the pre-market product, but we checkbox a lot of the risk profile. For example, when we develop the game in three months, we already put them in the market testing. So the whole team is actually more … Every three weeks we had a new release to iterate the games. So basically we can see our metrics, and also we can see how players behave through our games. Right now we feel that the best timing was when we actually do certain prime country in the west, and we have hit the target that we want to hit, that would be the right time for a big funding.
Stella: But that’s also counter … Like what is enough funding to actually do the big [inaudible 00:22:41] for them. Because I see a lot of companies, they made the mistake when they get a lot of funding. They maybe put too much on the market without realizing what they’re trying to aim for. So basically this year our focus is not only on the player metric, but also seeing that, hey, how can we get the cheaper user. How can we actually pretend them, and how our line operation can boost up so we don’t need to actually pour so much funding? Once that actually has a formula that we’re confident about, then that’s the moment that we should be saying, “Hey, this is how much we want for it.”
Joakim: As you’re not building kind of like the company and you’re talking with the investors, what kind of … How do you see that you’re spending time with new investors versus your existing investors? Is there a good way build that kind of like bridge between them and getting the next round to happen? How do you see that area happen?
Stella: Well, that’s also one lesson I started learning, that if you need money and then you start talking to a VC, that’s too late. So basically the past big conference, my target has always been meeting the VC that in the near future that they have interest investment, but also meeting for the future VC.
Stella: One of the VCs that we met during [inaudible 00:24:08], they’re really well known in USA. And the first sentence, I was very honest and we’re too early, but I just want to show you what we’re working on et cetera. So basically that making the future VC is probably 10, 20% of the time. It’s always good for them to know that you exist instead of coming to them very last minute. But then with our current VC, I have a pretty good relationship with our chairman and also our initial capital. Basically I update every time when I have news or challenge. We don’t have this kind of accumulated update for three months and then do one time as we were still on the growing stage, fund start stage. So I basically share with them, and also if I have a little bit of concern about things, I email them or text them, “Hey, this is something that we are stuck with. What’s your feedback?” So with our current VC, I have been a little bit more frequent update rather than a bigger chunk update.
Stella: In the future VC we … For example, we are in the middle of closing round. We are actually updating them every two weeks. Hey, this is what happened. So they don’t feel that … It’s not in silence. But this is also … One of our chairmen will always say that raising funding is art and science. You really need to know the other person to tell them how frequent, how much update we need to do. And that’s something that I’m trying out and find the best formula.
Stella: And also I think the next stage, one thing we need to think, there are different investors coming from different backgrounds. How do you find a mutual way to update and how do you make sure they all have a conversation? So this is something I’m still juggling around. But the good thing is try different possible solutions and then see what echos from them.
Joakim: That’s awesome. Been working with so many investors myself. There’s usually a different kind of cadence of how much attention they bring themselves and how much you need to pull them in. It really depends on the person. But yeah, updates are definitely important.
Stella: And I also find one thing. It’s knowing your strength of your VC is actually really important because some of them are really operational hiring, like experience. Some of them are very legal and company structure. Some of them are much more about how to metric and all the things. So if you kind of know what’s their strength and what’s their interest level, it’s easier to build that connection, and they will be more helpful on that side. Yeah.
Joakim: Yeah. Let’s talk about the games market a bit. How do you see … Because you guys deal in the mobile game space. How do you see the competition there? Do you have any special approaches into your go-to-market strategy?
Stella: So I think the interesting thing is all the time when we talk to mobile space, everybody has one sentence. It’s really crowded, it’s very competitive. But I do believe that optimistic as a funder, and you always need to believe that there is always a blue oceans. There is always a space that people are under discover. So basically for example, one of the things we saw first with the Fortnight and also a lot of multiple player games, hardcore games, we have been always thinking that if you have a hardcore doing multiple player and focus on social interactions, how about more casual and mid-core interest, the opposite side spectrum. So basically when we look in the market, we always see what’s rising, what’s hot, but also thinking that, hey, where are the same areas that were not filled? So this is the starting point when we think about the games that we want to do.
Stella: Regarding the business model, as I said that when we started the mobile game company, one of the most attractive for me was there’s no existing business model. Things have been changing. For example, Apply just has the Apple Arcade. Things will change again.
Stella: So I would say that we … The first fundamental is you need to know what’s your promotion strategy. You focus on those strategies as a baseline. And then you’re always looking to the market change, what you can do. So another session we’re going to have with the team was hot to discuss about Apple new strategy, what will impact us. But we are not going to tell anybody our strategy because of that, but we’re actually able to react to the changes.
