GamesBeat

Former EA/Playfish exec joins board of red-hot mobile gaming startup Supercell (interview)

Kristian Segerstrale, the co-founder of social gaming firm Playfish and former executive vice president in charge of digital gaming at Electronic Arts, has joined Supercell as a member of its board. Helsinki-based Supercell is one of the hottest mobile game companies around thanks to the popularity of two hit games, Clash of Clans and Hay Day. These games are earning millions of dollars per day, and they enabled Supercell to raise $130 million at a $770 million valuation in April.

Segerstrale saw great success with Playfish, a social gaming firm on Facebook, and sold it to Electronic Arts in 2009 for more than $300 million. He eventually became the head of digital games at EA, a retail gaming giant which has been investing heavily to adapt to the new world of social, mobile, and online games. He left EA in February to return to his startup roots, and his move to the board of Supercell is the first part in that plan.

Ilkka Panaanen, chief executive of Supercell, said in a blog post, “What makes Kristian great for Supercell is his unique mix of product instinct in platform transitions and his operational experience growing companies big and small. Kristian’s track record speaks for itself….Very few individuals move as seamlessly between startups and large scale public companies as Kristian, and I would be hard pressed to find someone with a more valuable and relevant set of experiences to help us in our decision making as we navigate the challenges that lie ahead.”

At Supercell, Segerstrale said he will help the team deal with the hyper growth that the company is seeing in mobile games. We interviewed him earlier this week and this is an edited transcript.

GamesBeat: Why are you joining the board at Supercell?

Kristian Segerstrale: Initial Capital, the seed investment fund of the Playfish founders, actually led the first investment round in Supercell. We hold a significant stake. It’s natural for me, having left EA, to take up a board seat. What I’ll be focused on moving forward is helping with growth across the board. Supercell is in this amazing position right now, on the back of these successful games and an amazing set of talent across the company. They have very large ambitions. They want to build the company for the long term. Having grown a couple of startups as well as overseen matters of scale, at EA most recently, I’m hoping to contribute some of that experience in helping to guide the company through the long term, in an industry that is more dependent on more personal screens, like tablets and smartphones.

GamesBeat: This is not going to be an executive role at the company, right? You’re going to remain a board member as far as your participation goes?

Segerstrale: That’s correct. But what they’re doing is so much fun that I’m going to have a hard time keeping away.

kristian segerstrale 2GamesBeat: What stage are they at? What is your understanding of how big they are now and how many opportunities they have?

Segerstrale: It depends on how you measure it. They released a fairly detailed set of metrics six weeks ago. In revenue terms, in the first calendar quarter of this year, I think they made $179 million in revenue and just over $100 million in profit. It’s fairly significant. In employee terms, I don’t know what’s publicly available, but I believe they have said that they’re less than 100 people.

I just met with the company four days ago at a retreat in Barcelona. The thing that impresses me so much about them is how resourceful and mature they are for an organization that is so young. They’re being very thoughtful about their opportunities. All of their success so far is based on two games on iOS, and it’s much more focused on the Western market. Ultimately, their opportunities span Android, new games, and especially new territories in Asia.

One of the things I found impressive about Supercell is that unlike many teams in recent history, especially in Silicon Valley, they’ve been judicious about what they pursue and what they don’t. They haven’t embarked on some crazy headcount explosion. They continue to be more judicious than ever about hiring and focusing on the company’s founding principles. What Supercell is about is trying to attract the best talent and give them the creative freedom to express themselves.

GamesBeat: It’s an interesting turn of fortune for Supercell. It’s astounding that it could make so much revenue out of just two games. It has also tried it with a number of other games before. It seems to have culled its herd quite ruthlessly.

Segerstrale: That’s right. It’s a combination of having a talented set of creators as well as a thoughtful internal approach to game development and understanding of the business. Sometimes projects aren’t successful. What’s beautiful about how they operate compared to many other places I’ve seen is that they don’t have any kind of greenlight process. It’s novel. What they do is that they trust the folks that they hire to create the best product possible. Then they get it out to real players and they see if the metrics hold up with real players. If they do, it’s ready to go. If not, then they might try again from a different angle, but they’ll celebrate that mix of failure and learning. They’re very transparent about all their learnings.

In some ways, despite the team being quite young, they exhibit a very mature approach to the industry. They’re not taking success for granted. They’re almost paranoid about providing the best experiences for players, and understanding that to deliver the greatest product, you have to take creative risks. Some of them will work out and others won’t.

clash of clansGamesBeat: How do you help them get into the hard part here, having something like a more regular release schedule, a broader base of hits, all the sorts of things a bigger publisher does? Rovio looks like they’ve had a hard time making the transition. It’s still very successful, but Angry Birds still looks like a one-hit wonder situation. It hasn’t followed it with something as big.

Segerstrale: I think Supercell’s north star on this is talent, trying to find the best talent and creating the best possible environment for it. I’d say that things like schedules are not as important to them. If you hold and retain the best talent and create long-lasting relationships with your players, then the quantity of game releases perhaps isn’t as important as quality.

That said, one of the things that is difficult, as you say, for any company, is how you follow such great success with additional titles. How do you make sure you keep setting the bar at a higher level? But everything I’ve seen says that the planning effort, the focus, the talent, the way that the company goes about thinking through its options moving forward, is incredibly prescient. Between the initiatives for different games and new platforms and new geographies, we’ll see some pretty exciting things this year.

GamesBeat: Do you see them operating in a way that’s very different from EA Mobile?

Segerstrale: It’s a pretty stark contrast across the board. In part, a small company will always operate differently than a big one. But I would say one of the most endearing things about Supercell is how humble everybody is here. The creators of a game like Clash of Clans that’s been so successful are still humble. They’re very ambitious, but very transparent, very interested in feedback from every direction.

In an environment where there isn’t a greenlight process–If you think about Clash of Clans and the updates and new things that happen in that game all the time, there is not an internal approval loop of any kind for that. It enables the company to move quickly, and it creates an environment that’s genuinely creatively led.

Probably the biggest point of difference, of course, is that Supercell’s studios are all in Helsinki. Everyone’s effectively in one place. They have an office here in San Francisco, but it’s more focused on marketing and acquisition and those sorts of things. It enables a flatter, faster culture.

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