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Going Multi-National: A Follow-Up Interview with FRVR
After following his story of growing from 0 to 2 Million Daily Active Users, we catch back up with Chris Benjaminsen of FRVR to discuss going multi-national, clones, and avoiding nasty lawyer papers...
Editor’s Note: After our previous interview with FRVR back in 2017, we wanted to catch back up with founder Chris Benjaminsen to see how the company has grown, what changes have been made to the structure of his company, and what his plans were for FRVR in 2018 and beyond.
So, what have you been up to since we last spoke to you?
[Laughs] That’s a big question – quite a lot! The company is very different from where it was last time – my memory is definitely not perfect, and I can’t pinpoint where we were then. However, to give you an update, we are 9 people now. The 9th person just joined the company, we do around 2 million DAU daily and about 30 million monthly, which I think is not too far off of where we were last time. The big difference is that today it’s based more on sustainable growth rather than incidental features. We have 12 games live, 5 of those being in our widest distribution.
We publish to a lot of different channels and not everything is live everywhere, the 9 people who are working for the company are mostly productions support. We also have about 20 external people working on games in some capacity; some are individual developers in the apprentice program, some have started teaming up into small, high-efficiency but highly-competent teams to take advantage of these opportunities that are afforded us.
We have moved the company to Malta, it’s a Maltese company now. The reason behind that is that Brian, our CEO and Co-Founder moved to Malta, so we sort of had move the company there, because you can’t run the headquarters from a different country than where you live, and we have an office here in London and we have an office in Copenhagen.
You can say you’re a multi-national company since last we spoke!
Oh, absolutely! We are a true, 100%, correctly set up multi-national. Our structure is probably more fit for a company of 2,500 than 9. It turns out to run a company like we really want to, you have to have that organisation. We wanted to be able to hire people in other countries and have them work for us remotely, but it turns out not to be the best solution for full-time employees. So, we spent far more effort and way too much money on building the legal framework, even for our internal teams.
But it’s all paying off dividends now, right?
Not yet, but in the future hopefully! It’s a work in progress, but we would have to be a company of 2,500 people before I feel it was worth it.
Do you think you’ll get there someday?
No, I think that’s too large. Maybe, what do I know? The company is growing and we’re doing better this month than we did last month. It could be one day, but the delta from here to there is so incredibly large that I can’t even dream of how the company would look if it ever got that big!
Maybe one of your employees in that company will decide they want to split off and become as successful as you!
Oh yeah! We’re super happy with that – we know that the reason some people are working for us is because they want to start their own company. So beyond stealing our technology, people are fairly free to quit and do their own thing and straight up compete with us. That also applies to our apprentices; there’s nothing preventing them from coming in and learning everything we know and then scooting off and starting their own competitor. In fact, we kind of encourage it!
A lot of people are working with FRVR to learn and potentially go out and start their own, but we’ve been fortunate enough, at least so far, to demonstrate our value enough that people haven’t done that yet. We feel fairly confident that the reason people are not doing that is because it’s really fun working with us, and what we do is not as easy as it seems.
When we last spoke, you mentioned that you were only working 24 hours a week and wouldn’t work on anything for an hour unless it was worth $200 over a year. You mentioned earlier that some things have changed, is that one of them?
Yeah, I’m definitely full time on the project now. The $200 an hour rule is still in effect, but I think it’s a higher amount now. An interesting thing that happens when you start judging your work based on value per hour is that you have to actually sit down and calculate what the value of what you’re working on is, and what the risk of the work is.
If you do that on all the projects you’re working on is that you can sort of multiply the risk with the potential value about a year down the line, and you can have a pretty good idea of the total value of the thing you are doing, divided by hours, and now you have the number you want to get to.
The more important thing that happens is that now you have a spreadsheet of all the things you can be doing and what their value is, and you can sort that by the highest value in terms of reward and the number of hours it will take, and just work from the top. So, most of the stuff I do when I go to sit down and look is going to be worth more than $200.
You also mentioned that while Reddit helped the first time around, it hasn’t been as useful since. Have you since found a better way to communicate about your new games, or is it more of a “if you build it, they will come” approach?
As the company grows, we become more dependent on the same types of channels that everybody else uses, like getting featured on the app store and making sure our search engine optimisation is good, these sorts of things.
