Fostering Innovation and Accessibility in the Gaming Industry With Ben Kvalo

Ben Kvalo

Ben Kvalo is the Founder and CEO of Midwest Games, a regionally-focused video game publisher dedicated to championing disenfranchised developers in underrepresented regions, starting in the Midwest. He possesses over 12 years in the industry, including contributions to over 100 game titles and 50-plus films encompassing several of the entertainment industry’s most illustrious franchises. Ben is a former executive leader for 2K, Blizzard, and Netflix, where he led marketing and product development initiatives. Ben also sits on the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay’s board as an Advisor for Chancellor and Vice Chancellor for Advancement and the creation of the eSports Center at the University Union.

Here’s a glimpse of what you’ll learn: 

  • Ben Kvalo discusses Midwest Games and its mission
  • How can mainstream gaming companies improve and foster the industry?
  • Ben explains how Midwest Games differentiates itself from the competition
  • Tips for pitching ideas to investors and how to acquire funding
  • Ben discusses the impact of layoffs in the gaming industry
  • Ben expounds on Netflix’s game studio and the lessons he learned from his tenure

In this episode…

California, Washington, and Texas account for 67% of the video game industry, yet most game developers hail from various regions across the US. How can mainstream companies advocate for underrepresented areas to improve industry inclusiveness?

Like most industries, leaders in the gaming sector often hire referrals and individuals they’re acquainted with. To break this pattern, veteran gaming executive Ben Kvalo advises those in hiring roles to challenge themselves to look beyond their comfort zones. Investing in areas where innovation is paramount, such as indie and single-person studios, is also crucial. Developers also need financial support to cover the costs of game production and development, marketing, public relations, and a go-to-market strategy.

Join Lizzie Mintus in today’s episode of the Here’s Waldo Podcast, where she welcomes Ben Kvalo, Founder and CEO of Midwest Games, to discuss his new venture and the value of fostering a more inclusive gaming industry. Ben explains how Midwest Games differentiates itself from the competition, offers tips for pitching investors and acquiring funding, and expounds on the impact layoffs have had on the industry.

Resources Mentioned in this episode

Sponsor for this episode...

This episode is brought to you by Here’s Waldo Recruiting, a boutique recruitment firm specializing in the video game industry that prioritizes quality over quantity and values transparency, communication, and diversity. We partner with companies, creatives, and programmers to understand the why behind their needs and provide a white-glove experience that ensures a win-win outcome.

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We understand that searching for the best and brightest talent can be overwhelming, so let our customer-first staff of professionals do the leg work for you by heading over to hereswaldorecruiting.com.

Episode Transcript

Welcome to the Here's Waldo podcast, where we sit down with top visionaries and creatives in the video game industry. Together, we'll unravel their journeys and learn more about the path they're forging ahead. Now, let's get started with the show.

Lizzie Mintus: I'm Lizzie Mintus, founder and CEO of Here's Waldo Recruiting, a boutique video game recruitment firm. This is the Here's Waldo podcast. In every episode, we dive deep into conversations with creatives, founders, and executives about what it takes to be successful. You can expect to hear valuable lessons from their journey and get a glimpse into the future of the industry.

This episode is brought to you by Here's Waldo Recruiting, a boutique recruitment firm for the game industry. We value quality over quantity, transparency, communication, and diversity. We partner with companies, creatives, and programmers to understand the why behind their needs. We provide a white glove experience that ensures a win outcome.

Before introducing today's guest, I want to give a big thank you to Chris Klimecki for introducing us.

Today we have Ben Kvalo with us. Ben is the founder and CEO of Midwest Games, the regionally focused video game publisher that aims to change where games come from by supporting underrepresented and overlooked developers and regions, starting in the Midwest of the United States. Dedicated to creating entertainment and games that resonate with diverse audiences and cultures, Ben draws from his more than 12 years of industry experience.

This includes contributions to over 100 game titles and over 50 films, encompassing some of the entertainment industry's most popular and successful franchises. Let's get started. Thanks for being on the show, Ben. I want to also give you a shout out for being a LinkedIn top voice, and reconfirm with everybody that your name is like koala with an O.

Ben Kvalo: Like koala bear, but with an O at the end. And and thank you. Yeah, that was a big surprise when that list suddenly came out of nowhere. I've just been doing my thing and trying to spread the good word about underserved developers and in regions like the Midwest. So that was reaffirming that this message is resonating in a major way.

