It's the type of story any computer or video game-loving teenager would envy: Create a game that becomes a giant hit and morphs into a company that brings in more than $1 million a year in revenues.
That is Justin Beck's story.
Beck, who grew up in the town of Springfield and graduated from Middleton High School, and his UW-Madison roommate, Andrew Hanson, of Rochester, Minn., were interns at Microsoft in Redmond, Wash., in the summer of 2008. Wrapping up their studies before the internship, they got tired of doing homework and needed a diversion.
So they decided to create a game. They wanted to make it a role-playing game that required problem-solving skills, for use on cellphones. It was the start of Parallel Kingdom, a game that subjects players to "fierce Monsters to conquer and wild territory to claim," or the chance to "become a tyrannical emperor, oppressing your people beneath your iron boot," as the website instructions tantalizingly proclaim.
Thus also began the company, PerBlue, named with the thought of playing games under the blue sky.
Today, PerBlue has offices at 6401 Odana Road, 40 employees, and had $1.5 million in revenue last year. "It's a dream come true," says Beck, 25, PerBlue chief executive and co-founder, whose story was featured in a first-person article in the May 25 online issue of Forbes.com.
Q: How does it feel to be 25 years old and heading a company that pays the salaries of 40 people and is, basically, all about playing games?
A: Overall, it feels very good. It is very exciting to see all the people who, in general, are working jobs they all enjoy.
This company's really my baby. I steer it; I'm responsible for these people. It keeps me on my toes. It's also extremely scary. Experience matures people more than time does and this has changed my viewpoint of life substantially. You need to know what you're doing. It takes a lot of time, experience and humility to know when you've made mistakes.
Q: What's the most important thing that you've learned?
A: Stay extremely focused. You cannot do everything in life. If you want to do something really, really well, you have to direct a lot of energy at it. Focus is the key component to business success and life success. In general, I spend 45 to 60 or 70 hours a week working; my life and work are meshed together. I have a lot of fun but a lot of enjoyment comes from the work that I do. In that way, I'm having a ball.
Q: When you were growing up, were you very interested in computers?
A: I grew up playing computer games. StarCraft and Age of Empires were two of my favorites. Andrew and I both started coding computers at around 11 years old. In high school, we programmed robots and built databases. I love programming — I am definitely a super geek.
Q: What are some of the biggest challenges, the hardest parts of running PerBlue that you have faced?
A: Where do I start? There's an endless amount of challenges. As a business changes and grows, the problems change. First, there's putting the team together, then shaping the product, getting it to work, getting it known.
You have to keep in mind that people are what makes the world go round; people are the essence of what you do.
Q: How did you take PerBlue from simply being the developer of a medieval-themed fantasy game to a money-making operation?
A: We made our first version in October 2008 and launched two more versions in 2009. The November 2009 version introduced our business model: selling virtual goods to our players. They buy a currency called Food. You can spend that Food on a variety of things — buy upgrades, accessories, and resources to build your kingdom like wood and stone.
The revenue of the company grew, and we converted our staff of five, which had been working for sweat equity, into paid employees in January 2010. That was the end of our working-without-pay period.
When we started the company, Andrew and I each put in $10,000; we got a $30,000 grant from Google and raised $70,000 from family and friends. In 2010, we raised $800,000 from investors, including the Golden Angels investment group in Milwaukee.
Now, we're getting about $200,000 a month in revenue. We did $1.5 million in revenue last year, up from $500,000 the year before. Our goal this year is $3 million to $5 million, and it could be a lot more.
Q: What are your plans for growing PerBlue?
A: Parallel Mafia, our second game, was introduced April 4. We have another game in the hopper, Parallel Zombies, and that will come out in July. It's post-apocalyptic — zombies take over the world and you have to survive.
Our company is vertically integrated. We do our own game design, art, marketing and publishing, as well as business metrics. We own all the pieces of the business. Our customers are our customers. This is a very big deal. We are the third largest game studio in the state of Wisconsin (behind Raven and Human Head Studios, both in the Madison area) and the only one that owns its own assets. That keeps our jobs more stable. We control our own destiny.
We are at 40 employees now but we could have 65 by next year. It's not just about the head count, though, but bringing out great games to play.
I love the game industry; it's a phenomenal place to be. My goal, though, is to start more software companies that are not necessarily about games.