How Koukoi Games Manages 12 Employees as a Startup

As we wrote last week, young 12-man large Finnish games studio Koukoi Games recently revealed their first game. But how does such a young studio handle 12 employees and the ever-growing expectations with no funding at all?

That’s what we set to answer when we talked with Koukoi Games executive producer, Antti Kananen.

While there are studios who will spend hours on end at startup conferences talking about the importance of outsourcing the least necessary parts of your startup, there are certainly also those who prefer to do everything in-house. Koukoi Games is one such startup.

As Antti Kananen said last time we talked with him, the goal has always been for the team at Koukoi Games to be able to handle all areas of game development.

Koukoi_Games_logo1“There was one main goal we wanted to achieve: building up a team that can handle all areas of taking ideas to perfectly finalized games and launching those globally through different channels. We did really good on making this happen in a short time and built a team that shares a common vision of creating a fast-growing and sustainable game company – right people, right time.”, Kananen said to Nordic Game Bits.

But doing everything in-house means that you need competent people with experience in a lot of different areas if you want to be able to compete with outsourcing. And that is why the 12 people working at the studio are not all fresh out of the educational system.

Instead, many from the Koukoi Games team have previously worked at companies such as Rovio, Nokia, and the like, Kananen says:

“Our team current team of 12 consist of young talents who have previous industry experience for example from Rovio, some studios abroad and some others from Finland. We also have talented people with backgrounds from companies like Nokia and several other software development companies. We strongly think that having a setup of experienced multi-talents with different backgrounds can take developing mobile games to the next level with new views.”

 

To dive one step deeper into the organizational structure at Koukoi Games, Kananen agreed to reveal the actual structure of their 12-man team:

”In our team we have 1 producer, 3 coders and 8 graphical artists who are putting all their know-how into developing awesome games and making the best possible game company there is. Currently, I handle the role of a producer and all things related to business development, marketing, and game design. Our 3 software developers can be divided into three roles including “technical director”, who is the main game developer and takes part in game design, “front-end developer”, and “back-end developer”, who have know-how about anti-cheats and similar areas. Our group of artists includes an art director who also oversees game design, and others are taking several roles divided between their skills that include 2D, 3D, character design, animations, audio, story writing, and game design. The game design is handled between several people to take into account several views from different perspectives and that has worked well for us.”, Antti Kananen says.

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Artwork from Koukoi Games upcoming title, Crashing Season

In startups, it is not uncommon that everyone does a bit of everything. But with 12 people in the team, sticking with “everyone does everything” will create nothing but confusion. And that is why the 12-man team at Koukoi Games actually consist of 5 core members, Kananen says.

“In this group of 12 we have 5 core members making the final decisions who have more experience over others in addition to these roles – we have strong roles if it’s needed, but mostly we work in a very creative and open way.”

 

And this agile way of working is what keeps the company moving forward, according to Kananen, who believes that in order to constantly progress as a studio and a company, you have to consider getting more of the right people into your team. People who know what they do, and know how to work together with the rest of the team.

“This ensures from the beginning that you can work independently from the start without any need to pray for “expensive money” from VC investors. You will also be able to develop several projects from the start so your business isn’t hanging on hope over one product.”, he says, and continues:

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Crashing Season artwork

“Having a large team brings around many challenges to be handled, including taking into account that you actually have to start to manage people and have knowledge about it. Good roling, decision making processes, and agile tools and methods will help you a lot during the process.”, he adds.

But most importantly, you need to figure out how you are going to keep the wrong people out of the team. If you want to create a kickass product, you need a kickass team.

“There is a danger with having several people in your team that needs to be taken into account: having wrong people inside your ranks. Somehow, in some way, you have to figure out fast who the right people to work with are. And those who are not right, should be left out immediately to ensure you won’t get into any trouble in the future.”, Kananen says.

“The biggest mistake you can make is taking wrong people in.”

 

So far, Koukoi Games have grown the company without any investment. Something the team has always believed is possible as long as they stay indie – even as a 12-man large team.

“We currently invest our know-how and money when it’s needed into Koukoi Games. We can fully develop a game without any expenses as everyone is all-in with this and has all the know-how needed. This can be continued easily for several games. True indie-spirit.”, Antti Kananen explains to Nordic Game Bits.

At the same time, however, Kananen admits that an investment can immensely help a startup like Koukoi Games. And that is why the studio has actually started raising their first seed round of investments, as Kananen said last time we talked with him:

“We have given it a lot thought lately and decided to start a seed round to achieve fast growth, better market penetration and a goal of creating the best possible gaming company there is”, Antti Kananen said.

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Artwork from Crashing Season

“We know by fact that investments can be used as a tool to achieve these goals. And also, taking in experienced investors with a huge knowledge-base will help us network faster with the right parties and enable us to see where the markets are expanding during the upcoming years.”, he adds.

So while many studios look for investments right from the start, Koukoi Games is proof that you can in fact build a company to quite a size before looking for investment.

But when you finally start raising your first round of investments, Kananen adds that you should make sure to do everything in your power to stay as visible to the potential investors as possible. Something that may sound obvious, but can easily be forgotten.

“Our first round of investment has started lately and we’re currently sending details through our networks for several selected parties. We are also openly giving information for interested parties through investment platforms such as AngelList and Gust. This has worked well as there are several interested parties already.”, he concludes.

Getting to this point took a while, however, and Kananen points out that it makes sense to look for an investment to achieve great growth now, as the company is nearly done with their first game, which will be under commercial finalization during this summer, proving that they are capable of delivering a finished product. If the team would have sought an investment earlier, the investor would most likely have demanded the power over the company (more than 50% ownership), or only offered a very small investment.

“We have stepped out of the circle where you only get a small amount (investment) without losing power of your company. You always have to have something that proves that you can do what you say you can. We’re at this point now. Execution counts more than just a perfect plan.”, Antti Kananen concludes.

Authors
Sune Thorsen

Sune is not only a gamer and writer who wishes his keyboard-typing-speed would translate directly into Nintendo 64 controller agility, but also the co-founder and CEO of NordicGameBits.

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  • Frank

    So wait – first they shun VC money as it’s expensive and rather not take it even though they’re running a 12 man ship (so I guess it’s either working out of pocket or the pocket of FFF), but then decide that they do need it and are shipping for a round.

    I don’t think anyone needs any proof that you couldn’t start a company with 12 people without investment money, but in case of this article it might have been prudent to state how did the company manage without VC investment. Currently, reading it makes it feel like they just operate outside of the whole pay-salaries-rent-taxes-whatnot sphere – which might be the case?

    • Hey Frank. I think the point was that in early stages, VC money is expensive as the VC will want to take over most of the company. Therefore, any studio, regardless of size, should first try to produce at least one game before looking for investment. Once you’ve got a product and proved that you can work together as a team, you’ll have more leverage in the discussion with VCs.

      In terms of operating a business without any investment, that probably leads back to the fact that they need to be able to do everything in-house, as they can’t pay anyone from the outside to do it. As you say yourself, that is simply impossible without an investment. But you could, however, chose to only pay very small salaries in exchange for equity, and that may be how they’ve succeeded in building the first game. That’s just speculation, however. I’ll ask Antti to have a look at your comment himself 🙂

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