In this episode, Alexis Bonte – COO of Stillfront Group – joins Naavik co-founder Aaron Bush to discuss:
- His journey as an entrepreneur and executive, and how he ended up at Stillfront;
- How Stillfront operates, including how it provides autonomy to studios while still creating synergies across the entire organization;
- Stillfront’s M&A strategy, including lessons learned after 18 acquisitions;
- The future of Stillfront (and whether Stillfront is thinking about web3).
Alexi’s Background: [00:01:10]
[Aaron]: Could you quickly tell us about your gaming story and how that led to joining Stillfront?
[Alexis]: I’m part of this generation that grew up playing games, that’s clearly a passion for me. And then I went in a different direction, I became an entrepreneur, started a company when I was 21yo called tradeokay.com, it didn’t work out - I call it was an intense two year MBA! That gave me the opportunity to meet the founder of lastman.com, which was kind of the Expedia of Europe, it was also the last company to IPO before the 2000’ bubble, and I was part of their founding team (early employees), and then fast forward we sold the company in 2005 for 1.1 billion dollars.
After that I tried to design other games that were all unsuccessful so I realized I was a better manager than a game designer, surrounding myself with other people that knew what they were doing - and eventually we were able to successfully pivot into mobile games and start doing strategy games.
Stillfront in 2022 [00:08:30]
[Aaron]: What exactly Stillfront is today?
[Alexis]: Stillfront today is a 23 game studios across the world, a 1600 game professionals that work in those studios, big believers that we’ve to keep decisions as close as possible to players, so we have this kind of inverted pyramid system, similar to Supercell we you try to have as many of the decisions as possible within the game teams.
We try to “centralize” - although I don’t like this work - all the boring knowledge that small studios need, e.g. finance, into a distributed system to cover all the studios needs, same thing for legal, etc. Another thing we realized was regarding the talent stuff, certain studios they’ll have a few HR professionals but there’s clearly a need for coordination across our studios, not just in terms of recruitment but career path and all sorts of stuff.
Top Managing Learnings [00:18:40]
[Aaron]: I’m curious if you've had any top learnings over the last few years of how you improved on this system - managing people - over time.
[Alexis]: We keep learning on this. The way we do this is that every single studio we’ve acquired we’ve always been thinking of what it can bring to this puzzle - or set of studios - that we don’t have. What is the piece of the puzzle that is missing, e.g. Six Waves, Japan is one of the biggest markets in games, it was minuscal for us in terms of revenue, we couldn’t really break through, so none of our other games could’ve worked in Japan, so we ended up to find Japan was a marketing we were interested, and that’d bring a lot of values to our other studios, and thus why we decided to acquire Six Waves.
Its very difficulty to keep the balance of not forcing studios to do something, and also when you really know that they’re missing out on something - how do you make them see faster that this is the right thing to do without ever falling into the situation where they lose ownership and responsibility, because the day the studio lose ownership and responsibility of what they’re doing and they’re only doing what we told them to do, that’s the day the model breaks.
Stillfront’s Togetherness Culture [00:23:05]
[Aaron]: I'm curious how do you foster that culture of togetherness while still enabling all these to operate mostly entrepreneurially still as one team?
[Alexis]: It's very difficult, the way we do it is through a lot of work. I obviously have a team that helps me, they’re very experienced, VP level, we’ve been working on this for a long time. In the US I’ve Amy that helps me prove the support and the governance mostly to the US studios. In Europe we’ve Armin who’s helping mostly with European studios, for the rest of the world I’ve Alex who helps those studios as well. We’re basically in weekly contact - a day-to-day routine - where we talk to the studios to make sure they don’t miss any opportunities or if they need any help.
We’re soon - the 70 execs - going to Jordan as what we call Stillcon, we do that twice a year, and we’re also doing that for marketing, for example, where all the marketing team from our studios meet each other, so people have to meet physically together from time to time and perhaps get even closer than when they were working remotely.
Mitigating M&A Risks [00:38:50]
[Aaron]: I’m curious as a public company who acquired 18 businesses, how do you think about mitigating scaling risks or thinking about the opportunities there?
[Alexis]: I think it's about making sure that you’re scaling at the right speed and at a speed that your team can absorb. We’ve always been about two legs: we’ve the M&A leg and we’ve the organic growth leg, and it's very important to make sure we’re putting the effort we need to put in terms of making sure we’ve this organic growth engine working.
People forget we’ve a lot of very mature games - which means they’ve been around for a long time -, and people have not really realized that it's pretty exceptional that we’ve been able to grow faster than the market with games that have been around for seven, eight, nine years.. It's about discipline, if we’re able to have this long-term stable organic growth then the pressure to do even bigger M&A deals is not really there that much.
Exciting Future Bets [00:48:10]
[Aaron]: If you were to call out one or two things on what you’re excited about in the Stillfront’s future that we haven’t discussed here, what would they be?
[Alexis]: I think we’ve good opportunities to bring games to Japan now with Six Waves, I don’t know when they will work out but eventually they’ll get right because we’ve the knowledge. I’m very interested in Jawaker because of the insights it gives us as well.