Part 2
What is a BizDev?
Interview with Alexey Trushkov
15 min read
BDinGD had a talk with Aleksey Trushkov from FunPlus Russia:
- on how to get into gamedev off the street;
- on inner workings of game studios;
- on strategic decision-making;
- on principles of an effective Biz Dev.
Pavel from BDinGD: Business development has been all the buzz for a while. I've been thinking about it for a long time. For me, someone's aptitude for bizdev corresponds to their entrepreneurial skills. There are risks, but they're similar at their core.

Is this something innate that then becomes actualized in practice? Or is it like a muscle you can make stronger? Can we talk about this more in depth? Tell me about your bizdev experience. Is it innate, acquired,
or built up?

Alexey Trushkov: Let's borrow the analogy from video games of creating
a character, building their skills, and so on. When a character has certain skills and reaches a certain set of circumstances, there's a chance they will develop a skill further based on experience, the skill of a good, successful bizdev. Dark bizdev, light bizdev: that doesn't matter. It depends on how
the character is developed. Accordingly, the skills, the selection available, and the conditions depend on life and the individual.

I mean, I "bizdeved" and started my first business. And I think business development includes both starting and developing a business. I went to summer camp as a kid. It was somewhere on the sea. 30 days without my parents. I was 12. My younger peers there ran around the camp collecting large quantities of chewing gum. I melted it on an aluminum spoon over a fire, poured it into a mold, painted it with gouache, added sugar and sold it as new. That's what a dark bizdev does.

What did I learn from that? Product quality is very important. It all ended when the camp director's son chipped a tooth on a rock that was in the gum I gave him. That's when I realized how important product quality is. I also had a realization about refunds, that you can sell something more than once.
I've had lots of things like that in my life, lots of cases like that. And I don't mean chewing gum. I just mean both "dark" and "light." That's what shapes you. It's the same rush I mentioned earlier, the rush you feel when you overcome a challenge. Bizdev isn't always easy. Not easy at all. If you can say, "I'm a bizdev, and it's easy," then you're doing something wrong. It doesn't necessarily have to be very difficult, but it should be a challenge.
If you can say, "I'm a bizdev, and it's easy," then you're doing something wrong.
Why don't we try highlighting some of the qualities of bizdevs and describing them with stories, like in free association?
I can tell you have lots of stories.

In my opinion, you must be creative to be a bizdev. Because the market is competitive, and everyone wants to develop their business. It rarely happens that someone says, "No, I'm good where I am." If everyone follows the same beaten path, they'll all start to push and shove. Competition is sometimes a good thing. Competition forces you to think outside the box and be creative.

In other words, where does creativity come from? From restrictions. When resources and budgets are restricted, when there are commercial and governmental restrictions, bizdevs can find interesting solutions that impact a business and how it develops.

I have lots of examples, but they're small-scale. Creativity is what aids development. Say you have an app. It's pretty popular, but, for whatever reason, you don't have room in the budget for marketing. Maybe a bizdev can help. For instance, one day we thought, what if we turned the app's icon upside down? It was the app for the social network Odnoklassniki.
We flipped it, and our downloads increased by 30%. We flipped it on all the social networks, and it worked well everywhere except Amazon. We wondered why. And this is the difference between a direct approach and a creative approach. Then we get an email from Amazon.
"Hey guys, you made a mistake. Your icon was upside-down, so we turned it back around for you." They "corrected" it by turning it back around. We had growth everywhere else, but not there.

There are lots of moments like that. In the early days of the VK social games, when we were launching one of the first games, we bought a game and swapped it with a different one. We had an audience, but it wasn't the target audience at all. I mean, there were some interesting decisions, as sometimes happens.

In my opinion, for a bizdev, going to a conference or writing an email to Apple to request that they feature your product are routine tasks that can be done by...

a low-level bizdev, shall we say.

That's all clear, but sometimes a task doesn't have a clear solution. In my company there are sometimes things that make us say, "We need to pull off a miracle." When we have a good understanding of the toolkit that can achieve what we want, but don't know which tool in particular will work, I get messages that say things like "Lyolik, make a miracle happen," with what needs to be done in parentheses. Maybe it's finding a super rare specialist or extending deadlines. Basically, all sorts of tasks that don't have an easy or obvious solution.

