Entrepreneur Profile: Justin Beck, PerBlue

Note: This post is the third in a new series called “Entrepreneur Profiles.”  These posts focus on an interesting entrepreneur who I’ve gotten to know and hopefully provide a window into their business that you might not otherwise find in a newspaper or magazine.

Justin Beck is the co-founder and CEO of PerBlue, a software startup in Madison.  PerBlue’s flagship product, Parallel Kingdom, is the first location based game built for the iPhone and Android and has over 80,000 players worldwide.  Founded in January 2008 while he was still in school, Beck and his team have worked to create a successful game and an interesting business model.  Beck graduated with a degree in Computer Engineering from the University of Wisconsin.

Nathan Lustig: Hi Justin, thanks for taking the time to answer my questions.  Can you give me a brief overview of your company?

Justin Beck: Sure.  PerBlue was created when we started developing our flagship game, Parallel Kingdom, in January 2008. The first version was released in October 2008 and we’ve been steadily gaining players and improving the game ever since. The game is on its 3rd major version and we currently have over 80,000 players.

We have 7 more or less full-time people working for us and are growing nicely. We have also developed several other applications for the iPhone and Android platforms but our most successful app remains Parallel Kingdom.  As we’ve grown we have found our business to be building great multiplayer games for mobile platforms.

NL: What kind of background did you have to be able to start a mobile gaming company?

JB: I have been programming since I was 12 years old and love to do it.  I graduated from UW-Madison with a Computer Engineering and Computer Science Degree and I interned as a software engineer at Google and as a program manager at Microsoft on their ASP.NET team.

NL: Many founders of startups have some sort of an “ah-ha moment” when they first got the idea for their company.  Did you have one and what was it?

JB: I’m thinking that could be true for us.

I was working on a different startup with some friends from Google.  We were going to build a community bar and real-time chat for webpages as a script mashup, which was going great.  But when Andrew Hanson (my partner) and I were doing homework one night, we starting thinking about the next game we should make.  I was like, we should build something mobile, something people actually would play, simple, and we should throw GPS into it somehow to make it interesting.

From that conversation, we started with Parallel Kingdom.  It was about a month later when I realized the mobile space was really growing and I should invest myself into build a company around that space.  This was before the iPhone Appstore even existed.  I would say that was my “ah-ha” moment.  I just knew it.  It wasn’t a tough choice.

NL: What is the biggest reason you founded your startup?

JB: I love adventure.   I saw building a company as the next challenge in my life.  Two of my life goals were to work at Google and Microsoft.  I had been there and gotten offers from them, but this opportunity came up and the timing couldn’t get much better.  Many people assume lots of things about people who run their own business, many of these are explicitly not true with me.

I actually really like working for someone else and trying to make them as successful as possible.  I also really have no interest in the money.  I took a 2 year pay cut to do PerBlue.  So for me, it’s the adventure and challenge.

NL: What is the biggest unexpected challenge you had to overcome?

JB: I would say my biggest unexpected challenge was how hard it is to be a really good manager of a creative team. I am still working on it, but doing it well is very hard.

NL: What advice would you give to someone who is thinking about starting a startup?

JB:

1.       Play to win, commit yourself to playing the game and be willing to be very flexible in how you navigate the pathway.   Watch and model people who have built successful companies and learn from them.  (Watching failure doesn’t teach you how to succeed)

2.       Have a specific goal: we are going to do “this.” Drive yourself and your team to this goal.

3.       Have a schedule, (roadmap) that is a reasonable plan of getting to that goal.

4.       Commitment and talent are the 2 most important traits of your teammates.

5.       Stay focused.  You can only build one business at a time.  Choose your business and stick to it till its done.

6.       It’s a marathon not a sprint, pace yourself emotionally, mentally, physically

NL: What are three websites you check everyday?

JB: Not many. Pandora, Facebook, Google Analytics, PKStats, Bug Tracking is my honest list. But websites I check weekly bi-weekly when I am thinking about strategy or competitive research.

http://techcrunch.com
http://news.ycombinator.com/

I have my executives I try to watch.  Marc Pincus (Zynga), Eric Schmidt (Google), Jason Fried (37signals)

I like watching talks, Google Tech Talks are amazing.

