Disruptive innovators must be willing to fail. This a lesson you pick up from spending time in Palo Alto, California – that little corner of the world from where so many world-changing companies have emerged. There is a profound sense of freedom there that comes from a cultural belief that it’s okay to try and fail, because you can always try again. I believe we need more of that freedom, not only in my country, Turkey, but across Europe.
When we started Peak Games in Istanbul in 2010, we found it challenging at first to hire people. There were plenty of potential employees with the talent and creativity we wanted, but many were paralyzed by a fear of failure that runs deep in the culture. It meant they’d rather work for a big, established company than take a chance on a start-up run by 20-somethings.
In the end, we were able to get our first wave of employees by pitching another virtue you must embrace to be a disruptive innovator: change. Look at Google, we said – they began in search and are now making driverless vehicles. Look at the “PayPal Mafia”, who are now making their fortunes in everything from space travel to electric sports cars. Even if we fail in games, we said, you’ll have learned skills that will enable you to succeed in something else.
I’m happy to say that we haven’t failed in the games department – Peak Games is now one of the world’s top three social gaming companies. We’ve achieved this by producing games targeted first at Turkey and then at Arabic-speaking nations, both huge markets which we felt the leading games companies weren’t taking seriously enough in terms of adapting their offerings to specific cultural tastes. We are currently working with local designers and developers to create new games and adapt centuries-old traditional games, such as the board games Okey and Tarneeb, for social media and mobile platforms.
I believe we are making good on our promise to those first employees, by honing skills that are transferable into other potentially disruptive industries. One is appreciating the blurring of the line between product and service. Our games aren’t like the console games of old, that you could just ship and forget about – we need constantly to refine and troubleshoot in real time, as players hit glitches and will keep playing only if you can solve them.
Another is the capacity to think creatively about business models. Unlike paid or subscription-based games, ours are free – and the great majority of the people who play them never pay us anything. But because we have so many players, our revenue stream can come from only a small proportion making “in-app purchases”. For example, buying tools to make their armies stronger in a war game or sending a virtual bunch of flowers to another player in a social game.
Most importantly of all, we’ve learned the need to get inside the minds of our customers, and understand what they will find useful and enjoyable. This is the ability that I believe lies at the root of all disruptive innovations. The digital world is increasingly merging with the physical – for younger generations, the distinction is blurred – and this is constantly creating new opportunities to solve real problems and to enable people to do new things.
We’ve deliberately kept Peak’s growth slow, with no imminent plans to expand from our current total of just over 100 employees. That’s because I believe smaller companies are more naturally disruptive – once you have thousands of employees, spread across continents, much more of your time needs to be spent on managing processes and communicating a vision to try to keep your company’s culture cohesive. It’s a transition that needs to be carefully paced, or you risk rapidly fossilizing into the kind of established company that becomes vulnerable to disruption.
In today’s business environment, companies need to be nimble and adapt, whether that means accepting that sometimes failure is the price of success, or challenging conventional ways of thinking. In each case, the goal is the same: to innovate, to disrupt and to find the next big thing.