How Scopely’s Co-CEOs Built A Billion-Dollar Unicorn in LA

How Scopely’s Co-CEOs Built A Billion-Dollar Unicorn in LA

When it comes to running a $1.7B mobile-games giant, two CEOs are better than one.

In a tech industry seemingly defined by solitary visionary leaders, Scopely has taken a different path. Last year, the company elevated then-President Javier Ferreira to co-CEO, joining fellow co-CEO Walter Driver as an equal atop Scopely’s leaderboard. And rather than create confusion, the company’s co-CEO structure has only helped fuel its continued growth into an indispensable company not just in L.A.’s tech scene, but in the mobile gaming universe.

“What we’ve been able to do together is far greater than what we could accomplish on our own,” Driver says. That’s not just hype: Since Ferreira joined the company in 2014 as its chief operating officer, Scopely’s revenue has grown by a multiple of 20. Its Culver City, Calif., offices are bursting at the seams, as Scopely prepares to expand into a larger space in a brand-new building down the street. A new game, tied to one of the most recognizable intellectual properties anywhere, Scrabble, is about to come out. They have also just announced acquisition of FoxNext Games from The Walt Disney Company, which includes the blockbuster MARVEL Strike Force. It’s a good time to be one of the two men at the top of a company at the top of its game—and gaming.

What’s the secret to their success as a team? The same as in most relationships: hard work and communication. “The co-CEO thing works if you put a lot of work into it,” says Ferreira. Driver agrees: “People ask me, ‘How do you do it with two people leading a company?’ I now say back, ‘How do you do it with one?’”

Pregame

Driver and Ferreira have their roots in the tech hotspots of Atlanta and Madrid, respectively. But the beauty of video games is that they create universal, shared experiences that transcend geography. Both Driver and Ferreira were dedicated gamers growing up. Ferreira was shaped by Castlevania, while Driver was more of a Civilization guy—but both put in their hours.

“I spent a lot of time playing games,” Ferreira says. “That was my first encounter not just with the experience of making games, but with the craft and the artistry and creativity of making games.” Driver, who grew up with two older sisters who had zero interest in video games, says his formative experiences with gaming involved the “fundamentally social experience” of playing with friends. “That’s always been the part of gaming that’s interested me the most,” he says. “This kind of facilitation of relationships.”

That being said, he had no grand plans of making a living in the video-game industry. He wouldn’t have even known where to begin. “I certainly wasn’t aware that you could study anything that would be relevant to working in video games and I had no particular plans to work in this industry,” Driver says. He went on to Brown University, where he studied creative writing in an extremely self-directed atmosphere, with no required classes and little guidance. He found he performed best in that setting, which eventually pulled him in the direction of entrepreneurship.

He thought he might want to be a writer but found spending hours alone writing unsatisfying. He craved interaction with other people—and found that interaction in the free-to-play games starting to emerge on platforms like Facebook and MySpace. “I was immediately drawn to that because it felt like an industry that was going to grow dramatically in the years to come and one where you could create an experience that was iterative and ongoing,” Driver says. “I saw the potential for it to be about a collaboration with the consumer. That was really what hooked me—the ability to try and create something and see how people were using it and how it was making them feel. I liked the idea of then incorporating that into your thinking, improving it, and seeing what direction the user takes those experiences in. It often turned out to be in ways you don’t anticipate, which is always a fun surprise.”

Ferreira also went to prestigious schools, studying economics, politics, and anthropology at the University of Warwick and Oxford University. Like Driver, he had a largely self-directed experience and never studied computer science. Ferreira wasn’t planning for any particular career, but really enjoyed the learning process and looks back fondly on his college years. And neither he nor Driver were itching to climb the corporate ladder as soon as they received their diplomas.

“I came out of college with a strong ‘anti-work’ mentality,” Ferreira says. “So did I,” adds Driver. Ferreira took odd jobs, working in places like nightclubs and farms. He also backpacked through Latin America, which was a formative experience. “You meet a lot of people,” Ferreira says. “But the person that you meet the most is yourself.”

Around 2000, Ferreira decided to return to Spain and get serious. “I thought about life, and what I wanted to do,” he says.

