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How Execution Labs puts Canadian independents on the fast track

How Execution Labs puts Canadian independents on the fast track Exclusive

August 1, 2013 | By Kris Ligman

Execution Labs founder Jason Della Rocca set out in November 2012 to create a new kind of games incubator program for Canadian independent developers. Promising work space, resources and a monthly stipend for each member of the development team, Execution Labs serves as an accelerator for bringing garage projects to market.

Gamasutra caught up with Della Rocca, himself an industry veteran with a considerable portfolio, to hear more about how Execution Labs is getting on.

Gamasutra: Execution Labs just opened in late 2012. I see on your website you recently celebrated your 6-month anniversary and held your first demo day not even two weeks ago. How did that go over?

Jason Della Rocca: Our first demo day was a blast. The teams were quite nervous, and practiced a lot. They really wanted to make a good presentation in front of the 250+ audience of investors, press, entrepreneurs, mentors, and other game execs. You can check out the photos of the teams in action on our site.

In the end, the teams got a bunch of feedback, some press coverage, and connections with potential investors and partners. All critical as they build towards their first game launch.

How has it been getting the momentum going in a new venture like this?

The momentum is insane. In fact, the momentum was building before we even launched. Right from the start there has been so much support and enthusiasm for building Execution Labs as a talent platform. It has been quite humbling the degree to which people and companies have been supportive. In fact, so many people have wanted a tour of the Labs -- press, investors, game industry vets -- that we've had to institute "flow days" when no one can visit so the teams can focus and actually get work done!

How has the rate of applications been since launch? Steady? Dropping off? Overwhelming?

We did a major applications push right at the start in order to fill up with the first batch of teams. Dozens and dozens of teams applied. We continue to allow applications and interview potential teams, but at a much slower pace since we can't take on a new team until a current team graduates from the program. It's an organic process instead of a fixed-date thing. The variable timing just suits game development better; it's different than what you see with a typical 3-month general tech accelerator.

We'll be re-opening applications in earnest in the fall, as several of the current teams will be departing in that timeframe.

What are some of the ideal qualities you look for in an application?

We really focus on the team. We look at each individual and their personal skills and accomplishments. And, importantly, the history and rapport of the group as a whole, and what they've been able to accomplish together. Most investors think about product risk (i.e., "Will zombie games still be popular?" or "Are soccer moms still a viable market segment?"), whereas we see the biggest risk as the team itself. Team cohesion, communication and leadership, drive and entrepreneurship, and the willingness to be mentored are way more critical to success than divining if pirates will be more popular than ninjas in six months.

From your website I understand you offer developers a 2,000 CND/month stipend per team member. Being based in Montreal that doesn't sound like much to live on, especially if you happen to be a family breadwinner. Do you feel this affects the makeup of teams you're taking on?

Yes, but intentionally so. Certainly some people simply cannot survive in such a financial context. Whereas many others are ready to make whatever sacrifice is necessary to succeed. Our program is designed to attract senior developers. Our average age is in the 30+ range and many of the teams have folks with 10+ years of game industry experience. Often the more experienced folks have personal savings to fall back on (but can dip into that at a much slower rate given the XL funding).

Ultimately, if you do not have confidence in yourself to take that leap and to risk something, why should we?

Do some teams seek/receive additional funding or endowments to supplement their stipend?

Things are quite flexible. For example, Imaginary Games ran a successful Kickstarter campaign for an additional $35k of funding for their game Afterland. Also, teams can apply to the Canadian Media Fund, along with a handful of other grant programs.

And, a big role we've been playing is to bridge the game industry with the investor community. Nearly each week we get a visit from a [venture capitalist]. We are also working to better educate the angel investor community about the game business and how to approach investing in their first game company.

All told, the capital we provide is really designed to fund the teams' game development and initial go-to-market phase. After that, the goal is to ensure that graduates of XL have resources to continue running their games as a service and ramp their revenues after they leave XL, and eventually expand their studios and release more games.

Further reading: Jason Della Rocca's expert blog on funding options for indies.

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