In 2008, now CEO Justin Beck participated in a 3 Day Startup program at the University of Texas-Austin. Like all of our participants, we knew that he had some truly incredible entrepreneurial potential. And, in Beck’s case, he applied it almost immediately. That same year, Beck and three other students took their computer design know-how and a cool idea and decided to take that leap, band together, and create the Madison-based gaming company PerBlue.
We spoke with COO Forrest Woolworth about their journey.
In eight years, PerBlue has grown to over 40 employees and recently sold their popular mobile games, DragonSoul, to GREE International Entertainment for $35 million. And this wasn’t just any game; DragonSoul is one of the top 50 grossing apps on the app store and is one of the best performing Western RPGs in the world. It was a validating and long-awaited marker of their success that Woolworth would never have expected when they started all those years ago.
“We were all undergrads at the University of Wisconsin and we were mostly computer science and engineering majors. And this was right after the iPhone had been released and before Android was even a thing. So it was a really different time for the gaming market and for technology in general. But we thought these new smartphones were really cool and had a lot of potential for what they could be. We started this whole things pretty much saying ‘you know, let’s make a game for these devices and see what happens.’”The now successful gaming company, though, wasn’t always a certainty. Woolworth and the team had to come to terms with the risk they were going to take early.
“Several of us were trying to decide if we wanted to take job offers after graduation or should we do this whole PerBlue thing.” It’s a decision that every entrepreneur has had to make somewhere along the line: choosing between passion and guaranteed stability.
But that was a decision that Woolworth himself hadn’t fully anticipated. He recalls:
“When I started undergrad, I didn’t necessarily go into it thinking I would start my own company. I always just thought I would end up working for a tech company on the west coast. I thought that’s just what you do as a CS major. But when the opportunity to start PerBlue came up, we all kind of realized that this was a really cool opportunity to take advantage of and try to pursue.”
And pursue it they did. Young, hungry, and talented, the PerBlue team decided to take the leap. According to Woolworth, “The thought process was looking at a market perspective with the timing for mobile devices and smartphones back in 2008 and 2009. We looked at just how much potential we thought there was there, and we had this incredible team already assembled.”
As Woolworth tells it, forming that core team in college was invaluable to the success they’ve found. “The team and the people have been critical at every stage of the company as we’ve grown. You need to have the right people on the team. It’s incredibly important to future success. You have to make sure that they are high caliber and are committed to the mission.”
Which leads to the critical truth that aspiring entrepreneurs need to consider when choosing to pursue a venture: that the team is more important than the idea. As with Woolworth and his PerBlue cofounders, it is often the strength and commitment of the team that allows the idea to actually become a revenue generating, successful venture. Woolworth counts the collection of people who started the company –– all of whom are still involved in some way –– as the number one source for their growth. And that growth has been substantial.
“We bootstrapped our company really early on with a little friends and family money for the first little while there, working out of our college apartments for the first two years.” They have since raised $5 million in investment prior to the $35 million sale of DragonSoul, but Woolworth still talks about those bootstrapping days as one of the most exciting for him and the company.
Though, he admits, nothing beats seeing the TV commercial for DragonSoul come on in the bar. “I just thought that was crazy.” He says, “I never thought that would be the case.”
And on the sale of that game (which is still Woolworth’s favorite to play)?
“It’s a really good validation point as a company and a team that we have been able to build something successful and one of the top 50 grossing apps on the appstore in the US and grew into one of the top 10 western RPGs in the appstore. That’s one of the things we set out to do. We wanted to make a really awesome RPG and it was really good validation that we were able to accomplish that. It’s kind of the feather in the cap.”
Woolworth and the PerBlue team have come a long way since 2008, and they have learned a lot about what you have to do to make a successful gaming startup. They are a testament to how having the right team and an idea you love can lead to some life-changing results.
But, Woolworth himself is the first to say, “making a game is not just about making something that looks cool and is fun to play, it’s about building that to an audience that is actually going to want to buy it and making sure there is a market for what you’re building. In order to make a successful game you need to find out how to make it sustainable. It’s really not just about making it look cool.”
Though, with these incredible games, it’s clear PerBlue has mastered that as well.
We at 3DS are proud to have had members of the PerBlue team be a part of our early programs. Their passion, innovation, and continued support of local entrepreneurship and aspiring entrepreneurs encapsulates why we do what we do.
We look forward to seeing the next great strides they make in the gaming industry.