PlayBoys

Market-savvy best friends Justin Siegel of Burlington and Jamie Hall of New York City identified games for handheld, mobile, wireless devices such as cell phones, PDAs and pocket PCs as the next big thing. The result is JSmart, boasting three of the best-selling applications for the Palm Pilot and some of the most popular games available on the AT&T Wireless network.

Justin Siegel and Jamie Hall caught the early wave of opportunity and are still riding it

by Bill Simmon

When we think of software developers, particularly game developers, we generally conjure up an image of teens hunched over computers in dank basements, surrounded by pizza boxes and empty cans of Mountain Dew, hammering away at the controls of their latest creations.

Justin Siegel, co-owner of JSmart Technologies in Burlington, is one game developer who admits he doesn't conform. Well, his office is in a basement, but it's a well-lighted and spartanly clean basement, and there isn't a pizza box in sight. "We're not technophiles," he says. "Actually, compared to anybody else in the industry, we're kind of Luddites."

Siegel runs his half of JSmart from his home in Burlington's North End. He and his partner, Jamie Hall, who operates out of New York, make games for handheld, mobile, wireless devices cell phones, PDAs and pocket PCs. In just three years, their nascent company has achieved astonishing success quickly rising to the A-list of companies in their industry, and boasting three of the best-selling applications for the Palm Pilot as well as some of the best-selling games available on the AT&T Wireless network. Not bad, considering that when they decided to form JSmart, they had no idea what the company would be.

"We had the concept of having a company called 'JSmart' before there was a concept for a gaming company," says Siegel. Siegel and Hall have been best friends since childhood, and they always knew they wanted to work together in some capacity. Siegel is unsure what the "J" in JSmart originally stood for. "Jamie is an absolutely outstanding Java developer," he says, referring to the computer language used to write many of JSmart's applications. "I don't know if the 'J' originally stood for 'Java' or for 'Jamie and Justin.'"

Siegel got into the game-developing business in a rather peculiar way. Unlike many electronic game developers, who start out as fans of gaming and decide they can write better games than the ones that are out there, Siegel was not a particularly avid gamer. "Neither of us had any background beyond the kind of average teenage experience of playing video games," he says. "We went into the gaming space because we were being, quite frankly, opportunistic."

After receiving his bachelor's in sociology and an MA in French literature from the University of Massachusetts in Amherst in 1996, Siegel moved to North Carolina and began teaching French at a Charlotte middle school. For supplemental income, he wrote for the foreign news desk at NBC Newschannel.

"NBC Newschannel is in North Carolina essentially because there are no labor unions down there, so a writer can edit video and do all of the things we can't do in New York," Siegel says. His combined interests in French and journalism made the job a perfect moonlighting opportunity.

His fourth year there, he met his future wife, Amy Rubman, at the Charlotte synagogue they attended. They were soon engaged.Wanting to raise a family, they figured it would be easier if they were closer to home. A medical doctor, Amy had always wanted to go into practice with her father in Vermont, so they decided to get married and move to Burlington.

Hall had begun working for a technology start-up company in Israel and called upon Siegel to join the team. "They wanted to have a U.S. presence," says Siegel, "someone who could do light technical writing and marketing for them." Siegel had just started looking for work in Vermont, and because the job could could be done from anywhere, it seemed like a good idea.

Justin Siegel's partner and longtime best friend, Jamie Hall, works in New York. Hall is the technical expert; Siegel works more in sales and marketing.

Part of Siegel's job with the Israeli company was to meet with wireless carriers and determine their technological needs with respect to delivering wireless service to their customers.

"One of the things that kept coming up was, 'Boy, we can't wait to roll this out because people are really going to dig playing games on their cell phones,'" says Siegel. "After hearing that a number of times, I decided to ask Jamie, 'How hard would it be for us to make games for cell phones?' and he said, 'Not that hard.'"