Lizzie Mintus: It is. That's the perfect segue. Tell me about Midwest Games.

Ben Kvalo: Yeah. So Midwest games. You said, one of our big talking points changing where games come from, but our big bet is that great games can come from anywhere. And we need to better marry up where talent are because talent is everywhere with opportunity and opportunities are not.

So If we can do that, I think our big bet is we are going to find more innovative, interesting titles all over the place in the Midwest and outside of it. We are talking to developers from Mexico, from South America, from Israel, from a number of places in Africa. And there is talent all over the place with really interesting projects, and ultimately they're not supported in the kinds of ways that they need to define success. With 99 percent of games that come out being indie, those need more support and they just don't have it enough, especially in these regions like the Midwest. And so we're hoping that we can build on some of that and help support folks, help fund, help market, and then help provide services like localization, QA, and production support.

Lizzie Mintus: What inspired you to start the company?

Ben Kvalo: It's probably like a chip on my shoulder. Being from Wisconsin originally, going out into the job market and ultimately not being able to do what I wanted to do, where I was from. And so I left. Almost 13 years in California. I worked at 2K, Blizzard, Netflix on the films end. I helped build Netflix games from the ground up and saw all these incredible opportunities in California and wondered, why is there not more in the Midwest?

ChIcago is the third largest city in the country. A lot of the talent that I see in California, in Washington, and Texas, which makes up 67 percent of the video game industry, is from the Midwest, is from other regions. So why is it that so few places have the majority of games and games development and games output?

That was the thing that kind of just was in the back of my head for a long time. And finally, I got to the point from an experience perspective where I just had seen a lot in the industry and been involved at every different level, AAA to Indie every different business, model type, having seeing subscription model front and center with what we were doing at Netflix on the mobile end of things that I was like, okay what if we try? What if we build something? What if we put a flag in the ground and really try to make this a real thing in the region? Will we find the developers? And the overwhelming answer to that is yes.

We have more pitches than we know what to do with from developers and so many people that need support and just a strategic view of how to go to market. So we're really excited with what we saw, but a lot of it just came from the fact that I happen to have the experience in this area and I'm from that region. So I noticed it. And then I was like why isn't there more? And I'm just trying to go do it now.

Lizzie Mintus: I think your brand really resonates with people because you have this personal story that really correlates.

Ben Kvalo: Yeah. It's a unique opportunity. Very rlyare in life do you have this personal passion and avenue. And then also, holy crap, there is this obvious need and gap.

From a business perspective, even if I wasn't from the Midwest, it makes sense. But the fact that I can marry these two things and do something I'm just so incredibly passionate about is just, one of those once in a lifetime type of things.

So I just had to do it and, leave Netflix, which was really hard to leave because it's Netflix. It's an incredible place, incredible culture, but ultimately it was the opportunity to build something from and for myself that I was really excited about.

Lizzie Mintus: And I think Netflix would always hire you back and especially now. Not that's the route you're going to go, but I feel like that's so important to think about when you're starting. Will this make me a candidate that will get hired at a big company or whatever company you want to work at in the future?

Yes.

Ben Kvalo: Yeah. I would hope that they hire me back. They didn't want me to leave. So that was a good sign.

Lizzie Mintus: So your mission is fostering innovation and accessibility in regions often overlooked by the mainstream gaming industry. How do you think the mainstream gaming industry can improve at this?

Ben Kvalo: It's one of those things that. They can't help themselves you because we all do the same thing you end up working with the people you trust to know and the people around you. It just becomes a cycle of the same things happening. I think it's forcing yourself outside of a comfort zone that you know. The industry just needs to do more of that and also just needs further investment into the areas that are actually going to be the most innovative places.

A lot of the great new ideas come from indie developers, folks that might be a single person studio and to see that it is a profitable endeavor. By having the best creative and leaning into those areas, that's where the biggest amount of money is compared to trying to de risk every single thing, which is what a lot of publishers do, which I get it makes sense.

But you can't de risk creative. That's not something that you can truly do if you want to be innovating and always pushing things forward. And so my hope is that more folks lean into those areas, knowing that means a higher upside on the backend.

