Tag: startups

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?


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.


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.

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Entrepreneur Profiles: Fashion Entrepreneur Sukara Sterling

Note: This post is the second 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. Sukara Sterling is a young entrepreneur and friend who started her own clothing boutique on State Street.  This post is about her experiences with life after her store.

HI! my name is Sukara Sterling and I am a young entrepreneur. I opened up my very own clothing boutique when I was 21 years old on famous State Street in Madison,Wisconsin.  I named my shop after me, calling it Sukara Sterling.  I owned and operated it for nearly 5 years, closing it in July 2009.  After closing my store, I searched and searched for the right job, and was offered many, but I really realized I really wanted to be my own boss.

People always ask me “how did you go from growing up in the country to owning your own boutique at age 21?”  It all started at a young age.  I was always interested in fashion as a child.  I grew up in the country playing outside with my siblings, exploring abandoned buildings and playing in the Maribel caves. Being the outdoorsy child that I was, I somehow also had an interest in fashion.

I can remember making my first garment, I think in 4th grade. It was made out of a farm print fabric (I’d like to bring that look back….hahaha). Anyway, from there I continued to have an interest in fashion and also started to learn more about business. I remember buying my first business book as a Sophomore in high school and bringing it to class with me.  The book brought a ton of attention and lots of questions from the my teachers and students. I told everyone I wanted to own my very own clothing boutique. I definitely got a mixed response.  Some thought I could never do it and others gave me their full support. (Thanks to those who did ;).

Next, I graduated from high school and went on to college. Let’s just say I picked the wrong school and switched colleges a few times. Never finding my niche at school, I ended up dropping out, even though I loved fashion and had been able to choose to major in fashion marketing.

I had two major problems.  First, I had to pay all my bills through school, leaving me with hardly any time to study. I had two part time jobs and I was also a full time student.  My first job was as a waitress.  I loved that job, the money was good, and I had a blast running around the restaurant with my co-workers.  Some of the girls are now my life long friends, they were also college students at the time, and moved on to other things.

The second problem, and this one was a BIG one was, in class I would sit and think, “gosh why cant I just do this in ‘real life’, and skip the stuff I don’t need?” Well, that is exactly what I decided to do. The second part time job I had was at a clothing boutique called Lupe. The women who owned it wanted to get out of her lease and I saw this as a great opportunity to start my own store by taking over her lease.

That is exactly what I did. After a few weeks of getting everything needed together including taking out a small loan, I inked my name on the lease with a hefty monthly rent. I really wasn’t worried about how I would pay the bills, I just knew that it was what I wanted. For me when there is a will, there is a way.

I changed the name of the store to Sukara Sterling, restocked the store with my own inventory and was on my merry way for a great learning experience. Let’s just say I jumped into this.  I didn’t know much about business and only had read a few books. I went with the flow and learned what I needed to run a successful business and grew with my new company. I learned to do everything including, HR, Accounting, Taxes, Managing, Operations and my favorite the buying. I remember going to my first show for a buying trip in LA and having no idea what I was doing. I just nodded my head and agreed acting the part, they bought it. It worked.

A few weeks later I was ripping open boxes of new inventory, and reaping the benefits of checking out customers and making some cash. As a few years went on, I got bored with being in the same place; I needed more flexibility in my life, not to mention the economy decided to tank and sales were down. I saw this as the perfect time to sell out my inventory and move on with new ventures. Owning and operating the store gave me tons of experience and exposure and enabled me to be qualified for some pretty sick jobs. I closed in July of 2009 and attempted to move to Los Angeles. I made some money, learned a ton, but it was time to move on.

My beautiful sister is also an entrepreneur, running her own jewelry label out in LA.   She was lovely enough to fly home and road trip with me and my dog Benson across the country from Wisconsin to California. In California I was lucky enough to find some great job opportunities even though California’s unemployment rate is very high compared to other places. I was offered an office job and a job as a store manager for a fashion label, but, let’s just say LA is not my bag, so I turned down the job offers.

I found that it was great to visit, but decided it wasn’t right for me to be living there. Among other reasons, oddly enough I needed rain, and there was hardly any rain in California and bunch of other stuff I didn’t love. I packed up everything and came back to where I am from, still in search of my perfect place to live.  I was comforted where there was fresh rain and green cut grass in good old Wisconsin. I drove solo across the states in 36 hours.  If you drive straight through, it takes 30 hours. So if you do the math, you can see I slept little and only stopped when needed for gas. I slept once for 4 hours in the beautiful Rocky Mountains, waking up to a shiny dusting of snow. I loved driving across the country solo, it gave me plenty of personal one on one reflection time and thinking time, which I love.

