Jesse Lindsley | Executive Profile | ATLANTA TREND
A Leading Player in the Game Industry
By Karen Rosen
For Jesse Lindsley, the name of the game is innovation.
As the founder, owner and CEO of Thrust -- formerly Thrust Interactive – Lindsley and his team have developed and launched more than 200 games for some of the world’s biggest consumer brands.
“I love what I do,” says Lindsley, whose company is celebrating its 11th anniversary. “I get to be a subject matter expert in games, but I get to use it to help other industries innovate.
“At the end of the day, I’m a product guy. It doesn’t have to be a game, but it has to be engaging, it has to be fun, it has to work and people have to have a good experience.”
When Thrust (http://th.ru.st), whose motto is “We make games that rocket,” was getting off the ground, Lindsley’s first sales pitch was, “If you ever want to build a game, you should call me.”
Now his pitch has evolved to include product strategy for these “advergames.” Lindsley asks potential clients, “What are the things that you’re trying to do? What are the audiences you’re trying to reach? What are the campaigns or the things you’re trying to sell? And I will help you figure out if a game is a good avenue for you, what platforms you might be on and what kind of game (to build).”
Thrust designers and developers then bring the game to life. Clients have included AT&T, PBS, Kellogg’s, Cartoon Network, American Cancer Society, Mercedes-Benz, Verizon, the NFL and Turner.
For example, a game for the American Cancer Society was geared toward college students and involved killing smoking zombies with a water gun. “Instead of reaching for a cigarette, these kids would reach for this very fast-twitch experience that takes your mind off your cigarette craving,” Lindsley says.
To bring awareness to a Kellogg’s yogurt candy called Yogos, Thrust made a pinball game that kids could play for hours. “That was mission accomplished because it was eyeballs to a brand,” Lindsley says. “I don’t think I ever made it to Level 3 because I didn’t have five hours to spend.”
However, games don’t have to be immersive to be successful. Thrust is currently building games for a client that wants folks to play them at work for only five minutes a day. “That’s super fun and super snacky,” Lindsley says.
Thrust is riding the wave of popularity for trivia games by building a trivia engine that can handle hundreds of thousands of concurrent players. Clients pay monthly support and maintenance, just like any licensing and support of software.
“We’ve ended up productizing solutions,” Lindsley says. “We call it ‘game as a service’ where we have built modules and a framework to support different types of cross platform online and mobile games.”
It’s not all fun and games, though, for the entrepreneur.
He also wants to be a game changer in education. Lindsley has been personally funding a non-profit called Reading Ventures with the help of interns and staff members who are donating their time on nights and weekends to work on the project.
“It’s about revolutionizing the way kids who are struggling to read learn how to read,” Lindsley says. “We’ve been told by many people there’s no money in it. We believe there is and we believe that we have a transformative machine-learning technology.”
He expects the project to eventually be funded by grants and donations.
Lindsley, a member of the Atlanta Business Chronicle's Class of 2012 “40 Under 40,” also is passionate about helping his industry grow in Atlanta and providing ways to incubate and innovate content creators.
As a leader in the Atlanta game development community, he has seen the number of game companies increase from seven to 70 in 10 years, yet believes there is room for many more.
Georgia schools, including Georgia Tech and SCAD produce 2,000 game design and development graduates a year. “If we didn’t have an industry here, those degrees would dry up,” Lindsley says. “The schools here are great; the industry just is not where it needs to be.”
With the game development industry bigger than motion picture industry in terms of yearly revenue, Lindsley had hoped to see Atlanta become the “Hollywood of Games,” but laments, “That perception doesn’t exist.”
Lindsley worked on projects with the Metro Atlanta Chamber and the Georgia Chamber of Commerce on branding exercises “to at least fake it till we make it,” but those efforts fell short.
He says that right now it’s “not an investable industry. The lack of success stories combined with a lack of consistent funding is unfortunately stifling innovation.”
Lindsley was part of the group that helped obtain a tax credit – recently renewed for three more years -- for the entertainment industry, which encompasses game development. He works very closely with the Georgia Department of Economic Development when they’re recruiting game companies as well as film companies, telling the latter, “Hey, you can also spend your game development dollars here.”
While the tax credit helped boost production work in Atlanta, content creation remains largely on the West Coast.
“All the growth here has been organic growth,” Lindsley says. “A couple or three companies have 100-plus game folks, but they started small and grew. We weren’t able to attract the 1,000-person, or 500- or 200-person studios to come here, but nevertheless we’ve made it on our own and all those folks that are that size can credit the tax credit for that growth.”
He believes the Atlanta game industry is still in its “teenage formative years.”
“Pretty soon, probably after these three years are up, the tax credit goes away, but I think we’ll be able to stand on our own,” he says.
Thrust has about 10 games currently in development.
The Thrust staff numbers 15 strong, down from a high of 25, and has moved from office space in Inman Park to a virtual workplace. “We definitely have become a leaner, meaner shop,” Lindsley says, though he believes the optimal size for the company is about 20 to 30.
“We have a sink or swim mentality at Thrust,” he says. “I’m going to give you an opportunity to shine and I’ll know very quickly if you’re not shining.”
The former president of the International Game Development Association Chapter in Atlanta, Lindsley has passed on those reins to become even more involved in the big picture of entertainment in Georgia and the Southeast.
