Supercell’s CEO talks about its majority owner Tencent, finding its next hit, and more

Mobile games maker Supercell has been one of the great, understated, breakthroughs of the European startup world. The Helsinki-based mobile games maker built an empire out of Clash of Clans, raking in tons of money and catching the eye of world class investors and eventually a new strategic majority shareholder in the form of Tencent at a $10.2 billion valuation.

That was in 2016. So how does a hot startup keep its edge?

As part of this year’s virtual Disrupt,we sat down to talk with the company’s founder and CEO, Ilkka Paananen, about that and the other challenges and opportunities facing the company, and asked for his tips and opinion on spinning up and running startups in Europe today.

Times are definitely not easy right now: all of us are living through a global health pandemic, and economies as a result of that are teetering; and there is an interesting sea change happening as gaming companies (along with other content makers) face off against big tech, where question of whether platforms or the games themselves have the upper hand. (The most visible and recent example of that: the counter-lawsuits between Epic and Apple over in-app payments.)

For Supercell specifically, its majority owner, Tencent, is in hot water in the US (a major market for Supercell); and it’s sitting on a still-popular but now-ageing game franchise that you could argue is in the middle of its own Battle Royale against the many other big games that are vying for people’s attention (and spending power to keep playing and levelling up). In short, the company itself, now 10 years old, may itself be facing more existential questions of, who are we now, and what comes next?

As you’ll see in the video below, Paananen is very Finnish, which is to say sanguine and calm, about a lot of this.

Even without the experience thus far of Supercell under his belt, he has been in the industry for years. Supercell is his second big hit company: before that he founded Sumea, which was acquired by Digital Chocolate, where he became president in the now-defunct bigger studio’s heyday. And, he has been and is an investor, too: most recently Paananen backed Zwift, the gamefied home fitness startup, in its most recent, $450 million round, which included him joining the company’s board. All of this is to say that he can see the bigger picture.

The Tencent issues in the US, he said, are something that the company is watching. But not only are they unresolved — indeed just this week, ahead of any proposed bans on Tencent properties and WeChat in particular, the US government issued more clarification on how people are liable for using WeChat. In any case, Paananen said in the interview that he believes that Supercell doesn’t fall under the US executive order to be shut down, since Tencent is only a shareholder, not a full owner. He’s still waiting to see how it all plays out.

Similarly, Paananen is not overly concerned about the fact that its big hit, while still big, is getting on and slowly bringing in less revenues. Judging by the fact that Supercell has yet to follow up with another successful franchise, and has killed quite a few attempts in the meantime, the process to produce a hit, in fact, still seems to be as elusive to a company that has produced a hit already as it is to those that have not.

“It would be nice to be always on this kind of a growth curve, but the reality is… it’s very much about hits or misses,” he said. “Sometimes figures go up, and sometimes they go down [so] what’s your time horizon? We never ever think about the next quarter, and very, very rarely think about it and maybe next year, I think that’s a target in itself, you know. We try to think in decades. Our dream is to build a game so as many people as possible will play for a very long time. We are inspired by companies like, say, Nintendo. And if you’re going to take that… then that changes your perspective.”

That follows through too, it seems on investing in people who can produce interesting games that Supercell can throw up and see if they stick.

Indeed, it seems that most valuable thing Paananen has learned, it turns out, is the thing that continues to be his top priority: building the right team for the long haul. Making sure you have a group that can work together, inspire each other and be productive has been the constant, one that perhaps means even more as the company grows bigger and we continue to work under very decentralised circumstances.

Hear about all this, plus Paananen’s opinion on raising money and more, below.

Supercell’s CEO talks about its majority owner Tencent, finding its next hit, and more

Mobile games maker Supercell has been one of the great, understated, breakthroughs of the European startup world. The Helsinki-based mobile games maker built an empire out of Clash of Clans, raking in tons of money and catching the eye of world class investors and eventually a new strategic majority shareholder in the form of Tencent at a $10.2 billion valuation.

That was in 2016. So how does a hot startup keep its edge?

As part of this year’s virtual Disrupt,we sat down to talk with the company’s founder and CEO, Ilkka Paananen, about that and the other challenges and opportunities facing the company, and asked for his tips and opinion on spinning up and running startups in Europe today.

