Jason Citron – Openfeint 2 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: Since you’ve been in operation, what have you learned about your business and your users that you didn’t realize before you launched?

Jason: That everyone was going to play games. I think this is something that surprised me. When we launched, I would never have expected that we would have 100 million users and almost everyone who has an iPhone or Android device has played a game with OpenFeint. Not everyone has signed up for OpenFeint, but the mass appeal of casual games on smartphone devices and now the sort of, second wave of free-to-play social games that are coming to the smartphone devices from Facebook, the mass appeal is just mind blowing.

Matthew: Lots of people admire entrepreneurs because they appear to make launching companies look easy. We know it can be very difficult so we want to dispel some myths here, and my question for you, Jason, is what do you make look easy? So what talents or skills come intuitively or easy for you, and what has been difficult and how do you manage that?

Jason: Wow. I don’t think anything actually came easily or intuitively except mayb,e the basics of programming many, many years ago, but, wow, that’s a really hard question because there’s so much that goes into these things. The saying is “Overnight successes take ten years,” right? That’s true here. I started this, my journey started like 14 years ago and kind of all culminated just recently when OpenFeint was exited, I guess. I mean, it’s not even the culmination, it’s sort of just the next step. I think that perhaps something that I’m good at that I never really specifically tried was to be personable and to understand when people need something from you and they’re not comfortable saying it.

One of the really big things that I’ve learned is that starting, building a company is really about people. Software development’s about people. If you can’t meet the needs of your team so they’re effective and motivated, it’s going to be really hard to be successful and people don’t often want to tell you everything that’s going on in their head. You’ve got to kind of be able to read the air, if you will, and that’s a hard thing to just learn, and I think I’ve just been good at it. So, maybe that’s something that I do well that isn’t obvious.

Matthew: What has been difficult and how have you managed that?

Jason: What has been difficult, just in general?

Matthew: For you.

Jason: For me, managing people [laughs]. I’m pretty good at being able to tell what the person sitting across from me is thinking and maybe what they need, but when you have 50 people that are reporting to you and you have layers of people between you just because it’s physically impossible to know what 50 people are doing on a given day, setting up process that scales that, what do people need, how do you keep them motivated thing has been really hard. I think I’ve done a really good job of organically managing the people I interact with on a daily basis, but putting in place that process that scales that to the next level is difficult.

I’ve heard a saying that typically entrepreneurs are one of three skills: there’s either, I think, it’s a visionary or leader, manager, entrepreneur. And usually, you can find someone who’s one. It’s hard to find someone who’s two. It’s almost impossible to find someone who’s all three. I think that for myself entrepreneur and visionary is very comfortably in my pocket but the manager piece is tricky. It’s tricky.

Matthew: What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned since launching OpenFeint?

Jason: I kind of touched on it earlier, but it’s determination, not quitting, frankly. You can’t win if you quit. It’s kind of simple but there will be many, many, many times in the life of every entrepreneur when the fundamentals of everything they’re doing is under question and it’s usually not like, oh, I wonder if this is going to work. It’s usually a deep-seated emotional question like, is the right path for me, is this the right place for me? What’s going to happen next week? Am I going to be able to eat? Some really fundamental questions about your life and what you’re doing, and it’s just part of the process.

It’s like when you get married, there’s this imagination that it’s going to be sunshine and roses, but you’ve got to work to make that successful. It’s a similar kind of thing where you’ve got to really work and push through the kind of troughs in the process because you’ll never get to victory if you stop early. So, pick something, focus and keep pushing.

Matthew: What mentor has played a significant impact in your development?

Jason: I mentioned the incubator that I joined called YouWeb and my angel investor Peter Relan, who runs that incubator. He is, without question, the biggest influence in my recent life of mentoring me of how to actually run a business and think about business strategy and kind of help develop the other aspects of my skill set that were not very well-developed. My background is, like I said, programming and product development, I guess, product management in a way. I’m very passionate about building things so that portion of it, I came with but how you go into a sales meeting and be effective and not waste people’s time? How do you manage finances and budgeting and keep track of all the complexity that’s involved in actually running a business financially?