Lizzie Mintus: That makes sense. For companies that are interested in working with Midwest Games, it sounds like you have a really big interest through already, but what do you provide and how do you differ from other publishers?

I know you touched on it a bit.

Ben Kvalo: Yeah, so in some ways, we're similar to traditional publishers. We provide funding support for the production development of the game. We provide marketing, VR, community support, and go to market strategy. We supply all of the connection points to the platforms that are needed, which are vast and they get more complicated every time you add a new platform.

And then we offer support services- things like quality assurance, localization, production support. But then, if you need an art vendor, we can connect you with those. Whatever you need to go to market, we can come up with some of those things if we end up partnering together. Now, how we differentiate, in a lot of ways, is how we're approaching things.

You have the really large scale businesses that invest. 7, 500 million or more. And what has pretty much dried up is a space of 10 to 50 million. And then we're in this smaller space below that. It just needs greater support. But a lot of times, folks will just do the spray and pray method. They'll take a lot like money, but spread it across really thin across a ton of titles, not give them a ton of support. But whereas we want to give support. So how we're even structuring our deals is that, it's incentivizes a long term view and a long term partnership with the developers that we're working.

We have an escalator clause that gives a much greater incentive on the back end for developers. That if they hit, they are the ones that win the most, which allows them to grow and build a sustainable, independent studio over time. And we get more than our return. Everyone can win in these situations.

And so our structure is slightly different. Some people do it similar and are challenging some of the traditional models a little bit more and that we're actively investing in their IP. So we asked for a minority piece of developers IP because we want to support it. And we want to continue to push it forward.

And we see that as a piece that brings us together and creates a healthy friction. I think there are good things about friction that pushes both parties forward and having that kind of partnership is really key. We're just we are in a place that nobody else is.

So just by being there, we're active in the ecosystem, we're helping to sponsor game jams, local events, we're at local events, we're almost always the only publisher at these events. And we want to provide resources and advice as much as we want to, work on our own business as well. But sometimes it's supporting a developer so that they can get to their next step and then maybe five steps down the line, they actually partner with us on something else.

But we have that connection long term. So we're just always trying to look through a long term lens with what we're doing.

Lizzie Mintus: I like it.

That's parallel to recruiting, in a way. People need help, right? And you help them, and then if you help them, they have a good experience. Five years later, you hire for them. So it's the same ecosystem, just in a different lens.

So you have so many pitches and you have to make a lot of decisions all the time about who you're going to invest in and who you're not. What makes you feel as certain as you can be that you're making the right decision on a pitch? What do you look for?

Ben Kvalo: You're never certain in this business. You have to be willing to take bets and willing to take risks. And willing to take bets on partners that you believe in, and you can trust. Sometimes you have to say no, even when they have every other factor, because maybe your Q1 is too busy and that's when their game releases. That's the challenge of it. So I think what gives me confidencewith the games that we sign is the willingness to work together, to collaborate, to take feedback, to also push back on us something.

Again, I spoke about the healthy kind of tension or healthy friction. That's good. It is about saying, hey, neither of us is right all the time. In fact, that's rarely the case, right? It's how do you continue to grow? How do you continue to progress forward as there's obstacles throughout the process? So partners that are willing to invest in that, and they are trying something that maybe is a little bit different. If you just have something that's exactly the same as something else is that going to really go in market?

So it's what is that thing that gives the game a chance? Because no matter what, most games fail. But if you have something about your title that gives it a chance for an audience to latch onto, those are the games that I look for the most. What is that thing? What is that big bet that you're doing?

I look at it like, with how when I was at Netflix, we did film. We didn't have the budgets that these big film companies had. And so we had to take big bets on certain things. Sometimes it worked out and sometimes it didn't. But that's the reason why something like Bird Box, which is a film I worked on, took off in a major way. It's because we took a big bet with blindfolds, and blindfolds was the thing that, that ended up taking off. People were putting blindfolds on all around and doing this Bird Box challenge and other things and so you just have to sometimes take big bets on things. It's, does the content have something like that could stand out in the market?

Lizzie Mintus: How do you think people can balance standing out too much? Because I hear so many people say, Oh, I was too early. If I had been here five years later, the market would have gotten it. So what's that balance of being different, but not too different that people don't get it.