Times are definitely not easy right now: all of us are living through a global health pandemic, and economies as a result of that are teetering; and there is an interesting sea change happening as gaming companies (along with other content makers) face off against big tech, where question of whether platforms or the games themselves have the upper hand. (The most visible and recent example of that: the counter-lawsuits between Epic and Apple over in-app payments.)

For Supercell specifically, its majority owner, Tencent, is in hot water in the US (a major market for Supercell); and it’s sitting on a still-popular but now-ageing game franchise that you could argue is in the middle of its own Battle Royale against the many other big games that are vying for people’s attention (and spending power to keep playing and levelling up). In short, the company itself, now 10 years old, may itself be facing more existential questions of, who are we now, and what comes next?

As you’ll see in the video below, Paananen is very Finnish, which is to say sanguine and calm, about a lot of this.

Even without the experience thus far of Supercell under his belt, he has been in the industry for years. Supercell is his second big hit company: before that he founded Sumea, which was acquired by Digital Chocolate, where he became president in the now-defunct bigger studio’s heyday. And, he has been and is an investor, too: most recently Paananen backed Zwift, the gamefied home fitness startup, in its most recent, $450 million round, which included him joining the company’s board. All of this is to say that he can see the bigger picture.

The Tencent issues in the US, he said, are something that the company is watching. But not only are they unresolved — indeed just this week, ahead of any proposed bans on Tencent properties and WeChat in particular, the US government issued more clarification on how people are liable for using WeChat. In any case, Paananen said in the interview that he believes that Supercell doesn’t fall under the US executive order to be shut down, since Tencent is only a shareholder, not a full owner. He’s still waiting to see how it all plays out.

Similarly, Paananen is not overly concerned about the fact that its big hit, while still big, is getting on and slowly bringing in less revenues. Judging by the fact that Supercell has yet to follow up with another successful franchise, and has killed quite a few attempts in the meantime, the process to produce a hit, in fact, still seems to be as elusive to a company that has produced a hit already as it is to those that have not.

“It would be nice to be always on this kind of a growth curve, but the reality is… it’s very much about hits or misses,” he said. “Sometimes figures go up, and sometimes they go down [so] what’s your time horizon? We never ever think about the next quarter, and very, very rarely think about it and maybe next year, I think that’s a target in itself, you know. We try to think in decades. Our dream is to build a game so as many people as possible will play for a very long time. We are inspired by companies like, say, Nintendo. And if you’re going to take that… then that changes your perspective.”

That follows through too, it seems on investing in people who can produce interesting games that Supercell can throw up and see if they stick.

Indeed, it seems that most valuable thing Paananen has learned, it turns out, is the thing that continues to be his top priority: building the right team for the long haul. Making sure you have a group that can work together, inspire each other and be productive has been the constant, one that perhaps means even more as the company grows bigger and we continue to work under very decentralised circumstances.

Hear about all this, plus Paananen’s opinion on raising money and more, below.

Justice Department says WeChat users won’t be penalized under Trump’s executive order

In a Wednesday filing in federal court, the United States government said that users who use or download WeChat “to convey personal or business information” will not be subject to penalties under President Donald Trump’s executive order banning transactions with the Tencent-owned messaging app.

Trump issued the executive order against WeChat on August 6, the same day he issued a similar one banning transactions with ByteDance, the parent company of TikTok, claiming national security concerns. Both orders caused confusion because they are set to go into effect 45 days after being issued, but said that Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross will not identify what transactions are covered until then.

With that deadline now looming at the end of this week, WeChat users in America are still uncertain about the app’s future. Though WeChat is the top messaging app by far in China, where it also serves as an essential conduit for payments and other services, the U.S. version of the app has relatively limited features. It is used by Chinese-Americans, and other members of the Chinese disapora in the U.S., to keep in touch with their family and other people in China. With other popular messaging apps, like Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp, banned in China, WeChat is often the most direct communication channel available to them.

The U.S. government’s filing (embedded below) was made as part of a request for a preliminary injunction against the executive order brought by the U.S. WeChat Users Alliance, a non-profit organization initiated by attorneys who want to preserve access to WeChat for users in the U.S. A hearing is scheduled for Thursday.