People at Playrix used to nudge me toward this kind of problem-solving and say, "I think you might be able to come up with a more optimal solution." So you start to think, ask for advice, get others involved. To me, that's one component of business development.

Again, bizdevs vary and different companies need their business developed in different ways. A good bizdev at one company might not produce any results at another. I still don't believe in standardizing bizdevs. But I think there are some qualities a bizdev can't do without.

A bizdev must be a good speaker who can talk without effort or error. Of course, there are bizdevs who only communicate via email, but there are times when you have to talk. So, a bizdev must know how to speak properly and effortlessly. They must be intelligent. This is a difficult criterion. There's no clear way to measure it. IQ doesn't work. But a bizdev must be smart.

You mean knowledgeable in terms of their worldview, or being

More like their worldview. Not just to keep up a conversation on any topic. You need a broad perspective, an open mind. You have to know how to think big. It's hard to say what you need besides communication skills. A bizdev should clearly understand the company's goals and agenda. They should be a vehicle for the company's strategy, because they too are a development tool. If a bizdev doesn't understand where the company's headed, or if they are working as part of a project, it is unlikely anything will come of it. They might run around doing something, but they won't produce any results.

Let me narrow our topic a bit. One of my future roles is developing
an outsourcing company. Have you encountered any mistakes that bizdevs of outsourcing companies make? If you can think of anything, I'd be interested to hear it.

I'm not exactly ready to name any specific companies. I'd say the first mistake is wanting to do everything by the book. Coming in, presenting, selling, doing this and that, and that's it. Everyone writes about this notorious individualized approach, but no one truly pays attention to it or knows what it is. A bizdev should have a sense of the product, like salespeople do.
The bizdev sells the product, no matter who that may be, although it's not the end user. I think it's hard to picture an outsourcer doing this without being immersed in it, but anything is possible. It all depends on the business.

If it's one person saying they're going to accomplish it all right away, that probably won't work. But if it's sold as a service, where people with skills in different fields help you develop your business, then yes, I believe in bizdev as a service. If it's a dedicated outsourcer, probably not.

Have there been any cases when an outsourcer, for example, came to you with art?

Yes, if we're talking about outsourcing in general, not just bizdev.

Right, in the context of outsourcing.

There are outsourcers who I am crazy about and those who I have a crazy amount of respect for. I don't work with any of them. And that's because I'm not the one who makes the decisions about working with any particular outsourcer. I group outsourcers into two types: companies that offer outsourcing services and individuals who can be outsourcers. Working with specific individuals has worked out much easier for me.

You mean freelancers?

Right. Even if they're a freelancer, I can easily integrate them into our work. And some creative deliberations can't happen without them. They will be involved in the process. We don't have a system where you assign a task, the outsourcer works on it, and your team steps out to smoke and thinks up a different feature. Then the outsourcer delivers on the task, but you tell them the concept has changed. In that case, the outsourcer's motivation changes, and your team has a weird relationship with them. All you need to do is integrate them into the process.
Do you have any stories about mistakes? I did have this one case.
A Chinese company made a request for art. I posted on Facebook saying there's a Chinese company with such-and-such a budget. I won't mention all the details, but I ended up as something like
an intermediary and client. Basically, I couldn't get a single regular brief from almost any company on the market. Only one company more or less pulled it off. I asked them to just send me a list of questions, because I can't ask general questions. They had already made the request, so we just needed to do some structured negotiations!
The other companies were asking things like, "What kind of project is it? Please tell us what you'd like and how."

Perhaps, as a bizdev, I failed that Chinese company.
But at least for me,
I came to the conclusion that my business needs bizdevs. Later I posted about that too. Bizdevs are the main drivers of development.
I agree with you that they should transmit the company's mission and values.

There are certain basic, standardized, even formulaic things. I mean, besides creativity, you need to work with a client's requirements and worldview, at a minimum. But I still think it's 70% basics you can't do without, and 30% creativity. That's my take. The key to growth at my company lies in the fact that there used to be almost no bizdevs in the localization market. And I got here hungry, after gaining experience at the electronics company Eldorado, which we have in common.

One love!

Yes, we share an alma mater. And that gave us a boost. Did you have a similar experience or is it hard to remember now?

