Jason Citron – OpenFeint 1 of 2

"You're not gonna win a lot of money playing at a low-stakes poker table. Pick a large market." Openfeint is a social gaming platform for iPhone game developers.

Matthew: Hi, this is Matthew Wise with FounderLY. We empower entrepreneurs to have a voice and share their story with the world, enabling others to learn about building products and starting companies.

I am very excited today because I’m here with Jason Citron, who is the founder of OpenFeint. OpenFeint is a social gaming network for iPhone and Android phones. With that said, Jason, we’d love for you to give our audience a brief bio.

Jason: Yes. Hey, so, like Matt said, I’m Jason from OpenFeint and my background is game development, game programming. So, I started in programming . . . Gosh. I must’ve been 13 years old, actually. It was my 13th sleepover party. Everyone fell asleep, and one friend of mine and I stayed up all night. He taught me QBasic and we made a text adventure RPG, set in the world of Final Fantasy 7. Ever since that night, I’ve just been hooked on building games.

Now, I guess it’s 14 years later, today. I’m 27 now. I guess that’s 11 years. No? My math’s terrible. Anyway, I started doing game programming back when I was a little kid and went to school, got a degree in Game Design and Development, at Full Sail and went to work in the games industry, afterwards. I worked on some Xbox games. I was at Piya Studio, Double Fine Productions, for a little while, and then I met up with my angel investor, started OpenFeint and now I don’t program anymore, fortunately.

Matthew: So, what makes OpenFeint unique? Who’s it for and why are you so passionate about it?

Jason: OpenFeint is unique because it was, I guess, the first real social gaming network, on smart phones. A couple of years ago, when Apple ushered in the new era of computers, with these touch screen devices, no one was really sure how gaming was going to play out on those devices. Back when the iPhone was originally launched, there was no app store, so there weren’t, really, any games on it. Apple launched the App Store about a year into the iPhone. On that day, it became very apparent that gaming was going to take over on these devices.

We wondered how can we make this a more social experience. About a year later, after trying to make some games, we launched OpenFeint as the first social gaming network and it just exploded. So, today, it’s actually not such a unique service anymore because, as most mature markets go, there tend to be lots of copycats. So, I guess we’re the biggest.

Matthew: What are some of the technology and market trends that currently exist, and where do you see things developing in the future, for your space?

Jason: Gosh. Technology and market trends. I think that, in particular right now, there’s this question of what happens when Android starts to make a lot of money for developers and what’s going to be the third platform that becomes very popular for mobile devices. Developers are wondering how they’re going to build and deploy their games across all these different devices.

When you consider phones and tablets together, you have many different form factors, as well, and it starts become a very complicated problem. Developers are hoping that HTML 5, which is basically this, kind of web-based technology that lets developers make content that goes on a PC, on a laptop, on a tablet, on a smart phone, build it once, run anywhere, kind of the same promise that something called Java had, a long time ago, which some of you may know.

The question, sort of, is HTML 5 going to happen, when is it going to happen, how is it going to happen, are people going to make money with it? Facebook has been making some rumblings about what they’re going to do in the space. There are reasons why Apple wouldn’t like it. So, HTML 5 is kind of the big question mark, for the next, I’d say, 18 months, around mobile technology, mobile games, that is kind of lurking out there.

Matthew: We covered your background and overview of OpenFeint. We’d love to get to the core of the story of OpenFeint, how it came to be. What inspired you to start it? Was there ah-ha moment or series of events that led up to it? What’s the story behind that?

Jason: Yeah. Sure. Why don’t I tell the story, a little bit, of the founding and how I met the people behind it, and then I’ll explain about where the idea came from because the people story is, actually, quite fascinating.

I was working in the games industry, like I mentioned earlier, living by myself in the North Bay, and I kind of got bored, just living by myself in an apartment. So, I moved over to Berkeley, and I found this house on Craigslist, with nine other people in it. It was very much like an MTV Real World kind of place. I moved in there. Half the people in there were going to Berkeley as Comp Sci grads, and I was already finished with school. So, we immediately bonded and became friends.

About halfway through, one of the girls there left and a guy came in, moved back from New York, and he was sitting in the living room one day. I was walking through to get some cheese, and he was talking to one of the other programmers about how they’re looking for programmers who want to start companies because him and his uncle were starting this incubator. This was four years ago. So, this was in 2007, before incubators were the big thing. I think this was even before Y Combinator had started.

