The story of Unity Technologies – a talk with David Helgason

Unity is a game engine with an integrated development environment that is used by developers around the world to make games that work on multiple platforms, including computers, consoles, smartphones, smart TVs, virtual reality and augmented reality glasses.

Unity engine is the dominant global game development software. More games are made with Unity than with any other game technology, as well as more players play the games made with Unity, and more developers rely on their tools and services to drive their business.

These days co-founder and former CEO of Unity Technologies, David Helgason, is finding himself back in Copenhagen after running his business from startup Mecca, San Francisco. He grew up in Iceland until the age of 10 when he moved to Denmark where he lived for 22 years before living in San Francisco for the last 6 years.

Self-made entrepreneur

Technology became part of Helgason’s life very early on and something in him drove him to figure out what this strange new computer could actually do.

David Halgasson“My mom bought a PC that I broke, and then I tried to fix it. I also tried to get games, which was hard back then. I remember trying to teach myself how to make games by picking up books on programming from the library,” David Helgason explains about his childhood years.

There is no entrepreneurial history in his family, although all three sons in the family have grown into entrepreneurs today. Helgason himself started three or four companies before Unity.

“I can’t even count my points together and fake a bachelors degree,” David Helgason laughs after revealing how he dropped out of university around  four times and has started on educations within as different fields as psychology, physics and middle eastern studies.

“I was always really lazy. It wasn’t until I started Unity that I grew up.”

Cutting corners with passion for tech

Many people are familiar with the success that has followed Unity Technologies, but not many know about the struggles and the corners they had to cut to get where they are today.

The three developers and co-founders had basically no income for years. Helgason often tells the story of how he was working in a café and got free food there. That was how he made a living and paid his rent.

“We weren’t really business people back then,” he tells that they did not quite pay their bills and taxes, “but everything is fine and settled now and all fines are paid. But it was a bit sketchy back then.”

As Unity went through the process of launching the 1.0 version, they actually borrowed nearly half a million DKK, but then ran out of money shortly after launch.

“I had saved up a bit of money from the last consultancy company, but spent it working on Unity without a salary for years. We eventually borrowed nearly a million DKK from the bank and family. But that is actually not insurmountable to pay that back being three young developers,” says Helgason about their struggling days.

All startups are struggling, but how close were they to closing Unity?

“We had to fire a couple of people and were just the three co-founders left at the fifth floor at the Danish IT-University. A couple of times we decided to give it half a year more. We had growth every month, but it was slow,” explains David Helgason.

Unity Technologies have been evolving the business model and strategy so much over the years as they were afraid of hitting the end of their S-curve in a high growth market.

“We hacked the S-curve for a few years, but we had to hit the end of the growth curve at some point. The paranoia and fear of dying and stopping to grow made me decide to acquire an adtech company that is now an important part of our growth engine,” said David Helgason.

There is such a thing as a good co-founder

After stepping down as CEO of Unity Technologies, David Helgason is still active in the company business and acts as a spokesperson on several occasions, but he has also invested in the Icelandic startup  QuizUp, and is on the board of Realm.io.

Helgason also reveals that he has a deep passion for early stage startups and founders – even though he does not see himself starting from scratch again. He does help a lot of early stage founders, and he has a firm belief in hard work and ambitions as hard drivers.

“I was a good co-founder. I would code, sell and fix the broken computer, and everyone has to do that, but I was not a great structurer/organizer, which is something we needed when we got to around 20 people. But then I was great again as a strategist as the company grew from 100 people and to 500 and beyond,” explains David Helgason.

Early stage startups is where you wear all kinds of different hats and you struggle to figure out the product-market fit and then there is the growth phase afterwards. But that is a false dichotomy, Helgason believes.

“We tend to think of this in a linear way. You think you should go from one thing to another, but the good companies go back and forth and keep evolving and working with their product-market fit,” says Helgason.

Now David Helgason is back in Copenhagen and has some perspective on the differences between startup hubs on a global scale. Naturally, we asked why he has come back to Denmark, and what his point of view is on the Danish startup scene.

“I love Copenhagen and have family here,” explains Helgason on his recent move back to Copenhagen. “It is small and there are not a lot of great startups, but it’s growing like other startup hubs, and I’m passionate about helping make it even better.”

Our main takeaway from David Helgason’s talk at Startup Grind Copenhagen was: Room for improvement for entrepreneurs that are willing to work hard and reach the stars.

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