tinyBuild's IPO 2 years later
Today marks 2 years since tinyBuild went IPO. On March 9, 2021 we listed on the London Stock Exchange. Feels like yesterday. In this post I'll reflect on why & how we listed, and how it's going so far.
An initial public offering or stock launch is a public offering in which shares of a company are sold to institutional investors and usually also to retail investors. An IPO is typically underwritten by one or more investment banks, who also arrange for the shares to be listed on one or more stock exchanges. - Wikipedia
THE COMPANY MISSION
Important to underline tinyBuild's overall goal to contextualize decision making.
tinyBuild's mission is to build long-lasting, sustainable franchises across multiple media formats.
We know video games. It's a great business. Our ultimate goal is to create franchises within video games, and take them to other mediums -- beyond interactive entertainment, so that they outlive us as a generation.
WHY TAKE TINYBUILD IPO?
In the middle of the pandemic it seemed like everyone was raising funding - one way or the other. The industry was consolidating at an unprecedented pace. We are a growth stage company. It means the business has a lot of room and avenues to grow. The risk with not attracting extra funding during that stage, and when macro economics are great, is that you get left behind. Other companies invest more capital and grow faster, and you may not be able to afford to innovate/invest/research. Not raising funding wasn't an option.
3 viable paths at that point:
Sell the company.
Raise a round of funding.
Go public (IPO/list).
Let's explore each one.
SELL THE COMPANY.
It's a completely viable strategy. I believe it makes a lot of sense for companies with a limited number of projects at hand. Without a large portfolio to rely on, working on 1-2 projects at a time can be risky, and often hedging your bets while being part of a larger organization makes sense. For us that wasn't the case -- our business is built on the back catalogue, investing into games that generate revenue for years after launch.
The challenge I've seen when exploring potential merger opportunities is cohesive synergy. The overall group of companies we'd be joining needed to have the same, simple mission -- long-lasting franchises. We will go through any rough seas and weather out any storm to achieve that.
The other part was my promise to all tinyBuild team members and founders who joined us on this mission. It would be unfair and come off as "I'm out, good luck" if we sold the company. We're in it for the long game, and are going on this journey with a shared passion and love for video games.
RAISE MORE FUNDING
We've been incredibly fortunate with our investors through Seed and Series A rounds. I can't stress this enough - if you're a video game startup and are looking for funding, pitch to Makers Fund. They're the only fund that saw what we were trying to do and fully backed us on the journey early on.
When exploring raising a Series B round, I was rewatching the TV Show Silicon Valley - it hasn't aged a bit, highly recommended. And one of the themes that stuck out was the concept of devaluation. In the show, founders are going through a series of obnoxious valuations in the tech industry, and one of the companies needs to raise their next round at a valuation lower than the previous one. This is in a way company suicide.
In 2020 game companies were skyrocketing in value, raising funds at insane valuations that were probably not going to be super sustainable or meet expectations in the long-run. This is the primary reason why we steered away from another funding round. It could create a series of conditions in the company's bylaws that during a bad year have disastrous consequences, like the devaluation scenario.
GO PUBLIC (IPO)
In a way this was always a bucket list goal for me -- to run a public company. We were considering growing to a size where it'd make sense to list in the US. However, 2020 showed that other exchanges may just be good places to list. Specifically, the London Stock Exchange already had a very well educated investor group and comparable business models for peers. In the US, you inevitably get compares to the big AAA companies and mobile juggernauts -- which are different business models compared to ours. It was in a way a no brainer after talking to people who have done so already.
I also wanted to make sure we have a mechanism to align incentives in the company. Having actual "shares" that are tradable achieves this.
IPO it was.
Through a very peculiar sleeping schedule would be the summary of it.
The most important parts of going IPO is making sure you have all your documentation aligned, transparent, and accounted for -- and the roadshow. Documentation is extremely important, and the process is similar to a forensic audit when everyone needs to make sure you are who you say you are, your business is what it is, etc. It's not an easy process, and it's more operational.
When setting up the business, we didn't cut any corners, never even considered any "tax optimizations" -- all done by the book.
Personal rant. I believe I was the biggest obstacle in documentation review. Imagine telling this to brokers/auditors: I'm a guy from a little country called Latvia. The country didn't exist when I was born on its territory, it was the Soviet Republic of Latvia. When the USSSR fell, my parents and I got a "second tier" passport in the country, which doesn't allow for freedom of travel or voting rights (a non-citizens passport - look it up). This passport doesn't allow for travel to the UK or the US, or free relocation around the European Union. I started my career playing video games professionally, and ended up in game production. No formal education. Founded the company while living in the Netherlands, and it's a US company. Then I moved to the US. We have people scattered all over the world, and we're a totally clean business making video games. Far from a standard situation. This is why I get upset when people who have so many opportunities (citizenship in a 1st world country, native English, access to education). It's also why people around me are surprised whenever we just go at these obstacles without a second thought. Having all odds turned against you from day 1 builds stamina. I am probably the first non-citizen in the world to run a publicly traded company.
The real challenge is the story, and the roadshow. You need to get brokers, analysts, and investors on board with your story. Ours is a simple one. We grow IP, develop it in-house or with partners, make it super successful, and ensure these IPs live across different media formats and revenue streams. Franchises. Managed studios.
