How I Made It: Scott Lahman, Co-Founder of GogiiMarch 13, 2011
by David Sarno
Playing computer games as a kid came in handy decades later when Lahman started a company that made games for cellphones. His current firm created textPlus, now one of the most popular apps for the iPhone.
The gig: Scott Lahman is co-founder and chief executive of Gogii Inc., a Marina del Rey start-up that created the free text-messaging application textPlus for the iPhone and Android smart phones. TextPlus is one of Apple Inc.‘s all-time most popular “apps,” with nearly 8 million active users. The ad-supported app allows users to join group texting conversations with people in their social circles or interest groups, and is an attempt to add new visual and social functions to text messaging, long an unadorned but widely used technology.
Early years: As a computer-inclined kid growing up in northeastern Connecticut, Lahman, 42, said he had had a tough time keeping friends and so spent much of his time playing computer games and experimenting with early online services like CompuServe. At 14, Lahman’s social contacts were largely with other online gamers, and using an Apple IIC and a poky telephone modem he eventually started his own Internet message board, called Gamenet. The charges he racked up from all of his online time didn’t go unnoticed. After a $900 bill, his father revoked his dial-up privileges. “I tried to convince him that these were my friends,” Lahman remembered. “He didn’t understand.”
First start-up: In high school, Lahman and some friends weren’t happy with their school’s stodgy newspaper, so they started their own self-financed, alternative paper, covering topics such as vandalism (one front-page photo showed a graffiti scrawl that read, “Punk Rock! I kill preps”) and recruiting a conservative columnist to further stir the pot. Though the paper managed to attract some local advertising and survived for a couple of years, it folded after Lahman graduated. “That was a lesson,” he said with regret. “It wasn’t built to last.”
Learning the game: After a stint as an executive at Tribeca Productions — the New York film and TV company started by Robert De Niro — Lahman returned to his youthful passion by joining gaming stalwart Activision in 1994, working for CEO Bobby Kotick. It was an on-the-job MBA, Lahman said. He presided over a restructuring of the company’s game production process that allowed it to more easily make the kind of bigger-budget video games popular today. When he started the reorganization, the company had 50 employees and $24 million in sales. By the end of Lahman’s six-year tenure, the firm had closer to 800 employees and $600 million in sales.
Thank you, Zork: In 1999, cellphone juggernaut Nokia approached Activision about making a game for its phones. Nokia wanted a version of Activision’s Zork, an ancient text-based game created for personal computers nearly two decades earlier. “I thought, ‘Oh man, they want to pay money for this?’ ” Lahman said. Nokia had little sense of the game industry and was simply looking for “the wrong game,” he said. “It just hit me that that was going to be a huge opportunity.” So he started a company that made games for cellphones.
Last laugh: Early in the mobile phone era, not everyone agreed that people would want to play games on their phones — which were, after all, for talking. “I thought it would be obvious to everyone,” Lahman said. “But we got laughed out of every venture capital firm known to man.” The company he and his partners started, Jamdat Mobile Inc., eventually went public and in 2005 was bought for $680 million by game giant Electronic Arts Inc. “I now get nervous when people aren’t laughing at your idea,” Lahman said.
Climbing through: Among Lahman’s chief advice for entrepreneurs is to grab opportunities when they arise. “The value of timing is not as well understood in business as it should be,” he said. Whether it’s recognizing the right moment to switch positions, to start a company or to sell the company you’ve started, he said, “windows open up in every business, and close very quickly — and I think a lot of people miss those windows.”