In it, attorneys from the Justice Department said the U.S. Commerce Department is continuing to review transactions and will clarify which ones are affected by Sept. 20, but “we can provide assurances that [Secretary Ross] does not intend to take actions that would target persons or groups whose only connection to WeChat is their use or downloading of the app to convey personal or business information between users, or otherwise define the relevant transaction in such a way that would impose criminal or civil liability on such users.”

But in a response (also embedded below), the U.S. WeChat Users Alliance said that the Department of Justice’s filing instead demonstrates why a preliminary injunction is necessary. “Having first failed to articulate any actual national security concerns, the administration’s latest ‘assurances’ that users can keep using WeChat, and exchange their personal and business information, only further illustrates the hollowness and pre-textual nature of the Defendants’ ‘national security rationales.'”

The U.S. WeChat Users Alliance filed for the injunction on August 21. In an open letter published on its site, it said a complete ban of WeChat “will severely affect the lives and the work of millions of people in the U.S. They will have a difficult time talking to family relatives and friends back in China. Countless people or businesses who use WeChat to develop and contact customers will also suffer significant economic losses.”

The group also believes that the executive order “violates many provisions of the U.S. Constitution,” and the Administrative Procedure Act.

PUBG cuts publishing ties with Tencent Games in India a week after ban

PUBG said on Tuesday Chinese giant Tencent Games will no longer be the publishing partner of the popular game in India as it attempts to allay concerns of New Delhi, which banned the game and 117 other apps last week.

Prior to Tuesday’s announcement, Tencent Games published and distributed PUBG Mobile games in India.

“Moving forward, PUBG Corporation will take on all publishing responsibilities within the country. As the company explores ways to provide its own PUBG experience for India in the near future, it is committed to doing so by sustaining a localized and healthy gameplay environment for its fans,” PUBG Corporation said in a statement.

The title, the most popular mobile game in the country to date, said it is “actively monitoring the situation around the recent bans” and is committed to “engaging with its passionate player base in India.”

New Delhi banned 118 Chinese apps last week over privacy and security concerns. The move followed a similar ban on nearly five dozen Chinese apps including TikTok in June on similar grounds. India has not named China specifically in either of its ban orders — though its moves have been attributed to the geo-political tensions between the two nuclear-armed nations.

Prior to the ban, PUBG had about 40 million monthly active users in India and was by far the top app by revenue ahead of Netflix and Tinder in the country, according to one of the most popular mobile insight firms — data of which an industry executive shared with TechCrunch.

“PUBG Corporation fully understands and respects the measures taken by the government as the privacy and security of player data is a top priority for the company. It hopes to work hand-in-hand with the Indian government to find a solution that will allow gamers to once again drop into the battlegrounds while being fully compliant with Indian laws and regulations,” said South Korea-headquartered PUBG Corporation.

Google and Apple have pulled PUBG games and other apps from their respective app stores in compliance with New Delhi’s order. But unlike other apps that have been banned including TikTok, PUBG games are still operational for existing users in India, several users said. Though that may change soon.

Tencent also appears to be involved in the development of PUBG titles (PUBG MOBILE Nordic Map: Livik and PUBG MOBILE Lite), which further complicates the matter in India.

“While publishing duties could go to PUBG Corp, will Tencent still handle development of the game? If so, wouldn’t that still be in violation of the way data privacy laws here in India work? This move appears to be a bandaid solution if Tencent still develops the game,” tweeted Rishi Alwani, a long-time analyst of Indian gaming market and publisher of news outlet the Mako Reactor.

Podcast is social: How China’s Lizhi makes audio interactive

For Marco Lai, the founder of Chinese podcast network Lizhi, radio has always been social.

Twenty years ago, the entrepreneur was a host at a radio station in southern China. He ran a late-night program where listeners could call in and chat about anything as they wished, often riffing on feelings, relationships or other intimate subjects. Those who couldn’t get through the phone line sent text messages that Lai would then read on air. At the time, it was a popular and promising model for radio stations, which divided the revenue earned from messaging fees with network carriers.

