In this week’s Startup Stories interview, we chat with a young Birmingham-based entrepreneur (and fellow MAFster) who aims to take on two strands of the computing world at the same time. Here, Erik Gustaf Akerman talks to us about launched Thriving Ventures during his years as a student at Aston University. In an in-depth discussion, he looks at the ways in the gaming industry is changing, and how student entrepreneurship fits with traditional (more hedonistic) student life.
If you had to describe Thriving Ventures to someone who understands nothing about the gaming or server industries, how would you do it?
We’re in the business of creating management and administrative solutions for people who are running game servers. These are, essentially, small virtual worlds/ game sessions within a computer game that are operated by its users.
They vary in size although, together, they make up the bulk of the entire online experience of many computer games. Running one is highly competitive due to their large supply, and there are many management-related challenges that require special software and services to be handled effectively – that’s where we come in.
But that’s just the server side of things, isn’t it?
Yes. Aside from this part of our business, we create our own distinctive game experiences. Currently, this is in the form of extensive modifications to an existing popular game and our own game servers within it. While they are ranked among the very top, our vision on this front is to create an entirely independent game of our own in the future.
Are there any other companies out there doing similar things that you might compare yourselves to?
There are many smaller businesses and freelance developers in this field, but we’re one among a handful of organised companies. Certainly, there are many people out there doing similar things, but it’s definitely a niche-market for those on an expert-level that take it very seriously. If we, however, take the step of creating our very own computer game, we will suddenly wade into a massively competitive market.
You recently graduated from Aston University, so were you working on the two projects while you were a student?
Yes. In fact, I ran it during my placement year. My ambitions and commitment for it became more and more serious as my time at university progressed.
Is that something you commonly find among students these days – that they work on entrepreneurial projects while they study? In my day, it was mostly drinking!
I believe so, yes, although we’re still a small minority. University initiatives and events help bring support and drive enthusiasm among students to try the waters of entrepreneurial projects. Aston University provides an excellent incubator programme called BSeen that gives meaningful support such as an office space and mentors.
They also bring an array of interesting speakers that help spark that initial passion for projects that plenty of students have within them.
Many students have ideas and want to create a business of their own, but it naturally seems daunting without enough support. I started my company without any support from the university, but in retrospect, I can say that it would have been very helpful if I had used the resources available at Aston a bit more.
The reality still remains, however, that you will have to sacrifice both some of your student life and, at the very worst, your grades if you really want to drive your business intensively while you study.
I have no doubt that my experience running a business alongside studying have given me immense educational experience, but it remains to be seen if employers and potential universities for master’s degrees value it as highly.
Choosing to put time into your business over your social life can also be lonely and hard. You can and should try to keep a reasonable balance, but there is no way around the fact that starting a business requires a huge time-commitment to succeed. In other words: not much time for drinking!
You studied Business and Management at Aston. Was the computing side of things something you learnt pre university?
Yes – I learned most of it outside the university and it is, to a high degree, thanks to working with many talented people that I’m relatively savvy within IT. I’m still far less skilled at it than them – I do not program at all, nor do I know how to work around advanced operating systems like Linux particularly smoothly.
My strength is in understanding technical matters very well, and being able to coordinate IT projects effectively. Programming and systems management would, with no doubt, be useful for me, and I do seek to improve on those fronts, but the vital key for my role is to have a good understanding of the complexities around them. Only then can I be sensible and accurate in relevant project management.
To my university’s credit, there were indeed some really properly structured IT-courses in my programme that approached aligning IT with business needs. They were often very applicable to my own business and helped me challenge my approach.
It seems increasingly common for students to come out of university these days and start working for themselves rather than for anyone else. What is the appeal in entrepreneurship and the self-employed life?
That’s an interesting question. I’ve heard some say that our generation is exceptionally individualistic. The main areas of appeal, to me, are the freedom and opportunity to it. Starting a business is, for the most part, a proper struggle, but it feels limitless and you can truly make it whatever your heart desires.
There are many times I’m tempted to just move away from it and gain some experience in an established large company where a professional well-staffed IT department can deal with urgent security threats in the middle of the night; where there is a powerful budget that allows for the hiring of many full-time developers plus a competitive compensation for myself, and where there is an actual large office from which all the work can be coordinated.
There is, never the less, a burning passion inside me that loves the challenge and all the limitless potential I see in my own business. Every week brings new experience, and the business is going in the right direction.
A few years ago the big news in the gaming industry had to do with Facebook games and things like Candy Crush. Presumably things have moved on? Where is the industry now, and where do you think it’s heading?
There is often discussion about how mobile gaming is the future. It’s perfect for some quick casual gameplay that is applicable to everyone commuting to or from work or having some time to relax. The section of gaming I’m in is for those seeking more of a grand experience – something that mobile games cannot offer. Some amazing progress has been made on this front – game experiences framed by beautiful graphics in immersive worlds and massive social interaction online. It really is becoming better and more popular every day!
One noteworthy trend is VR (Virtual Reality), where display screens are being replaced by 360-degree visuals, which has incredible potential for the future in creating stunning game experiences. Another more industry-related trend I find interesting and critical is the rise of independent video game development.
The game industry, for the most part, really used to be run by the large companies alone. They had the resources to develop expensive game engines and assets, market their games and eventually publish them. Now there are platforms like Steam, where anyone can attempt to publish their games to most of the computer games market.
Cutting edge game engines like UnReal Engine and Unity are accessible to anyone who wants to use them. Crowd-funding empowers the smallest with a chance to gain funds and traction via platforms like Kickstarter. All of this has empowered independent game studios and increased healthy competition, resulting in more creative and qualitative games.
How big is Thriving Ventures in terms of people working with you?
I am the director of Thriving Ventures, and the rest of the people I work with are freelance developers. There are maybe 15 people that frequently provide development services to the company, but most do so on an irregular basis depending on which projects we focus on. We’re fortunate to have a large pool of complementing talents in our team, which allows us to ensure high quality in all the various dimensions of IT – architecture, design, security etc.
What’s the longterm aim?
The longterm aim is to reach a much larger market than the one we’re currently in. It can either be through making our server management solution into something absolutely exceptional and applicable to multiple computer games, or by making our own computer game. It’s actually very possible that these two alternatives could be quite aligned and serve each other well.
What are the benefits of being a startup in Birmingham?
There clearly is a great community around startups in Birmingham, and so many initiatives that support us. For example, the Innovation Birmingham Campus is impressively well-arranged. It’s also exciting to me that you have Andy Street as a Mayor, who – with his extensive private-sector background – feels real passion for supporting business across the region – something sorely lacking among politicians in my home-country, Sweden.
What benefits have you found from being a MAF client?
A great deal of benefits! They’ve managed to combine competitive pricing, stellar communication and a thorough and personalised service. I’m truly delighted by their effective approach.
Where can we find out more about Thriving Ventures?
A great deal is still in development, but you can check out our two current projects here:
You can also see a trailer of our game experience on Youtube (further up this page), and there’s an in-game review below.
If you’re involved in a startup in need of an accountant that can help you to grow through sound advice and introductions to other interesting contacts, drop us a line via this page. We’re really looking forward to hearing from you.