One children’s video game. Thousands of business documents, $200k in sweat equity, 150 gruelling meetings with hardball investors. Decades of experience; a paltry eight minutes to convince 20 investors using a ten slide pitch deck. Hundreds, thousands of man hours shoehorned, smelted down into one single, crucial, rapid fire 30 seconds of sell.
BubbleGum Interactive has 99 problems...
But a pitch ain’t one.
It’s a cold day in Sydney, perhaps the coldest this winter. Paul Gray stands in a thin sports jacket, clothing inadequate for the task. He folds his arms tightly and rubs his shoulders. He can’t stop shivering.
Sitting opposite, on a park bench — a potential investor. A woman. She is all that stands between Paul and a hefty investment in his start up company, Bubble Gum Interactive.
This is what it means to pitch a video game to a venture capitalist.
“She was like this classic power woman,” begins Paul, “like from a movie – really smart, really intimidating.
“I don’t know why, but she made me pitch outside, on a winter’s day, and it was freezing. She had this massive coat on, but I thought I was going inside to pitch, so I had all this light clothing on.
“And I totally believe she did that as a pressure test. Like, ‘if you guys are asking me for money, I need to know that you can pitch outside on a freezing cold day.’ I always wondered if the next time we went we’d all go in big jackets and she’d make me pitch in a sauna!”
Paul Gray is the Director of Community at Bubble Gum Interactive, probably the largest Australian games studio you’ve never heard of. At time of writing Bubble Gum Interactive has 20 members of staff working on Little Space Heroes, an innovative online game for children, a game that encourages kids to “discover every day”.
Bubble Gum Interactive is growing — at a frightening rate — and mostly as a direct result of its incredible ability to acquire funds by pitching to potential investors.
“We really grew rapidly through fund raising. We had a clear idea of what we wanted to do and we put together all these 50 page business plans, marketing plans, forecasts,” says Paul.
Some of Bubble Gum’s fund raising came through government funding, through schemes like The Interactive Media Fund and Screen Australia, but a vast majority of the cash came from Venture Capitalists, wealthy investors looking to inject funds into risky start up opportunities.
“We needed to raise a lot of money to put this together,” claims Paul, “and so far we've raised over $1.3 million dollars.”
That's a fair whack of cash.
Picture the scene: you walk into a room, in an office, in the centre of the city. Inside sit 15-30 men and women, Captains of industry, waiting to hear you speak, waiting to watch you fail. Either you grab their attention quickly, and sustain that interest, or you’re out on your ear, with nothing but the clothes on your back.
This is what it means to pitch to the Sydney Angels, a high profile group of millionaires looking for projects to sink their ponderous pools of cash into.
“These guys are investors worth millions, and they invest in everything from bio-technology to, well, anything really,” says Paul “When we went to do our pitch the girl before us was pitching a hand cream line. And another person was pitching this really hardcore software to manage irrigation systems. It’s crazy.
“During our first Angels pitch it was just me with a computer, and I had a complete disaster.
“Our computer didn’t even work. I couldn’t show the video, so I just had to completely wing it. There were 20 very intimidating, very serious people sitting at a u-shaped table. They’re obviously smart guys and girls and they want to know as much as possible about us. You only have 10 minutes, and they get five minutes of questions. If they’re interested you might get invited back.”
Paul’s first pitch didn’t exactly go to plan, but it’s a learning process – an extremely valuable one.
“I’ve gone through, literally, 150 pitches — and you lose way more than you win,” he says. “You never get laughed out of the room, because these people are really professional. We sometimes worked for months with people — pitching, remodelling stuff, getting validation — then at the end you get a 'hmmm not for us'. You need a pretty thick skin to put up with it, it can be pretty disheartening.”
Good Cop/Bad Cop
Phil Mason is the co-founder and Creative Director at Bubble Gum Interactive. He speaks more deliberately than Paul, demands your attention. Paul is rapid fire; his enthusiasm peppers you with a constant barrage information. His is the manner of someone used to selling, but Phil is more careful with the information he gives you; he radiates with an easy confidence. Both Paul and Phil were heavily involved in Bubble Gum Interactive’s pitching process, and they make for a devastating tag team.
"We've definitely got roles in the process,” says Phil. “Paul does the main pitch and schmoozes, and then I come in. It's almost like a debating team. I'm the third speaker!”
“When the tricky questions hit I always get this guy to answer them,” laughs Paul, pointing back at Phil. The chemistry is fluid and natural, I feel as though I’m the one being pitched to.
Both Phil and Paul feel that, when it comes to pitching, they’ve come up against almost every single scenario possible.
“You'll find yourself standing up in a room with 15 to 30 investors all staring at you,” says Phil, “but these sort of things don't really worry us anymore because we've done so many pitches. I think we've been asked almost every question possible — but it took a year of pitching to get to that point.”
“You learn as you go,” adds Paul, “and you get a lot of feedback.”
After each and every meeting Paul and Phil take the time to refine their entire pitch.
“It really is a numbers game. We have spent a lot of time putting things together,” claims Phil. “We always go over everything. And we listen to what investors say. We try and get our pitches short and condensed so it's snappy — we try and put it together as an entire branded package.”
