This week, Women 2.0 talks to social gaming startup ZipZapPlay‘s co-founder & CCO Mathilde Pignol (pictured being eaten by the dragon couch) about her startup’s recent acquisition by PopCap Games.Women 2.0: Congrats on the ZipZapPlay acquisition announcement! How did you get started as a social gaming entrepreneur?

Mathilde Pignol: When Curt, my co-founder, came to me with the idea of doing an online game creation tool, I got very excited. It sounded like a great design challenge I could sink my teeth into and it was in games, which was an industry I had been fascinated by ever since taking Building Virtual Worlds, Randy Pausch’s class at Carnegie Mellon. Curt and I had always talked about doing a startup but never thought we would do one together — Instead we thought one of us would try their hand at founding a startup while the other supported our household. However, we were both very excited about the idea and decided that our complimentary skill sets (him: technical, me: design/product) were a perfect fit. We both took the plunge and quit our jobs.
Women 2.0: How did you manage the financial aspect? Did you get funding right away?

Mathilde Pignol: We were extremely fortunate to have very supportive families. My dad started his own company and Curt’s brother is also an entrepreneur so they understood our inclination and invested from day one. We quickly realized the project was going to take more than just Curt and I. By the end of 2007 (we started in April), we had 3 employees working out of our house. We were very conservative with our cash and managed to fund ZipZapPlay on a shoestring budget until mid 2008 when we decided we needed to approach professional investors.

We didn’t give up. I think that’s one of the key things I learned doing this: starting a company is a marathon, it’s not a sprint and the quality you need more than any other as an entrepreneur is tenacity (not to be confused with stubbornness). We didn’t know anyone in the industry but little by little, via introductions, we made our way to 35 first meetings in the VC and Angel community. We were at a very awkward time in our product cycle: we were further along than the demo stage and needed more money than Angels could invest but we hadn’t launched our product so VCs weren’t yet interested. That left super-angels and small funds. We finally met with Michael Dearing of Harrison Metal Capital (HMC), who was intrigued by the idea and liked the product but ultimately wanted us to launch PlayCrafter and show at least some initial traction before he invested. We raised a seed round from HMC in October 2008.

Women 2.0: How did PlayCrafter evolve and how did you end up making social games on Facebook?

Mathilde Pignol: PlayCrafter was a wonderful product that made it very easy for anyone to make their own Flash games. Users loved it and created over 100,000 games. Where we really hit a snag was monetization. We tried different models from subscriptions to virtual goods to advertising, but ultimately it wasn’t a sustainable business. With the advice of Michael Dearing, we decided to shift our focus. We hesitated between doing iPhone games or Facebook games and decided that Facebook was the most viable platform at the time with large numbers of players and revenue. It was a very hard decision for us to leave behind the reason why we started the company in the first place. Had we been stubborn (as opposed to tenacious), we would probably have kept trying to turn PlayCrafter into a business. But, ultimately we wanted the company to succeed and we kept an open mind as to how we were going to get there.

Women 2.0 One of your Facebook games, Baking Life, ended being quite successful. Why do you think that is?

Mathilde Pignol: When we made the decision to stop working on PlayCrafter, we did some soul searching and asked ourselves what had gone wrong. Part of the answer was speed. When you are building a company, you are always racing against the clock, that is you need to start making money before you run out of money. We were slow to get PlayCrafter launched, slow to iterate on the business model and ultimately slow to realize that it wasn’t going to work out. By that time we had about 6 months of runway left (and realizing it took us 5 months to raise money the first time, it wasn’t a comfortable position to be in.) So we took our advisor Eric Ries’ advice to heart and made our first game on Facebook in 5 weeks to learn the platform as fast as possible. We launched it, iterated on it for a month and killed it because it wasn’t attracting players or making money. We built our 2nd game on Facebook in 4 weeks, launched it and it did pretty well, reaching 80,000 daily players. We iterated on it for a few months and learned a lot. We ultimately decided that to best apply everything we had learned, we needed to make another game. That game was Baking Life.

I designed the game and one of the things I wanted to do was get back to our roots of user generated content so I came up with the customizable cupcakes you can send to your friends, which worked very well. We built the game in 6 weeks and it took us by surprise when it launched, quickly reaching over 1.4 million daily players and making the company profitable (finally!). We grew to 17 people based on revenue. The speed with which we iterated was key to learning what worked, what didn’t and ultimately finding success.

Women 2.0: We saw the dragon that your team sewed on InsideSocialGames! Can you tell us more about the importance of cultural fit and how you grew your company to the point it is today?

Mathilde Pignol: Culture is probably the most important thing to building a successful company, right next to having enough money in the bank to sustain it. If you have a crappy culture, people aren’t happy and they leave. It also makes it hard to recruit top talent (who wants to work with unhappy people?) Curt and I focused on the culture from day one: we wanted to enjoy going to work, and that meant our teammates also needed to enjoy coming to work everyday. Practically, it means hiring not only for skills but also for cultural fit. Over the years, it has been hard turning away very talented people who didn’t fit in with the rest of the team, but it was the right decision every time.

We wanted a very open, creative culture where everyone has a voice, can be proud of the work they do and feels like they are part of a team. Couchy, our couch dragon, is the embodiment of that culture. It was a team effort and a labor of love. My art director, Josh, and the art team to design our office space and they came up with the idea of a dragon couch. They sketched it, purchased the fabric, sewed it and the whole ZipZapPlay team helped stuff the dragon, all in their spare time. That’s not the kind of thing you would get from people who are just there for a paycheck.

Cultural fit was also a big motivator behind the acquisition. Both our team and the team at PopCap feel like this partnership was meant to be and we can’t wait to build great games together. I am very excited to bring some of our learnings to PopCap and to get to learn from 400+ creative, passionate people.

Women 2.0: What’s your advice to women trying to start tech companies?

Mathilde Pignol: Sure. A few things that weren’t obvious to me when I started and that helped me get to this point:

  1. Actively cultivate your network. Go to events, find people you like and meet with them one on one later. Ask for introductions to other people and keep in touch with the ones you enjoy talking with. Networking doesn’t have to be a chore and is most effective one-on-one, where there is mutual respect and interest.
  2. Ask for advice and ask for help. You don’t have to do everything yourself, in fact, you can’t, and that’s why you’re building a company, not a single proprietorship
  3. Don’t give up. Startups are hard for everyone. We certainly didn’t get it right the first time (or the 2nd time or the 3rd). Stick with it but keep an open mind and with enough effective networking and good advice, you’ll make it through.

Mathilde Pignol is Co-Founder & Chief Creative Officer of ZipZapPlay, a social gaming startup recently acquired by PopCap Games. Mathilde is an interaction designer extraordinaire, user researcher and creative director. She earned her Masters in Human-Computer Interaction from Carnegie Mellon. Mathilde has 3 years of experience researching and designing state-of-the-art interfaces for web and technology product at eBay and frog design. Her specialty is in making products that are a delight to use. Mathilde has an inordinate love for stinky cheeses, which might be explained by the fact that she is from Paris, France. Follow her on Twitter at @bluebutterfly.