Below is a story I wrote for Profile. Also, in the issue, there’s a fairytale version of a version of this. Check it out*.
According to legend, Icarus didn’t listen to his father and flew too close to the sun, melting his wings. Angry Birds are ready to take their chances to become legendary. Then again, they aim for the moon.
Peter Vesterbacka has been called the most connected man in Finland, which, at face value, might not seem like much. Finland is, after all, a country with just a little over five million people. Vesterbacka’s rolodex, however, is not limited to just Finnish-sounding names.
Vesterbacka has been active in the Finnish start-up scene “for a while,” he says. “Let’s say over ten years.” It has taken him around the world and back. Today, the former HP business developer, founder of HP’s Bazaar, co-founder of the MobileMonday movement, founder of Some Bazaar (‘Some’ as in social media), and founder of ConnectedDay, is the Mighty Eagle of Rovio Entertainment. You probably know them as the company made famous by the video game named Angry Birds.
Vesterbacka is the person in charge of “marketing, branding, and stuff like that,” which at this stage of the company’s evolution is actually its core business.
“We are in the early stages with Angry Birds, and right now, we are not thinking about the next games. The only things we care about right now are our fans and our brand,” says Vesterbacka, sporting jeans and a bright red T-shirt with one of the famous angry birds on it.
The face above the bird is far from angry. He is, instead, in perpetual motion between smiling and talking. The smile comes naturally, and easily, even when talking about how marketing, branding and the other stuff are going. As it stands, Angry Birds has already flown past the game phase. The company is now trying to establish itself as an entertainment brand that covers clothes, games, movies and books.
“At the moment, Angry Birds, the game, has been downloaded 250 million times. That is a good start,” Vesterbacka offers. “Now we are building the brand. Our goal is to become the first entertainment brand with one billion fans.”
One signal of the changes in the company’s focus is the fact that Rovio (which is Finnish for bonfire), recently changed its name from Rovio Mobile to Rovio Entertainment.
“It will take two to three years, but we are growing at a good pace. The game and the characters are the core, but we have also sold T-shirts and toys, we have released a cookbook and are working on a movie,” Vesterbacka lists.
For all that, Rovio recently hired David Maisel, the former chairman of Marvel Studios, to advise them on the entertainment strategy.
This is all, of course, pretty good for a Finnish start-up that has only been around since … 2003.
Vesterbacka was at HP Bazaar at the time, and when the now-CEO Niklas Hed won a mobile game contest he organized, another connection was made. When Vesterbacka suggested that they found their own company, Rovio was born.
Last year, Vesterbacka joined Rovio, and, with echoes from the dotcom era, he became the Mighty Eagle.
“When I started to do Rovio full-time, it was pretty easy to connect to the right people and kick things into high gear. I knew who to talk to at Apple, HP and so on. Also, they had a great game in Angry Birds,” he says.
Just before Angry Birds hit the big time, and before Vesterbacka joined Rovio, the company was on the ropes, though. There had been layoffs, and the remaining employees were working on a game for Nokia – one of the many games the company has created for the Finnish handset company.
On the side, they also worked on a new game.
“Our designer, Jaakko Iisalo, had a game design that included the birds we now know. The game was different but got everybody excited. It took Rovio eight months to finish it, and during that time, the green pigs – which were inspired by the swine flu epidemic of the time – and the slingshot were added,” Vesterbacka says.
Angry Birds topped Apple’s UK App Store charts in February 2010 and claimed the top spot on the US App Store a few weeks later.
The seven-year-old company was as exciting as a start-up. More pointedly, it was among the most exciting ‘start-ups’ in the world.
“You have to stick to what you are doing, because most things are not overnight successes. Rovio made 51 games before Angry Birds. Many of them were for-hire jobs, but still. Don’t expect to get a million users the first day,” stresses Vesterbacka.
“All the exciting stuff goes on at start-ups. The start-up is the place to be, especially if you want to have an impact in the world,” he adds.
In between working with the brand, getting new Angry Birds editions out – one with characters from the animated movie Rio, others for different device platforms – and designing new ways to extend the brand and making the Angry Birds’ world bigger, Vesterbacka talks to people. He connects people and is, in a word, networking.