Now, Lai manages one of China’s largest podcast companies. Lizhi means “lychee” in Chinese, the aromatic tropical fruit from his hometown in the southern province of Guangdong. He picked up one of the red-shell fruits from a tea table in his office as he began telling me Lizhi’s story.

“I learned from my days working in radio that interaction is the best monetization model in the audio business. For years in China, the main revenue source for radio stations was these text messages,” Lai reminisced, speaking at a relaxed, slow pace that is uncharacteristic in China’s dog-eat-dog entrepreneurial world.

Marco Lai, founder and CEO of Lizhi (Photo: Lizhi)

The headquarters itself felt more like a giant, inviting coffee shop than a high-strung workplace of a Nasdaq-listed firm. Tugged away in a low-rise warehouse-turned-office in Guangzhou, the place is dotted with well-tended bonsai and staff sitting on bean bags behind glass meeting rooms.

Lai built the app for podcast production as well as consumption, capturing both the supply and demand sides. As of June, 56 million people used Lizhi monthly. Over 6 million of them were creators, and the cumulative number of podcasts uploaded to the platform hit a new record high of 215 million.

Podcast is social: How China’s Lizhi makes audio interactive

For Marco Lai, the founder of Chinese podcast network Lizhi, radio has always been social.

Twenty years ago, the entrepreneur was a host at a radio station in southern China. He ran a late-night program where listeners could call in and chat about anything as they wished, often riffing on feelings, relationships or other intimate subjects. Those who couldn’t get through the phone line sent text messages that Lai would then read on air. At the time, it was a popular and promising model for radio stations, which divided the revenue earned from messaging fees with network carriers.

Now, Lai manages one of China’s largest podcast companies. Lizhi means “lychee” in Chinese, the aromatic tropical fruit from his hometown in the southern province of Guangdong. He picked up one of the red-shell fruits from a tea table in his office as he began telling me Lizhi’s story.

“I learned from my days working in radio that interaction is the best monetization model in the audio business. For years in China, the main revenue source for radio stations was these text messages,” Lai reminisced, speaking at a relaxed, slow pace that is uncharacteristic in China’s dog-eat-dog entrepreneurial world.

Marco Lai, founder and CEO of Lizhi (Photo: Lizhi)

The headquarters itself felt more like a giant, inviting coffee shop than a high-strung workplace of a Nasdaq-listed firm. Tugged away in a low-rise warehouse-turned-office in Guangzhou, the place is dotted with well-tended bonsai and staff sitting on bean bags behind glass meeting rooms.

Lai built the app for podcast production as well as consumption, capturing both the supply and demand sides. As of June, 56 million people used Lizhi monthly. Over 6 million of them were creators, and the cumulative number of podcasts uploaded to the platform hit a new record high of 215 million.

Unity’s IPO numbers look pretty … unreal?

Unity, the company founded in a Copenhagen apartment in 2004, is poised for an initial public offering with numbers that look pretty strong.

Even as its main competitor, Epic Games, is in the throes of a very public fight with Apple over the fees the computer giant charges developers who sell applications (including games) on its platform (which has seen Epic’s games get the boot from the App Store), Unity has plowed ahead narrowing its losses and maintaining its hold on over half of the game development market.

For the first six months of 2020, the company lost $54.2 million on $351.3 million in revenue. The company narrowed its losses compared to 2019, when the company lost $163.2 million on $541.8 million in revenue, and 2018 when the company lost $131.6 million on $380.8 million in revenue. As of June 30, 2020 the company had total assets of $1.29 billion and $453.2 million in cash.

Increasing revenue and narrowing losses are things that investors like to see in companies that they’re potentially going to invest in. Another sign of the company’s success is the number of customers that contribute more than $100,000 in annual revenue. In the first six month of the year, Unity had 716 such customers, pointing to the health of its platform.

The company will trade on the NYSE under the single-letter ticker ‘U’. The NYSE only has a few single letters left to offer, although Pandora gave up the letter P when it was bought by Liberty Media back in 2018.

Unlike Epic Games, Unity has long worked with the major platforms and gaming companies to get their engine in front of as many developers as possible. In fact, the company estimates that 53 percent of the top 1,000 mobile games on the Apple App Store and Google Play Store and over 50 percent of mobile, personal computer and console games were made with Unity.