Ben Kvalo: I mean, there's luck to it. The people that say, oh if that would have been five years, who knows right? You just never truly know. Some of this is luck. What I see it as is, knowing that luck is a piece of this, how do you increase your odds as much as you possibly can? If someone wants to go gamble, go to the one that statistically probably has the best odds and get really good at that. So that you improve your odds the most out of it. That's really like how I look at it. It's just one of the things we can actually control. Let's be really good at those things. That increases our chances.

I come from an operations background. So how do we operationally be really sound so that we have smooth launches. We are able to best put something out into the market. I think that increases our odds a little bit. And sometimes, a 1 percent change can make all the difference. And so it's all about the little things at times. Just increasing those odds as much as you can, knowing you're never going to have full control over this.

And guess what? It's not any different in the folks in the indie space than in the big AAA space. There are massive failures in, in those areas because as much as they can spend 50 million on marketing, that doesn't guarantee success. It's ultimately control what you can control.

And some of this is, you have to leave it up to some kind of odds, but that's also why, I really think that more publishers and brands need to lean in with their brand and build communities that care about their brand, and they have a purpose in the world. I think that's a big thing I talk to my team about is, what is our purpose in the world at Midwest?

And our purpose is to ultimately support those that are under supported. And to be an ally to so many people that don't have the voice. And I feel like you can very openly benefit from a business perspective from that. But you have to be authentic and you have to be true to that at all times.

It's the brands that break that. It ultimately do irreversible harm to themselves. And so if we ever make a mistake, we have to be upfront, have to be honest. We have to be transparent and vulnerable and, be human with some of these things. And if you're able to build a brand that embraces that, people want to follow you. People want to embrace that. And again, that just increases your chances of success because people actually care about it. But you have to always be authentic.

Lizzie Mintus: Yeah, I would agree. That's so important. It is attractive to people if you're real and you're not just kittens and rainbows all the time.

I saw this studio, I think last week, but it was two founders, and they made a video about why they had to shut their game down, and what went wrong, and what went right, and then they posted it on LinkedIn. It was amazing to see here are my mistakes, and I think the community really rallied around that, and I love that. Totally different approach, but it's really real and really honest.

Ben Kvalo: That's what people want. We're in a world where so many things are hard to tell, what is real, what isn't. And when you're just completely transparent and say, hey, you screwed up and I screwed up in these ways, we screwed up in these ways.

It might make some folks in PR cringe at times, but I think there's a long term benefit of doing that both externally, but also internally with your employees. We've just gone through such a span of massive layoffs. I just wish we were able to have more discussions openly. Everyone wants that.

They want the visibility to what's going on. We need to treat more people like adults that can handle it and can actually help the situation. And hopefully that happens over time.

Lizzie Mintus: Yeah, definitely. It's been a rough layoff time. I think there's a lot of new companies that are going to come out of it and people will change the way that they do things, which will hopefully be a positive, but it's a big shakeup for

sure.

Ben Kvalo: I couldn't agree with you more with challenges also comes opportunities, right? And that's how you make the most of it. Now, some aren't going to see that which is really tough. But some are going to go off and build the next thing. It's why, during down markets, actually some of the best companies ever created were during down markets.

Also just the amount of talent that is out there experienced in games that now is saying, I'm sick of these big companies treating me like I'm just a cog, in the scheme of things, they go off and they're going to create some companies that are going to challenge it.

We're at a point, in the kind of the history of games, that we think about how old games is 40 to 50 years old, it's like a disruption time. So many of these companies are like 20 to 30 years old. That's about the time that if a company doesn't innovate continually, they get disrupted by something else that's new out there.

So we're at this really interesting mark that I think it's about time, there's some disruption and challenges to it. Some of these big companies will adjust and see that and go, okay, yeah, good point. And some won't. If history's taught us anything, it's that the next big one is sitting dormant. It hasn't been created yet, about to be created and just going to suddenly really change that.

Lizzie Mintus: Yeah. I'm excited. I feel cautiously optimistic. And Jordan Mazur had a great post the other day too. Another LinkedIn top voice, for any of the listeners don't follow, it was about the growth that happened during COVID and how much of a boom it was and how, although there are cuts, we're still in a much bigger place than we've ever been.

So I think that's important to remember, too. There's still huge growth, even with the cuts.

