Table of contents
- Founders - Paul Farley & Omar Khalil
- Remote business (based in Edinburgh, Scotland)
- Started in 2020
- 2 founders, 6 employees
Hey Paul. What’s your backstory
I grew up in a traditional English seaside resort called Weston-Super-Mare before moving to Scotland at the age of 13. It might seem minor to those that have relocated across continents, but it was quite a culture shock, and even the language caused some early issues!
At school, like many kids, I had no idea what kind of career path I wanted to follow, yet at the same time being fairly capable academically I had a lot of potential options for work or further study.
In the end, I opted to study architecture as it seemed to contain a mix of many of the subjects (physics, art, technical) that I enjoyed. I completed four of seven years of study before deciding that I didn't want to become an architect.
I had an early interest in home computing with a ZX81 and ZX Spectrum, but mainly used them for playing games! I had always loved video games but was unaware you could have a career designing them, let alone that one of the best developers in the world was literally on my doorstep.
It just happened that, at that point, they were advertising a job opportunity for someone to build cities in their latest game. I applied and was successful. That game was Grand Theft Auto, and ever since, I've been working in the games industry!
What does your company do?
Firestone is a publisher of independent video games. We are passionate about small, innovative, joyful, shareable and fun games and are dedicated to building an audience that shares those same passions.
Our work is very similar to that of a publisher working in other sectors. We have to find the development talent, fund and nurture it and then connect the games created with our audience.
There are a lot of creative elements to what we do, but much of the time, we are working to take much of the hard work in project management and organisation off of the talent so they can focus on the creative part. Often we need to fill the skill and experience gaps they may have.
For example, game developers rarely have the capacity and capability to effectively market the games they produce, and so marketing is one of the many areas where we can help.
How did you come up with the idea?
Having sold my previous game technology start-up to a large US-based corporate, I spent a year with the acquirer. It was a good year of learning and development, but I came out of that time knowing that I was far more effective at building small teams and that I didn't want to return to a corporate environment in the future.
At the same time, I spoke with a couple of people at the other company I co-founded. It was clear we had a lot in common regarding the types of things we were excited about in the games industry and what we thought the major opportunities could be. It just seemed that the fit was almost too perfect, so without really knowing what the new company could be, we agreed to keep talking and exploring a new opportunity.
The idea for Firestoke was built around those conversations, taking the existing publisher model but adding a deeper level of involvement with the creative process, which we called "publishing plus", and applying some of what we had learned in mobile games to PC and Console titles.
Naming a business is possibly the hardest part of a start-up! We took ages to work through hundreds of ideas before deciding on Firestoke. It really was a lengthy and laborious task involving too many mind maps and virtual post-it notes to count!
Once we had the name (I think we just liked the sound of it), it was interesting to note how much it reflected our aims as a company in stoking up the latent talent around us and enabling the fire to start burning brightly in those small studios. So if anyone asks, we like to say that there is deep meaning behind it, but really it was the least bad option we had available after months of brainstorming!
How did you go about building and launching the business?
Once we had a clear vision of what we wanted Firestoke to be, we felt we needed to spend significant time exploring how we would do it. Market research made it clear we were entering a highly competitive market, so it wasn't ever going to be enough to be another game publisher. The "how " was equally as important as the "why" - maybe more so.
This went well beyond the usual quick and dirty nod to vision and values but drilled down into what those values meant to be outworked day to day, hour to hour. At the end of this early process, which took months, we had a very concise playbook in terms of what we were building, how we would do it, and what would differentiate us.
Once that foundational work was complete, we publicly announced our plans and got to work scouting for suitable games to publish.
How have you grown the business?
Many of our early growth can be attributed to influencers sharing our content. We’re in a fascinating time where influencers have become brand ambassadors and cultural authorities on political and social issues. It's almost a year now since we announced Firestoke to the world. We completed a seed funding round in June and launched our first game Falling Out, in October of 2022 on multiple platforms, on time and on budget, which was a huge achievement for our small team. We have followed that up with four further game signings, which will launch through 2023 and 2024 and are in the process of growing the team to 10.
