By Brent Wistrom – Staff Writer
AustinInno, 7/15/16 –
Walker Co-Founded Spawn Labs and JamKazam
Peter Walker was already well into his career in tech, having worked with Tivoli founder Bob Fabbio at VIEO Inc. and, later, finding what seemed like an ideal job working at IBM Research in 2004.
But he realized he’d become partial to the nimbleness of tech startups. He wanted a bigger role as part of something smaller and faster-moving than IBM. Then, one day, he started chatting with his son Matthew, who was playing Nintendo.
“I said, ‘what would you think if you could play this remotely with your friends? What do you think of that idea?'” Walker recalled. “And he thought it’d be the coolest thing imaginable if you could see the video and have friends connect and play instantaneously.”
That sent Walker, an immigrant from Jamaica, on his path to becoming the founder of the remote gaming company Spawn Labs, which was later acquired by GameStop, and JamKazam, his current company, which has found ways to reduce latency enough to allow musicians to jam together online from afar.
Walker is one of about 20 Black and Hispanic tech entreprenuers being celebrated at the Diversity in Tech Reception hosted by Urban Co-Lab, in partnership with Austin Inno.
The celebration of diverse founders comes as Austin’s overall population has boomed and its Black population has decreased from about 12 percent of the city’s population in the 1990s to about 8 percent now.
Being a Diverse Founder in Austin
At gaming conventions and other tech meet ups in Austin, Walker said he is often one of just a few black tech entreprenuers.
After starting Spawn Labs (originally called Vircion), fellow founders advised Walker to raise about $5 million, which was just a fraction of what startups tackling an idea like real-time remote gaming would seek in the Bay Area.
Walker said he recruited David Wilson to help, in part because he is white and might better connect with venture capitalists, which are typically white men.
“I looked at the data. I knew what the what the challenges are for a minority to raise capital,” Walker said. “I knew it. I had seen the stats. As a minority, or as a woman, it’s hard.”
So Wilson, who was helping Walker but not part of the founding team, started taking the lead during pitches to investors. It had mixed results.
“We got to present to a lot of investors,” Walker said. “But we always came back to the question: ‘Is David coming with the deal?’ And the answer was ‘no.'”
Walker said he realized the strategy was backfiring. The team decided Wilson would make the introductions with VCs, and Walker would do the pitch.
“The capital requirements and the question about the feasibility of the idea really just kept us in a very difficult spot,” he said.
Walker came to believe that those funding struggles were really a motivator.
“When you’re cash starved, you find ways to solve problems. That’s where innovation genius kicks in,” he said. “So we set out to build this thing on pennies with all my 401K.”
They had a working prototype of the remote gaming tech two years later and won the Austin Tech Innovation Award from the Austin Business Journal.
“Two guys with pennies in their pockets created something that, at that point, the world had never seen,” he said.
Then, in 2008, the economy crashed. But EA and Sony signed up for trials with Spawn Labs, which wanted the remote access technology, in part, to let developers access a development kit from afar and test games. And there was a silver lining to the economy crash — there were tons of developers out of work around the globe.
“The sky was falling, so we tried to see what part of it we could catch,” he said.
Spawn Labs built a team of global freelancers and had the traction with Sony and EA they needed to unlock funding. Spawn Labs got a $2.5 million deal with Trailblazer Capital in Dallas in 2009. By 2011, Spawn Labs was acquired by GameStop, and Walker became a lead in GameStop’s tech division.
Since then, Walker has headed back out on the fundraising trail to expand the reach of JamKazam. That company, which recently pitched at a TechCrunch event in Austin, has developed an interface for musicians to play together in real-time from remote locations. The company, which has received backing again from Trailblazer Capital, has expanded to target music lessons and recording features.
Advice for Minority Founders in Austin
Walker said that being a black tech founder is complex, especially when it comes to local networking, because tech companies often aren’t locally-focused — they think of the world as their market. So he has networked more through tech meet ups than through the Black Chamber of Commerce and other, more generalized, groups that support minority-owned businesses.
Walker offered some advice for fellow minority entreprenuers, especially those working on consumer-centric ideas. Austin venture capital firms tend focus on software and B2B companies, he said, so you have to be willing to go find money in Dallas or Silicon Valley, where VCs are often more open to consumer plays.
“And do it while you’re young,” he said. Once you have a family, it’s more difficult to be nimble and move to Silicon Valley to raise money and work 50-plus hours a week on your startup.
“Investors are risk adverse. So when you go to an investor, you have to have as much risk removed as possible,” he said. That’s why Walker’s team had essentially completed the product with Spawn Labs before getting serious funding.
“As a minority, you start it in a way that you can bootstrap it as much as possible,” he said. “Always believe in yourself and that you can do it. And, if you prove that to yourself, it becomes a lot easier to get to the next step.”