Ben Kvalo: We're just at such a weird place overall, because there's so many things that have gone into all of this. Was it COVID? Was it COVID hiring? We still are normalizing this really unique and historic time period, in things that we never have gone through in a digital era like we are right now.

And so things are being figured out and we don't know what the new norm is. Dust has not settled yet. I think there's a lot of opportunity for the dust cells to change some things. And hopefully people are looking at it as an opportunity to do better business practices and, more focused around sustainability so that these kinds of cuts don't become a commonplace.

Historically they have been a bit in how the model of games has been made, especially in the triple A space, because unless you have another project right after your release, suddenly you have a bunch of folks that don't have a true role unless you're live service. But even then that's become so specialized that there's still a large portion of studios that suddenly don't have something unless there's another thing immediately lined up.

We just have to look at how we're doing it, how we can better collaborate across different developers, which some developers are doing. There's one in Madison, Lost Boys. What they do is, they help support so many different studios on so many different games. It's a really interesting model that can be very successful.

Lizzie Mintus: Interesting. So if they roll off project A, then they're immediately able to be deployed. They already have project B lined up.

Ben Kvalo: They might be working on ABC together. It depends and they're able to fluctuate their resources accordingly. Not everyone wants to be a support studio. but those kinds of models are becoming much more prevalent, especially in AAA.

A single studio cannot do everything these days. You have to have multiple studios working on something. It's just too big, too complex. So all of that is becoming, somewhat norm, but how do we do this across the industry in even better ways?

It's going to force collaboration. So there's going to be some interesting partnerships at some point.

Lizzie Mintus: Yeah, probably more interesting mergers and acquisitions, I would guess.

Ben Kvalo: Oh, yes. That's increasing tremendously. What is it, in 2019, there's like 3.5 billion in M&A, and then in 2022, it was like 122 billion or something around that.

So the increase in the game space has gone way up. Now, it's going to be interesting to see what are the 2023 final numbers? Does that trend continue over time? Obviously, the kind of numbers with Activision Blizzard included being 69 billion of it, boosts things quite a bit. So it's just a fascinating thing to continue to study. But I think consolidation of the games industry is just, that's what's happening. Folks are getting bigger middle folks are disappearing. Anything that's been successful is being acquired or being partnered up with something, which I just think creates a lot of opportunity in the indie space for new things to emerge, but with a slower pace.

I always look at Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. A, because I love it. I grew up with it. Big Raphael guy. But also because, if we think about it, they had a slower pace of things. They were a black and white comic at one point. They just now recently had their biggest piece of content they've ever put out with their animated film and their new game, Shredder's Revenge. And so that IP has been built up over time and you can from a small indie space build that and build a sustainably. Whereas if you're in AAA, if it's new IP, it has to succeed from day one or it's a failure.

Lizzie Mintus: AAA is so expensive these days. High stakes. And there's so many games that are coming out that are have really high Metacritic scores, right? There's so many games in general to choose from.

Ben Kvalo: Yeah what's interesting is there's less triple A, double A games overall, but they're higher quality, at least in this year. 2023 maybe is an abnormality, but at least this year, there's just so much competition in that space even though there's less total titles.

But that's why they're the 1%. 99% are indie, and then the 1 percent are these few titles that make it through AAA that get so much budget. I think on Steam, I think the stat is that the 1 percent makes about 75 percent of the revenue, whereas Indie is about 24 to almost 25 percent of the revenue.

So that is really skewed in a really tough way. But obviously the games industry is so big, even that 25 percent is a giant number.

Lizzie Mintus: It is. What do you think Indie games can do? You have this threshold, Indie. Besides partnering, having you publish their game, what can they really do to break above the line.

Ben Kvalo: You have to cut through. And the best known way to cut through right now is to have a publisher that knows how to do that. There's just not that many publishers in the scheme of things. And not many publishers that actually know how to cut through either. And it's really difficult to cut through even if you know how to know all the platform, like connections and everything that's needed, even then it's still really tough. So with over 13,000 games coming out every year it's just incredibly hard to cut through. There's only going to be more games in the future with the accessibility to engines, the ability to do more with less technical skills. There's only going to be more.

So it's how do you partner up with somebody that can cut through? And I think what's interesting is it doesn't have to be a publisher. Now I'm an advocate of a publisher. Obviously, I'm a little biased in this. But it could be a YouTuber. It could be a Twitch streamer. There are many other ways that could be routes towards success, that we should be trying these more often.