We haven't had any major lucky breaks so far, but one of the most popular South Korean streamers actively featured the game. We were one of the top games on Twitch that day which was cool.
Game publishing is a great deal of hard, intensive work and a dash of creativity. Sometimes games succeed despite themselves. Other times games are launched which seem to do everything right yet fail to reach an audience. Like other creative industries, the games industry can be incredibly unpredictable and hits driven. We hope to have breakout hits, but our plans aren't reliant on them.
What's your biggest selling product?
We just have the one game launched at present - Falling Out. It is available on Switch, PC (Steam, Xbox and Playstation.
What have been some of your biggest failures along the way?
Like most other start-ups, we experience far more failure than success. Still, those failures are incredible learning opportunities as long as we apply what we learn as quickly as possible.
With the launch of Falling Out, we certainly could have done a better job of understanding our target audience. We ended up with a great game that didn't resonate with a casual audience because it was too difficult, nor did it land with hardcore players because its theme and visual style was too casual.
Although we expect the game to sell well across its lifetime, the early launch wasn't in line with expectations, especially on Steam, where we certainly didn't capture that audience's attention effectively. It is a timely reminder of the importance of always identifying and focusing on the customer.
What's next for you and your business?
We have at least four new games launching in 2023, starting with Planet Cube: Edge in February. The short-term plan is to build out our portfolio, improve our production processes and gain an improved insight into our audience and how to market effectively to them.
No major pivots are planned, but our industry is so fast-moving we are in a state of constant review and reflection. If we identify a significant issue with our plan or the market changes to present a new opportunity, we will move quickly to adapt.
What digital tools do you use regularly?
As an entirely remote organisation, we rely on a suite of cloud-based software. The main ones are Google Suite, Zoom, Adobe Suite, Jira/Confluence, Discord, Slack, DocuSign, Jotform, Notion and Pipedrive.
What books have been a great inspiration to you as a founder?
They Ask, You Answer: A Revolutionary Approach to Inbound Sales, Content Marketing, and Today's Digital Consumer by Marcus Sheridan was the template we used to build ChilliConnect's digital content marketing strategy.
We had huge success, and I believe it's probably applicable to most businesses. Other books have been interesting and inspiring, but that one was special in that it wasn't based upon some theoretical model but rather was written top-down from practical experience, which is rare. The author was failing, did something he didn't really understand from desperation, it worked, and then he tried to deconstruct that success to understand it. Highly recommended.
Any podcast/websites that help you run your business?
The Game Discovery Newsletter captures some great market insights and some of the unique challenges of indie game publishing:
The Elite Game Developer Blog is a good source of content focused on startup-up life in the game industry:
Games Industry Biz is a daily source of industry news with some strong editorials:
There are a bunch of investor blogs and newsletters that provide great insights. One of the best is from Konvoy Ventures:
Any quotes you live by?
I have a terrible memory for faces and quotes! My wife does like to use "It is what it is" a lot. She keeps me grounded!
What do you love and hate about being a founder?
I love the variety. I love the sense of impact on a daily basis. I love the people I get to meet. The travel. The games we help make. The impact we can have in a positive way on our players' lives. I don't really hate anything about it, even the hard stuff is rewarding when you overcome it!
What do you do to look after your mental health while being a founder?
I don't work much in the evenings. I don't work weekends. I do a short workout and run four times a week, including a long run on a Saturday morning. I like listening to music. I like a few drams of whisky. I don't pay much attention to people's opinions of myself and my work. I have a great family to spend time with, and they keep me grounded. There is more to life than work.
In a few words, sum up what it means to be the founder of a business.
The opportunity to create something special formed on your own terms.
What are the biggest pieces of advice you’d give to other founders?
It's ok to fail and fail often. Fear of failure is a killer of creativity and opportunity. Embrace failure but ensure you learn from it!