A few years ago Paul Gray decided that “piling on even more student loan debt would be a great idea” so he went to study for an MBA, got married, had two kids and is now the co-founder of the “ultra-ambitious start-up” Bubble Gum Interactive.
Having been in his words a “pretty terrible student in school” he finally discovered that putting in some real effort could reap great results. After studying business at the University of Wollongong, Paul worked in marketing and in the twelve years since his undergraduate degree has worked in five countries for numerous blue chip companies including Disney.
Paul has never worked in the same place for more than a few years and explains: “I got bored pretty quickly... and really found the level of red tape and bureaucracy that I encountered quite de-motivating.
"I used to tell colleagues in one job not to get their hopes up on some great idea because by the time management approved it, the annual wave of ‘budget adjustments’ would come in and it would get nowhere. I realised that I had to make a change."
The decision to do an MBA came to Paul because of his poor numerical skills, “I wasn’t a natural numbers guy. Nor am I an economist. And various other aspects of business baffled me. I could do a fantastic job of analysing market needs and wants and formulating solutions that would solve these... but an idea is nothing without execution. I realised that I needed more skills in areas such as finance, operations, business process and design, human resources and of course every MBA student’s favourite: strategy.”
As Paul was living in London at the time he looked at a few business schools there but “had other factors in mind – I was newly married and had a baby on the way. I’m from Australia and had been living away for many years and so I decided to head home. My research showed that we had a top tier business school right there in Sydney (AGSM) and that pretty much made up my mind. I didn’t bother applying elsewhere.”
Paul says he thoroughly enjoyed his time at the Australian Graduate School of Management (AGSM) and found the academic and administrative staff were very passionate and “committed to delivering the best possible experience.” Paul says he learnt a lot from the new perspectives proffered by the rest of his cohort even those he found “difficult, belligerent, demanding and self-serving... But as I keep saying, it is an important part of your MBA experience to learn how to collaborate with all sorts of people regardless of your differences.”
Paul got immersed in the extra-curricular side of AGSM and served as student president which “tested and challenged my abilities to work with people, to learn how to sacrifice one’s own interests for the greater good of the cohort.” And represented AGSM at the Darden School of Business innovation challenge in Virginia where his team won the People’s Choice prize.
Whilst at AGSM Paul took part in various recruitment drives (“finance jobs excluded!”) and was captivated by the flashy pitches of the big tier consulting firms. “I remember sitting in rooms feeling my brain to mush as I tried to answer the test questions e.g. ‘how many ping pong balls could you fit into an A380?’
As you can probably tell already by reading my responses I was clearly not what the big tier crowd had in mind. I didn’t get a single interview which was a little disheartening but sometimes in life you need a wake-up call. That wasn’t the path for me – I was not the type of guy that could just rock up to a client site, pretend I knew what I was talking about and then work 100 hour weeks away from my family. I’m sure it works for some.”
The AGSM careers team helped Paul to meet with a range of exciting and inspirational organisations. “This is where I remembered why I’d thrown it all in to go do an MBA in the first place. I didn’t want to wear a suit and go slog it out for someone else’s gain! I wanted to make amazing things happen! I wanted to feel inspired and create something special.”
After working for a few years at Brainmates, a boutique consultancy firm focused on product strategy, Paul and a group of friends had the idea for Bubble Gum Interactive. The friends decided that they wanted to create an amazing new game experience for kids and families. “We’d all had experience in this field before at places like Disney, Atari and in digital agencies and consulting firms so we knew where the market was heading and saw an opportunity.”
The Little Space Heroes Planet - an online gaming world for children
The team, “just like every other start-up out there”, began by meeting up occasionally and having lots of Skype calls to try to formulate a plan for the business. “In time we were able to hone in on what we wanted to do and we started building prototypes, writing up business and marketing plans and working out budgets and project plans. It’s been a crazy ride and we’re only just beginning.”
Bubble Gum Interactive have developed a virtual universe called Little Space Heroes and have thousand of kids around the world playing the game on a daily basis. “We are also getting a very strong response from parents and from leading parenting and gaming publications and organisations.” The team are in an open beta testing phase and are putting the final touches in to place ahead of the commercial launch.
The hardest part for Paul of establishing your own company was securing the capital investment while simultaneously building the product. “Every entrepreneur must someday take a leap of faith and for myself and my colleagues it was the beginning of this year when we all quit our secure full time jobs and started working on the project in earnest. Myself and my fellow co-founders worked ridiculous hours to try to get the business and product built while also pitching like crazy to pretty much anyone who would listen to secure the finance needed. In the end, we raised over $1 million AUD and we’re now well on track.”
Starting a business has seen Paul apply the skills he learnt from his MBA and says that “operating in a very lean environment means you don’t have the luxury of having expert specialist staff for every aspect of the business. In this first year I’ve done everything from writing and implementing marketing plans, helped develop the game and our website, worked out operational budgets, devised project plans, hiring and recruiting talent in all sorts of fields, pitching and raising funds from investors, keeping track of budgets and working to build relationships with everyone from strategic and operational partners to end users. It would have been a lot harder had I not learned some key skills during the MBA.”
Paul says that as they complete their first year as Bubble Gum Interactive the old adage ‘Sow, Grow, Reap’ rings true. “Our first year has been all about sowing the seeds. We’ve built the product, we’ve started to establish the brand... Next year will be about scaling up.”
For Paul and his team the focus is twofold: “we need to expand and scale our virtual universe proposition and reach a global audience. But we also need to take our intellectual property and extend the brand across other platforms. We’ve already got mobile games in development as well as tablet based interactive cartoons. It’s incredibly exciting and I can’t wait to chat to you guys in another twelve months to recap the year of ‘Grow’!”