A couple folks on YouTube have created publishers as well. Big Mode being one from Video Game Donkey. Some of that is happening and we should explore more of it and see what happens with that, because obviously that's a superpower. If they have an audience already built in, and a lot of these indie games to be successful, maybe they need to sell 100,000 units or less. If they already have an audience that there's millions that they're immediately speaking to, there's a potential route to success for that.

So it's how do you cut through, and there's so many different ways you could go about it. It's just publishing as one of the most proven ways of going about it.

Lizzie Mintus: Makes sense. I see a lot of people building up big communities on discord too, and releasing and getting feedback.

Ben Kvalo: That's how you go to the community directly, right? And the folks that do it really well and authentically and transparently, they do really well. There's a couple indie games that I follow on discord. I just love every time they have a new improvement update, like awesome.

I jumped back into that game. It's a smart approach, but it's not for everyone. Not every game makes sense for this so you also have to match your social platforms to what's going to work ultimately for your game type for your audience.

Lizzie Mintus: I want to talk about your time at Netflix. Before we go into it, can you share a bit about Netflix game studios? Because I think people have different ideas about what it is.

Ben Kvalo: Yeah, Netflix games right now, obviously, a lot of us have seen what they're doing. They've they're on their mobile device. If you go on the Netflix app on your mobile device, usually the first row all the way to like the fifth row or something like that. I'm not sure anymore where exactly they place it. There's 70 plus games. Some really incredible ones that are on there and all over the place, from hardcore games to like super casual games, or hyper casual games, cozy games, puzzle games there's a lot on there.

They've also released Oxenfree 2 streaming as well. I believe, announced that was a test that they're working on. So they're clearly doing a bunch in the game space, which is super exciting for me.

I think they're, I, again, I have a bias because I really believe in the Netflix culture and what they're about and how they build things. And what they've done in the film space. I was on the film side before I went into the game side, but you look at how we consume films now. It used to be that if it was a direct to DVD or direct to streaming movie, it was considered not very good. And Netflix changed that perception, where it doesn't have to go to theaters first to be good. A lot of great films go to theaters first, but frankly, a lot of bad films go to theaters too.

And so Netflix has helped to change that perception. I think the same thing could potentially happen with mobile. Where mobile is considered a place that like, cheap games are free to play, or casual games are, when in reality, it doesn't have to be that. That's just how the model has worked best.

But now with subscription, you can put some games that are hardcore on Steam onto mobile, and that's really interesting. They could change perceptions around what is a mobile game. It just moves into where the whole industry is going is eventually it's like, any game, anywhere, any device, at any time. That's the future.

So it's exciting to see Netflix in this space obviously being part of it the beginnings up until when I left in May. It was really exciting. They've acquired some studios. They're building some new studios, they're just doing a ton that is really exciting.

Lizzie Mintus: Absolutely. Tell me about working in film at Netflix and leaving games to do film and what you learned in that transition.

Ben Kvalo: I joined in the very early days of films. We could all fit in 1 meeting room at 1 point, which was super exciting. So I was hired on to really help build infrastructure and help to think about how do we scale this, Netflix is a scale business doing a ton of things. And so much content out because they're trying to entertain the world. You need a lot of content to entertain. Thinking about how you scale that to, to create quality and being able to do more with less is an incredibly complex challenge.

My time there was exciting because like it challenged my problem solving brain in ways that I could never imagine. It widened my perspective to think about how we entertain the world and where entertainment comes from. And so it was just such an incredible learning moment. I grew so much as a person, as an employee.

They really emphasize vulnerability and having the courage to say the things you need to say. And also to say when you're wrong, say, Hey, I need to improve. I need to grow in these areas. And so I was able to grow so much, just as a human place, which was incredibly rewarding, which is why I have the bias towards it because I feel like you almost want to give back in some ways.

How I look at it is just, okay, how do I take all the things that I loved about that and bring it into a new company? It wasn't perfect, no place is perfect. So how do I make my place even better for our employees and how do I enable their best work by removing barriers and things like that.

And Netflix, I'll always have it. It always have a special place in my heart.

Lizzie Mintus: What do you really want to take from Netflix? In terms of core values and in terms of things you want to implement in your own business, it sounds like vulnerability is a theme and will continue to be a theme. What else are you thinking about for your own company?