Now, as an individual developer, Reddit and social channels can be do or die, and it’s still something we derive a lot of value from. It’s not a thing where it’s a make or break it situation if Reddit doesn’t like the game anymore, but a goal of ours is to be diversified enough that not being featured is not a dire situation, Reddit not liking it is not a dire situation for us, the game not doing well on Twitter is not dire. The original idea with FRVR, way before I built Hex FRVR, is that such a scenario was always the plan, but then it did super well on all those channels.
If I could have that level of success every time that would be amazing, but that’s unlikely to be true. We’re still doing incredibly well and we’re still able to push the games out there, and everything is pointing in the right direction, but we have never had a sudden growth as big as that.
You’ve mentioned social networks, and we’ve noticed you’ve been quiet the last few months. Is this because you’re building up to something big?
We’re just stupidly busy! It turns out that in a larger company there’s a lot of work to be done, and there’s not that much that’s super interesting to share at the moment, there’s a lot of grinding. A big thing that happened to us is that we got our ducks in a row and started publishing more games and pushing them out to all channels.
We still strongly believe in Facebook Instant as a viable platform, so we put a fairly large amount of effort into that. We have released three new games – I actually think they all went live this last year. Cave FRVR, Mahjong FRVR and Balloon FRVR are all online on Instant, and it doesn’t look that complex, but we want to do everything with structure; to have a very structured way of how we work.
The kind of company we want to build, if you don’t have a very structured approach with how you do things, things have a tendency to be dropped on the floor and fall apart. A lot of our efforts have gone into making sure our processes are properly defined and smoothly running.
Our goal is not measured in terms of how many games we get out, but the cadence, right? If everyone ran in the same cadence, we could get a game out every month, and eventually we would want to get that down to a game every week, so that’s where a lot of the efforts are. That’s also where we are on the technical side of things, making sure the tools facilitate that level of automation.
We also saw there was an unplanned AMA for one of your titles last year as well, how do you feel this level of communication with the audience helped the game?
If I’ll be honest we’re not a particularly social company, so unplanned AMAs are mostly for fun. They’re fun to do, it’s fun having the developers talk to the users, or to talk to them myself. I like Reddit for the simple fact that it’s a very intelligent community, so the feedback is typically very on-point, and a lot of the value derived from an AMA is very clever people pointing out glaring holes in your strategy or your games. I love Reddit for that. Plus, it also drives traffic. An unplanned AMA is a great opportunity to show off your stuff, right?
Were you surprised at some of the questions they asked?
I don’t remember the questions to be quite honest, but I find if you give the opportunity to ask, they will ask anything, right? Sometimes, even completely different questions that have no relation to the subject. If it gets too personal you can answer with a joke, and if it’s inconsequential you can try to answer no matter how silly the question is!
Would you say now that you’ve had so many titles published that brand recognition is a great help, and you can rely a bit more on “if you build it, they will come” ethos?
There is definitely some of that! We know for a fact that people actively search FRVR in the App Store, the only reason we know that is because we see the statistics, so FRVR is definitely becoming a brand. Going forward, cross-promotion is probably going to become more important than just the core brand value, but there’s no doubt in my mind that all the games having the same suffix is definitely a competitive advantage.
I don’t know if you read the blog, but the idea was to have the suffix as a seal of approval, or seal of quality, and I think the FRVR name and brand is definitely leading up to that, but it’s not strong enough that we can claim brand recognition or brand value like Coca Cola would be able to do.
We’re working on it, but we’re not there yet!
So, in a few years, we’ll see FRVR emblazoned on every soda can!
I definitely hope so! There are companies that have been really good at doing things like that, but there are some companies that have had the opportunity but really haven’t captured it. The example I always think back to is King, and the reason for that is FRVR was created at a time when King was trying to trademark the word ‘King’ and the word ‘Saga’.
The main reason I picked FRVR was because it was marketable, and it hadn’t been used in any business connection before this, so it important for me for it to be easily recognisable and belong to us, and also for it to be trademarked so we can take down other people using the name.
If you look at a company like King, people don’t necessarily think of them when they see Candy Crush Saga, which is why they tried to trademark the word ‘Saga’ as well, and they then managed to build this massive valuable brand in Saga which they couldn’t defend; there’s nothing preventing anyone else from using that. So, from a branding angle I think considering that earlier in their production could have produced a better result.
It’s like where Activision have Call of Duty, but if you look up the brands, Call of Duty has millions of followers on its branded pages, but Activision itself has a smaller presence.