NL: Do you have any funny stories or amusing anecdotes about starting or running the company?  Do people ask you “when are you going to get a real job?”

JB: There are lots of funny stories.  One of the easiest ones to explain is DB Death Day and yes it is a PerBlue holiday.  We had some problems with the database and issued a statement that:  “There was a massive forest fire in PK, resulting in every tree in the western hemisphere being burnt to the ground.”  Along with the loss of every GeoBuzz post.  It was a sad day, but somewhat comical looking back.

I have actually never heard that statement about getting a real job.  Most people are very encouraging.  Most people don’t understand what it takes to build a business. So that makes their empathy hard. I think the most negative person towards PerBlue was my recruiter at Microsoft when I turned down their offer and counter offer, but that was her job.

NL: What/who has been the biggest help to you and your company?

JB: My mentors have been amazing.  During PerBlue’s life I have now had about 7 mentors, as the life stage of the company changes the mentors I use and depend on also changes.  But I can’t imagine doing this without mentors.  My partner Andrew has also been an amazing asset, starting a company with a partner is an extremely wise idea.  Team is what makes the company, without the PerBlue team, we would have never gotten off the launch pad.

NL: What is the most fun part of running your company?  The least?

JB: I would say the most enjoyable parts of running PerBlue, are working with the team, building and solving big problems, having things work, and seeing players love the game and play it so much and actually see our business become successful.  I personally get a lot of gratification when I see my co-workers growing and become excellent at what they do.  I think the least enjoyable part of my job are the days when it seems like everything “breaks” or when things just don’t go like you need them to.

NL: Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions, you had some great advice.  Good luck in the future.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]
  • corky

    JB noted that the most unexpected challenge was how difficult it is to be a really good manager of a creative team. I’d like to know more about that: what are the difficulties; what advice could he give; how is it different managing a creative team rather than other types of teams.

    Second, how does he make money?

  • corky

    JB noted that the most unexpected challenge was how difficult it is to be a really good manager of a creative team. I’d like to know more about that: what are the difficulties; what advice could he give; how is it different managing a creative team rather than other types of teams.

    Second, how does he make money?

  • http://www.justinkbeck.com Justin Beck

    Hey Corky,

    I put a few of my thoughts together to try to address your questions.

    What is a creative team?
    You know your part of a creative team when your job requires design, architecture, creativity, and ingenuity.

    We aren’t making burgers, pulling weeds, or driving trucks or selling products. The output is a creation that is uniquely crafted. I view Programming, Artwork, Marketing, Web Design, Game Design etc as creative tasks.

    What are the difficulties?

    The challenge is with “creative’s” is that individual performance or productivity can possibly have no correlation to “time spent” on a task but rather things like intrinsic motivation, guidance or divine inspiration.

    As a manager you have no explicit control of how they do there job. Yet your are responsible for getting quality results in a timely manner.

    What advice do I have?

    Each of your team members is different and you need to treat them all differently. Treating them uniquely is more important than treating them fairly. Don’t assume they are like you, or “all artists are similar”. These differences are what makes them amazing and is what you can use to maximize their productivity. For example: some individuals need to be left alone. Some individuals if you leave them alone they will waste a bunch of time and get virtually nothing accomplished. Some individuals you can “beat with a stick” to better stuff out. Some individuals its all about cutting apart their work just right. Some people you give financial milestones. Some of them you complement them in public. Some you talk to in private.

    Constantly be looking for an individual’s talents and strengths. Work to maximize their individual performance my encouraging them to always perform better then they did in the past.

    Find communication that works for the both of you. Clearly explain what you want the outcome to be.

    Demand excellence or all you will get is crap. Constraints are an amazing tool. “I believe you can do better”. “I think you can do this faster” “I think you can do this with fewer lines of code”

    As a manager you have “no control” you only have remote control. Don’t fake yourself into thinking your in control. At the end of the day all you can do is inspire and direct the team to doing the right things.