Joakim: That’s awesome. That’s really an interesting angle to have the blue ocean strategy in basically your day-to-day work kind of in the back of your mind. Do you see that there’s anything in the game industry at the moment that you’d want to change?
Stella: I think that there’s probably a couple things that we really like to work with the game-focused VC because that brings us to the next stage. But I also know that one of the downsides of some game investments, it’s because they themselves are a gamer. And typically if you call yourself a gamer, you’re the hardcore gamer. The problem is if you look at the whole market, the hardcore gamers are quite niche, and they are very competitive in user acquisition.
Stella: There is actually a bigger market out there that … I think one of the key challenges with these venture background people who have game experience … Have able to open up for more advertise because I do see a lot of studios trying to do blue ocean like us, tackling different things. But the challenge is having hard time to show the potential because the people you talk to, they are a core by heart. So that’s actually one thing I see, be challenging on that side.
Stella: The other thing how I see is I do see the whole games become even more cross-platform. Originally, people would say that we’re mobile-first and everything, but now it’s very cross-platform. So I think one of the challenges is how you as a company, you can adapt to the platform, but have [inaudible 00:30:47] strategy and make it work. So I see that’s the two things that still need room to improve and also people need to have a bit open mind to see the opportunity.
Joakim: That’s great. The whole cross-platform thing is something that everybody’s been talking about for ages. I think it’s always two platforms that could co-exist. But it seems that it’s finally getting there because bandwidth is now everywhere available.
Stella: I actually heard one … I was speaking to one of the big Asian publishing companies, and one of the new strategies was very interesting. It used to be you do games and then … You do mobile games, you do PC games, separately. But now one of their new strategies to look for, the best PC game, and port them to mobile. And then that’s actually quite new that I heard this year. So the interesting thing is how you as a … Doesn’t matter where you start. You need to think at the possibility in different platforms especially if you have a game focused more, again, as a service, rather than more hyper-casual. If you have opportunity to grow a fan base, then that kind of cross-platform strategy is needed. But then the challenge is how do you actually make the operation able to [inaudible 00:32:11] to have different life events and monetization models because they all serve different purposes. So I guess that’s something that eventually someone needs to crack it.
Joakim: Yeah. Yeah. It’s interesting times for sure.
Joakim: Hey, let’s go into the final question section. Tell me what is your favorite book and why?
Stella: Well, when I saw that question, I was actually thinking I read a lot of books, but then there’s one book stuck in my mind, and it’s a really hard book for entrepreneurs to read. It’s called The Hard Things About Hard Things.
Joakim: Yes. I know that one.
Stella: Yeah. I have to say that it’s really funny because before I started the company, I was reading a lot of the art books and user experiences. Something more delightful. A lot more pictures. But after I started a company, everything’s about business, about entrepreneur, venture capital. But The Hard Thing About Hard Things, that was a really difficult book for me to read. The reason is every page echoes how you feel. And then so that’s actually the book I put in my iPad. And every time I fly to a conference, I would read them just as encouragement. And I remember that there was a session they talk about how you think that the tough part is already past, but the new challenges are coming.
Stella: And the reason I said it’s a very hard book for entrepreneurs to swallow is because you kind of think, every day-to-day you think you’re alone on this problem. But when you read the book, they are spot-on on everything. But the problem is that you go through conference, you look at everybody around you, they look so happy and bright. So you don’t see the problems.
Stella: But that book is actually giving me a good perspective that as a founder, it doesn’t matter how tough the journey, it’s more about mentality, how you can actually think about the problem as … Like there’s a saying that the things are never easy, you just get better. So how you can kind of smile, and then you can be positive and just fight through it. So I would say it’s the book that I haven’t really finished because it’s very hard to finish it, but it’s a book I carry with me on iPad. I’ll go to a conference and look at them and feel like, “Okay, I’m not alone here.” So that would be the book, my favorite.
Joakim: That’s a good one for sure.
Joakim: So your biggest lesson learned as a games company founder?
Stella: That’s also the hard one because I feel that there are many lessons I learned daily. So it’s hard to have a biggest one. I think one of the biggest ones I learned is to … I think this thing I just said was actually right on the point that things are never easy. You just get better. And then I remember that … I’ll tell you a little bit of back story. So I actually went to art school, even though I had the chance to go to business school. One of the key reasons when I was younger age was I don’t want to deal with writing papers, Excel sheets. I want to do a bit something more creative.
