How mission statement saved the unicorn!
David Helgason co-founded Unity Technologies in 2004 together with Nicholas Francis and Joachim Ante in Denmark. They failed with their first game – GooBall, but in the process realized how conservative the game development industry was. They decided to do something about it.
“The industry of game development was very closed and proprietary. If you wanted to create a game, the tools were expensive and access to tools restricted. That’s why we wanted to change and open up the industry to people like us.”
Instead of making games, they started developing a platform and an engine where people could easily create new games for an affordable price, no matter if they were amateurs or big companies.
The first four years they were building the company and the engine without any funding and could not afford to pay out salaries.
“I am a proponent of the venture capital, but when it comes to Unity, it was a good thing that we did not get any funding in the beginning. We were so inexperienced and took us a long time to figure things out. The only venture capitalists who wanted to invest in us at the time were not the best ones. Their investment would have destroyed the company, so instead we developed at our own slow pace.”
They managed to secure funding from well-known funds like Sequoia Capital, WestSummit C22apital, and iGlobe Partners. By 2012 they had 1 million registered developers. In 2015 this number reached 4,5 million developers. Today around half of the world’s mobile game developers are using Unity.
David stayed on with the company as a CEO for 12 years and resigned in 2014. During that time the company grew from 3 people to 500 people. He believes that the timing for finding a new CEO was crucial. Unity was getting too big and they needed someone with different experience to lead it.
“Luckily, we had the foresight to take on John Riccotello as a member of our board. He worked closely with me, had run a big company before and was passionate about building great technology companies. He became our new CEO and has done an amazing job so far.”
Today David is the Executive Vice President of the company and also an investor in his spare time.
What was it like to grow and lead a scaleup like Unity?
“We were three founders who had no interest in managing the company and we were pretty bad at it. Fortunately, we were growing very slowly, so I had time to become a good CEO. But I was also a shitty CEO at times.”
He says that when the company was over 30 people he needed more structure in order to scale properly.
“We had no way of formal communication in the company, but luckily we still had the mission statement that guided us in the right direction. So, we didn’t lose a lot of time doing the wrong things.”
“You add a new person to the team and a new one and the whole thing seems to break down. You realize you have to have systems and rules, but you want to try and avoid implementing too many rules for as long as possible. As a leader I was trying to give people the freedom to explore projects they wanted to pursue.”
Did you ever consider giving up?
“Almost never. We were so in love the idea what the technology could do. We had a focus from the beginning that tools change industries, and that we could achieve huge change.”
Info: David Helgason will attend Startup Extreme and talk about challenges of scaling up his company Unity, which is one of the most famous unicorn success stories in the Nordics.
The topic of Startup Extreme this year is scaleups - why? Every year, we at Startup Extreme strive to be at the forefront of the needs and trends in our growing startup ecosystem. Read more here to learn why we want to focus on scaleups.