How do manage people? What are the basics of dealing with that? How do you do marketing? What’s the difference between marketing and sales? Most people don’t know, but it’s actually very different. The nuances of all this stuff. How do you approach business strategy? What’s a good philosophy for launching products in a way that allows you to adapt and be successful?

There’s a long, long list of things I’ve learned from him: how you do fundraising, it just goes on and on. Without him, I could not have gotten to where I am today, so Peter if you’re watching, “Thank you.”

It’s very important, I think, for founders to find someone who’s more experienced than them, who’s seen their future in a way, because there’s so many ways to make mistakes that if you don’t have someone who can kind of point it out for you, it’s just going to be a lot harder. There was a recent study done at TechCrunch Disrupt. They published this thing saying that most successful companies are done by a second-time entrepreneur or entrepreneurs over 40, I think it was, but the really big hits are done by the guys in their 20s.

So, that doesn’t work because guys in their 20s are usually not on their third startup, and I kind of feel in my case that I got lucky. I managed to rope in a guy over his 40s who has done three or four startups before, combined with the guy in his 20s who supposedly can build the next Facebook. Together, we kind of took the wisdom of his experience and the craziness of my naivete and combined it to build something that was unique and successful.

Matthew: What advice would you like to share with the audience about launching a startup? If you have to distill it, what are the key elements?

Jason: Key elements of launching a startup are pick a market that you think can be large. That’s the most important part. If you’re playing in a low-stakes poker table, you’re not going to win a lot of money no matter how good you are so pick a good market. And then, pick an idea that you think kind of hits on a need in that market. And if you don’t know one, then you need to become an expert at that market. You can not be successful unless you are an expert in the market you’re launching your business in.

So, perhaps learn a lot if you don’t know much about the market. And then, launch as soon as you can with something that you think meets a fundamental need. If you’re not embarrassed by your first product, you probably spent too much time building it. So, then iterate like crazy, and eventually you’ll find something that sticks. I don’t know if that’s helpful, but it’s like condensing the whole thing down, but it’s a big feedback loop. Just go for it.

Matthew: Jason, before we close, we’d love for you to provide your vision for OpenFeint and how you hope it will continue to change the world?

Jason: Sure. My dream with OpenFeint and my vision for where I think it can go and what I want to do with it is that the sort of new generation of computers that are coming out and I talked about this a little before, the smartphones, these touch screen devices, they’re going to be in every single corner of the world in the next five to ten years. Desktop PCs revolutionized how people in the Western world do business, and mobile phones have connected people in third-world countries with the real green screens and text messaging but now smartphones are going to kind of bridge that gap and give everyone everywhere a powerful computer in their pocket.

The funny thing is that when you give people these kinds of devices, they spend like 40% of their time playing games on it because people get bored and they like to play games. So, OpenFeint is in an interesting position where we can make that 40% of their time, more social and fun and help use that spare time to bring the world closer together. I fundamentally think that the more that people interact with each other and the more people become friends with strangers is the happier everyone’s going to be in the world.

So, we’re in an interesting place to make the world smaller and kind of make it happier. It’s kind of a change the world thing, but I think back to my childhood days when I was sitting in a living room playing, or even last week, actually, playing Mario Kart with a friend. He’s in first place, I’m in fifth place, and we’re racing and I’m pissed off, and then our other friend who’s in last place picks up the blue shell and he shoots it. And then, my friend who was in first place hears the sound, starts freaking out, but he’s smart, so he slams on his brakes, I shoot by, the shell hits me, I blow up, he finishes the race. I get pissed off, but we can laugh and talk about it for a couple of weeks. Those little moments, those shared experiences, they’re what life’s really made of, and we can take those shared experiences and apply them to that free time if people have it on their phones, it can happen.

Matthew: Jason, it’s been a pleasure having you as a guest on FounderLY. For those in our audience who’d like to learn more and join the community, they can visit their website at …

Jason: OpenFeint.com

Matthew: This is Matthew Wise with FounderLY. Thanks so much for being with us, Jason.

Jason: Thanks for having me, Matt.


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