Stella: And then here I go, where I am. I deal with most other things I didn’t sign up for. But the best part is I look back on myself. And all the moment I was struggling. I realized every year I don’t struggle as much. So probably the biggest lesson is there was never going to be an ending for a better situation, but it’s more about how you look at things and how you can actually challenge yourself to be better. So that might be my biggest lesson, that there’s no …
Stella: So for example, we have a little bit tough time raising [inaudible 00:36:18] in the past two years. And every time, end of year, Joonas and I, we have to kind of reach a [inaudible 00:36:23] of the year. We always tell ourselves that this is probably the rock bottom that we have experienced. But the next year we top that. So in that sense, you kind of thought, okay, this is what happened. And then you kind of start to learn to be calmer and try to find a solution and also keep the positive energy.
Stella: So I think that’s the lesson I learned, that nothing’s going to get easier, but it’s just how you look at things.
Joakim: Yeah. Yeah, kinda relate to that for sure.
Joakim: Do you have things that keep you up at night even though definitely entrepreneur life isn’t easy? Do you have specific things?
Stella: I think keeping things online is … There are multiple different things of course as a founder. At one moment you’re talking to an investor. At one moment you’re dealing with the team, growing with the team, looking at roadmaps. So you’re like the person who wears multiple, different personalities. And I think what keeps me at night sometimes is I really appreciate our team because it hasn’t been an easy journey. We’re building a game that is really non-existing. It’s a very ambitious, challenging game with very little resources. We have always gone through the financial problem, but what kept me at night is I remember one time I was in a conference and our team texted me that we broke the microwave. And I was like, “How did we break the microwave?”
Stella: And when I really think about it, it was because our team has been microwaving a lot. And I would say that all the challenges now as heartbroken until you feel that, okay, I really need to break through to make the change of life for everybody. So I think that’s something that keeps me … Couldn’t really sleep sometimes because you know that everybody’s trying their best, and you’re also … Me and Joonas have … For example, we didn’t take salary for a year and a couple months. We know we had given our best, but you still feel like it’s not enough. So that’s something that as a founder it was pretty hard sometimes.
Stella: But then as I said, you don’t want to show the challenges all the time to the team because I would like them to believe that we have faith to go through. But there’s a lot of moments that I’m juggling. Okay, this situation was so tough. And I look at them and I look ourselves. This is just too tough life. We really want to do this, but you cannot show that pondering all the time, otherwise why would they believe you to continue work on this? So I think that’s the well-being of the team and the quality of life is some is something that kept me at night. I’m thinking.
Joakim: Yeah. Definitely that. The quality of life, kind of like stopping and reflecting. It’s sort of hard to do when you’re in the midst of everything that’s going crazy.
Stella: Yeah. Especially you kind of ask yourself what else you can give, but you’ve already done all you can. So that kind of without … I’m very solution-oriented. If there’s a problem, I can find a solution, I’m very happy. It doesn’t matter how hard the problem is. This kind of more emotionally and also more situation you cannot control, that really gets you sometimes.
Joakim: So what do you see happening to the company the next five years? What’s the mission and the plan?
Stella: Well, we definitely want to be kind of taking the space of the social MMO. I think a lot of people think of MMO as more hardcore battling. We definitely feel that we want to combine the game and social into a platform where players can actually freely build the world and trading and actually interact with each other. And we do see that in the current mobile space, people are more on the opposite side where we want to be the master of that, create kind of like an amusement park. You get all the people together and then play the game, socializing, and having fun with each other. So that’s our mission.
Stella: The other thing is we definitely hope that once we kind of take off with the game, we can actually build the portfolio around this thesis and also one of the things that we did was we build our own IP. Even though that hasn’t been the focus of our game, but we have a lot of fun stories and characters. And we wish that the portfolio of the game, the success of the games can actually bring more of that part to the audience and make them more engaged of the work that we’re building.
Joakim: Stella, thanks a lot for this interview. It was super great and a lot of insight here for the listeners for sure. Happy to have you on board in a year or two when things have been moving forward.
Stella: Yes. Every year we cannot do everything the best, but one or two things better, then I’m happy.
Joakim: Yeah, definitely.
Stella: Thank you so much.
Joakim: Thanks. Thanks.
Stella: Thank you.
Joakim: We’ll be back next week with another interesting guest. In the meantime, you can follow me on Twitter at Juoakim_A, and check out our website at [inaudible 00:42:05] developers.com, where you can find my book on starting and running a games company. See you next week. Ciao.
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