SCOPELY & BRYANT STIBEL
Leveling Up as Partners
When you hear Scopely co-founder and co-CEO Walter Driver tell the story of how the partnership between Scopely and Bryant Stibel came to be, you realize how close it was to not happening at all. Ask Driver – who currently calls Bryant Stibel “one of our most trusted investor partners” – about the beginning of Scopely and he’ll talk of a time when they were taking additional money, but were already oversubscribed on a convertible note between their seed round and their Series A.
That’s when venture capitalist Mark Mullen of Bonfire Ventures told Driver there was another group he should squeeze in. “You should really meet Jeff,” Mullen said about his good friend. Driver made a point to meet Jeff, who with Pete Delgrosso, made a memorable impression from the start. “It immediately became clear to me that they were people we wanted as friends of the company and as long-term partners,” reveals Driver. “They were both enthusiastic and sympathetic supporters and some of the smartest entrepreneurs in LA who really understand what goes into building and scaling a business.” Driver remembers the good feeling he had after meeting Jeff and Pete, so much so that they “found a way to make room for them in that round.”
That marked the beginning of Bryant Stibel’s involvement in Scopely, a company that has since become a leading producer of immersive, interactive entertainment and mobile games across the globe. Much like advancing past the first level together in any video game, Scopely and Bryant Stibel were just getting started – with Jeff serving as what Driver calls “wise counsel” as well as one of his “most trusted sounding boards.” Part of this counsel included making helpful introductions to people who would be beneficial for Scopely to have access and exposure to.
As Scopely got started, Bryant Stibel founding partner Kobe Bryant also offered up an assist for his new teammates to expand their network.
“In the early days of Bryant Stibel, Scopely was scaling and Kobe was effectively an evangelist for us. He and Jeff went on CNBC’s ”Squawk on the Street” and spoke repeatedly about Scopely’s momentum, which drove a lot of investors to reach out to us in a very short period of time,” remembers Driver of Kobe and Jeff’s early influence.
“Kobe also spoke about Scopely on stage at a Wall Street Journal Conference where he was the keynote speaker,” Driver recalls. “A partner at a VC firm heard him talk about Scopely and ultimately decided to invest after hearing from Kobe.”
As Driver puts it, “while Kobe understood he wasn’t an expert on mobile games when he first got involved, he did know a thing or two about the art of competing to win.”
“I think Kobe connected to our product because he’s an expert on playing a game and the concepts of wanting to control your own destiny, to influence outcomes, to try and be the best you can be, and to really self-actualize through the process of trying to win,” says Driver. Kobe “intuitively understood why interactive entertainment has now surpassed books, movies, and music combined in terms of annual revenues” and that this explosive popularity was a byproduct of people wanting to “increasingly participate in their entertainment.”
Bringing Value as a Team
Like most games, having a great team usually exceeds the efforts of any single player. To that end, Driver reveals that, “In the Scopely experience, we’ve only chosen to spend time with people that are accretive to our overall energy as entrepreneurs.” He cites the entire team at Bryant Stibel as people who embody this spirit by transcending the mere ‘investor’ label as the team has become “friends, sounding boards, supporters, investors, and facilitators of opportunities.”
It’s a multi-faceted approach that Driver chalks up to Bryant Stibel’s unique DNA.
“There’s a difference between people who are great professional investors and people who are entrepreneurs, investors, strategists and supporters,” explains Driver. “It’s really helpful as an entrepreneur to have investors who are also entrepreneurs, who can bring some of the experience they’ve had to the table in helping you think through the issues you are facing. Bryant Stibel does that in a really collaborative and transparent way.”
Driver reflects on one specific area Bryant Stibel helped Scopely think through–subscription offerings in their apps. “Historically we made the majority of our revenue through in-app purchases and advertising and had been thinking more about subscription revenue,” recalls Driver. “The Bryant Stibel team came onsite to have a strategy session with our product leaders and went deep around how we were thinking through our subscription strategy, pricing, and optimization.”