Starting Up

Ferreira got his start in the industry not as a game designer, but working for Spain’s largest telecom company, Telefónica. Mobile content was starting to break out, and Europe was slightly ahead of the United States. Owning a cell phone was becoming universal, and people were moving beyond making calls to playing games and sending photos.

“To me, it was clear that was going to be the content and communication platform of the future,” Ferreira says. “It was personal, it was private, always on, always accessible.” At Telefónica, Ferreira started in the content department, working with 64K games on black-and-white phones. He decided it was more fun to be on the game-development and game-publishing side, so he moved to JAMDAT Mobile, which was based in Los Angeles, giving him his first exposure to the city he’d eventually call home. First, though, he moved to London to head JAMDAT’s European operations.

Driver came to Los Angeles in 2004 for the same reason many other ambitious young people have for decades: Hollywood called. “I actually wrote a movie my senior year at Brown that got optioned by a production company in L.A., and I got convinced to come to Los Angeles and see that through,” he says. “I had never really spent much time in L.A. or around the movie industry and I pretty quickly decided I didn’t want to write feature films. It was a very slow process and that lack of interaction with other people during the process and with the end consumer was unsatisfying to me.” However, he fell in love with the city—particularly its residents’ notable lack of cynicism toward others chasing their dreams.

“This is a place where it feels like the highest percentage of people are working on something that they’re passionate about out of any place I’ve ever been, and also by far the [best] place that I’ve been in the world where other people are encouraging of other people pursuing things they’re really excited to work on,” Driver says. He spent a couple of years acting in commercials to buy some time to figure out what he wanted to do. He also saw people starting companies, another thing that seemed alien to him.

“That was something I didn’t even know you could do, growing up in Atlanta,” Driver says. He knew a handful of people who were close to the Facebook ecosystem and convinced him the social network was going to be massive—even if at the time there wasn’t much to do on it. But he saw the tremendous interest in people wanting to connect with each other, and a huge opportunity to facilitate that. “I learned pretty quickly that people connect best when there is a shared activity or a common interest that they can focus on,” Driver says. “And playing games is kind of the most fundamental way we get to know each other.”

With friends, he started building apps on Facebook’s platform, making mistakes and learning a lot. But he realized the bigger opportunity was on a much smaller screen. “It became clear that mobile was the great chance to apply everything I had learned from traditional media from being around the film and television business and also what I learned about free-to-play games online,” Driver says. “And one of the core things that I believe from studying the history of media and being around it in L.A. was that the ecosystem around free-to-play games was going to mature very quickly. And ultimately, there was going to be more division of labor between the people who are really passionate and great at creating games and the groups that were really good at distributing and monetizing them on a global scale. I thought the industry would consolidate very quickly around a relatively small group of global publishers that would be able to finance and empower great creative teams.”

Mobile Moment

Ferreira says he realized that cell phones were the most transformative platform of our lifetimes. First, in the early 2000s, mobile phones with other features started to hit the market. “The quality of the experience was actually pretty bad,” he says. “It was slow. It was difficult. The games were bad. The content was bad. And yet still, the demand for those services was extremely high. You could see the desire of people to have that experience.”

Then came the iPhone, in 2007. “It was the first time that somebody took the promise of what this platform could be and actually made it a reality,” Ferreira says. Driver felt it was clear early on that the iPhone was going to be a revolutionary technology. What its ecosystem would look like was less certain. At the time, the early apps were one-time-purchase, paid downloads, and many people envisioned that it would remain that way. But Driver’s experience building free games online and studying the ecosystem in Asia led him to a different conclusion.

“It was sort of the moment I felt confident that the mobile ecosystem would also become a free ecosystem where people could decide how much money that they wanted to spend inside of a personalized social environment on an ongoing basis,” he says. And that’s when he knew what kind of business he wanted to start. “As an entrepreneur, the opportunity of our generation was to build social experiences on a global scale for smartphones,” Driver says.

Teaming Up

There was only one small thing to overcome: Driver had no business training, and not even a single finance or economics class on his college transcript. But he could script a narrative.

“So much of being an entrepreneur, especially in the early days, is about creating a compelling narrative that resonates with other people, because you have to convince the first person to quit their job and join something that doesn’t exist,” Driver explains. “You have to convince partners to invest in a vision that’s not yet real.”

