Gaming guru Mattrick receives UVic honour

Source: Times Colonist
Author: Michael D. Reid

Gaming guru Mattrick receives UVic honour

Don Mattrick grins as he recalls a classic example of his legendary persistence, and how it spawned a $5-billion franchise while he was president of worldwide studios for the Electronic Arts gaming company.

It was nearly five years into the development of what was initially titled Dollhouse, a passion project the ambitious business mogul was working on with game designer Will Wright.

Even though his executive team threatened to resign, he soldiered on and Dollhouse morphed into the hugely successful life-simulation video-game series The Sims.

“Literally, for five years someone would come into my office and say, ‘This is never going to ship! This is the dumbest product you’ve ever had,’” recalled the amiable tech titan at the University of Victoria Monday morning. Mattrick, who on Monday night received the 2017 Distinguished Entrepreneur of the Year award, was at UVic to inspire fourth-year Peter B. Gustavson School of Business entrepreneurship students.

“‘You have 75 full-time people working on this! All the rest of us are busy making a difference in our company,’” he said, recalling the reaction of some colleagues. “Does Will have compromising pictures of you?”

While executives accused Mattrick of having “this huge blind spot,” the Victoria-based entrepreneur’s tenacity paid off with a product that became one of the best-selling video games in history.

“You have to try and champion things,” said Mattrick, who has done plenty of championing since his teenage years when he offered to work for free at a ComputerLand store after unsuccessfully applying for a job there.

The Burnaby-raised visionary’s experiences inspired him to create Distinctive Software Inc., which would become Electronic Arts. So began a career turning startups into major businesses and setting the standard for video-game development during three decades in the technology sector.

Other career highlights include his tenure as CEO of Zynga, the social-media gaming company, and as president of Microsoft’s entertainment businesses, overseeing the growth of the Xbox console and its PC gaming businesses.

He has served on public and private boards, including the advisory board for the USC School of Cinematic Arts and is currently serving as co-chair of the Premier’s Technology Council.

As well, Mattrick is an honorary fellow with the Sauder School of Business at the University of British Columbia, and holds an honorary doctor of laws from Simon Fraser University.

While Mattrick answered questions about his successes, he wasn’t above acknowledging his missteps. He recalled the one that got away in the 1980s — Tetris.

“I’d seen the first prototype,” he said. “Three friends pulled me aside and said: ‘We could write this in three hours! You cannot pay this money to license this.”

He said he considers having passed on the tile-matching puzzle video game released in 1984 a mistake — albeit one he’d learn from — since it went on to become a $2-billion franchise.

“It’s overwhelming when you start something,” he said. “But it gets easier because you learn how to accept failure and success in the same way. Give yourself permission to fail.”

Without revealing the person’s identity, other than to quip it wasn’t Mark Zuckerberg, Mattrick said he just spoke with an “Internet gazillionaire” friend. He asked for advice on how to inspire students at UVic.

“He said: ‘Just kick them in the rear and tell them to go do it,’ ” Mattrick said with a laugh.

“There’s no perfect entry point. The benefits of doing it are going to teach you a lot more than the benefits of trying to make a perfect choice.”

Mattrick said he was fortunate to have some great coaches who taught him the importance of time management, setting priorities and how to think strategically.

“At the end of the day, it’s about people and the first person you’re managing is yourself,” he said. “Be resilient.”

He emphasized that starting a tech company is “a team sport” and that his experiences in the U.S. have confirmed that Canadian entrepreneurs are as talented and as capable of success.

“In the U.S., they’re just more brash and competitive,” said Mattrick, who added that “I’m a bit of a hermit” who happens to be “super-competitive” but likes to think things through before taking action.

When asked to name his proudest achievements, one of his answers took some students by surprise.

“I married exceptionally well,” he said, referring to his wife of 25 years Nanon de Gaspé Beaubien-Mattrick, president and co-founder of Beehive Holdings, the investment firm that supports women entrepreneurs.

“My wife speaks five languages, is a literature and business school grad. She pulls me aside all the time and says: ‘I can’t believe you said that in a public setting. You are such a geek!’

“She’d remind me that most people wouldn’t care about the math. They’d care about the emotion.”

A DISTINGUISHED LIST

Previous winners of the University of Victoria Distinguished Entrepreneur of the Year award

• 2016: Linda Hasenfratz, CEO Linamar

• 2015: David Foster, businessman, philanthropist and record producer

• 2014: Dennis Washington, founder of The Washington Companies

• 2013: Brandt C. Louie, chairman of London Drugs

• 2012: Dennis (Chip) Wilson, founder of Lululemon Athletica

• 2011: J.R. Shaw, founder of Shaw Communications

• 2010: Alex Campbell Sr., co-founder of Thrifty Foods

• 2009: Sir Terence Matthews, chair of Mitel Corporation, and chair and founder of Wesley Clover

• 2008: Clive Beddoe, founding shareholder in WestJet

• 2007: David Black, president of Black Press

• 2006: Gwyn Morgan, former president and CEO of EnCana Corp.

• 2005: Dave Ritchie, chair and former CEO of Ritchie Bros. Auctioneers

• 2004: Jeff Mallett, former president and chief operating officer of Yahoo!