Imperia Online is a well-known Bulgarian game development company. Since its inception in 2005, the company has been an exhibitor, sponsor, and speaker at some of the world’s most prestigious game conventions, including Gamescom, Game Connection, Casual Connect, Dubai World Game Expo, and others. It has two Deloitte awards and was named the number one Bulgarian advertiser on Google in 2011 and number three on Facebook in 2013.
Cvetan Rusimov, COO Imperia Online JSC, a game industry professional with 16 years of management experience in executive roles, spoke to KoreaGameDesk about starting and scaling up a successful game development company. He has a proven track record of success, with two exits behind him and he told us how Stillfront acquisition happened.
Rusimov is a guy who combines strategic thinking and leadership abilities. He entered the games industry in 2005 and has since amassed an extensive network of friends and business partners worldwide. He was involved in every stage of the process, from creation and development to localization, marketing and publishing, and product M&A.
Imperia Online JSC is a game development studio primarily focused on developing multiplayer online strategic games that allow players to enter a different world where they can have fun, compete, strategize, and build their world. Imperia Online was acquired by Stillfront Group, an independent creator, publisher, and distributor of digital games, on September 21, 2018.
Stillfront is a leading free-to-play gaming studio headquartered in Stockholm, Sweden. The company was ranked 27th among the Top 50 Mobile Game Makers by Pocket Gamer in 2021. Imperia Online has been designated as the Group’s Live-Ops Hub.
“I’m proud to be a part of Imperia Online and to have the opportunity to help shape the company’s future. I built a million-dollar company with a team of nine people. I’ve always enjoyed playing games. My passion is to play, analyze, and improve them. I couldn’t be happier to be a part of the games industry!” said Cvetan Rusimov, COO of Imperia Online JSC.
What do you think is the single biggest misconception people have when it comes to startups?
The biggest mistake is thinking that being your boss is easy and the work is less. Exactly the opposite – the first 20 years are the hardest, and then it gets easier! Entrepreneurship or starting from scratch is hard. Be prepared to play multiple roles in the company and do a lot of overtime. Let’s be honest with ourselves; not everyone is made for great deeds. Some people want to work from 9 am to 6 pm. If you can distinguish yourself from those, this is definitely a step in the right direction.
What would it be if you could go back in time to any moment from your journey and give yourself one tip?
I consider myself a successful guy, but why not encourage younger me with a few words? I know you can’t see the bright future yet, but keep pushing. Don’t stop. Keep pushing. Success is just around the corner.
What makes you stand out as an entrepreneur?
We always listen to others. Arrogance will kill you. After each conference, we returned with tons of ideas to implement. We discussed new strategies and performance results and shared them freely with others. This was a long time ago. Now, the companies are primarily public, and we only hear, “I can’t discuss this, I can’t comment on that.”
Then I decided that while we are an independent studio, I must help and pass on what I have learned to the young entrepreneurs who will come after us, the same way we have learned in the past. It was definitely hard at first, but in the last seven years, I have been a speaker at more than 35 conferences – giving insides about our success to the next generation. These talks put us on Stillfront’s radar, and we did our exit three years later.
What are some of the best working habits you’ve gained over the past couple of years?
Always do your homework. Be ready to answer “How can I help you/What do you need to grow” in 10 seconds maximum. Be prepared to meet your next investors or business partners anywhere.
We have so many different partnerships and friends from Europe, the Middle East, America, and Asia that my colleagues from our Business Development team have to introduce me to the traditions in each country I visited for the first time – how to say “hi,” how to present my business card, in what colors the gifts should be wrapped, and so on. If you are not prepared, it can become very awkward. It is normal to kiss your Italian partner three times on the cheek, but in other countries, it will be a disaster!
Please give us a bit of an insight into the influences behind the company.
Success stories and talented teams! Our team is always focused on the feedback from the players who have serious merit that we have world-class products, for which we must thank them! Our biggest advantage is the quick feedback from the players. Days before the release of a product, we launch a platform for consumers so they can share their opinions.
Where do you see your business in five years?
In our industry, it is tough to say what will happen in five years because the trends can change dramatically in a year. That’s why successful companies are the ones that change with the changing environment. This is one of the biggest secrets of our success. We have changed together with the environment around us. Our goal from day one is to be the studio behind one of the most popular games worldwide. We want to position ourselves as the biggest Live-Ops hub in Europe – something like a foster home for popular games that no longer receive the same love from their creators.
What do you think the biggest challenge will be for you in getting there?
Competition and market uncertainty. To be able to acquire a popular game, I have to predict its future for the next 3-5 years. Competition and increasing M&A prices will push me to foresee the next 5-7 years, transforming this business based on a measured risk into a game of luck.
Will you talk to us about your biggest success story so far?
I can loudly say – “I turned a team of 9 people into a multimillion company”, but the truth is that I was just the drop that acts as a catalyst to become this incredible chemical reaction between developers, testers, artists, game designers, support, business development, marketing, administration and IT. Without them, there would be no Imperia Online today. That’s why you must trust them and work hard for them, just as you want them to work hard for you.
Since the company’s foundation, Imperia has developed and operated numerous game projects, but it has also successfully taken on externally developed games through game asset acquisitions. The studio now operates two such titles: Siege: World War II and Crush Them All.
In early 2020, Imperia Online took over the development and operation of Siege: World War II from its Stillfront sister studio Simutronics. By creating new content for the game and adding more live-ops resources, Imperia could turn the declining title into a stable one with maintained DAUs and increasing profits. At the same time, Simutronics could free up resources to focus on other prioritized titles and new game development.
In June 2021, Stillfront acquired Crush Them All, a super-hot idle RPG developed in 2017. Immediately following the acquisition, the game was transferred to, operated and published by Imperia. The game has been performing amazingly during Imperia’s stewardship, and just a few months after being added to Imperia’s game portfolio has all-time high KPIs and has received a lot of love from Apple and Google.
How do clients and customers find you? Are you much of a salesperson for yourself?
At least, I think as a salesperson, I like to bargain for everything in my personal life. Yes, I was the main point of contact for all partnerships long ago, when we were a small startup. Now we have a great Biz Dev Team, which brought tons of deals and opportunities in the last eight years. They outperformed me so much, so I quit this challenge recently and even provided their email instead of mine after I made a business contact.
What one tip would you give to fellow startup founders?
Business is like life, an endless game, and there are no winners – those who have stayed longer. I have said many times that success has many faces. For some, it may be happy employees; for others it may be the satisfaction of their customers, for some it is the path of growth, the change of a small office with a larger one. Define what is success for you and focus on that. Don’t live other people’s dreams.
And finally, what do you hope the future brings both you personally and your business?
Every successful business needs that spark that ignites and sustains the fire and pushes for success. Since we joined Stillfront Group – the sky’s the limit. Following the successful acquisitions of Siege: World War II and Crush Them All, Imperia Online is now on the lookout for both – new ideas for in-house games and the next game acquisition where we can leverage our long live-ops experience to spark new life into overlooked game titles. So 2022 hides more than you can imagine.