Stephen Nichols – CEO of GameSalad

I’m addicted to the happiness of my customers and habitually engage with them and study their behavior. This really helps my productivity because I’m not wasting time working on things that don’t improve my products for them. Their success is my success.

Stephen is a veteran game developer, manager, and entrepreneur with more than 20 years of professional experience. He currently serves as the CEO of GameSalad Inc., a leading provider of game development tools used by over 900,000 hobbyists, students, and professionals. You can find him on LinkedIn.

Where did the idea for GameSalad come from?

GameSalad was born from the noble vision of “game development for everyone.” It’s our goal to become YouTube for games and help anyone that wants to learn game development to do so. Our stance is that game development isn’t hard, you’re just using the wrong tools!

What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?

As CEO, my typical day is spent studying dashboards, mining data, reviewing customer issues, and wrangling my development team. Keeping my finger on the pulse of the business and ensuring the company is focused on the right things is my main goal. Since I’m also an expert software developer, I pitch in with development issues when I have time. Productivity isn’t really an issue — there’s a never ending pile of work to do! So, I just keep shoveling all day every day.

How do you bring ideas to life?

I prefer to work on inspirational ideas. As entrepreneurs, I’m sure you know what I’m talking about. An inspirational idea is one that really gets you going. Once it comes to you, it becomes all consuming until you make it manifest in reality. These ideas take a life of their own and propel me to action!

Depending on the idea, I’ll take different actions to bring it to life. In some cases I’ll prototype exciting new features for our product. In others, I’ll share my vision with others and work with them to build it. It really depends on the size and complexity of the idea and where it comes from.
In all cases, though, it’s a matter of hard work, communication, and tenacity to see your vision come true.

What’s one trend that really excites you?

I’m a huge engineering geek at heart … and one of the trends that has been unfolding over the past few years is the use of machine learning to effectively mine massive amounts of data. I’ve studied the subject for years. Free tools like the R Project coupled with massive amounts of readily-accessible computing power puts data science within everyone’s reach. With a minimum of effort, you can analyze your customer behavior and glean critical insights about them to drive your business growth. I use these techniques extensively in my work at GameSalad.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

I’m addicted to the happiness of my customers and habitually engage with them and study their behavior. This really helps my productivity because I’m not wasting time working on things that don’t improve my products for them. Their success is my success.

What was the worst job you ever had and what did you learn from it?

My first professional programming job was the worst! I was 17 and got hired on by a small startup near Oakland California to help port video games from Mac to PC. The people were nice, but the work environment was exceptionally poor. I was working out of the CEO’s loft apartment. He had a sick cat that stunk up the place and needed feeding from a stomach tube. And it was always hot as hell in there. Not a good place to concentrate.

After a month or so of these conditions, I started looking for more work. I was naive at the time and let the CEO know I was looking for another job. The result? I was fired the next day. I learned two lessons from that job: 1) always interview for the job in-person and make sure it’s not a terrible place and 2) don’t tell your boss you’re looking for work!

If you were to start again, what would you do differently?

I would have spent more time studying business earlier in my career. I started out as an engineer and naturally found opportunities in startups. Yet I knew precious little about the business issues that decided the success and failure of the places I worked. That lack of knowledge robbed me of opportunities to affect positive change. Live and learn!

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

The one thing that I go out of my way to do regularly is to involve myself in every aspect of my business. I dive in and try my hand at everyone’s job at some time or another. I’ll field customer inquiries, fix bugs, handle credit card chargebacks, add product features, etc. This helps me lead effectively because I’ve got an ingrained sense of the pain that my customers and employees are feeling. That sense roots my decision-making in the realities of the business instead of from 30,000 feet.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business? Please explain how.

I see my business as an organism. To survive, it needs to be aligned with the resources that sustain it. Those are customers. Time and again, it’s my focus on understanding the customer that drives growth. It sounds obvious, but you’d be surprised how many businesses just don’t get it.

The strategy is simple: observe your customers, understand how they use your product, and iterate on your product to better serve them. This really drives the point home that you should ship your product quickly and get it in front of customers. Only then can you iterate on it correctly. Before then, you’re just spinning your wheels.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

Entrepreneurship and failure go hand and hand. I’ve failed on several occasions, sometimes spectacularly. It’s how I choose to view my failures that help me overcome them. Knowing that, given enough time, failure is inevitable helps me keep my perspective when things go wrong. I’ve learned to post-mortem my failures and adjust my future actions accordingly. Practicing emotional detachment when evaluating why my failures occur is a critical point. Before I learned that, I took things way too seriously and ended blaming others for my own failures. Taking personal responsibility for your inevitable failures and learning from them is the key to overcoming them.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

Someone needs to invent Uber for babysitting. As a parent, I find it’s difficult to find someone trustworthy to come in and watch my kids when I want to go out for the evening. Having an app I could pull up and quickly find qualified sitters that have been vetted would be fantastic. Quick, someone do it!

What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?

I recently spent $100 on a massage. It may sound silly, but I find massage to be an excellent way to keep reasonable levels of relaxation in spite of the stresses of running a startup. Don’t forget to take care of yourself in the daily rush.

What software and web services do you use? What do you love about them?

— If you don’t know about this service, you should! It’s changing the face of how business’ interact with their customers. Fantastic tool.

— We record pretty much everything our customers do and use Mixpanel to store it. Their built-in analysis features are handy. But, where it really shines for me is the ability to export and query the data for custom analysis. Very handy.

Revolution R Open by — This is an optimized build of the R Project that I use extensively to perform analysis of customer behavior. Very easy to install and use. And very fast compared to vanilla R. Definitely work a look.

— This software lets you view your website user behavior as though you have a camera behind them at all times. It’s proven invaluable to building understanding on what our website users are doing. Much easier than traditional analytics.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

If I had to pick one book to recommend it would be “The End of Jobs: Money, Meaning and Freedom Without the 9-to-5.” The author does a great job outlining the coming widespread shift from traditional jobs to entrepreneurship. There’s really no better time than today to be an entrepreneur. Get with it!

What people have influenced your thinking and might be of interest to others?

I’ve really enjoyed working with and being influenced by Prabhakar Gopalan of PG Consulting recently. His workshop on product management and holistic product development is really informative and shouldn’t be missed.
I’ve also been profoundly influenced by the writings of Anthony De Mello and the talks by Jiddu Krishnamurti. They’ve been of tremendous help in cultivating and deepening my self-awareness. Definitely, something I find useful in my personal and business lives.


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