From my standpoint, I can mention how companies that provide outsourcing services come to be. As a rule, they have an art director, an artist. They're great at drawing, they can attract other artists, and they can even sell the art they've created. They can give feedback and overlay things. They can do it all. But it's rare that they're also a businessperson. It's very hard to understand how to sell services properly. Generally, people can do either one or the other. The opposite also happens a lot. A person is full of energy, knows everything about business, and can negotiate, but here's what can happen. We had this incident... I won't name the company. We provided a brief saying we needed this and that for a test assignment. The person responded and said they'll get it done right away. Then they started looking for someone to do the task and presented our team with our very own employees' resumes.

Five stars, that's high-level stuff.

Now, I trust my employees. They said they had no idea. They probably posted their CVs somewhere at some point. So, we decided to take a look. We saw how the person solicited one of our employees and offered them an art assignment to make some money. Oftentimes, if an artist, a creative person, tries to become part businessperson, it ruins everything. The test assignment was done well, because it was entrusted to a top specialist. After that, the person started to optimize their business by looking for cheaper workers in an attempt to turn a profit. If someone wants to use an assembly line to give you a product that you're producing differently, then your goals don't match. No matter how reputable that person was, they didn't get anywhere. There are lots of cases like that. When the test assignment is good, and everything after it is bad. You think: is this really the same people?

Not producing on an assembly line, focusing on a personal approach, and getting deeply involved in the process. I will keep those insights
in mind for my own work.

For me, outsourcing is scaling, but not by using an assembly line. It's making a unique product. For example, is it better to outsource a character or items? All other things being equal, I'd sooner outsource an item. Because a character is more important and takes priority. A character and their appearance play a more significant role in the game.

I suppose this is a different subject entirely, but anyway. You're currently working with a group of companies from Asia. Are there any special considerations you have to keep in mind?

My question would be: is there any realm that doesn't have its own special considerations? No. Everything has them.

I'll rephrase the question. What are the special considerations?

There are special considerations all over, but the most important one is the crossroads between cultures. The difference in culture and how people perceive the world around them. There's a language barrier.

Chinese and English?

Right. I'll put it this way: you and I are having a discussion in Russian. It's always easier in our native language. If we switched to English, that would probably be fine, but there would be something off. When two parties who aren't native English speakers are talking, some little issues arise. But we can put that aside. It's a practical question. The difference in approaches and cultures, however, is something else. I've gotten very lucky because the other party has a good understanding of these considerations.

In other words, they also understand that there are special considerations.

Andy, our CEO, understands that. That was one of the main reasons why he was interested in us, a team from Russia, without workers from other places. They had experience hiring international teams from all around the world. The language barrier was a big problem for them. Relocating there is also very tough. I mean, the number of candidates you have dwindles down to nothing. Andy had the idea of us working globally, not for an Asian market. He said if we make a good game, they'll definitely be able to promote it in the Asian market as well. And we aren't the first example. Two of the King's Group's most popular games, Guns of Glory and King of Avalon, are made by a studio in San Francisco.

Once again, this involves understanding the mentality of a potential user, the player, as well as the opportunity of working with professionals in a particular field. We also added the ability to work remotely, which freed us up to work in one language. It's also funny: when I talk to another party in another country, whether it's about business or not, I'm able to find the answer to a question that tormented me at Playrix.

Playrix says it doesn't hire foreigners because the language barrier prevents them from integrating into the company culture, which is a very important thing. Now I realize we too have our own company culture. The Chinese office has its culture, and these cultures almost never intersect. The only common thread is me. I'm the bridge that connects this big corporation with its culture to our little studio with our culture, and brings the needs and wants of these two sides together. A great product should emerge from this crossroads, and it's already coming to fruition. I truly believe in this success story. There are difficulties, of course, but they are being overcome.

Are there any examples you can give?

For instance, we have taxes, like the tax on compulsory health insurance. When I was expanding my employees' benefits, I went to my Chinese colleagues and said, look, these companies offer health insurance. It's a good thing for employees. And they said, "There's a health tax you'll have to pay."
I said that's for the mandatory health insurance, but the paid healthcare is good here. They suggested I don't pay the tax then. I said you can't do that. They told me, "Then let's put that tax toward the good paid healthcare."
You can't do that either! So, everything exists at that crossroads between us... Here's another example that illustrates how Asian companies work, how they relate to instructions, wishes, and directives.

