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Work hard, be ambitious and learn the business

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Work hard, be ambitious and learn the business
David Helgason co-founded Unity Technologies in 2003. Photo: Submitted
13:55 CET+01:00
In our weekly feature series, The Local looks into a successful entrepreneur's life. This week, Sparsh Sharma talks to David Helgason, co-founder of Unity Technologies, makers of one of the most popular licensed 3D game engines.
David Helgason co-founded Unity Technologies in 2003 with three friends in a basement. Until October 2014, he led the game technology company as CEO with a vision to democratize game development and create technology and business models for the next generation of gaming.
 
Unity - an intuitive and flexible development platform used to make creative and interactive 3D and 2D content - has an 'author once, deploy everywhere' capability that allows developers to publish to all of the most popular platforms. It also has a thriving community of over two million registered developers including large publishers, indie studios, students and hobbyists.
 
The Local sat down with Helgason, who has been helping entrepreneurs and creating new companies, in Copenhagen - the city where it all started.
 
How did you come up with this business idea? 
We were a few gaming enthusiasts, who often got together to develop tools used for designing games, in a basement in Copenhagen. We had designed a game as well. That's when we realized that most game technologies around at that time were focused on being fast. We, on the other hand, were after rich features and design. Our design was great, cheaper and dramatically easier to use. It was meant to help small teams in making games. 
 
Although there was a trend towards smaller teams producing games quickly, we were too early in the market and could have easily flamed out but for our persistence and luck. Initially, we didn't make money as the market was small. Looking back, I realize it was a good thing to have happened to us as we kept polishing our product. It takes a lot of time for the kind of game technology we had built to mature. It took us a few years before we were ready with the final product although it was just in time for the app revolution.
 
What were the initial challenges? How did you overcome them?
We had nothing but problems. We survived with no money for a long time but still stayed away from contractual work, which would have diverted us from our product development. It was really very difficult to work on the first version. We had made some silly mistakes in coding, hired not-so-competent people, lacked business knowledge and faith in ourselves. Despite all these problems and a lack of funds, we persisted.
 
I used to work in a cafe during the evenings to pay my bills. It was a low paying job but helped me (a geek) get my social life going. Also, I could bring free food and bread to my roommates. 
 
Later on, when we decided to have a new CEO to run the company, we interviewed a few candidates who were really bad fits for Unity's culture. Although the Danish government also tried to help us, we weren't able to find a good CEO for a long time. 
 
There was no ready-made solution available to us. Over time, however, we knew more about the business than outsiders. It's true when they say that a founder's intuition should guide the business. Looking back, we followed the same logic without knowing this now-institutionalized thought.
 
How has the journey been so far?
I have been working for 13 years now and 12 of those have been for Unity Technologies. We were intuition-driven for quite a while but had a desire to democratize game development, which guided our product development and business models well. 
 
Deciding which platforms to operate on depends upon where your customers are operating. Getting feedback from customers for one's products is also important and we did that very well. Ours was, by far, the first game development platform on iOS. 
 
And then, revenue doubled in 2008-09. In 2009, we were funded by Sequia Captial and also decided to make a part of the portfolio free for some of our users. In one day, the user base shot up from 13,000 to 26,000. In 2010-11, when we entered Asia, Unity grew again, several times over. We were looking ahead while our competitors were still old-fashioned.
 
Today, we have a 'freemium' business model and a marketplace with 700,000 users. Sellers on our marketplace have made livelihoods and it feels great to listen to their achievements.
 
How has becoming an entrepreneur changed you, personally?
I was a very lazy guy before and a quitter. I dropped out of university a couple of times. However, once I got committed to Unity's product, I changed a lot. It has been an important journey not just for me as an individual but also for the company as a whole. The massive impact we have had on industry says it all.
 
Any other personal reflections and/ or message to budding entrepreneurs?
My advice would simply be to work hard, be ambitious, and continue to try to really understand the environment in which you operate. I have seen this combination work wonders many times, including many times at Unity. 
 
Sparsh SharmaSparsh Sharma holds a Master's in business administration and a Bachelor's in electrical engineering. After having worked in the top Indian media companies, he decided to come to Denmark in the fall of 2012 to study at Aarhus University and later worked at Lego. A Danish green card holder, he is currently looking for marketing or consulting opportunities globally, while working as a freelance journalist for The Local Denmark and blogging about his experiences in Denmark. You can follow him on Twitter at @sparsh_s
 
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