Interviewee Name: Nathon Gunn, CEO
Company Name: Social Game Universe
Avil Beckford: Tell me a little bit about yourself.
Nathon Gunn: I am the CEO of a company called Social Game Universe and I also started another company called Bitcasters, which is still going. I’m an entrepreneur, and an innovator and I’m very passionate about creating new things. I work in new media and technology.
Avil Beckford: What’s a typical day like for you?
Nathon Gunn: A typical day for me is spent answering a lot of emails. At the moment we’re producing a number of products, so I have creative teams who are constantly asking questions, so a big part of my day is just dealing with the constant traffic cropping of creative ideas, and moving the right pieces to the right people. But I also try to make sure that I exercise a little bit every day, see my friends and have a bit of social time.
Avil Beckford: How do you motivate yourself and stay motivated?
Nathon Gunn: I’m motivated by innovation, and I’m very excited when I see opportunities to do new things, things that haven’t been done yet. That is something that gets me going naturally, I don’t have to think about it too much, but on days when I’m down, I’m often motivated by the idea that I have a whole bunch of people who have invested in me – their money, time and careers and that gets me motivated because I don’t want to let anybody down.
On other occasions I get motivated when I see other people in the market innovating or creating things that I think I should have thought of, or we are working on. So sometimes I’m motivated by competition.
Avil Beckford: If you had to start over from scratch, knowing what you know now, what would you do differently?
Nathon Gunn: We work a lot in the internet industry, and one of the things I did in the nineties was I created a technology for uploading video to the web. I believed in the idea of users creating their own content, instead of big companies creating content and distributing it to users, and that’s what is now known as user-generated content. I worked for nearly four years trying to convince the big companies to get behind me, support me and build this. What I wish we had done differently was just built and launched the product.
We’re are living in an era with technology where you can, with a couple of people, build and launch things, and you find out very quickly if it works or doesn’t. I probably would have changed my need to be loved by the big companies, and my need to get the big companies to support me because of a psychological dependence on what I had grown up with – the idea that CBS and NBC and ABC were the big players and you had to be involved with them. So I was hampered by something that I don’t think the new generation of entrepreneurs really are as much, and I would change that.
Avil Beckford: What’s the most important business or other discovery you’ve made in the past year?
Nathon Gunn: I discovered that I’m resilient. We survived quite a few ups and downs in the marketplace, and I really believe that one of the things that made it possible for us to succeed was the ability to weather the storm. I have discovered that I can weather the storm, and that’s something that I’ve done on a personal level, as well as a professional level. That gives me confidence for what’s coming up ahead, and we can’t expect calm skies forever, and at the moment things are going well for us, but I’m confident that I can get through any storms. So that is a discovery I made.
Avil Beckford: What are the three threats to your business, your success, and how are you handling them?
- We had lots of opportunities, and in some cases we weren’t following up on them as well as we might have, and in some cases we weren’t prioritizing the right opportunities, so we were choosing to focus on things that seemed interesting but was draining our time, away from where it needed to go. One of the ways we are dealing with that is I’ve put a couple of people who I trust in charge of business development, and have given the control to them to decide what the priorities are so they can push back on me if I seem to be putting energy into the wrong things.
- Another threat to our success is the fact that technology is always changing and the kinds of products we are making are changing, and people are making other products that do a better job, or can do a better job so we have to stay on top of the competition and have to keep innovating and we have to be fast. I would say that our biggest challenge is that things take longer than we want them to and the market is changing fast. We are a small company still but we’re getting to the size now that we can’t move like two people in a basement, and that’s something that we have to deal with.
- The other threat is the great unknown. We work a lot with Facebook and every day it changes its rules, so we have to stay nimble and we also have to make sure that we diversify so we’re not just dependent on one partnership, such as we are right now with Facebook. We’re very excited that Google+ has been announced and we are looking forward to working with them, it gives us another avenue for our business.
Avil Beckford: What’s unique about the service that you provide?
Nathon Gunn: We haven’t talked too much about the services that we provide – what the company does. We create technology that supports social games on platforms like Facebook and Google+ as I mentioned before. And what’s unique about our products is that they interconnect games. So if you’re play My Farm, and I’m playing Hollywood Tycoon, which are two different games, I can see that you’re in My Farm while I’m playing Hollywood Tycoon and I can make it rain on you, and you can see that I’m in Hollywood Tycoon and you can set a zombie loose from my horror set, and the core innovation there for us is that I have made it possible for friends to see and play with each other, even when they like different kinds of games. That provides for a lot of interesting things like being able to discover another person’s game and be able to buy things for your friends in those games. And we are actually moving that out of games. So if I were to sum that up – we silo and reconnect friends in the different experiences that they care about and we let them do meaningful things to each other wherever they are.