Ben Kvalo: Yeah, it is treating folks the right way, treating them like adults and having honest, open feedback not having to always be right, just to survive or look the best or get the promotion or anything like that. What I took away was. The feedback matters and why it matters is because the best relationships I built at Netflix were the ones that actually had the most feedback.

Maybe it didn't start off in the best place. I had an incredible coworker of ours where we butted heads all the time. We didn't see eye to eye and we, but we kept giving each other feedback. We kept having those one on one discussions. And we grew to the point that not only did we get to a really positive place, but a place of a ton of respect and trust, because we knew when either of us said something, we trusted what was happening, because we had gone through the process of getting each other's perspectives and knowing where things were coming from.

Sometimes when you're in operations and versus creative, you just have two different lenses at times and that's okay. There's nothing wrong with that. And that's where even as I spoke about earlier, healthy friction, like that's okay because you can get to a really good place when all of that is, is positive. But you have to invest and you have to be willing to be vulnerable, be wrong at times call somebody out.

I don't think you were being your best self in this situation. And if you're able to get through the awkward moments, it unlocks this really rewarding place. And that's what I took from Netflix quite a bit. So I'm much more direct. My mom doesn't like that as much because when her salsa wasn't very good, and I gave her feedback on that, she didn't enjoy it.

Lizzie Mintus: Yeah, I'm pretty direct too. No, I think it's good to know what people are feeling. I had Irina Pereira on my podcast from Unleashed Games, and she talks about creating a psychologically safe environment where you can say, it's okay to call me out right here if you don't agree with the thing that I'm saying. And it reallysays a lot about our culture and you can understand what people are thinking.

Ben Kvalo: I took a lot from even Reed Hastings.

I didn't get many interactions as the business got so big, but he often talks about how he didn't want to make any decisions. He wanted employees to make decisions on things. So that definitely is something that resonates with me. I want the people closest to the situation with the most contact to make the decision, not me, who is two steps away, even in my small company.

I'm still away from a lot of these things cause I'm focused on my areas. I should be informed captains on those areas. But somebody in marketing or production, they should be the ones making decisions in those areas. And so I want to always instill and ensure that that is prioritized, that they're informed captains in those areas.

Lizzie Mintus: That's a big theme on my podcast. I hear so many people say hire smart people in their areas of expertise. And then get out of the way.

Ben Kvalo: Like I'll provide feedback if I have thoughts on something, but I never want it to be like, Oh because Ben gave some feedback, we have to make a change. We have to do that. No, it's just a piece or perspective that you should take into account. You should also take into account maybe the community manager that gave a perspective, the pr manager that gave a perspective, maybe an advisor that we have that gave her perspective.

All of that is really good information to ultimately make an informed decision.

Lizzie Mintus: Can you talk to me about your adventure to get funding and funding stories? They're always fun.

Ben Kvalo: Funding was a whole new world that I'd never experienced before. And and getting to the close of our round was exhausting.

People literally write books about just going through the process, the mental drain and everything. But really, it's just networking on steroids. You're trying to almost speed date in some ways of get to know, build a relationship with somebody so much so that they would trust giving money to you. If you can build trust and show a vision and be authentic and be transparent, I think it gives you a better chance.

It's a tough market right now. It's just an interesting times and investment scene, but overall I looked at it as no matter what, I'm going to learn a lot, grow and improve, and I sure as heck have.

I have really grown as a person, but just my knowledge of this whole world that I knew about but never had dove deep into. But I learn best when I just jump into something and it was the best thing possible to just jump into it. I've met so many incredible people that are making huge differences in the world in this space. It's really been a rewarding journey, as much as just worrying about, Are we gonna get there? Are we not?

It's very painful how to measure it all out, and it's like a balancing act. You're just constantly balancing everything that's going on and trying not to fall off. whatever thing you're walking.

Lizzie Mintus: It's like entrepreneur life. If you could go back in time and tell yourself one thing about fundraising that you didn't know when you started, what would you say?

Ben Kvalo: One thing that I didn't know when I started, it's going to always take longer than you expect, which is what a lot of people say anyways. The stress that comes with it, don't let it get you down at any point. It's not worth it. You just get so low at time. And the same, as you're low, the next moment you're just really high because of something else that went right.