I was like, “Wait, I want to start a company. We should talk.” So, we got to chatting and then he introduced me to his uncle and we hit it off and he became my angel investor. His name is Peter Relan. He started an incubator called YouWeb. I was one of the first entrepreneurs in residence to join YouWeb.

YouWeb is little different than something like Y Combinator. He doesn’t have lots of business models and few people . . . Sorry. His model is not, lots of business models, see what happens. Instead, it’s invest in a few people and give them some time and mentorship to succeed. So, it’s people first instead of business model first.

So, I joined YouWeb and I’ve always been a gamer. You know, I mentioned I started a program when I was young, started playing games when I was five, my Nintendo. I was like, “OK. I want to make some kind of game thing,” and its social times since Facebook was just launching their platform. So, I did a couple of things and eventually I said, “You know, I phones coming out, their SDK, so the iPhone’s SDK is coming out, I’m going to make World of Warcraft for my pocket, because I freaking love WOW and it’s going to be awesome.” So, I started working on that and quickly realized that it was impossible to build a game like that with startup style funding.

I had this idea of iterating towards a MMO for your pocket. I teamed up with one of the other entrepreneurs at YouWeb to launch Aurora Feint for the iPhone, the day the App Store opened. It was a free title, kind of a Tetris meets Lord of the Rings puzzle game. So, we launched it. It was free. The plan was, make it free, lots of brand awareness and then, eventually, at least, paid content, and stuff. So, launched it, made it free, got almost $1 million at the time, which was a tremendous amount for the early days of the App Store and hired my best friend at my previous job and then my best friend from college. So, then we’ve got the four people and launched the first paid game and it made no money, at all.

We were like, “Crap. What do we do?” After about two months of kind of, putzing around, almost going out of business, we had this idea to take the technology inside of Aurora Feint, which was kind of a social, almost like a social game, in a way, because we were iterating towards World of Warcraft, so we had built friends lists, chat rooms, multiplayer, ghost battling, instant messaging, profiles, all this stuff, inside of this Lord of the Rings world.

The game wasn’t making money so I said, “OK. There’s no Xbox live on mobile yet. Facebook hasn’t really put their platform here. So, why don’t we make it ourselves, make a social gaming network.” So, rather than building it and then seeing what happens, we actually convinced TechCrunch to write an article announcing the product and put up a sign-up page. We got 400 sign-ups, overnight. So, I just said, “All right, I guess this is going to be our thing.” So, we went and just built it for two months, launched it with 30 games and it’s just exploded. Now, we crossed hundred million users, a few weeks ago.

Matthew: When did you actually launch?

Jason: We launched OpenFeint March, two years ago.

Matthew: How long did it take you from idea to product launch, to get the product out?

Jason: It actually took us 45 days but, like many things, the idea came after working, already, for a year on something else. Like I said, we launched the game, blah blah blah. From the point at which we said, “Maybe, we should do this,” we got the TechCrunch article, and 45 days later we launched OpenFeint.

Matthew: We know founders face unique challenges when they decide to launch a company. What was the hardest part about launching OpenFeint, and how did you overcome the obstacle?

Jason: The hardest part about launching OpenFeint. I think that the hardest part about it . . . This is not really going answer question, but it’s sort of going to answer it. Recognizing that the thing you start with is not the thing that you’re going to finish with and being determined enough to not quit when he gets really difficult. I mentioned that after we launched our second game, we tried to make some money. We weren’t making any money, and we spent a few months kind of, flopping around. I distinctly remember having a phone conversation with my dad, walking to the BART station, telling him, “You know, in a month from now I might be out of a job. We may run out of money and I may just have to go back to work in the game industry, or something. Who knows?”

Pushing through those times of uncertainty, when you’re not sure what’s going to happen . . . At that moment, when I had that call with my dad, we didn’t have the idea to do OpenFeint. We didn’t know if it was going to happen. We were trying something else. I think the hardest part of launching a company is actually, that you have to relaunch it, like, five times, until you get it right. They don’t really tell you that. You go into it, you’re like, “I got this idea. I’m going to put in all this energy. I’m going to launch this thing. It’s probably not going to work.” That’s why you need to almost, spend not a lot of energy and launch as many times as you can until you find that coveted product market fit. But, getting through the tough times, I think, was the hardest part of sort of, the launch phase, I feel I want to say.

 
 

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