It’s something Driver calls “totally unique amongst our early-stage investors – that they sent a team in to collaborate with us on an actual monetization or business model optimization exercise.”
One of the people who helped Scopely think through the new subscription model was Bryant Stibel partner Aaron Stibel, who was “a huge fan” of their Wheel of Fortune: Free Play game. “It’s great to hear from investors that they are enjoying our products and that Scopely is playing a meaningful role in their life,” reveals Driver with a smile.
From the Small Screen to the Big Picture
When thinking about what works well in their partnership, Driver points to the fact that Bryant Stibel understands where they can bring value, but also has a healthy respect for their partners’ domain expertise.
Driver says Bryant Stibel is great at sharing “from their experience” and for citing “patterns that have emerged across other businesses they’ve operated and invested in.” Driver values this informed perspective as it often clarifies potential challenges from an outside view. “My conversations with Jeff have always helped me focus. When you’re in my position, you can get very close to the problems that you’re experiencing at a specific moment in time.” Driver recognizes that a big part of his role at Scopely is helping his team think about the problems they’re solving in the long-term, that’s where Driver draws inspiration from Jeff as he helps him think through not just what’s possible, but what’s “truly optimal over a long enough time horizon.”
Driver admires how this perspective is matched with a tactical approach, elaborating on this point. “Jeff’s ability to think about what’s possible over a longer period of time – to help you get clarity around what the optimal path is – rather than the possible path – combined with being able to then create a higher probability of getting to the optimal path – is a unique skill set; it’s a great quality in a mentor and a friend.” This strategic visioning is a byproduct of Jeff’s “infectious enthusiasm” and “desire to see other people succeed” while paying his own entrepreneur experiences forward, according to Driver.
“I never leave an interaction with Jeff with less energy to face the road ahead than I had going in… That’s something I find really valuable,” admits Driver. “Jeff is remarkably humble and accessible for somebody who’s had his track record and anybody who spends time with him understands what a unique intellect he has. I think that’s a large part of the reason why he’s attracted the loyalty of such talented people and the affection of such a broad base of people.”
In the end, the relationship comes down to trust between collaborators. “I trust both Jeff as a human being” and “his intentions that he has no agenda other than wanting the best for me and the company.”
Partners for the End Game
Driver feels fortunate to have Bryant Stibel onboard for the long haul and feels that any entrepreneur would be well served to have them on their cap table.
“If you find people that you admire, enjoy spending time with and find energizing, then it’s going to be a great experience to have them involved, whether they work in the company or whether they’re investors in it. I think that’s the number one lens we’ve tried to look through and Bryant Stibel definitely fits that description.”
And if you can have fun along the way, even better.
Driver points out that the positive nature of the team makes all the difference as he relays a story about an engraved katana sword Scopely gives to employees on their third anniversary. As a gift, Driver sent the Bryant Stibel team a sword that came from the top-grossing game The Walking Dead: Road to Survival, which Bryant Stibel now proudly displays in the Malibu office, unsheathed – something Driver was amused by. “They obviously have fun doing what they do in supporting entrepreneurs. Building a company is really challenging, and what you’re really looking for in terms of your partners are people who make the challenges you face and the process of working on those challenges more enjoyable,” reveals Driver. “Bryant Stibel’s entrepreneurial spirit is infectious and it’s clear that they have a lot of fun. They’re doing what they’re doing because they enjoy it and that permeates their attitude towards all aspects of working with the team.”
“The biggest thing they’ve imparted is just showing that this isn’t a short race, it’s a long one, and when you find people that you like, that you collaborate well with, that you’re compatible with, and you have a deep respect for, that’s a really special thing,” concludes Driver. “Moreover, if you can keep those relationships going and cross ventures over a period of time, it’s truly impressive and I think the Bryant Stibel team is unique in that regard. It’s inspiring to me and I continue to aim for those really long-term relationships with my partners here at Scopely.”