Paul Thelen does NOT enjoy having to raise money

Steven Loeb · June 1, 2013 · Short URL:

"The one time I would say that I was least successful was when I had money"

At Vator Splash LA on Thursday night, we were honored to have Paul Thelen, CEO of Big Fish Games, take the stage to talk about his experiences growing his company.

One of the main themes of the night was Thelen's decision to bootstrap the company, at least at first, with $10,000 of his own seed capital.

"The dot-com bust had taken its toll and my money was all in a portfolio that was not successful at the time because it was a badly run mortgate. It was not a great position and not the best way to start a company."

But. luckily for Thelen. the company was profitable very early on, bringing in $70,000 in 2002. In fact, Big Fish Games did not even raise any money until 2005, which Thelen only decided to take $1.7 from friends of friends, because he wanted to scale the company, and what he doing required more money than he was taking in. At the time the company was making $8.6 million in revenue.

"Raising money is not fun," Thelen said right off the bat during his speech. "Every time you run a business, its two full-time jobs. And then you layer raising money while you have two full-time jobs, then that's two more full-time jobs."

When the company first started, Thelen made sure that every dollar that was spent came back into the company as profit.

"If I spent a thousand dollars, I was damn sure that I got more than a thousand dollar back," he said. "And, so, the nice thing about that is that I got an extreme focus on ROI." And that turned out to be very helpful in retaining customers.

By 2006, though, the company had raised $7 million, with $24.1 million in revenue, and Thelen admits that he began to lose focus on where the company was going. 

There's a time and place to diversify, he said, but you can't forget what market you are serving. When he realized that he had lost his way, Thelen cancelled dozens of projects because they were not in line with the core mission of the company. 

The company once again raised money in 2008, bringing its capital raised to $83 million, almost exactly the same as the amount of revenue being taken in.

"I did this round of fundraising not because I was greedy or wanted a bunch of money, but because I knew that it was the best thing for me to do for the company," he said. "That I needed to be bullish, I need to take big risks to make a great company."

By raising the money, and selling off a bunch of shares, Thelen said that he was able to retain control of the company. It also brought in a lot of good investors, and added value to the company as well.

Are you sensing a theme here? Thelen seems to really dislike that he has to take any money at all, and would seemingly rather just be able to bootstrap the company for its entire existence. 

In fact, Thelen made his feelings on the matter explicitly clear:

"The one time I would say that I was least successful was when I had money." 

Read more from our "Lessons and advice" series

More episodes