He is on the board of the TAG (Technology Association of Georgia) Digital Media and Entertainment Society and represents the game industry in meetings with fellow executives in film, television and music.
“We’ve got a great technology start-up eco-system here,” he says. “Where it’s come in 10 years has been amazing, so I feel like we have a footprint that we could follow. But right now the creative industry is very lacking in that kind of infrastructure and mentorship, so it’s a passion project of mine.”
He’s pleased that the Atlanta Regional Commission has picked up and supporting his idea that creative incubation needs to be a priority with a mission to refine and accelerate a proven process and educate investors and partners.
“I came from the business world to the creative world, so I’ve always been the business guy in the creative room,” he says. “It’s not always about creating the best, most immersive, coolest thing, because if you build it, they won’t come. So you have to figure out how people will find it.”
And, in Lindsley’s Field of Games, he also has to figure out how to make money. “If you say, ‘Well, I’m just doing it because it’s a creative outlet,’ well that’s a good way to not succeed,” he says. “And then if you’re not succeeding, you don’t get to do what you love. You don’t get to continue working on that project or make it to work on the next one and you find yourself doing a job that you don’t like.”
Given Lindsley’s expertise in games, devices, platforms and social media, it’s hard to believe that he grew up in a household in which he didn’t have a radio until he was 11 or a television until he was 13. His father was a professor at Boston College, Vanderbilt and Belmont and television was not a priority.
“I kind of missed out on TV, cartoons and animations, and all (computer) games as well,” Lindsley says.
But he did play games.
“I am a competitive tiddlywinks, jacks player whatever,” he says.
Lindsley earned a full scholarship to play tennis Tennessee Tech and laughs, “I would take peoples’ money playing dominoes in the athletic dorms in college.”
He majored in industrial engineering, which he chose for its business aspects, though he was later dismayed to hear Georgia Tech folks call it “imaginary engineering.”
After graduation, Lindsley briefly tried being an actor and model in Chicago, but all he acquired was a taste for city living. With most industrial engineering jobs in small towns, “That drove me getting into computers,” he says.
It was 1997 and Lindsley, who had taken only one programming course in college, led supply chain, distribution, and procurement implementations for an IT and ERP consulting services firm called the Summit Group, later bought by CIBER.
He then joined eCampus.com, a startup that raised $90 million to go into the college textbook business.
“As a 25-year old I had 25 employees,” he says. “As a 27-year-old, I had over 50 and that was my foray into management and running things. I fell in love with the Internet and fell in love with direct to consumer experiences.”
For three years he worked 7 days a week, 365 days a year. “The warehouse never shut down, but it was awesome,” he says. “I learned I could be whatever I wanted to be.
“My age wasn’t a factor, my experience wasn’t a factor. It was just how hard you wanted to work.”
However, in retrospect Lindsley believes becoming a leader so quickly “stunted my growth a little. So you have to go out of your way to build that kind of mentor network.”
Last year he went through a start-up accelerator at Georgia Tech called Flashpoint.
“I think I was one of the oldest and probably more established than most,” Lindsley says, “but I loved it because I learned and I got to be humbled and I got to be disrupted in the way I think about product development.
“It was a transformative experience for me.”
At the textbook company, Lindsley was a millionaire on paper. The business was a week away from going public when the economy turned sour and it went bankrupt.
Lindsley was one of five directors who bought it out of bankruptcy and kept it going for another nine months, but then decided to quit working and travel the United States. His first stop was Atlanta for the wedding of a college fraternity buddy and he ended up staying.
Lindsley found a job at a third-party logistics company, Innotrac, in Duluth, then did third-party supply chain management consulting for CSC.
Missing the consumer space and start-ups, he was approached by a brilliant developer he’d met at Innotrac. Would Lindsley like to form an online gaming company? You bet!
He recognized that gambling was the next frontier of e-commerce and the internet. However, the new venture meant raising money for the first time.
“That was the hardest thing I’d ever done,” Lindsley says, He raised $500,000 from friends and family and the off-shore gambling company was up and running from 2004-06
When the Unlawful Internet Gaming Act passed in 2006 they had the choice of moving offshore permanently or closing down the business.
“We wanted to still be able to visit grandma,” Lindsley says.
With such a great team of engineers and technology they’d developed, Lindsley’s company switched to third-party work for other companies as Thrust Interactive.
About a third of Thrust’s work now is client work, with another third joint ventures and the final third their own games, including Boomblastica, a music game whose main character Aria shares a name with Lindsley’s 3-year-old daughter. The character was born before the baby.
“I went to my wife and said, ‘Listen, we had this contest at the office -- who could come up with the name of a character? -- and this is the name that won. So are you cool with naming our daughter that?’ And she actually said, ‘No way.’”
Lindsley, his wife, Kelly, and Aria – who has her own iPad -- now live in the forest in Fayetteville, Ga around the corner from Pinewood Studios. The move to a virtual workplace was a quality of life decision that Lindsley doesn’t regret.
“Eleven years later, I’m back in the garage,” he jokes. “I started above a two-car garage, and now I’m above a three-car garage, so it’s full circle.”
He’s running a handful of companies that are all offshoots of Thrust.
“I’ve used games to accomplish lots of different things,” Lindsley says. “Sometimes it’s education, sometimes it’s entertaining, sometimes it’s brand awareness and sometimes it’s snacky experiences that just pass the time.
“Every day is different. I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.”
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