I applied for jobs in several different states when I got back.  I still didn’t know where I wanted to have my home base. I was lucky enough to get job offers in several different states from several different companies. I was offered a job in Boston, but wasn’t ready for Boston.  Got offered a job in Chicago as Store Manager for a clothing line that I love, but I finally realized that I did not want to live in a big city whether it was LA or Chicago. Finally, I took a job in Milwaukee, working as store manager for a large clothing retailer.  I saw this as a huge opportunity because I would be managing a store that did $7mm  a year in sales, and it was a different path for me coming from my background in boutiques. However, that wasn’t for me either.

I realized that corporate America is really not my friend and I needed more freedom and flexibility in my life. That is when it dawned on me that I need to be doing my own thing again, fully running my own show. I decided I would look for some consulting work and quit when I found that.

Fortunately, my experience has given me a leg up in the harsh world of trying to find a job. The work came to me faster than I thought. I went in for an interview and I was on the payroll 5 minutes after my interview ended and immediately started working that same day. I am now currently working for a company called Madison Avenue Worldwide. This awesome couple who I adore dearly has given me a great opportunity. They were looking for someone to help them start a retail store from scratch. That is where I come in. I was hired to do exactly what I know how to do. Start a retail business. It is the closet thing to working for myself that I can get right now.

My job is to implement all the procedures and operations for a retail store that was just started called Fashion Playground. I am in charge of basically starting the store from scratch and getting it running and profitable. I am doing all the public relations, marketing, HR, writing the store manuals and implementing all the procedures and policy’s etc. for store operations. It is a great concept idea for a store where the kids get to come in and be their own designer for their own garment. I was recently informed that after I finish up with my current project with them, I get to start traveling for their other company and will be doing marketing and PR which I am really excited about. The owners of this business are very lovely and have given me the flexibility that I want and positive feedback that I was hoping for.  This jobs gives me a good mix of entrepreneurship and the steadiness of knowing I’ll have a paycheck.

While moving around and trying to figure out where I should live I also realized that I need to be a citizen of the world, because I love traveling so much. I do however, still want a home base but am not sure yet where that is going to be. I am thinking a mountain town somewhere, perhaps Big Sky, Montana where my brother lives or the northern west coast in Portland to join my friend Mrs. Tedford.

I’ve also learned that its kind of fun not knowing.  I like to go with the flow and see what happens because it keeps life more exciting. The moral of my professional life story thus far is that I would ultimately like to be fully running my own show from a laptop and a cell phone from anywhere in the world. In order to get to this point, I need to work hard and get my own business’s going.

In addition to working fulltime, I am working on a few other companies that I am starting, designing a fall 2010 clothing line, representing a clothing line outside of New Zealand called Federation as the USA and Canada rep, working with global summit (a non-profit that I helped found) and doing other consulting on the side. Hopefully it will all will pay off so I can get the lifestyle that I want and ultimately strive for!

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Introducing Entrustet

It’s finally time.  I’d like to introduce you to my new startup, Entrustet.com.

The Entrustet informational site is live and ready for the world. I’ve been working on Entrustet.com for the past 14 months with my friend and co-founder Jesse Davis and have loved every minute.  Entrustet is a secure, organizational tool that brings together people like you, estate planning lawyers and the companies that provide online accounts and memberships. Entrustet allows users to maintain a secure portfolio of online assets, nominate heirs and manage asset distribution and deletion after their passing. Entrustet’s wide range of services allow you to organize and decide what happens to your digital assets, before your loved ones or your executor are faced with the unknowns and complexities of protecting your online legacy.

For example, you could use Entrustet to create a list of all of your important digital assets like your domain names, digital photos and online accounts and tell your heirs what you would like done with them when you die.  I know I want my digital photos to be preserved so that my heirs can have access to them once I’m gone.

My partner Jesse Davis came up with the idea while he was reading Thomas Friedman’s book The World Is Flat and we partnered up a few months later.  You can read more about how Jesse came up with the idea on our company blog, here. We have been working full time ever since and are excited to share what we have been doing with the world.  It’s been an amazing experience so far and we are excited to continue working to make Entrustet a success.  I’ve learned so much, met some great people and throughly enjoyed myself over the past 14 months.  I’m confident that it will continue!  Jesse and I would like to thank our Merlin Mentor team, our lawyers at Neider and Boucher, family and friends and everyone else who has helped us to get where we are today.

I invite you to check out our informational site and give us your feedback!  You can also find us on Twitter @Entrustet

Entrepreneur Profile: Wisconsin Relic Founder Bryon Shannon

Note: This post is the first in a new series called “Entrepreneur Profiles.”  These posts will 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.