“It's all about having a compelling case,” continues Paul. “My background is marketing strategy. My mantra when talking to other developers is 'don't build a game for yourself, build it for your audience.'”
But ultimately, if you want to raise the cash, the ability to sell your project to potential investors is of paramount importance. You must have an ability to take months of planning and shrink-wrap it into a solid 30 seconds pitch, or accept defeat.
“The thing is, we have thousands of pages of docs, business plans, outlines — but you have to be able to squeeze it all into a ten slide deck, and you've got to be able to deliver that pitch in 30 seconds,” says Paul. “For us, it was like, 'we are creating a safe, fun interactive world for kids everywhere based on story with social play using new technologies... blah blah blah!'
“I'm a huge film fan so I try to think like a screenwriter — anyone who pitches a script is like, 'It's Harry Potter meets Transformers in a school for robots.' Bam! People instantly get it. Then you discuss why you're different, where you're going, what you’ve done before. Where you’re at...”
100 Words=100 Grand
150 pitches: group pitches, individual pitches, standing shivering in the cold pitches. Both Paul and Phil have some incredible stories to tell.
“Some investors are just crazy,” begins Phil. “We had one in here who was a bit of a larrikin. He's pretty wealthy, he came to us through a referral. one of his mates had already invested.
“We pitched to him over lunch and he didn’t even seem interested. We actually had to say to him at one point, because he wouldn't stop talking about cricket, 'are you sure you don't want to ask us any questions?'
“The next day he gave us 50 grand!”
Some investors are the complete opposite and demand a level of transparency that would bemuse most studios.
“Another of our investors is based in Singapore,” begins Paul. “I think Phil found them through some networks and we got in touch. We had a phone call, sent them some plans. Then they were like, ‘okay, we’re going to do some research’ — there’s always some guy who crunches the numbers.
Time passed and both Phil and Paul were worried — would they every hear back? Then, out of the blue, a phone call...
“They were like, ‘we need you to do one thing. We need every single member of your team to write 100 words on a piece of paper, sign it, then send it to us for analysis’.
“We were confused — 100 words on what? ‘Anything you like’, they said. I was just so confused, but just said, ‘okay’ and hung up.
“So there I was sitting at home, on a blank piece of paper going, ‘what will I write about’? Surely they’re going to read the content'. And when you have to write 100 words like that, nothing comes to mind! I just looking at magazines and I saw a picture of a beach. So I started writing, ‘I live in Sydney I like going to the beach, my favourite beach is Coogee but Bondi isn't too bad... blah blah blah, signed Paul.’
What happened over the next fortnight is still a complete mystery. Phil and Paul have no idea where the handwriting was sent, or what was done with it.
“All that happened was a couple of weeks later, they came back and said they were really happy with what we sent and they wanted to invest in our business," says Paul.
“Then they ended up giving us $100k!”
Phil just assumed their writing had been successfully analysed by some handwriting expert, at the behest of one paranoid venture capitalist.
“The funny thing is,” adds Phil, “we have a great relationship with that investor and on the last call we said to them, ‘by the way we're not giving you any dividends until we see that handwriting report!’”
The Template For Success
Bubble Gum Interactive has had massive success in taking its story to investors, and amassed almost 1.5 million dollars in the process. The next step is making good on those investments, but both Phil and Paul want to help spread the message, to share the knowledge that comes from taking part in over 150 pitches.
“We really want to help the local industry. We totally want to share what we’ve learned,” says Paul.
“We actually made a ten slide presentation deck which I actually use, and anyone could use it. Just download it from our website and add your company info.
“We just want to put this opportunity out there for people, because if you're building a small mobile game, you could get by with a programmer, an art guy and an all hands on deck person. If the team is willing to work part time to pay rent and just needs a little bit of cash, they might only need about 50k.”
Paul believes that many local studios have the ability to acquire funding in much the same way as Bubble Gum Interactive, and would like to see this skill set taught to entry levels game design students.
“We’ve spoken to QANTM a couple of times about this kind of stuff. I know they have a business course at the college, but I’d like to see them ramp that up.
“In the introduction to every presentation we’ve seen, you have people saying 'I'm the programmer, I'm the artist, I'm the designer' but I was like, 'where's the business person'? Maybe they need to tie in with other colleges and bring in business students who can put up with crunching numbers in Excel.
“It's not as exciting as games development, but it's critical.”
Bubble Gum Interactive are intent on giving back. Of the 20 developers employed at the studio, two are Game Design students from the afore mentioned Qantm, working part time as they finish their studies.
Ethan Tonelli, is one of those students.
“I’ve learned so much from Bubble Gum Interactive,” says Ethan, “even just in the last couple of weeks.
“I think it’s really encouraging that Bubble Gum Interactive has opened up to the Australian Games Community. It’s really encouraging, because hopefully someone out there is listening. It can be quite daunting to go for funding, there’s so much to it, but with Bubble Gum Interactive, you have a template for success.”
You can find more information about Bubble Gum Interactive's success story on its official website.