I recently spoke to Ville Vesterinen about his latest startup Grey Area Labs. Ville Vesterinen is the Co-founder and CEO of the Location-based mobile company and prior to joining Grey Area Labs, Ville Co-founder ArcticStartup - dubbed as the Northern European TechCrunch and he is also a member of the Investment Council at Finnish Industry Investment Ltd.
This is what we talked about.
Can you give you some background information about yourself, were you the entrepreneurial type growing up?
I have always been very entrepreneurial. I started my first company after high school. Back then snowboarding was my life and we started a retail outlet in the small town as I’m from in Southern Finland. I have also co-founded two media companies and I’m still involved with one of them, ArcticStartup which is like the Northern European TechCrunch.
Tell me how the idea for Grey Area came about?
Grey Area was originally started by Mikko Hämäläinen, Andreas Karlsson and Teemu Tuulari. One summer day we got excited and decided that we want to build it out together. It was a pipedream of three guys who become four guys and who were really excited about the intersection of games and cities. We believed we could build something that would change the urban landscape and games forever. And we did, but are far from done.
What is Grey Area?
Grey Area is a game developer company based in Helsinki, Finland. We released Shadow Cities – a location based MMORPG for iPhone – globally in 2011. It has became a category defining game title. If you ask our fans, they will tell you there's nothing like it.
Talk me through the first few months of running the business? What would you say was the hardest part of starting the business?
The hardest part is always the starting. Taking that first step and going all in. You need to really believe in what you do and be passionate because everything will not go smooth and if you’re in it for the wrong reasons you will give up when you hit the first rough path along the way. And there will be a lot of those days.
How were you able to fund the business?
I still remember when Mikko posted to Jaiku (a Twitter like service back in the day) that he had quit his job and sold his car. The guys funded the early days from savings and minimal client work. When I jumped along we quickly raised €100,000 with which we launched the game in Finland. After that we raised €1.9 million to scale the company and launch globally.
Would you say the initial idea for the company, or that your business model has changed since 2010?
The big idea has not changed. We’re still out to crack the location based game play although the road to that has not been linear. If you have a strong and big enough vision, it does not matter even if everything won’t go as planned.
Your first game is called shadow cities? Tell us about that and how the whole idea came about?
We tinkered with different ideas, UI sketches and data sets for a long time before Shadow Cities was what it is today. It was a process of rather long iteration and getting feedback from our friends who played the game. We are super grateful for all those friends in Helsinki who played with us all those months.
How is it doing at the moment? Downloads?
We have a policy of not disclosing exact numbers, but we’re very happy with how Shadow Cities has succeeded.
I know its currently free for download at the moment, will you be adding any paid features to it?
Shadow Cities was build for iOS and at the time it was the only platform with in-app purchase capability. We build our business model around this free-to-play model and it has served us well. It will always be a free game with virtual goods for those who want to buy them.
How does someone who want to get their app discovered do? In other words, how do you succesfully launch your app? what are the procedures?
That’s the million dollar question. It really goes back to what you’re building. Shadow Cities brought so much innovation into the space that it was easier for us to build the marketing around that. Cross-marketing can be really powerful in the app space, but the best way to get discovered is building something that people really want and making it easy for them to tell their friends about it. Nothing beats a great game.
How big is your team now?
We’re currently a solid team of 17.
What would you say has been some of the most crucial that you've done to build the company to this level now?
Hiring more skilled people than I am myself. By looking at the raw skill we have in the company and the high standards in hiring I don’t think I would ever get a job at the company if I would have to apply for it.
What is your business model?
Free to play mobile games.
Is the business profitable?
The business model works great. I think it’s the future for all mobile games if you want to build a significant business.
What’s been your most memorable moment so far on your entrepreneurial journey?
It has to be the launch of Shadow Cities in Finland when we were at the office at 5am watching server logs and trying to figure out how we could bring to server down for a minute when there were tons of players playing through the night. I still remember Mikko sending people push message saying ‘Please go to bed people. It’s late’
What pieces of advices could you give to aspiring entrepreneurs out there?
Refuse to give up no matter what. Persistence correlates most with success. Much more than intelligence, network or experience. If you’re still thinking what’s the best time to start a company in your career the answer is yesterday. The second best time is now. You learn so much regardless whether you will be successful or not. You can always go back to where you were, but starting your first company won’t come any easier when you get older.
What kind of things can we expect in the emerging mobile gaming industry in 2012?
There will be more quality games that will push the boundaries of what a mobile game is. The games will become social. Social like we have used to in the web services space. Games will also start to be more like services in that they change every day for the players and are always connected. Playr data will play a much bigger role than it does currently. It will become part of the experience, not just metrics to optimize.
What can we be expecting from you and Grey Area in 2012?
We are currently working on two new games, which will come out in early 2012. That said, we’re just warming up. 2012 will be the year that mobile gaming experiences will stop looking like a shrink down Facebook games and start looking like something designed for mobile handset. 2012 is also the year when location will be cracked. We plan on playing a key role in both of these developments.
Where do you want the company to be in five years
I’m way too impatient to think five years ahead. I don’t think those places are yet invented where we are going.