Bryon Shannon is the founder of Wisconsin Relic, an apparel company that he started in January 2009.  Bryon graduated with a degree in Management and Real Estate from the University of Wisconsin‘s business school and started Wisconsin Relic while he was still a student.  He describes Wisconsin Relic as:

Wisconsin Relic is an apparel company that I started in January 2009.  It is a creative, colorful brand centered on shirt slogans that resonate with young people in Wisconsin. We sell clothing on our website, www.wisconsinrelic.com, as well as through stores such as the University Bookstore in Madison and Milwaukee.  Wisconsin Relic is a lifestyle brand providing premium quality apparel that celebrates the Midwest and its young pioneers.  We sell vintage, organic and Wisconsin Relic original tees at numerous outlets, as well as on WisconsinRelic.com.

Here are a few of Bryon’s shirts:

Nathan Lustig: How did you come up with the idea for Wisconsin Relic and why did you start the business?

Bryon Shannon: I got sick of walking around campus and seeing red and white Wisconsin t-shirts.  I knew I could design some pretty cool tees for kids in the state that would be more interesting than the traditional red and white Wisconsin shirts.  I’d consider myself a very creative and trend-savvy person and keep up to date on social culture through print media and online blogs, so I thought that I could do something based around Wisconsin.

NL: Did you have any experience before you started Wisconsin Relic?

BS: I didn’t have much experience starting a business, but during school, I had attended case study training at the Harvard Business School and competed in an entrepreneurship competition at the London School of Economics.  I got to travel to London and compete alongside other people interested in entrepreneurship and it was a good learning experience.

I had also worked at Abercrombie & Fitch and was a consultant to Fair Indigo Clothing Company and had done some graphic design and marketing for brands and had done a some modeling as well.  Earlier in college, I was the branch manager for a college focused magazine and newspaper that was just breaking into the UW market and I was a founding member of my frat.  Overall, I had a good foundation before I started Wisconsin Relic.

NL: Many founders of startups have some sort of an “ah-ha moment” either when they first get the idea for their company or after they’ve been in business that makes the business work.  Did yo have one and what was it?

BS: My biggest ah-ha moment was during Mifflin! (NL note: The Mifflin Street Block Party is an alcohol-fueled campus-wide block party that occurs each spring right before finals) Imagine an intelligent revelation coming from Mifflin, suprising!

Tons of people were coming to our website to buy Mifflin Street Block Party tees and that really helped raise awareness for our company and brand.

NL: So you had some initial success, what was the biggest challenge you had to overcome starting Wisconsin Relic?

BS: Managing money. You always assume that when you get a big sale you’ll make alot of money. When the University Bookstore ordered 300+ shirts, we got really excited, and then realized we needed to print and give them 300 shirts, and we weren’t going to get paid for a month, so cash flow all of a sudden became an issue. The hardest thing is having enough free cash on the side for the company and knowing what is a good investment for the company and what isn’t.

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?”

BS: Haha, that question is most frequent question I hear these days. My great uncle owned his own sign company and said people always think being your own boss is easy because you can get away working just half a day. To that he said, “yes and I have to pick out what 12 hours that’s going to be.” Just shows that owning your own company is way more difficult than getting a “real job” which sometimes makes real jobs tempting, but sometimes not as rewarding in the end.

Funniest anectdote is getting called by Pabst Blue Ribbon’s Legal Deptartment with a threat to sue if we do not stop selling our Mifflin tee (It was inspired by the PBR logo). They laid off once they found out we were a student company, but it did make for a fun “limited edition” shirt.

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

BS: Being your own boss and being your own boss. You can do whatever you want, and make your business something you are really proud of and connect with, but also, there is no paycheck and no one above you telling you to get up and do something when it gets rough, so there is alot of responsibility.

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

BS: Financially Allen Dines at the University’s Office of Corporate Relations, and the Student Business Incubator for grants and office space respectively. Also my parents for helping fulfill online orders and supporting my ideas.

NL: What are three websites you check everyday?

BS: nyt.com, concreteloop.com, everyoneisfamous.com, hypem.com

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

BS: As Richard Branson said, “Screw it, just do it,” and then stick with it. It is so difficult to actually bring yourself to action, and then once you do, you will encounter so much opposition, so many obsticles that you want to toss the business sometimes, so you’ll need alot of determination.

NL: Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions.  Do you have any other interesting stories, facts, advice to share?

BS: No problem.  I’d tell people to join networks, ie. Capital Entrepreneurs, and share ideas and resources. It makes business easier and more interesting.

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