One person he had to sell on that narrative was his future co-CEO, Ferreira, but that didn’t come until 2014, three years after Scopely was founded. Driver and his co-founders, Ankur Bulsara (Scopely’s CTO), Eric Futoran, and Eytan Elbaz, started Scopely in 2011 and spent a couple of years figuring out where the mobile-app ecosystem was headed. During those years, the company accumulated knowledge and talent. But to Driver, there was more that could be done—he just needed help.

Driver and Ferreira at the Scopely offices, shortly before their acquisition of FoxNext Games from the Walt Disney Company.

“I wanted to do something that would really test the limits of what we were capable of, and I was already finding my own limits in terms of scaling an organization and having the right strategy to win long term,” Driver says. He asked trusted contacts in the gaming industry to suggest a potential partner to help build something much bigger than he could build on his own. One name kept coming up: Ferreira.

A mutual friend, JAMDAT CFO Michael Marchetti, was insistent that Driver meet Ferreira. Driver remembers asking him for other names, which Marchetti immediately brushed off before pressing him about Ferreira again. Finally, Driver and Ferreira got together over breakfast in 2014, when Scopely was approaching 100 employees and beginning to move beyond its original IP, such as Dice with Buddies. From the first conversation, Driver sensed an immediate alignment with the way they thought about the mobile ecosystem. He’d finally found the right teammate.

“A lot of companies were not built with a strategy first,” Driver says. “They were sort of reactive companies that had some early success and then tried to figure out what to do with it. In talking with Javier, I thought we had a real opportunity to build a blueprint first and execute against that.” The nontraditional ways they both became gaming executives also helped foster that mutual respect and admiration. “Javier and I have a lot in common,” Driver says. “Not many people follow our career path.”

Keeping Players Engaged

While Driver immediately saw the potential of the iPhone, he was not impressed with the disposable nature of many popular early apps. “From the beginning, we wanted to build experiences instead of traditional one-way entertainment,” he says. The company focused on building a technology platform that would aim to provide a one-to-one experience for consumers, with the ability to support multiple game genres, Driver says. This would enable game developers to focus solely on building the best consumer experience and not worrying about the back end.

“We’ve been focused from the beginning on building a durable, long-term infrastructure,” Driver says. That makes Scopely’s games worth coming back to, rather than abandoning for the latest chart-topping app. For example, 85 percent of players in Scopely’s Star Trek Fleet Command play five out of seven days a week. That’s not because they love Captain Kirk, Driver says, but because they have meaningful relationships with the game and other players. “It’s more about a sense of belonging and community and self-actualization than just entertainment,” he explains.

Scopely is also an outward-oriented company, Ferreira says, talking to game-development studios all around the world to understand the games they are making and trends they foresee. The company is also regularly in touch with Hollywood studios to gauge their content and IP strategies. That constant communication has allowed Scopely to quickly react to player trends and iterate on them.

Scopely is also fortunate to work with top-tier IP holders. But beloved IP is no guarantee of a profitable or popular game. Game designers have to take a universe people care deeply about and translate it to an interactive mobile and social experience. “It’s surprisingly nuanced,” Driver says. “There are a lot of people that are drawn into the product by the IP, and there are many more people that are learning to love the IP through the gameplay. Our job is to create an experience that’s compelling for both types of users.”

All of Scopely’s games are free to play, which means the company does not make any money when people download them. They have to play enough for the game to be worth investing in, which is how Scopely actually gets paid. The vast majority of Scopely’s revenue comes from these in-app purchases of virtual currency, which players can then use to customize their characters in almost endless ways. Not only does this type of investment keep players active—nobody likes to abandon a sunk cost—but it makes the gameplay more personal. “We don’t really believe in limiting people’s access to content,” Driver says. “We believe in letting people invest in their experiences.” Scopely also earns ad revenue and offers subscription packages for some of its games, but those pale in comparison to in-app purchases.

“The IP can help you stand out, but it doesn’t guarantee success,” Driver says. “It’s really how you translate the core spirit of that IP and what people love about it into a gaming experience. Sometimes that means changing pretty substantial things about what people expect from the IP but capturing the core essence of it.”