Where we got extremely lucky is travel restrictions. We couldn't go to Europe and do the roadshow in person. So my colleagues from the West Coast would have to be up during the night, and I'd be on the East Coast up before the sun rises and we'd work on UK schedule -- having dozens and dozens of meetings every day for over a week. Doing it in-person would definitely build more trust in establishing relationships, and would also be physically exhausting. It seemed like the remote roadshow allowed us to see way more people than otherwise possible, and fueled by the hype of the games industry growing we had a solid investor group backing us.
We were able to raise a significant amount of money and start expanding our business both organically and through acquisitions. Being public also gave us this bizarre stamp of legitimacy -- suddenly we were more respected and trusted.
A DOZEN INTERNAL STUDIOS
As of right now we operate a dozen internal studios working on our own franchises. The first catalyst was the acquisition of the dev team of Hello Neighbor, and from there we started learning and building how to operate studios. We learned the hard way it's better to decentralize as much as possible. You can't just go from being a publisher to suddenly running studios. It's a gradual process where you build up muscle and discipline.
At one point just as we went public, it became clear that growth brings bottlenecks. Especially when it comes to rapid hiring. I've seen this happen in companies experiencing rapid headcount growth and didn't want to end up in the same trap. So we started decentralizing while growing. It's a painful process where instead of having departments and department leads (directors/heads/managers), you build multi-discipline teams that focus on the product itself. Instead of having 50 people spread across 5 different disciplines (i.e. marketing, production, community management, etc) we have groups of 3-7 people working on specific products -- and only those products. Instead of having product-centric decisions go through a director (bottleneck), they are decided within the product group itself. Very difficult to get here, as people will organically never want to be operational when they've been team leads.
A simplified way to look at our structure is we have supporting structures at the top (to keep the rain out), and supporting structure below (to make sure the company has a solid foundation) with product groups working directly on products from both internal and external studios. The goal is to give as much ownership as possible to people actually working on products.
What happens when you have the right people though is that everyone feels involved. Everyone has direct ownership. It's an empowering feeling. Alongside these product groups you build supporting layers. HR, development services (loc/QA), finance, contracts management -- those exist as supporting layers for the product groups.
This structure allowed us to start delivering games everywhere all at once. To both consoles/PC, and mobile. If you want to create a franchise, it needs to release on as many relevant platforms as possible. Any developer reading this that's dealt with getting games to a multi-platform launch understand the challenges involved.
From August last year we started proving time and time again that we can pull off getting games onto PC/Consoles/Mobile at the same time. It's a monumental achievement towards which we've been striving towards for a decade.
I believe we are working on a truly groundbreaking TV Series for Hello Neighbor. With the writers behind Ben 10, Sonic, and Big Hero Six -- we have an all-stars team and a division dedicated to bringing games to linear media, and to merch. We've proven we can do books with over 4 million novels sold, now it's time to prove we can do linear media.
We will be revealing our plans regarding the full Season, as well as other cross-media initiatives, later in 2023.
DEALING WITH THE UPS AND DOWNS
It's easy to go insane when having your share price on screen. I see many people obsessing over it. What's important to understand is the concept of LOW LIQUIDITY in exchanges such as the London Stock Exchange. It means that most days very low volumes of trades can move the price up or down radically. But if you were to raise funding or to buy shares, the "real" price can be significantly different.
With that in mind, the market has definitely gone down over the past half year. And that's fine. It doesn't impact our operations or vision. We dealt with relocating over 100 people in a time of war, so we can manage a turbulent share price. The key is to not make short term decisions that may impact your long-term growth potential. Every decision we make needs to get us closer to the overall goal.
From a personal perspective, running a public company is definitely not for everyone. People who know me may note this peculiar character trait of being able to focus on relevant items at hand. It's important to know what you can impact, and spend your energy on that. Obsessing over situations you can't change are the biggest waste of time (the only finite resource we have) for any management team.
THERE ARE NO SHORTCUTS
I've been working full-time since 14 years old, and turn 35 this summer. Playing games professionally, writing about the industry, marketing, game production -- what you learn is the world is unfair, and you should focus on what you can impact and work on your skills. What you shouldn't do is take shortcuts. Every couple of years there's a new shiny thing that you don't fully understand on why it's useful, and people are trying to sell you on it. Don't let outside influence of hyped up trends influence your decision making.
There are no shortcuts in life or business. Anything you do requires hard work, dedication, and love for what you do. Going public was a way to allow us to continue growing, innovating, and following our course -- and it's only the beginning of the journey. I feel lucky because of being able to experience this in an accelerated way. Usually it takes companies years to go public, and to experience huge swings in the price. We listed in under a year, and within the past 2 years have seen insane highs and lows. It's humbling. It's experience. And I'm happy we said no to most "hype" opportunities, such as going into social games a decade ago, all the crypto-esque scams, selling JPGs, and always stayed course.
I'm optimistic about the industry in general. In 2023 we will be seeing plenty of groundbreaking AAA titles, alongside standout AA/indie games that really set new trends. Our goal is to make sure we deliver high quality games on as many platforms as possible, and pave the way for them to become franchises. Can't wait until we start revealing our upcoming products!