This is the most important part of the interview.

To directives from management. The CEO gives me a tour of the office, and I'm wearing a Playrix t-shirt. It's got a picture of Austin dressed in the hazmat suit from Breaking Bad. It's a reference to the TV show. We're walking around leisurely and bump into a producer, a young Chinese lady. We're talking in English and the conversation turns to my shirt. I say it's from a famous TV show and ask if she's seen it. I say you have to watch it to understand American culture. And she presses her hands together, lowers her head, and switches to Chinese. The CEO asks her to switch back to English. She says sorry, she hasn't seen it. That's where the conversation stops. These things happen. The next day, we went on a trip to the Great Wall of China with her. She could ask me questions and learn about me. I look at her, and she's half asleep. She clearly didn't get much rest. I ask her why she's so tired. What's the matter? She says she finished watching the third season of Breaking Bad. Yesterday he asked her why she hadn't seen it, and by morning she had already watched it.

And you didn't have any contact with her after that?

Nope, nothing. There are also certain parts of running a business that we long ago acknowledged to be faulty and unconstructive, so we delegate them. But at some Asian companies I've worked with and interacted with, that's not the case. For example, the CEO approves each company employee in writing. He gives the OK for every candidate. It's a formality, but it's there.

I still do that too. I haven't delegated it yet. But my company's not that big. Or are there already a thousand employees, and he's still doing it?

He's still doing it. I CC him on every hire, and not once has he not approved someone. Of course, we also choose suitable candidates. There are also certain internal rules that Asian companies work by. I've noticed that the higher up someone is in the company hierarchy, the more they can afford to deviate from a rule. The lower they are, the more directly and clearly they operate. I also have an example of this, which we'll call "Tower of Babel syndrome."

I'll make that the title of our interview.

I don't know, it's actually a negative thing. Say someone's outsourcing the Tower of Babylon. If they were to hire contractors from one organization instead of several different ones and integrated them into their company, they might build something, but I doubt it.

In that case, you have too many people with experience that is too dissimilar. It's not just the language barrier. Different experience means a different approach. Playrix has one approach, King has another, and the guys from ZeptoLab are have something else entirely. If you don't line them up around a pillar and tell them this is how things are supposed to be, they'll end up tripping all over each other. It's more than just the Tower of Babylon. The Tower of Babylon is more about language, but I'm talking about different experiences and the absence of someone to unite people. Someone who has a strategy. There are lots of examples in the industry. When this one person is changed, the project comes to nothing.

Here's another interesting case regarding the rules. Take the position of office manager as an example. It makes sense. If you have an office, there should be someone to manage it. It's great when they take care of other important duties as well, like personnel records. I found just such a sorceress. She's my right-hand woman. She needed to be approved by China. It's a formality. I sent the email and got back my first and, to this day, only refusal. No. I start to "bizdev" a solution. I try to make sense of it, identify their needs, present the product, look for solutions. The classic stuff. It turns out there's a rule that allows me to have programmers, artists, animators, etc. But "office manager" isn't on that list because the company's past experience presumes their office managers are located in the main office and belong to a separate department. And administrative workers can't work anywhere but the head office. So, this broke the pattern, and it's pretty difficult to get it across.

So how did you end up hiring her? As a programmer?

No. The solution was the most obvious one, a quick fix. I actually tried to explain the office manager's duties. I tried to say it doesn't matter what an employee is called, and that I have my own internal processes that they have no influence over. I said their refusal would influence my processes, and that... doesn't quite breach our agreement, but it's not right. I managed to persuade them. That, of course, took more than one conference call. But I got my rush by overcoming the obstacle. I did it.
And if you think about it, that's nothing. I hired an office manager. Not a tough task. What's there to be proud of? But the patterns that this task put in place can help me resolve bigger challenges, even budgeting issues.

Some big challenges can be resolved according to this pattern. When you show that this is the right way, that it's a characteristic of our processes, you're sending a signal. These are processes I use when working with my partners and my parent company.

Great interview. Thank you.