By that time, Siegel had accumulated a sizable Rolodex full of contacts in the wireless carrier industry and Hall had been honing his programming skills. "We were on the forefront of this technology, more or less," says Siegel, "so we made a couple of simple games."

JSmart's first product was a trivia game. "I spent time with some encyclopedias and almanacs and wrote a couple of hundred trivia questions," says Siegel. Hall built the gaming engine, and soon, they were ready to try and sell their new product.

Unfortunately, established wireless carriers were not willing to take a chance on a young, unproven game developer. "Everybody wanted to work with people who were 'carrier-grade,'" says Siegel, "meaning you had to establish that you could deliver a product that was high quality, scalable and able to support the traffic of the carrier." It was unlikely that JSmart's first client was going to be a big operator like Verizon or AT&T Wireless.

Instead, Siegel and Hall decided to approach a large Ukrainian carrier. "They were thrilled to have someone approaching them with games," says Siegel. "They didn't pay us for the games, but they delivered our games over their network and acted as a reference for us."

The strategy paid off. Establishing relationships with carriers overseas gave JSmart the "carrier-grade" reputation they needed to approach the large American operators. Siegel and Hall were able to leave the Israeli company and focus on JSmart full time.

Siegel soon discovered that having relationships with big-name carriers was only a part of the business. "One of the things that's making the industry so cut-throat now is brands," he says. Brand names will often help differentiate among competing developers' games.

"If there's 500 racing games," says Siegel, "how do you differentiate them? Well, if you're branded Corvette or Indy 500 or Mario Andretti, that's your differentiator." Unfortunately, well-known brands aren't cheap, and surprisingly, it is usually up to the game developer rather than the carrier to establish the brand relationship.

"To go out and buy the rights to Lord of the Rings is extremely expensive," says Siegel, "and then you still have to deal with their marketing department to develop a game that's up to the quality of the movie, so it's becoming quickly very expensive and really not allowing a lot of new entrants to the space."

Early on, Siegel and Hall knew that brand recognition was going to be an important factor in the industry. JSmart is a small company without large venture capital backing, so they decided to aim for brands that are very well known but don't command Hollywood prices for licensing deals. They contacted Merriam-Webster and pitched the idea of licensing crossword and word-search games with the Merriam-Webster brand.

"They were very open to it," says Siegel, "and they've been a fantastic partner for us. We licensed the rights to develop some games, and now we have a dictionary and thesaurus for cell phones, as well, with the Merriam-Webster brand."

Verizon, AT&T, Nextel, Sprint and Cingular carry JSmart's Merriam-Webster games. "We've also licensed more recently the rights to Betty Boop and Felix the Cat," says Siegel, "again kind of evergreen brands that are more affordable than X-men 2 or Lord of the Rings or Tetris."

Justin Siegel says the last quarter has seen an explosion in sales. These are only a sampling quickly pulled out of Siegel's desk of the devices that feature JSmart's games.

Most of the day-to-day work of running JSmart is, not surprisingly, done from in front of a computer screen. "Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of my day is spent in this office, and my day can be 16 to 18 hours on a regular basis," says Siegel.

Most of his time is spent checking email and doing customer support, market research and bookkeeping whatever needs doing to keep things on track. "My day rarely gets boring," he says.

While Siegel takes care of business in Vermont, Hall is in New York writing the games and handling his share of the business. "We wear a lot of hats," says Siegel. "Jamie writes all of the software code not only for games, but for the Web-site design and server issues as well; and Jamie also definitely contributes to the creative."

Ironically, Siegel tends to eschew the gadget-driven culture that his company helps to engender. He proudly points to an old-looking printer on his desk as evidence of the fact that he doesn't stay up to date with all the latest gear. His laptop, he says, is seven years old. "Not only are we not gamers," he says, "but we would prefer not to be using computers or cell phones in our personal life at all. It's all so ironic."

Originally published in March 2004 Business People-Vermont