PopCap’s John Vechey on the power of listening, and how they turned down a $300M buyout

PopCap co-founder John Vechey at the GeekWire Seattle 2.0 Startup Awards (Photos by Annie Laurie Malarkey)

Entrepreneurs need all sorts of personality traits in order to be effective leaders, from honesty and passion to confidence and fearlessness. But at the GeekWire Seattle 2.0 Startup Awards Thursday night, PopCap Games co-founder John Vechey talked about another skill that often gets overlooked.

The power of listening.

Vechey, who gave the keynote talk at the 4th annual event, said that listening isn’t sexy. But he said it is one of the most important things that an entrepreneur can learn to do.

Now, why should you listen to Vechey?

Well, the guy did just come off the blockbuster sale of PopCap to Electronic Arts for up to $1.3 billion, one of the biggest acquisitions in the gaming industry in recent years.

In fact, listening helped the company achieve that massive valuation. Vechey told a story Thursday night about how the co-founders originally were interested in selling to another buyer a few years ago for more than $300 million.

Here’s how Vechey recalled that situation, the first time we’ve heard the story. (You can watch Vechey’s full talk in the video below, with the story of the acquisition offer starting in minute 5).

“If you don’t listen, there’s a big cost to that. A couple years ago, we had an offer to sell PopCap. And myself, the founders and the CEO were a little bit nervous about the future. Facebook was new. iOS was new. We had Bejeweled Blitz, our Facebook game, and it was doing well. But we weren’t making any money from it. And we saw companies like Playfish out there, and Zynga just taking off and we were little insecure about whether PopCap would adapt. Adapting is one of the hardest things a company can do.

And so we got this offer to sell the company, and it was a huge offer, over $300 million. And we said to the board and some of the executives: ‘Look, we think we should take this deal.’ And they go: ‘No, no, no, no. Don’t take that deal.’ The board was saying, if you are going to sell your company, run a process, be deliberate about it. Don’t just talk to a company because they spoke with you. Get some bankers. Get some help. This is a hard thing.

And we said: ‘No, no, no, no. We are worried about this thing. You guys are just saying that because you don’t have to do the work.’ And some of our executives, Dennis Ryan, who runs publishing and sales and marketing for us, he said: ‘Look, let’s say we knock the Facebook stuff out of the park. Let’s say we continue iOS. We will be worth way more, and it will be a much better company for it. And, if you don’t, you will be worth same amount in a year-and-half.’”

And we were like: ‘No, no, no, no.’ So, we went down the path. We ignored everyone. It was our own fears and insecurities that prevented us from actually doing what I think in retrospect was the right thing, which was saying: ‘Not right now.’

We not only would have gotten a horrible deal at the time, we also would have had to layoff one of our studios. And we prevented, when we were talking to that company, six months of organizational changes that needed to happen. So, by listening, you can really learn something. And when your own fears or insecurities or worries are driving you, the only thing you can really do is listen to those people around you.”

Here’s the full talk, with some other lessons about the importance of listening:


A big thanks to Bootstrapper Studios for producing the video.

More coverage from the GeekWire Seattle 2.0 Startup AwardsSeattle Startup Awards: Watch the speeches of the 14 winners… Gallery: Scenes from the Seattle 2.0 Startup Awards

  • http://robiganguly.com/blog Robi Ganguly

    That was awesome! So glad you guys got it on video – it was great to be able to hear the entire thing. I loved his challenge to us to go listen better for a day. 

  • Guest

    This is great and all, but I wonder how many “not right now” guys there are that actually made the right decision.  I’ve worked at many startups, 4 of which had the opportunity to say “not right now”.  1 said yes, 3 said “not right now”, 3 went down the toilet.  

  • http://twitter.com/gibbyhome Mark Gibbs

    who tried to buy them ? was it google, like they did with zynga. and tell them not to make games for windows or windows phones . like they do now.. ?