Avil Beckford: Describe a major business or other challenge you had and how you resolved it. What kind of lessons did you learn in the process?
Nathon Gunn: I’ve had lots of major challenges. I would say the dotcom crash when we went through that in 2000, 2001 was the most significant moment in my career, and the biggest thing that I have recovered from professionally. Most of my competitors in the new media space went bankrupt. We were probably one or two percent of the companies that survived. Nearly all the people who I knew in the business were wiped out. They are still in business in some capacity, some are working for people, some have started other companies. But we were brought down from a point where we had 30 staff to me being half-a-million in debt and two staff, and I had a choice of walking away or trying to dig my way back out of a hole and I chose to dig our way out the hole, paid all our bills and we built our staff back up. We raised some money and I’m really proud of that. I certainly learned that having 30 staff in the early days of the dotcom phenomenon was a measure of success, and the lesson I learned is that lean and mean is the measure of success. The true measure of success is having revenue, your products are selling, and people are using them.
You have to focus on the right things, not growing and trying to be impressive. When you go to a dinner party and people say, “How much staff do you have?” I often want to say to them that that’s the wrong question to ask, the better question to ask is, “How many people love what you do? How many people are willing to pay to have your product? How engaged are they with you and how much do they love being engaged with you?” So I learned to focus on the right things and that’s been the biggest challenge in my career so far.
Avil Beckford: Tell me about your big break and who gave you.
Nathon Gunn: Life has been a series of little, big breaks. I have struggled at every stage to bust through to the next. So you could say that I have had a number along the way. I snuck off the CityTV tour they used to give at the broadcast station, and I got my first job by begging this lady who worked in the graphics department to let me come in. She was sick the next day, and Steve Hurlbut who was running the newsroom thought that I had been working there and hired so he put me to work, and only discovered a few days later that I had not been hire by anyone, so that was one big break.
A few years later when I was getting involved in new media, Dr. Tom Axworthy – former Chief of Staff for Pierre Trudeau – who was running Charles Bronfman Family Foundation, was looking for someone young who knew about new media, took an interest in my career, my business partner, Duane Wall’s career and made a real effort to help us learn about business and also to give us opportunities, and I would say, in that way Tom really became a mentor.
In addition, the opportunities that Moses Znaimer gave me at CityTV were a form of mentorship. We’ve had many little, big breaks. And if you want the biggest one, it’s the support, the continuous support of Tom Axworthy throughout the years.
Avil Beckford: Describe one of your biggest failures. What lessons did you learn, and how did it contribute to a greater success?
Nathon Gunn: In many ways I have already talked about that. One of the things I did which I mentioned before is that we created a tool for uploading video to the web, that’s the user-generated content that I was trying to get all the big broadcast companies to support. We pitched Barry Diller who runs IAC/InterActiveCorp, we presented it to the Weinsteins (Harry and Bob) who ran Miramax, we presented it to the Bronfmans, to the head of Canwest, and nobody would support it.
I think the biggest mistake I made, my biggest failure, was talking to them, instead of building it. I would say that that exercise has taught me that I need to focus on building and executing and launching, not on getting people to buy into an idea, but rather showing people that the idea makes money and succeeds.
The biggest failure was in the nineties when it was possible to raise $10 million and launch what became YouTube, and I didn’t do it. I will never forget that lesson, and I will always work to build and launch as opposed to raise money and talk people into things.
Avil Beckford: What’s one of the toughest decisions you’ve had to make and how did it impact your life?
Nathon Gunn: Perhaps the toughest decision has been over the last few years to let go of many of the things my company Bitcasters was doing. Bitcasters was the company for 15 years that I ran, that was the first company that I started, and we realized along the way that we had an opportunity in social games, and although Bitcasters was making TV commercials, animated kids’ shows, we were working with Paul Martin (former Canadian Prime Minister) on his election campaign, we were doing very exciting work, it was very clear to me that if we didn’t focus my energy on one opportunity, we were always going to be proud of our work, working with great people, but we might not have that home run that would define us as winners and “succeeders” in the market, that would then open doors to us for doing the other things we wanted.
I decided to do one thing well for a little while to give us the credibility and the success in the market, which will hopefully open the door for us to do the things we love in the other areas, but to do one at a time. That’s been a hard decision to be honest, because we had some amazing people and projects that I’ve had to let go of, and it’s impacted me because I’ve lost some friends who I worked with because of that. They had invested in that direction and I had to change directions. It’s impacted me, and it has also impacted me positively as well, and I’m confident that in the long run that many of those relationships will be revived by going back with the success we realized here and revisiting the projects we want to do.
