Wired – Supercell’s CEO reveals how he built a £2.5 billion company in 2 years
Originally written for Wired UK, find the original article here.
“The best people make the best games,” says Ilkka Paananen, founder of Finnish gaming startup Supercell. “It sounds simple and perhaps naive, but if you truly believe it then the only thing that matters is getting those people and creating the best possible environment so they stay.”
It does sound simple and a little naive, but Supercell’s incredible success hangs over Slush 2013 and is emphasised by the company’s opening address to journalists the day before the Helsinki-based startup conference begins. It also doesn’t hurt that Supercell is sponsoring Slush’s big party and, having earned €1.5 billion (£1.2 billion) for a 51 percent sale in June, the two-year-old company is unlikely to let the bar run dry.
For those who missed the headlines, Supercell is an international phenomenon. A mobile games startup founded in 2011 that by early 2013 was making €2.4 million (£2 million) per day having released just two games. The games — Clash of Clans and Hay Day — remain its only globally available titles (though it is beta testing others) and both are now more than a year old. Despite this they remain at or near the top of app store charts worldwide and have reached the number one slot in an incredible 139 and 102 countries respectively.
Despite this, all Pannenan wants to talk about is company values, both in terms of organisational structure and “the power of small”. It is a manifesto for building a better company and he is conscious the world is now listening.
“The message has stayed the same, but our success has changed the response,” he explains. Last year he claims he delivered a keynote in San Francisco where fewer than 30 people attended to hear his views. “I knew about 29 of them”, he says with a smile.
Paananen puts Supercell’s success firmly at the quality of his employees, but offers four key factors to get the most from them:
- MINIMISE BUREAUCRACY “It maximises the time people can spend on their work… individual designers can make decisions and optimise for speed and create sense of ownership within the games.” He says no-one knows the potential of a game and its chances of success or failure better than its creators. At least until it is released when the reaction and requests of users become the dominant factors in its evolution.
- BE TRANSPARENT “We send a daily email with all key performance indicators to everyone in the company,” says Paananen, causing a few eyebrows to be raised. “It isn’t restricted to executives, it is the same information released at the same time so we can all figure out on our own what is needed. A new employee started recently and he told me ‘I think I got the wrong email, I just got all the revenue data on our games this morning'”.
- CELEBRATE FAILURE “You have to eliminate the fear of failure. If a game goes wrong we throw a party for its developers and give them champagne to celebrate what they learnt. As a company we have failed far more than we succeeded. We have killed five games and launched two. You need to take risks to succeed and for that you must take fear away from that risk.”
- GET BIG BY THINKING SMALL Clash of Clans and Hay Day were each developed by teams of just five developers. Even now they are global smashes each has a team no bigger than 15. “Small independent cells is where the company name comes from,” explains Paananen. “We say ‘get big by thinking small’, we value the speed of small teams and keeping things simple. Our employees don’t need layers of processes and layers of management.”
This simplicity extends to how employees are managed. “We don’t track staff and we are flexible in terms of hours. Come here at 5.30pm and the office is pretty much empty,” says Paananen, destroying an age old startup stereotype. “We trust them. The one rule is: do what is best for your team and the game. All we care about is what you get done. The games industry is guilty of burning out people. You can’t be productive working 18 hours a day for a year. We want to make history and you can’t burn out all your employees in three years and hope to make history.”
Paananen’s vision of “making history” clearly stems from getting the people he wants and putting them into a company they can love. He wants gamers to love them too and he gives the example of Nintendo and talks about games as services which should be regularly updated to become better “week by week”. He is also desperate to empower his staff, even if it means forcibly limiting his own powers.
For starters Paananen says he can’t kill a game, even if he wanted to — that responsibility lies only with the developers and, ultimately, the users. He sits in an open plan office with the same size table and standard issue chair as everyone else and he carries no more than one vote. He also gives every employee stock options.
“My goal is to become the least powerful CEO in the world” he proclaims. He doesn’t want Supercell to be dominated by a single figure where their absence creates an immense power vacuum and risks a loss of direction.
But despite his now imposing personal wealth Paananen has no plans to go anywhere and test that vacuum theory. The 51 percent sale was to a newly founded conglomerate composed of SoftBank (80 percent) and GungHo (20 percent) and Paananen sits on the board. It is in their stakeholders agreement that Supercell will stay in Finland and all control and strategic direction remains within Supercell itself. “We did the deal to become more independent, not less,” he argues.
“People ask me ‘How do you get up in the morning?’ But I’ve never worked for money. I just want to make great games. As long as Supercell is the best possible environment to make games then why should people leave? I want to work with these people. If we don’t become the best environment then they should leave.”
And yet Paananen, as passionate as he is about his company ideals, is not keen to press them upon all industries: “Every industry needs to work out their own model for success. But as a general rule I think our model gives more ownership to employees and a greater feeling of freedom and belonging. That has to be a good thing.”
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