Class of ’88 Graduate Pushes Right Buttons in Achieving Entrepreneurial Success

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By Matt Wade
Business & Entrepreneurship Correspondent

Doug Kennedy’s road to becoming a titan in the video game industry has been long and winding. While long winding career roads are not uncommon for many professionals, what set Kennedy apart is his drive and determination.  This, he said during a recent visit to Ms. Sedlak’s Financial Literacy class at Glen Rock High School, is the secret to his success.

Surveying his youthful audience, he sheepishly told them he was not a great student during his high school experience and that he was pretty far behind academically when he enrolled as a freshman at Arizona State University.  His tone changing from sheepish to confident, he then said there was always one thing he had going for him, that which set him apart from his peers; a self belief that, when applied to one of his interests, would not allow him to settle until he fully achieved a set goal. He applies an eyes open, ears open credo, and draws a hard line between a handout and an opportunity.  “Don’t sit back and expect people to hand you things”, said Kennedy. Instead, he recommended they meet and interact with as many people as possible so as to receive sound advice and to gain access to information and resources that will assist in furthering your goals.  

Level 1:  After dropping out of Arizona State, Kennedy remained in the Phoenix area and took a job selling NBA gameday programs at Phoenix Suns home games.  His hard work got the attention of superiors, and he was offered a job in merchandise sales.  

Reward!  Level up…..

Eyes open, ears open became especially prescient when he had a chance encounter with a music promoter who was passing through town with a band. This person asked Doug, “what is your plan?”. One takeaway from this conversation, Kennedy recalled, was the recommendation to go out there and try different things rather than settle with one path so early in his professional career. The other take away was an actual job offer to handle Sony merchandise for a Pearl Jam tour.  

Bonus Points!  Renewed Life…..

Observing from the ground floor how these tours were managed, he said, plus outworking others earned him the chance to help start up and handle sponsorships for the Vans Warped Tour, a traveling rock festival that has toured the United States annually since 1995, and what is now the longest-running touring music festival in North America.  

Risk Taker Badge!  Unlock Career Opportunity…..

During the high tech boom in the early aughts, Kennedy once again applied that early piece of advice, deciding to change directions and pursue success in the gaming industry. He took a position as event coordinator with upstart graphic chip company Nvidia. He pointed out to the class that during his interview for that job, rather than defensively answering questions, he took the offensive and volunteered ideas on how to best market their products.

Intestinal Fortitude Badge!  Level Up…..

Reading the gaming industry tea leaves, Kennedy saw big things in Playstation’s new gaming console, and he wanted to be part of it. Smiling, Kennedy said to the students, “I would never take a job I wouldn’t love”. Sony offered him a job as master of ceremonies at touring promotional events.

Pretty early in his gaming industry career, he noticed problems in the marketplace. Multi-million dollar publishers flooded the marketplace with games, but boutique developers were being shut out. Sensing big opportunity, he founded a video game marketing agency called “Red Octane” that was focused on helping boutique developers gain a marketing foothold. One of his first clients was the company that would go on to create the “Dance Dance Revolution” game with the highly innovative dance pad feature.

Industry Foothold Reward!  Level Up…..  

During a meeting at client Electronics Boutique (now Gamestop), he was told “You need to build a guitar game like ‘Guitar Freak’”, which was a popular game in Japan at the time.  So Kennedy developed ‘Guitar Hero’. He knew he had a success on his hands but, he said to the class whimsically, at first no one in the industry thought anything of it. Finally, recognition by “Rolling Stone” magazine led to retail giants like Best Buy to put it on their shelves.   He then developed ‘Guitar Hero 2’ and sold the rights to both games to Activision for $150 million. The day after the sale, Kennedy told his staff, “that happened yesterday – old news.  Look forward, forget about that. We have to do it again or else we will be an one hit wonder.”  Soon after, the ‘Rock Band’ series of games were developed and published and Kennedy’s business was officially an industry leader.   

Bonus!  Financial Security.  Level Up…..  

Applying his ever-present eyes open, ears open motto, Kennedy observed that the digital marketplace was, as he said with a grin to the class, “the new place to punish”.  This inspired him to open a digital publishing group, a trendsetting enterprise that is modeled by others in the industry to this day.

Feeling burned out, he then took time off to be with his wife and kids, and to raise pigs and chickens on his ranch in the Sierra Nevadas in California before going back to work and creating the prehistoric game “Ark:  Survival Evolved”.  The marketing expert he is, he worked his team hard to launch early so as to time it with the opening of the Hollywood blockbuster, “Jurassic World”. His strategy worked, as “Ark” became a top seller in 2015.  

Work/Life Balance Badge!  Unlock Rewards…..

Asked by a student, “what advice do you have for future entrepreneurs?” Kennedy’s response was to have a product in your head, surround yourself with mentors, engage people, and think about where the product would be sold, how it would be manufactured, and what products would it support.

A Winning Formula

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Matt Wade is an adjunct professor at Stevens Institute of Technology, teaching business and entrepreneurship to senior level engineering students as part of the school’s IDeas program.

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