Editor’s note: LOLapps co-founder and head of user experience Annie Chang talks to Women 2.0 about her startup, one of the fastest growing social companies with over 1MM user generated applications and 4 very large social games.
Women 2.0: How did you get started on LOLapps?
Annie Chang: I sat in the audience as Mark Zuckerberg announced the new Facebook platform in May 2007, and I was inspired. Many web applications that I had pondered building, as well as several projects that I had worked on previously, required me to re-create the social graph in order to provide value to users. Building a strong community from scratch is no small feat. Facebook’s innovation allowed an entrepreneur or programmer to reach millions of users without having to reinvent the wheel.
In late 2007, my co-founders and I noticed that users had been gravitating toward a small number of very popular personality quiz applications. This gave us the idea to create an application that allowed users to create their own quiz applications without learning to program. This led us to become one of the leading application developers on Facebook, allowing millions of users to create apps that entertained tens of millions of users.
By the time we’d developed an audience of tens of millions of users, we found that social gaming was a trend that was gaining popularity. Being part of a founding team of enthusiastic gamers, we were inspired when we realized we had the unique opportunity of help gaming go mainstream. Rather than having to ask someone whether they play games, it could become as likely that you could ask someone “what games do you play?” as to ask “what movies do you watch?”
Women 2.0: What’s the most important piece of advice you give entrepreneurs?
Annie Chang: Talk about your idea. Many entrepreneurs I meet are worried others will steal their idea if they tell too many people. In reality, most people are way too busy with their own job or idea to bother stealing yours. Plus, ideas aren’t worth much (unless it’s super easy to implement, in which case you should stop talking and just do it). Execution is what distinguishes winners from losers.
Talking about your idea will give you valuable feedback that can help you improve your execution. Talking about stuff you’re passionate about will help you attract people who can help you with your idea or introduce you to others who can help.
Often, the difference between success and obscurity isn’t the quality of the product, but rather your user acquisition strategy. Think hard and devote effort to thinking of ways to make sure people can learn about your product or service. These days there are more means available to people with small marketing budgets, for example, social platform integration.
Women 2.0: And you were an entrepreneur in college?
Annie Chang: Yes, I started a site called MixerMixer, one of the first social networks, even before friendster was a household name. We gained about 10k users and we were ecstatic. I also made a site called Buttercouple, an online dating site that aggregates user input about fundamental aspects of compatibility to humanize the matchmaking process. Buttercouple was featured as a “Hot Site” in USA Today.
Women 2.0: Can you tell us about your startup culture and the office environment?
Annie Chang: We believe fun, health, and productivity go hand in hand. Our office provides workspace lit with natural light, convenient access to high quality food (in both health and taste), and a painless commute. Our downtown office location was heavily influenced by its proximity to high quality restaurants and public transportation. Twice per week, a professional chef prepares healthy, organic meals onsite. The other days, LOLapps pays for lunch and dinner at nearby restaurants via our meal card program.
Employees get full health benefits and their choice of ergonomic equipment. We have free pilates and yoga lessons weekly. Four times a day, our community manager announces “Push it!” and anyone so inclined gets out of their seat and launches into pushups, situps, stretches, or their exercise of choice for a brief refresher. It’s fun to watch and even more fun to participate.
Most weeks, we have a reason to celebrate with beers & treats in the kitchen — birthdays, promotions, new releases, demos, game nights, or simply enjoying the company of our colleagues. Other company bonding events have included picnics, BBQs, ballgame days, and rafting trips.
Women 2.0: What is your leadership philosophy?
Annie Chang: You are who you spend time with, so surround yourself with the best. We recruit the talented people, set high expectations for them, and give them the right environment to succeed.
We hold people accountable for their responsiblities, and transition people if necessary. We also have a “no asshole” policy. We have openness, and transparency promotes meritocracy and a sense of empowerment.
We hold ourselves to a high standard of transparency in order to ensure that everyone has access to all the information they need to make the best decisions. Each week, everyone is encouraged to submit anonymous questions and answer them in our all-hands meeting.
People achieve greatness when they’re passionate about their work. We have a 20% program — people can spend up to 20% of their time on projects they are most passionate about. As a result, we have two games in our upcoming product pipeline that were designed by engineers in their 20% time.
Women 2.0: What are some important things early-stage entrepreneurs should know?
Annie Chang: Trust your own instincts on what you can accomplish. Shortly after starting LOLapps, my co-founders and I identified that gaming was going to have a huge impact on the social applications space. We debated whether to shift our focus, despite having zero experience in game development (only a passion for playing them). A close advisor strongly advised against it. Instead, he encouraged us to stick with what we’d already proven to be our strengths. He was a seasoned and successful entrepreneur, and we were all first timers, so we took his advice. For a bit. A year later, we released our first game. Today, we are a leading games company.
Women 2.0: How are you an innovator, game-changer and ground-breaker?
Annie Chang: I co-founded LOLapps in 2008 and we originated the idea of “meta applications” by introducing the Gift Creator and Quiz Creator platforms -– applications that empower the average Facebook user to create their own Facebook application in minutes, no programming necessary. Millions of users have created applications reaching over 100 million users, including several award-winning applications.
In 2009, we shifted our focus to social games. There are numerous companies building social games, but we decided to differentiate with our dedication to providing the best possible user experience and only release games that are considered innovative and groundbreaking.
We’ve built a world class creative team, with artists hailing from the likes of Pixar and Disney. We launched Ravenwood Fair in November 2010; it quickly became one of the top games of the year on Facebook and social networks around the world, and has been played by over 25 million users. Our games bring an unprecedented level of storyline and atmosphere to social gaming, and we’ve been consistently recognized as pushing the boundaries for production values in the genre.
Powering our user experience on a technology level is the gaming engine we build our games on top of, called Fliso (short for Flash Isometric engine). Fliso is the industry-acknowledged leading performance Flash engine, a foundation that designers can use to create Flash games, which can be easily played in the browser. Fliso is licensed by 4 of the top 5 social games companies, including Zynga and Playfish / Electronic Arts.
LOLapps recently launched Ravenskye City, the latest addition to the Ravenworld Franchise. The team worked really hard to craft a compelling and immersive world to delight our existing users as well as attract gamers who want a higher level of polish in their gaming experience. The game begins with a crashlanding of your airship into an ancient ruined city. There, you begin an adventure journey to restore an ancient city in the sky. Ravenskye City launched to rave reviews and is already the fastest growing game on Facebook (verifiable on appdata).
We’re seeing a new level of innovation in social and mobile gaming, and we want to see this trend continue. As part of 6waves-Lolapps, we’ve recently launched the 6L Fund to invest in promising mobile and social game developers, and help ensure that indie developers and designers have a path to share their creations with a worldwide audience. Read more about the game here and check it out here.
About the interviewee: Annie Chang is Co-Founder and Head of User Experience at LOLapps. She oversees game production at LOLapps. Prior to co-founding Lolapps, Annie has held various technology roles, including engineering at Adobe (Advanced Technology Lab) and product management at BitTorrent. In 2010, Annie was named one of the Most Influential Women In Technology by Fast Company magazine. Annie holds a B.S. in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science from University of California, Berkeley.