Exactly! That’s perfectly valid for them to have a disconnected company name and game brand if they do a lot of different things, which they do. Call of Duty is a big brand that Activision own, if you try and make something with that name without permission and try selling it and you’ll soon get hit with I don’t know how many pieces of nasty lawyer paper.
Meanwhile, you can create ‘Saga’ stuff all day long because it wasn’t considered a core part of the strategy when King built that game. At least, that’s how it looks from the outside, it might have been, and they just tried to trademark it too late.
Coming 2019, Saga FRVR?
I strongly doubt it, but it would be good for SEO and ASO! There’s a lower limit to the level of “cloneliness” and obvious “stealy-ness” that I would feel comfortable doing. I strongly believe mechanics can be improved on and things can be made better. What we try to strive for at FRVR when we are doing ‘tried’ games, games where the core mechanic is well-known and already done, say Solitaire or Mahjong, is that the biggest praise you can have is that if something is clearly inspired by something, but I don’t want anything thinking “this is a clone” of something else. Those two words “clone” and “inspired” are worlds apart in terms of perception.
Speaking of clones, have you found any competitors or people either taking your games or your business model that you’ve noticed, or are you still on the uncopied list?
If you search the app store for Hex, I stopped counting, but there’s more than 2000 clones of that game on there, and I spent a lot of effort just taking the bad ones down. I’m sure if I take a look now, there would be at least 5 or 10 that just stole the HTML5 version of the game and uploaded it to the app store. Initially I tried to take them down, but it’s probably not worth $200 an hour to take them down.
Maybe that’s a task for a soon to be apprentice?
Haha, no! That would be a task for a yet to be hired person dealing with legal. We would never want an apprentice to do something like that, it would be a waste of their time. We want them to make games and nothing else!
At the end of the interview we can put a link so people can send you their CVs for the law department?
I don’t think it will be hard finding someone, my concern is that it will probably not be cheap either!
Speaking of the apprentices, you said you hired 2 a month, and you have 9 employees across several countries. How has the increase in staff affected the company and how has it benefitted?
There are a lot of things that are different now. There used to be far fewer processes. We have weekly meetings to align management; every Friday we try to do a broadcast video where we talk about what has been happening in the past week, what the overall company priorities are, and why it is we do what we do. There are a lot of people involved in the company now. It’s not necessarily obvious why a lot of the company is being pulled in one direction, and we try to mitigate that by having this one-way communication format. People can also ask questions on Slack.
Slack is a good example of something that has become very important to the company. Internally, we have banned email. We don’t write emails to each other, we only use them for external communication, and the reason for that is I view emails as a To-Do list that other people are able to write stuff on. 90% of the things that are going on could be solved by having a conversation, and the remaining 10% that can’t be solved with Slack shouldn’t be in an email anyway, it should be in a To-Do List. So that’s where people put it – they put it in Asana, which is our issue tracking system.
What else is new? I spend less time participating in the game development itself. I rarely get to touch games, most of my time is spent trying to figure out new opportunities and making sure we get the most value out of the things we have already.
Do you miss the development side, or are you happy where you are?
I always miss the development. If you like developing, you’re always going to be developing. I still get to, but I just don’t write games. That’s a modification – if I had the time, and I felt that I had the time to code, then I would definitely be building games, and I would very likely be making FRVR games. Like most developers, I have 15 ideas on paper I have never done anything with. Two of those are partially developed games, and I haven’t touched those in months.
Yeah, I’m a good procrastinator, too!
[Laughs] Yeah, I don’t know how other people work, but I find that less than probably 50% of the things I start I ever get done, and that goes for everything I do with a computer. Writing articles, games… if it can’t be done in ten minutes there’s a big chance I’m going to stop in the middle of it.
What are your plans for 2018, and beyond?
2018, in the countries that FRVR is based in it’s going to be more of the same. We’ve spent time getting really good at the technology and the processes, and now we need to take advantage of that and get a whole bunch of new games out, and make sure they become as successful as possible. So that’s what 2018 is about, that’s what we’re working on right now.
As for 2019, 2020, and beyond, it’s going to be more about all the new opportunities that are going to exist. We are basing our future on the fact that game distribution is going to become more fragmented; if you make games currently you have the opportunity to distribute to the App Store and that’s about it. Facebook Messenger games are the glimmer of a new opportunity in the market, where anybody who has a lot of users are able to publish their games.
We want to make sure that, whatever new channel comes up, we are the first to be there, and we are the best on that platform. That’s what’s going to drive FRVR in the mid-term future.