Avil Beckford: What are three events that helped to shape your life?
- Travel: My family moved to India when I was about 11 years old, and we were there for a few years and then we moved to Malaysia for a couple of years, and then Australia. The travel really shaped my life. From an early age I saw myself as a global citizen, and I saw the world as my oyster, rather than thinking about an opportunity in Saskatoon, Victoria or Toronto, I thought about an opportunity In New York and Paris and Tokyo. And I don’t think you have to travel to do that, but it made it really easy for me to see that the world is a global economy, a global village that we all participate in and anybody in Canada, through technology can actually compete in that global market. So that was one thing that shaped my life.
- On a smaller level, my dad brought home a Commodore 64 when we were living in India and I programmed my first games, and did my first animations on those computers – we had an Apple II E at school, so certainly the arrival of the computer into my house, and the ability to play games and my desire to tinker with those games and figure out how you change them made a big impact on my lifelong journey of working in new media and digital technology.
- And I think mentorship, since it’s the topic of some of your work here. I think it’s important to recognize that it’s a major thing that happened in my life, and I sought this out. It didn’t just happened to me, but I have made a point of being aligned with, and involved with people that I admired and respected, and out of that has grown various kinds of mentorship and I would say that has shaped my life on a personal and professional level.
Avil Beckford: What’s an accomplishment that you are proudest of?
Nathon Gunn: I’m really proud that after the dotcom crash, even though a lot of the problems that I had, were created by me, making some of the mistakes I made, I’m very proud that I didn’t close down Bitcasters. I’m very proud that we spent the next few years building that company back up. We survived the hardest business challenge you could expect, which is a recession and a complete dissolution of a market and we survived it. We realigned ourselves and we survived it. I would say that’s one of my proudest because it meant that I was able to employ people, and it meant that I was able to continue the work that I love, and we were able to pay back the people who invested in us.
Avil Beckford: How did mentors influence your life?
Nathon Gunn: It’s funny how mentors can influence your life. Certainly one of the most important things has been support. When things are tough, you need people who you can talk to about the challenges, and you need people who support you even when you make mistakes. Mentors have been there and they know what you’re going through, so they can lend a kind of empathy, as well as intelligent advice that you can’t get from friends necessarily. I have been influenced to be a good person, to be ethical, by some of my mentors who have made it a point of living their lives in a wonderful way by giving back to people even in their mentorship. And so by example they have led the way. I have done my best, and will continue to try to do my best and follow in their examples. I think they have influenced my life to remember to be generous to other people, and to be ethical in dealings, to take the high road whenever you can.
In some cases, I’ve had mentors who I’ve seen do things, and they’ve even talked about some of the things they’ve done wrong, and I’ve learned from negative examples or what not to do. And a good mentor will be quite candid about that, and I think in another way my life’s been influenced by mentors was simply through generosity. Sometimes a door needs to be opened and you just can’t open it yourself so I think that’s another way they have influenced my life.
Avil Beckford: What’s one core message you received from your mentors?
Nathon Gunn: I received a lot, but if there was one core message, is to stick to it. There have been many lessons that have been important to me because of my specific strengths and weaknesses. But if there is one thing that a mentor has shared, and the mentors have brought to the table in their message is to stick to it, because these are all people who have made it through thick and thin, and we are all people who go through thick and thin, and one of the few things that you can’t get from anybody else, that you can get from mentors is the reminder that you can make it if you stick with it.
Avil Beckford: An invisible mentor is a unique leader you can learn things from by observing them from afar, in the capacity of an Invisible Mentor, what is one piece of advice that you would give to readers?
Nathon Gunn: I have to speak from my own experiences and my own thoughts. I went to Burning Man festival – camping in the desert, with 60,000 other crazy people, and you have to bring your own water, food, your own tent, and everything you have to bring in. There is no way to buy anything and it’s hours away from any hospitals. It’s what they call radical self-reliance. As I told you the story about how I tried to get my company supported by the big broadcast companies even though what I was trying to do was reinvent broadcast, I can see a parallel between going to Burning Man and needing to bring everything of your own and my problem trying to get everybody to support me in the early days and I would say perhaps the best lesson is radical self-reliance.
It’s good to know that you have mentors to support you, and it’s good to know I have friends at Burning Man, but the reality is that you have to be prepared to build these things on your own, you have to be willing to step one foot in front of the other and head out on your own, and amazingly people will come in behind you and support you but you can’t wait for somebody else to do it for you. You can’t expect to be reliant on anybody else.
Waldo Emerson Self-Reliance
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Video Credit: Waldo Emerson Self-Reliance - Uploaded by ajhande on Dec 29, 2009
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