Startup secrets from PopCap’s Dave Roberts, and why it really matters to be lucky

PopCap's Roberts at NWEN's Entrepreneur University

What made PopCap Games such a blockbuster success?

Well, a lot of things went into the Seattle company’s growth over the past 11 years. And, yes, that includes a little bit of good luck.

But it was PopCap’s never-ending and tireless focus on building the very best games that set it apart.

Speaking today at Northwest Entrepreneur Network’s Entrepreneur University, Roberts noted that product focus of PopCap — exhibited in games like Bejeweled and Plants vs. Zombies — was absolutely key to its success.

“The games are the most important thing that we do,” said Roberts, who sold PopCap earlier this year to Electronic Arts for as much as $1.3 billion. “We are not a customer-driven company. We are not a marketing-driven company. We are not a sales-driven company. We make games, and we make them for everybody.”

He continued: “If you don’t love your product, I think you should do something else.”

As part of the maniacal product focus, Roberts said that PopCap’s ultimate goal is to unseat Monopoly and Scrabble as the top brand-name games in the world. They haven’t hit that milestone — at least not yet. But, with more than 500 million game players worldwide and new offerings spreading through Facebook and other channels, PopCap is heading toward that goal.

To get there, Roberts noted during his remarks that it took a little bit of luck, citing the recent insights from author Jim Collins who wrote about how innovators harness both good and bad luck to their advantage.

“Luck is always a factor in business … and the most successful companies actually take advantage of luck, whether it is good or bad. I think that is a really important concept: Do you take advantage of the good luck or bad luck, and actually do something with it, to make something more of it. So, luck, I believe is a huge factor. And it certainly has been for us at PopCap,” he said.

PopCap had its fair share of good luck, turning down early buyout offers and surviving some tough times when no one wanted to buy its products.

But Roberts stressed that nearly every successful company also usually has smart folks who take advantage of the opportunities and make the right maneuvers at the key moments.

“A lot of being successful is being adaptable, adapting yourself to whatever luck deals you,” he said.

Two of the biggest opportunities to come down the pike at PopCap, according to Roberts, were the rise of Facebook and the iPhone.

Speaking about the iPhone, Roberts noted that “no one ever thought” that one mobile device would bring millions of new gamers into the market. In fact, Roberts retold a story about how PopCap co-founder Jason Kapalka — who he said is “almost always right” —  dismissed mobile gaming after co-founder John Vechey inked a $50,000 deal with Jamdat.

PopCap founders John Vechey, Jason Kapalka and Brian Fiete.

“Nobody ever thought it was going to be as huge as it was, and then once it became huge, everyone thought it was going to be easy,” said Roberts. “This was the pot-of-gold market starting in about 2008, and everybody went crazy for it.”

But, as Roberts noted, not everyone made money. And his big business lesson in that case is that markets seldom evolve the way you think they will.

That was also the case with Facebook, where Roberts retold the story of how Bejeweled Blitz rapidly accumulated 3.5 million daily users on the social network.

“We did this as an experiment and, as it ends up today, this is probably one of our more important sources of revenue,” he said. “We are probably spending more on social and mobile now, then we ever have as a company and those are the platforms that will drive our growth going forward.”

Roberts, who joined PopCap in 2005 when it had about 25 employees and was still issuing checks under its previous name, Sexy Action Cool, also stressed the importance of hiring top-notch people.

“Always hire better people than you need. I mean a lot better people,” said Roberts, adding that you should try to “overhire.” After all, he said that smart folks will grow into your company, while B players are hard to remove.

Roberts also spent a few moments discussing the company’s decision to be acquired by EA versus going public. Responding to a question from the audience, Roberts admitted that the acquisition announcement was a “tough day” because “change is scary.”

But Roberts noted that very few of the company’s 550 employees — including about 100 in Shanghai — have left since the acquisition.

“People ask me a lot now, what it is like being part of a EA. And we really see this as a brand new beginning,” he said. “If you are an entrepreneur … and you sell your (company) or go public, you are not done yet.”

Here’s the full video, shot by Bryan Zug of Bootstrapper Studios.


Previously on GeekWire: Dave Roberts just sold PopCap for $1.3 billion, so why does he hate the casual games biz

  • Anonymous

    I like this guy.  He seems authentic.  I feel guilty for not expecting that. :)

    • Daniel Petroski

      I like him too. He speaks the truth. You should’ve expected that, I did. He’s a game company CEO, not an oil baron or banking professional lol.