Some of the top titles that the platform claims include Nintendo’s Mario Kart: Tour, Super Mario Run and Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp; Niantic’s Pokémon Go and Activision’s recent Call of Duty: Mobile.

The knock against Unity is that it’s not as powerful as Epic’s Unreal rendering engine, but that hasn’t stopped the company from making forays into industries beyond gaming – something that it will need to continue doing if it’s to be successful.

Unity already has a toehold in Hollywood, where it was used to recreate the jungle environment used in Disney’s Lion King remake (meanwhile, much of The Mandalorian was created using Epic’s Unreal engine).

Of course, Unity’s numbers also reveal that the size of its business is currently a bit smaller than its biggest rival.  In 2019, the company said it had earnings of $730 million on revenue of $4.2 billion, according to VentureBeat . And the North Carolina-based game developer is now worth $17.3 billion.

Still, the games market is likely big enough for both companies to thrive. “Historically there has been substantial industry convergence in the games developer tools business, but over the past decade the number of developers has increased so much, I believe the market can support two major players,” Piers Harding-Rolls, games analyst at Ampere Analysis, told the Financial Times.

Venture investors in the Unity platform have waited a long time for this moment, and they’re certainly confident in the company’s prospects.

The last investment round valued the company at $6 billion with the secondary sale of $525 million worth of the company’s shares.

Unity’s IPO numbers look pretty … unreal?

Unity, the company founded in a Copenhagen apartment in 2004, is poised for an initial public offering with numbers that look pretty strong.

Even as its main competitor, Epic Games, is in the throes of a very public fight with Apple over the fees the computer giant charges developers who sell applications (including games) on its platform (which has seen Epic’s games get the boot from the App Store), Unity has plowed ahead narrowing its losses and maintaining its hold on over half of the game development market.

For the first six months of 2020, the company lost $54.2 million on $351.3 million in revenue. The company narrowed its losses compared to 2019, when the company lost $163.2 million on $541.8 million in revenue, and 2018 when the company lost $131.6 million on $380.8 million in revenue. As of June 30, 2020 the company had total assets of $1.29 billion and $453.2 million in cash.

Increasing revenue and narrowing losses are things that investors like to see in companies that they’re potentially going to invest in. Another sign of the company’s success is the number of customers that contribute more than $100,000 in annual revenue. In the first six month of the year, Unity had 716 such customers, pointing to the health of its platform.

The company will trade on the NYSE under the single-letter ticker ‘U’. The NYSE only has a few single letters left to offer, although Pandora gave up the letter P when it was bought by Liberty Media back in 2018.

Unlike Epic Games, Unity has long worked with the major platforms and gaming companies to get their engine in front of as many developers as possible. In fact, the company estimates that 53 percent of the top 1,000 mobile games on the Apple App Store and Google Play Store and over 50 percent of mobile, personal computer and console games were made with Unity.

Some of the top titles that the platform claims include Nintendo’s Mario Kart: Tour, Super Mario Run and Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp; Niantic’s Pokémon Go and Activision’s recent Call of Duty: Mobile.

The knock against Unity is that it’s not as powerful as Epic’s Unreal rendering engine, but that hasn’t stopped the company from making forays into industries beyond gaming – something that it will need to continue doing if it’s to be successful.

Unity already has a toehold in Hollywood, where it was used to recreate the jungle environment used in Disney’s Lion King remake (meanwhile, much of The Mandalorian was created using Epic’s Unreal engine).

Of course, Unity’s numbers also reveal that the size of its business is currently a bit smaller than its biggest rival.  In 2019, the company said it had earnings of $730 million on revenue of $4.2 billion, according to VentureBeat . And the North Carolina-based game developer is now worth $17.3 billion.

Still, the games market is likely big enough for both companies to thrive. “Historically there has been substantial industry convergence in the games developer tools business, but over the past decade the number of developers has increased so much, I believe the market can support two major players,” Piers Harding-Rolls, games analyst at Ampere Analysis, told the Financial Times.

Venture investors in the Unity platform have waited a long time for this moment, and they’re certainly confident in the company’s prospects.

