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Big Fish CEO Paul Thelen at Casual Connect

Big Fish founder Paul Thelen didn’t think he’d become a technology CEO. But after an illness brought his life into sharp focus, Thelen decided to quit his job at RealNetworks and start Big Fish.

The 11-year-old company now employs 700, and is making a big push into mobile and cloud-based gaming.

In 2011, it posted revenue of $180 million, making it one of the largest privately-held technology companies in the Seattle area.

Here’s more from Thelen — who took back the CEO reins of the company last April— in the latest episode of Nextcast:

Nextcast with Paul Thelan, CEO of BigFish Games from Nextcast on Vimeo.

(1:56) “I never considered myself an entrepreneur,” Thelen says. In spite of that initial doubt, though, he is still running his “accidental company” several years later, and couldn’t be happier to have finally chosen to pursue his passion. A lifelong gamer and programmer, Thelen says “you’re handicapping yourself for success” when you make your passion your job.

Paul Thelen of Big Fish

(4:35) Thelen’s secret to Big Fish’s success is a finely-tuned understanding of the customer. You’ve got to “balance analytics with just a true understanding of what customer motivations are,” he says. You can’t ignore the real world in favor of data. Understanding your customer’s motivations should be your top priority at all times, he says.

(5:38) “I’m an idea guy, and that can be dangerous as a CEO,” Thelen says. But he leaves it up to his team to decide which ones to pursue. “I encourage my team to keep me honest,” he says.

(12:22) “What made us successful versus a lot of our competitors in the same space … is that we had a very, very intense focus on doing one thing and doing it really well,” he says. “And that sounds weird coming from the idea guy. But I was very disciplined in the early days of saying: we are going to do one thing … and we are going to do it really well.'”

(13:08) Thelen’s advice to other startups? “Work hard, but have fun while you’re doing it…. If you don’t like your job, quit.”

Nextcast founder Jeff Dickey is passionate about technology, business and philosophy. He works as the chief cloud architect at Redapt, a Redmond-based cloud and big data infrastructure company. Additional reporting by Kate Stull. [Editor’s note: GeekWire is proud to partner with Jeff Dickey who produces the Nextcast entrepreneur interview series].

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