Chartboost Interviews: Holly Liu from Kabam, Inc
Kabam had a pretty exciting end to 2016 after selling a majority of its assets to South Korea’s Netmarble Games. For a little industry perspective, this exit is one of the largest in tech made by a women founder. Holly co-founded Kabam Games, Inc in 2006 with two partners, and today leads as Chief Development Officer focused on developing key global relationships. She was also named one of the 10 Most Powerful Women in Gaming by Forbes and continues to be very active in the community as a mentor.
We were lucky enough to chat with Holly about her experience in the industry, journey at Kabam, and specifically her advice for women to succeed in the games industry.
How did you get into gaming? Did you always want to be a game developer?
I have a confession to make: I did not grow up wanting to be a game developer nor would people consider me a “gamer”. I am probably one of the few women where gaming came looking for me later in life. It became my calling for this season of life, and what a high calling it turned out to be! Not only is entertainment difficult, but of all types of entertainment, gaming is one of the most difficult. It is the hardest of the hard in entertainment. But, working in entertainment is so rewarding, because through entertainment we influence and set culture and by doing that we can change culture.
We were nudged (or rather pushed) into gaming because we were at an inflection point within our company. We were running a product that was based on a business model – which revenues were adversely affected. It was 2008, and the mortgage crisis ushered in the recession and ruining the confidence of investors. In fact, within Silicon Valley, a prominent VC circulated a slide deck that read RIP Good Times, Silicon Valley. Market conditions were poor as well as our business model was dependent upon those market conditions – not a good combination.
For us, we built the largest fan communities on Facebook and our revenues came from advertisements within the communities. We knew that our ad revenue commits would not be met and that would destroy our company. So, we looked at 3 things: a) the market b) our core competencies and 3) our passion points.
We knew that free-to-play gaming was doing well on Facebook – games were recession proof. Collectively our team had over 90 years of building on Facebook. We knew how to build applications on Facebook. And finally, the CEO and other co-founders loved playing games and were “gamers”.
Can you tell me more about Kabam, and what your role entails?
Kabam is one of the top mobile gaming companies. We have been building games since 2009. We have partnered with
some of the largest Hollywood franchises to bring their brand into the pockets of every fan. We currently are headquartered in San Francisco, and have about 6 offices around the world.
I have worn many hats, from design to general manager to culture building in the people group. My role has been a connective tissue within the organization, and lately to outside of the organization. This last year I spent a year in China helping to develop key relationship internationally starting with China. This helped with our efforts to enter the Chinese and Asian markets. These efforts have eventually led to the sale of our company to Netmarble, a Korean company, for between $700- $800 million dollars. This exit marks one of the largest exits in tech made by a woman founder in this generation.
What’s your favorite mobile game?
I don’t have an all-time favorite, but here are the mobile games I have been engrossed with, for a period of time, have been: Candy Crush, Kingdoms of Camelot, Hobbit, Best Fiends, Marvel: Contest of Champions, and Merged. But, in general I tend to like the puzzle games.
As co-founder of Kabam, you were behind much of the growth and hiring. What has been your experience hiring female employees in the mobile game industry?
In general, it is a field that tends to be more male dominated, thus not only hiring is challenging but also retention. We have worked to do best practices while recruiting – making sure there is one other female employee on the panel as well as dropping biased questions for positions that do not matter. For example, we do not ask our engineering interns “Are you a gamer?” We find that the term “gamer” conjures up images of a male and only applies to a specific subset of games, it certainly does not encompass all people who play games.
On the retention side, we try to create community between the women at Kabam by having regular meetings so women can connect. Sometimes we will have speakers or workshops to help them in their career development. This has been effective in integrating the women into life at Kabam and we believe leads to better retention.
Why is the challenge of hiring and retaining female employees so persistent in the mobile game industry? Do you think mobile games have a lead in this area over other technology companies?
The talent pool that mobile gaming has recruited from has been traditionally male dominated as well. When we were first working on the free-to-play (or In-App-Purchase) business model we hired a lot of financial analysts who were men. There were a few women, but by a few, only about 1-2. These were people who had analytical horsepower and were “gamers”. As we moved towards making AAA games, we of course pulled from traditional gaming which again was more male dominated.
Mobile games may not currently have the lead in this area, but they have an opportunity to lead in diversity. I have noticed game developing for mobile games is different than traditional gaming in that you do not have one person (much like a screen writer for movies) who is the vision holder but you have a team of people (much like a team of TV writers) that work together to develop the story and characters to make them enduring. This affords mobile game companies the opportunity to lead in their diversity efforts over the other technology companies. And in fact, make the entire gaming industry better for it.
Do you focus recruiting efforts around hiring women specifically? Any tips to share?
In the beginning of a company recruiting is more accessible – you recruit from your networks. When it gets larger, you can have the opportunity to hire people different than you. Diversity only happens with intentionality.
We have been intentional with our recruiting resources and consistently look for female focused organizations to source our recruiting. Our recruiting team works to make sure our job descriptions are gender neutral and when a woman comes in, we work hard to find other female employees to sit on the panel and interview the candidates.
We have also hosted a few groups and events that focus on women: Women Who Code, Girls in Tech, and we have even have had focused discussions on gender diversity within Kabam. When you discuss gender diversity it is important to get diverse representation from your leadership as well as a focused conversation that leads to productive discussion.
What’s your #1 piece of advice for women interested in a career in mobile games?
The only way you are going to get experience is to try. It is much more important when you start out to go to the place where you think you can grow and gain the most experience in what you want to do.
Start where you are. For people who want to get into mobile gaming but do not know how to start, do informational interviews (pick their brain) of your contacts in that industry. Then figure out what kind of career you want in the industry. Make a plan, and start executing against that plan. It does not matter if your plan is perfect or even if you follow your plan exactly, just that you continue in the direction of a career in mobile gaming. If that is what you want, then you will eventually get there.
To follow Holly’s industry insights, find her on Medium here.