Riding the Wave

Driver and Ferreira now preside over a company that continues to hit impressive milestones. Last year alone, Scopely passed $1B in lifetime revenue and raised an additional $200M from investors—funds that Driver has said will go toward M&A as they continue to build a bigger business.

“Six years ago, we thought if a game could do $2M a month, we’re going to be celebrating,” Ferreira says. “These days we have multiple games doing more than $10M a month.” And while the co-CEOs are deservedly proud of what they’ve built, they don’t take all the credit. “The No. 1 ingredient to success is luck,” Ferreira says. “We’ve grown a lot, but we’ve also grown in the context of an incredible evolution of mobile gaming. We’ve been able to ride that wave.”

Ferreira also credits the company’s low turnover—its key leaders have been in place for several years—and the co-CEOs’ dedication to carving out structured time to align on operations and high-level thinking. Driver says having two minds making strategic decisions lowers the risk of a bad call or oversight that could be devastating in a dynamic industry. “You miss one key transition, and it can be catastrophic,” he says. “There’s a lot of celebration of visionary entrepreneurs, but the more you believe you’re a visionary, the more likely you are to have extreme blind spots in navigating those transitions. I think having two people can help eliminate some of those blind spots and reduce the risk that you miss one of those transitions in a key way.” It also allows both to play to their strengths.

“The complexity of this CEO job is immense,” Ferreira says. “I would say I am exceptional at some parts of that job and I am actually pretty bad at some other parts. To have somebody that can complement you and take some of those parts you aren’t that good at and relieve them, and to double down on the places where you are exceptional is extremely helpful. The question is, ‘Why don’t more companies do that?’”

One obvious answer: ego. Ferreira says one key to Scopely’s success is how they have managed egos. And sitting with the two CEOs, it’s clear that it’s not an act. “We are a very ambitious organization, but we also demand a kind of low-ego attitude and that has really facilitated us winning in this marketplace,” Ferreira says.

Next Stage

These days, Scopely’s two pilots have the company running like a well-oiled machine. The company just announced its newest game, Scrabble GO, created in collaboration with Hasbro and Mattel. It’s the expansion of an existing relationship with Hasbro and the start of a new one with Mattel, further connecting Scopely to some of the most well-known names in games. Still, Ferreira and Driver haven’t lost sight of what it took to get there.

“My dad always told me, ‘The secret of life is to try to understand what you’re great at and to put yourself in a position where the vectors of success are going to be aligned with that, making your weaknesses as irrelevant as they can be,’” Driver says. “The ability to navigate your way into that situation is the greatest superpower you can have. I think when you have two people, you can constantly navigate that together.”

“Initially, you’re fighting for survival, then you’re fighting for success,” says Ferreira. “I think we have done a great job in both of those stages.” And they’re doing it the best way they know how: as a team.

Walter Driver

Walter Driver

Co-Founder & Co-CEO | Scopely

Age
37

Hometown
Atlanta

Residence
Los Angeles

Family
Wife, Kate; two daughters ages 1 and 2.5

On my wrist
Nothing

In my garage
I actually don’t have a car, or a garage for that matter. 

Favorite Book
“Moby Dick” by Herman Melville

Education 
BS, English literature and fiction writing, Brown University

Go-to spot for business drinks
San Vicente Bungalows

Awards and distinctions
Variety Dealmaker of the Year (2019), Los Angeles Business Journal’s 100 Influential Young Executives (2019), Earnst & Young’s Entrepreneur of the Year (2016), World Economic Forum’s Young Global Shaper (2012), Goldman Sachs’ 100 Most Intriguing Entrepreneurs. 

Philanthropic causes
MD Anderson Cancer Research, Baby2Baby

Can’t Miss Conferences and Events
GDC, Fortune Brainstorm Tech, Liontree’s MediaSlopes, The Masters

Mentors
My dad-no one I’ve learned more from in life or business-and my partners on the Scopely journey who have challenged and changed me in profound ways


Scopely

Founded
2011

Employees
800

Notable Projects
Newly announced “Scrabble GO” will launch later this year; “Avatar: Pandora Rising” is in development out of the newly acquired FoxNext Games.

Collaborative Partners 
The Walt Disney Company, Hasbro, Mattel, CBS Interactive, WWE, Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment, Skybound Entertainment, and Sony, among others.