by Y Combinator2/22/2018
Founder Stories are conversations with people that have been through YC.
Discussed: Esports; Student Entrepreneurship; Mental Health; Working at Riot Games; Alexander’s Favorite Games
Craig: What does Gamelynx do?
Alexander: Gamelynx is building team-based competitive games on mobile. Our goal is to unlock the future of eSports so they can overtake traditional sports. We grew up loving these kinds of games on PC, and it’s the perfect time for them to come to mobile.
Craig: Esports are already growing fast, aren’t they? What’s limiting them?
Alexander: It sounds silly but for such a large generational shift, it’s actually grown slowly. To me, a lot of the issues are with the actual games themselves. Whether you play games or not, it’s clear that most eSport games have huge informational barriers around understanding how the games work. Successful games like League of Legends are super fun and engaging for players, but it takes a big commitment to even begin to appreciate it as a sport. The objectives and characters are complex, and they constantly change. In the long term, this makes it difficult for spectators, game developers, and committed players to keep up and stay engaged over generations like traditional sports.
Craig: Were you a gamer before starting Gamelynx?
Alexander: I’ve been a lifelong gamer. I started with MS-DOS Abandonware games and emulating Gameboy games on my computer. I played many years of competitive Counter-Strike and DotA. After 14 years of DotA, I took a 6 month break and I realized I couldn’t even watch it anymore. All the heroes and items had been overhauled and I didn’t want to read all the patch notes to catch up.
Gaming led me to do a Computer Science degree at the University of Waterloo and six internships. It culminated with being a software developer intern at Riot Games and starting Gamelynx.
Craig: So you worked for the people that make League of Legends. What did you do there?
Alexander: I worked on developing the League of Legends client update for four months. I joke that it wasn’t a long time, but it was enough time. I met a lot of amazing people and was careful to observe how Riot operates and learn the emerging trends in gaming. It was a dream job, but starting my own game studio has been something more entirely.
Craig: How so?
Alexander: Starting a studio and making games was my childhood dream. For me its been helpful to ask myself why I had those dreams, and if I still have them, to see them through wholeheartedly.
Craig: What made you decide to go all in?
Alexander: I think there were two all in points for me. The first was realizing that I needed to be in entrepreneurship after working with five other startups. I love art, programming, and understanding people. After dabbling through a couple side projects, I realized there was never going to be a better opportunity to learn and express all three things than through building companies.
The second “all in” point was after the Gamelynx team had no more personal capital and had to decide how to proceed. We had big aspirations with consumer-focused gaming products, and it we tried to bootstrap something for a year and a half. In the end, we learned a lot of key insights, but we didn’t have the resources to keep going and we were burnt out. We didn’t want to give up, but weren’t sure if we could move fast enough without more resources. It was YC that saw our potential and gave us a breath of fresh air.
Craig: What did your YC application look like? What idea did you pitch?
Alexander: We pitched a website that let you play digital board games using your phones. We pivoted but it’s still a really interesting idea because it was technology that encouraged people to play together in person. We’re still passionate about that.
In terms of what our YC application looked like, it was honest. Some of it looked great, some parts looked horrible. We were unapologetic and passionate about the fact that we had a long way to go.
Craig: And what did you learn about running a company while bootstrapping Gamelynx?
Alexander: I learned tons, but I’ll share what I learned about being an effective empathetic leader. I’m a big advocator of mental health and being compassionate, and in applying that to my startup I discovered how that can go right and how it can go very wrong.
It went right with our culture. I strive to lead by example in admitting when I’m in a funk, have made mistakes, or if I need a break. By being honest about that, I believe I’ve made a closer and more reliable team. We all work hard, and it’s important to discuss things like burnout openly and get support from each other. The way it went wrong was when I applied that empathy to things like hiring and firing. I was too accommodating in giving more chances and shied away from delivering harsh feedback. It took a few negative hiring experiences to realize that it was, unintuitively, one of the least compassionate things I could do. If you’re going to be accepting of people, you have to trust that they’ll accept your view of them and have a discussion. If they can’t do that, then it’s an easy choice what to do next.
Craig: Any advice for students that are thinking about starting a startup?
Alexander: Student entrepreneurship is like a zombie apocalypse. There’s a lot of half-alive startups, and they need more brains. If you start a company, be ready to commit full time. Avoid being a zombie at all costs. Make it a mantra. You need to have clear and ruthless execution around how you get to the next step. When we started out, we spent a lot of time spinning our wheels. You can still learn lots doing that, but I would recommend minimizing wasted effort by spending more time developing executional clarity.
Craig: Any tips on how to do that?
Alexander: It’s a common YC adage, but it’s critical: only focus on your biggest challenge at any given moment. It’s distracting to think about everything you might need to do or all the things you need to learn. The reality is you’ll never know it all, but you can move forward regardless.
Craig: Last question–what are your favorite games of all time?
Alexander: Warcraft 3, Portal, Counter-Strike: Source, and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. They all continue to inspire me and the game we’re making, which is quickly becoming my favorite of all.
Read more from Alexander on his blog.
Y Combinator created a new model for funding early stage startups. Twice a year we invest a small amount of money ($150k) in a large number of startups (recently 200). The startups move to Silicon