    Give them objectives and milestones that are meaningful to them. Its your job to get all members of the team to build something amazing. Treat each member of the team individually. Give them an objective that is something they have control over. The best teams are the ones that have high performing individuals and are working towards one common vision.

    “A great creative manager can get blood from stones without making enemies.”

    How do we make money?

    We sell a virtual item called “Food” to PK players. PK is free-to-play, but you can spend Food for about 30 different things inside of the game. It is also tradable with other players via a little in game ebay for in game goods.

  • http://www.justinkbeck.com Justin Beck

    Hey Corky,

    I put a few of my thoughts together to try to address your questions.

    What is a creative team?
    You know your part of a creative team when your job requires design, architecture, creativity, and ingenuity.

    We aren’t making burgers, pulling weeds, or driving trucks or selling products. The output is a creation that is uniquely crafted. I view Programming, Artwork, Marketing, Web Design, Game Design etc as creative tasks.

    What are the difficulties?

    The challenge is with “creative’s” is that individual performance or productivity can possibly have no correlation to “time spent” on a task but rather things like intrinsic motivation, guidance or divine inspiration.

    As a manager you have no explicit control of how they do there job. Yet your are responsible for getting quality results in a timely manner.

    What advice do I have?

    Each of your team members is different and you need to treat them all differently. Treating them uniquely is more important than treating them fairly. Don’t assume they are like you, or “all artists are similar”. These differences are what makes them amazing and is what you can use to maximize their productivity. For example: some individuals need to be left alone. Some individuals if you leave them alone they will waste a bunch of time and get virtually nothing accomplished. Some individuals you can “beat with a stick” to better stuff out. Some individuals its all about cutting apart their work just right. Some people you give financial milestones. Some of them you complement them in public. Some you talk to in private.

    Constantly be looking for an individual’s talents and strengths. Work to maximize their individual performance my encouraging them to always perform better then they did in the past.

    Find communication that works for the both of you. Clearly explain what you want the outcome to be.

    Demand excellence or all you will get is crap. Constraints are an amazing tool. “I believe you can do better”. “I think you can do this faster” “I think you can do this with fewer lines of code”

    As a manager you have “no control” you only have remote control. Don’t fake yourself into thinking your in control. At the end of the day all you can do is inspire and direct the team to doing the right things.

    Give them objectives and milestones that are meaningful to them. Its your job to get all members of the team to build something amazing. Treat each member of the team individually. Give them an objective that is something they have control over. The best teams are the ones that have high performing individuals and are working towards one common vision.

    “A great creative manager can get blood from stones without making enemies.”

    How do we make money?

    We sell a virtual item called “Food” to PK players. PK is free-to-play, but you can spend Food for about 30 different things inside of the game. It is also tradable with other players via a little in game ebay for in game goods.

  • corky

    Thanks for the extra. I think decent lawyers who get to do the fun part of law (not the cranking out burgers kind of law) fit your definition of creative, and the difficulty of managing creative people applies as well. I wonder, though, whether some of your ideas also would be helpful for the burger-crankers of the world…might a good manager of mundane taskworkers also get better performance by looking for an individual’s talents and strengths? probably, but the range of variation might be smaller. Thanks for prompting the thoughts.

  • corky

    Thanks for the extra. I think decent lawyers who get to do the fun part of law (not the cranking out burgers kind of law) fit your definition of creative, and the difficulty of managing creative people applies as well. I wonder, though, whether some of your ideas also would be helpful for the burger-crankers of the world…might a good manager of mundane taskworkers also get better performance by looking for an individual’s talents and strengths? probably, but the range of variation might be smaller. Thanks for prompting the thoughts.

  • http://www.spime.com ANAND

    Hi JB, that was a nice and interesting. Could you please visit our company and take a glance. I’m sure you will love it. Is there any chance we could have a business deal. Eagerly looking for a reply.

  • http://www.spime.com ANAND

    Hi JB, that was a nice and interesting. Could you please visit our company and take a glance. I’m sure you will love it. Is there any chance we could have a business deal. Eagerly looking for a reply.