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Pierre L. Morrissette Institute for Entrepreneurship

Derek MacNeil, MBA’ 05 - Not your typical keyboard warrior

  • Shanthal Perera
  • |
  • Oct 2, 2017
Derek MacNeil, MBA’ 05 - Not your typical keyboard warrior

Why would someone leave a promising career with Canada’s top video game studio to bootstrap an independent gaming studio? That’s what Derek MacNeil, MBA ’05, did in 2010 with the launch of SkyBox Labs, which has worked on classic games like Age of Empires, modern shooters like Halo, and industry game-changers like Minecraft.

Following his graduation from the Ivey Business School’s 2-year MBA Program in 2005, Derek MacNeil returned to British Columbia, where he found work with the prestigious gaming company Electronic Arts (EA). It was during his tenure at EA that MacNeil met Steven Silvester and Shyang Kong.

In 2010, the three of them decided to bootstrap their own independent gaming studio, SkyBox Labs, bringing together a complementary set of skills across disciplines of tech, creative, finance, and operations.

Their first projects involved work for hire with Microsoft Studios, the video game wing of one of the world’s largest tech firms. With each job well done, came larger projects and greater responsibility from Microsoft Studios, and it’s a relationship that has served SkyBox well through the last seven years.

MacNeil describes his company having a two-pronged business model: one that completes projects for major publishers in North America and Asia, and the other that develops its own gaming titles.

Today, the company has over a 100 employees, with the all the skills and disciplines required to build video games, from engineering, art, 2D and 3D animation to testing and production.

Carving out a piece of the pie

When MacNeil started SkyBox Labs, much of the interest and fanfare was focused on mobile games and app development.

“The tools for building on phones were much more economical and accessible than the tools for building on console,” said MacNeil.

While the hype around mobile is still strong, the PC market has had a resurgence. One of the contributions is what MacNeil terms as the democratization of technology and tools. “There are modern game engines that allow you to build content relatively quickly without a whole lot of engineering strength,” said MacNeil.

Still, much of the market is carved out by the likes of Microsoft Studios, Sony Interactive Entertainment, Nintendo and Blizzard Activision. MacNeil is comfortable swimming with the big fish, noting that there’s enough to go around. “There are big players that will take certain parts of the market but there’s a ton of opportunity for the small guys,” said MacNeil.

MacNeil cited three major reasons for SkyBox’s growth and success over the past seven years. Being located in the Pacific Northwest, they are a close 3-hour drive from Washington State, and a short flight from California; the two states that host the largest American players in the industry. The Canadian Dollar has also made the Vancouver-based company an attractive option. Lastly and perhaps the most important factor was their credibility, as all three co-founders were part of Electronic Arts Canada, which is one of the most prestigious studios in the world.

Responsibility of being an Entrepreneur

MacNeil had always known he was going to be an entrepreneur. Attending Ivey’s 2-year MBA program in 2003, he was also thankful for how the intensive experience shaped his work ethic:

“You immerse yourself in a very competitive environment for an extended period of time and that shapes your work ethic. It causes you to hustle; it’s sink or swim and you are judged in relation to your peers in the program.”

MacNeil was also part of the first MBA cohort to receive the opportunity to complete the Certificate in Entrepreneurship, which offers a suite of courses designed to better prepare students interested in entrepreneurial careers.

Online information on entrepreneurship in the early 2000s was nothing compared to the embarrassment of riches available today. Given that climate, MacNeil found the information on how to raise capital and communicate with investors very important. “If you want to be an entrepreneur, cash is king. You got to understand not just how to make money but how to acquire it up front to launch the company,” said MacNeil.

While the idea of being an entrepreneur today is very appealing, MacNeil offered some sage advice to anyone thinking of taking the plunge.

“We’ve all read stories of people making tons of easy money through startups but those situations are like lottery tickets; one in a million. The overwhelming majority of businesses that start will inevitably fail, and a majority of those that succeed go through a long grind before seeing success. During that grind, you will likely have to deal with personal challenges and stresses that you wouldn’t experience in an employment job. So set your expectations that it isn’t likely to be a quick and easy path.”

Despite the risks involved, it’s a journey that’s paid dividends for MacNeil and his co-founders.