“It is part of the job, but also how I do things. If you want to get stuff done, it is good to know the people who can make things happen. It is a two-way street. Everything is always give-and-take. You can not always think what is in it for me. Maybe there is something in it, but it is not obvious at the time,” he says. Vesterbacka met Hed, as you may recall, in 2003 and joined the company in 2010. So, waiting does have its pay-off.
“It is not that you must win and get something every day – and that also applies to partnerships between companies, big and small – it really has to be win-win,” he adds.
In hindsight, everything is clear. There was a great game, with an adorable figure, and a concept that makes it impossible to stop playing. It is addictive. But there must have been hundreds of good games out there at the same time, vying that Apple Store top spot.
“A lot has to do with timing. With Angry Birds, the timing was perfect. The game came out just when the iPhone and other touch devices took off. You have to be in the right place at the right time,” Vesterbacka says.
Not that Rovio simply got lucky with Angry Birds. After all, it was their fifty-second game. The concept was well thought-out, down to the colors of the birds and the slingshot and other details.
“It is important to stand out and not do what everybody else does. Do not think that you can do what Google is doing, only a little better, because it is probably not going to be good enough. Do something that completely changes your landscape,” he says.
In other words, says Vesterbacka, it also comes down to marketing. Even if you create the best-ever product, if you cannot get the word out and tell the world about it, it is not worth much.
“Ideas are cheap, so keep talking to customers and try to understand what they really need. It does not have to be a huge, revolutionary thing as long as it is something that makes things better or changes things. A lot of these things come from being in an environment that has already had success. One idea leads to more ideas.”
Find people you do not hang out with every day, he adds. “Get out of your territory and comfort zone.”
For Vesterbacka, those “coffee-machine encounters” often take place in Silicon Valley.
“It depends which business you are in, but, of course, a lot of the innovation is there. For us, our entertainment coffee machine is also in Los Angeles,” he says.
But not even the best idea always comes out on top. The world is full of people saying “that was my idea,” when they see something great. Their problem is not that they did not have a good idea. It was the poor execution.
“Build the best possible team, and they will make a business out of almost anything. If the idea is no good, it is not going anywhere, no matter how hard you work at it,” says Vesterbacka.
There are also those who have the idea, and a garage where they build a great prototype of their product, but lack financing.
“You always need money, but you can always get financing if you have the idea and the team. It is more that you do not have a great team, or an idea, so you will not get the money,” says Vesterbacka.
With a massive hit product come expectations of the next big thing. Nobody wants to be a one-hit wonder. Vesterbacka says that Rovio is happy with the birds for now. The birds have just got off and are nowhere near finding a landing spot.
“Nothing lasts forever, but if you have an attitude that you have to have another hit and panic, you lose. We created 51 games before Angry Birds and know it is not easy. We are not looking for the next hit. Instead, we will try to make this as big as it can, and then, down the road, we will introduce a totally new idea,” Vesterbacka predicts.
First, there will be new Angry Birds editions with new characters. There is the movie project, and a cookbook in which the bad pigs share their favorite egg dishes. One of the new characters will be a chef, a natural tie-in with the book, which will also be advertised in the game, when players of “Angry Birds” pause it.
When you walk into a Barnes & Noble’s bookstore, you get a notification that you are in an Angry Birds Magic Place and can use a Mighty Eagle inside the store.
The Rovio team needs to get bigger.
“We should add another 100 people right now. We need artists, designers, coders, marketing people, business developers, animators, everything,” says Vesterbacka.
“We are hiring and are looking at acquisitions. Next year, we will be 500 people here. We want to grow, but we also want to keep the number of employees under 1,000,” he adds.
According to the Wall Street Journal, Rovio’s revenue in 2011 is expected to exceed 100 million US dollars. But if there is anything that tells that a product has crossed over from a hit product to a phenomenon, it is getting pirated. After all, piracy is the highest form of flattery.
“We are number one in about 80 countries, including China, and we are in the top three of pirated products, behind Disney and Hello Kitty. Every kid in the world now knows that pigs and birds are natural enemies,” Vesterbacka says, laughing.
1. Do not just think about, do it. Think about how to stand out. For every Angry Birds, there are tens of thousands not-so angry birds.
2. Get the best possible team together. It does not have to be huge. The size depends on what kind of skills you need.
3. Talk to people. Ask people. Most people will be happy to share and help. Do not just sit in your garage. Get out there.
4. Work hard.
(Published in Profile 3.2011 in September 2011).