 Don't stress on some of the small things. Expect that most people are going to say no, and that's okay. It's like finding a job, especially when you're early in your career, all you need is one, yes. Don't worry about all the no is you need one yes.

So I tell that to a lot of folks that I mentor, advise around job searching as well. It's tough, especially right now but all you're looking for is that one yes. And it's going to feel so good when you have it, just keep looking for that. Don't focus on the things that are now behind you that are no's. It's the same with investing and it's funny how similar that is in a lot of ways.

Lizzie Mintus: Maybe dating too.

Ben Kvalo: Yeah, and dating. Yes, so you just need one yes.

Lizzie Mintus: Yeah. Are there any teasers you can give us or things to look forward to from Midwest Games?

Ben Kvalo: Yeah. I can tease that we've signed another game besides Ra Boom.

So Ra Boom was our first game we signed is from Guiley Games, a studio in Cincinnati, Ohio. We're negotiating around five other titles. So there's going to be a lot of news coming out hopefully soon. We haven't decided when we're going to announce certain things. But, stuff is happening as you can imagine, this is inevitable.

We're literally in the business of signing titles, but we're very excited to be able to talk more about some of the titles and some of the developers we get to support coming up here. I guess that's a little bit of it.

Lizzie Mintus: Exciting. Yeah. We'll follow along.

I have one last question. And before I ask it, I want to point people to your website, Midwestgames.Com. Let's pretend you've won publisher of the year, some big award, who would you give a shout out to professionally? Who has been some of the biggest influencers on your career?

Ben Kvalo: My team. If we get to that point, A, it's our team that got us there. It's definitely not me. It's the folks that I've been fortunate enough to bring in and have trusted to work for me or work with me. But then, some of it has to be the developers that, again, also agree to partner with us, trust us and then, there's been a couple just like key folks in, in, in my life that have really helped get me to where I am.

The two people that first gave me a chance, Brooke Gravian, who now is the head of people at BitCraft. She was the first recruiter to talk to me in the game space and so gave me a chance. And then the hiring manager was Kate Kellogg, who's now the CEO of studios at EA. So those were the first two that gave me this opportunity. I'll forever be grateful. Plus they've just been incredible mentors throughout.

And then there's just been so many since then. Just in each step, Megan Anderson at Netflix was a huge mentor to me, bringing me on, taking a chance on somebody in a game space for a film's role.

So like the people that like took risks. That's my message always to hire managers, take risks. Cause I'm a perfect example of a bunch of risks that people took that, I hope they think paid off in the long run.

Those are the kinds of people and I could name probably like 10 to 20 more as well. But those are some keys.

Lizzie Mintus: That's really sweet that Brooke hired you. I love that you remember your first recruiter too.

Ben Kvalo: Of course. Oh, my God, I could never forget her. We still talk too. So that's the other thing. And now she's an investor, the investor side. It's so funny how this all works.

Lizzie Mintus: Everyone comes around. I chatted with a guy today and his co founder is someone I tried to hire seven years ago. I'm the person that he worked with at his last company. I hire for their company. I'm like, okay, everything's connected here. Important games lesson. Leave on a high note.

Ben Kvalo: Always focus on the long term relationship.

This is not a short game. This is all about the long term. And it always comes full circle at times. Always focusing on that, you just never know what's going to be out there. And so make sure it matters to you.

Lizzie Mintus: We've been talking to Ben Coelho, founder and CEO of Midwest Games. Ben, tell us where people can go to contact you, follow you, follow your company.

Ben Kvalo: I'm in midwestgames. com from a website perspective, and you can follow us on all of our socials as well. Usually it's Midwest Games sometimes, it's Midwest Games Co., which is technically our full name, Midwest Games Company. And then LinkedIn, Last name is spelled K V A L O. I'm the only Ben Kvalo in the world, so it's easy to find. That is where I'm most active by far. I always enjoy followers. I try to respond to all of my messages at least the ones that aren't spammed on there. But I try to respond to all. So if you do message me, I'm on there as well.

Lizzie Mintus: Love that. Thank you for being on.

Thanks so much for listening to the show this week. To catch all the latest from His Waldo, you can follow us on LinkedIn. Be sure to click subscribe to get future episodes. We'll see you next time.

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