The last investment round valued the company at $6 billion with the secondary sale of $525 million worth of the company’s shares.

Taiwan set to bar Chinese streaming services like iQiyi and Tencent’s WeTV

iQiyi and Tencent’s WeTV, two of China’s most popular streaming services, may be banned in Taiwan next month as the government prepares to close regulatory loopholes that enabled them to operate through local partnerships.

In an announcement posted this week, Taiwan’s Ministry of Economic Affairs said Taiwanese companies and individuals will be prohibited from providing services for OTT firms based in mainland China. The proposed regulation will be open to public comment for two weeks before it takes effect on Sept. 3.

Though Taiwan, which has a population of about 24 million people, is self-governed, the Chinese government claims it as a territory. The proposed regulations means Taiwan is joining other countries, including India and the United States, in taking a harsher stance against Chinese tech companies.

iQiyi and Tencent’s WeTV set up operations in Taiwan through “illegal” partnerships, the Ministry of Economic Affairs said in its announcement, working through their Hong Kong subsidiaries to strike agreements with Taiwanese companies.

In April, the NCC declared that mainland Chinese OTT firms are not allowed to operate in Taiwan under the Act Governing Relations between People of the Taiwan Area and the Mainland Area. Cabinet spokesperson Kolas Yotaka said at the time that Chinese firms and their Taiwanese partners were operating at “the edges of the law.”

But NCC spokesperson Wong Po-Tsung said the proposed regulation isn’t targeted solely at Chinese OTT operators. According to the Taipei Times, he stated “the act was necessary because the cable television service operators have asked that the commission apply across-the-board standards to regulate all audiovisual service platforms, which should include OTT services. It was not stipulated just to address the problems caused by iQiyi and other Chinese OTT operators.”

Wong added that Taiwan is a democratic country and its government would not block people from watching content from iQiyi and other Chinese streaming services. For example, they can still access them by using cross-border payment services to pay for subscriptions in China.

Once the act is passed, Taiwanese companies that break it will face fines of NTD $50,000 to NTD $5 million [about USD $1,700 to USD $170,000].

TechCrunch has contacted iQiyi and Tencent for comment.

Taiwan set to bar Chinese streaming services like iQiyi and Tencent’s WeTV

iQiyi and Tencent’s WeTV, two of China’s most popular streaming services, may be banned in Taiwan next month as the government prepares to close regulatory loopholes that enabled them to operate through local partnerships.

In an announcement posted this week, Taiwan’s Ministry of Economic Affairs said Taiwanese companies and individuals will be prohibited from providing services for OTT firms based in mainland China. The proposed regulation will be open to public comment for two weeks before it takes effect on Sept. 3.

Though Taiwan, which has a population of about 24 million people, is self-governed, the Chinese government claims it as a territory. The proposed regulations means Taiwan is joining other countries, including India and the United States, in taking a harsher stance against Chinese tech companies.

iQiyi and Tencent’s WeTV set up operations in Taiwan through “illegal” partnerships, the Ministry of Economic Affairs said in its announcement, working through their Hong Kong subsidiaries to strike agreements with Taiwanese companies.

In April, the NCC declared that mainland Chinese OTT firms are not allowed to operate in Taiwan under the Act Governing Relations between People of the Taiwan Area and the Mainland Area. Cabinet spokesperson Kolas Yotaka said at the time that Chinese firms and their Taiwanese partners were operating at “the edges of the law.”

But NCC spokesperson Wong Po-Tsung said the proposed regulation isn’t targeted solely at Chinese OTT operators. According to the Taipei Times, he stated “the act was necessary because the cable television service operators have asked that the commission apply across-the-board standards to regulate all audiovisual service platforms, which should include OTT services. It was not stipulated just to address the problems caused by iQiyi and other Chinese OTT operators.”

Wong added that Taiwan is a democratic country and its government would not block people from watching content from iQiyi and other Chinese streaming services. For example, they can still access them by using cross-border payment services to pay for subscriptions in China.

Once the act is passed, Taiwanese companies that break it will face fines of NTD $50,000 to NTD $5 million [about USD $1,700 to USD $170,000].

TechCrunch has contacted iQiyi and Tencent for comment.