In our first episode of #UGTechUnplugged we had a chat with Daniel Okalany, team leader of Kola Studio, the makers of the much famous Matatu mobile game.

When was the first time you used a computer?

Probably around 2003. And like every other kid then I was mainly playing Dangerous Dave the computer game by John Romero. It was a game filled with zombies, please don’t get me started on that Zombie talk because you will have to use teargas to stop.

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Was that the founding story of Kola Studios?

No, no, no. Our founding story is actually a random accident. We started our baby steps during the Google Sub-Saharan Android Developer Challenge 2011. We submitted our flagship game for the competition.

What have you done differently to lead a team that has celebrated 5 birthdays as a startup?

Honestly, a startup’s story comes down to persistence, it comes down to who can take the beating more. For some people, it comes down to brilliance but for us it has been about resilience, and as as a startup we haven’t followed the rule book.

Like what you see in Silicon Valley or in trainings that you’ve to go lean. It’s been firefighting from the first year when we launched and got lucky and were able to fund-raise successfully.

What are the most important decisions you’ve made over the 5 years?

The most important decision was abstaining from participating in startup competitions. It’s not good to go into a competition and lose regardless of what you tell yourself. Losing competitions demoralizes many startups, some people close down as soon as they don’t win.

The Second thing was not integrating Google AdSense for Games  while we tried to figure out a business model, we wanted the game to always be simple and clean for the first year we were growing because were on the list of the cleanest apps. Being a game or an App without spam, awarded us with good publicity.

What was the first version of Matatu like?

The first version shipped on October 31st 2011, and it was a very basic product, the game interface didn’t have a menu, so you would launch and just get straight to the game. Actually, it didn’t also have some game rules, for example you couldn’t top up the J’s. I wonder how guys were able to play that game then, but eventually we followed that up with 2 updates in November 2011, and around 3rd February 2012.

That February 2012 version is almost like what you see now. We just made a few UI redesigns but the functionality has stayed the same.

Playing one of the initial versions of the Matatu Game

Since October 5th 2016, you haven’t shipped new code on the Matatu game on the Google Play store, why is it so?

Even since we released our redesign, about 2 years ago, we’ve only been shipping out bug fixes, so we’ve had no need to release an update when the app is free of bugs. But we’re thinking of a few new features to add, but even in the last 2 years, we’ve been constantly building features but we never make public. At times because they are not good enough or not essential for us to over complicate the game.

What informs your development of new game features? 

We rely on the founders’ intuition and at times we rely on the data insights from the usage of our apps. But the decisions are always informed on the principle of Simplicity.

Talking about Simplicity do you think the industry is short on UI and UX talent?

Yes. I agree there’s a shortage there, mainly because there’s no clear path of transition from artists to App UI or UX designers.

What can the artists do to overcome that shortage?

A big part of UI or even UX is having a related phone. If you want to be an iOS designer, you of course need to have an iPhone, so you can experience first-hand the look and feel of the other apps on the platform. That often inspires designers into building great UI and UX experiences.

Back to the app development, any Notorious Bugs that you’ve fixed since you made the game public?

There was a bug that if you downloaded the Matatu update the game would crash constantly on launch. But we fixed it as soon as we studied it.

What happened is we’d changed the game structure and the way the data was getting saved. We had not considered that the old version would have data saved in the old format. So, we kind of needed to do a migration from the old to the new format. So, there was conflict of sort for the users who updated the app.

Matatu is Number 7 on the iOS Leader-board of games downloaded by Ugandans?

Oh really, that’s news to me.

Yes, Daniel according to Similar web Matatu ranks slightly below Temple Run 2 from Imangi Studios, Candy Crush Saga, Bike Rider – Frozen Highway Rally, Racing Rivals app, Super Mario Run, Need for Speed, and then Matatu?

Listen Robert, the games downloaded are not just mobile games but have their desktop counterparts or some are even on popular platform video or console games. So, they’ve had popularity among-st gamers even before the proliferation of smartphones take an example of Need for Speed. But that’s really great news for me and my team.

For a long time Matatu has been stuck on 500,000 downloads, why is it so?

The growth is not accelerating it’s kind of the same, but you also have to note that it’s easy to clock your first range of 1,000 downloads and equally easier to clock 10,000 or a little on 100,000 but the growth from 100,000 on wards tends to be slow. Imagine between 100,000 to 500,000 they are over 400,000 downloads, which is a 400% increase. We actually almost crossing the 500,000 mark, but it’s an uphill task and struggle in this market.

Matatu Game on the PlayStore
Matatu Game details the on the Play Store

How then will you cross over to 1,000,000 downloads?

Honestly, I don’t see us getting to 1,000,000 downloads from Uganda this year. There are Apps that can go and do those penetrations that’s a tall order for a game. There apps that can do 90% penetration, those are actually utility apps, if you look at the addressable market for games in Uganda it’s less 25% of the Smartphone users these are people who would be interested in having this game, but our target is to be on 1 in every 2 smartphones and eventually 80% of the smartphones in a few years.

Let’s talk figures, what do your numbers look like?

Our monthly active usages are between 40 and 50% of the total number of players. Every month at least 200,000 people play the Matatu game. With an average game-play of up-to 27 Mins per user and 4,000,000 games played daily.

With those great numbers, what is stopping you from getting local advertisers on your platform?

Most local companies have fixed annual budgets, so you’ve a sales cycle that’s one year which is time consuming and you’re not making money in that time because most advertisers were not seeing the value in game advertising.

Secondly, in the beginning, our platform didn’t have an action interface for the users of Matatu to engage with ads, this would easily allow advertisers to measure conversions. That was really an issue for us and me and my team were hesitant because we didn’t want to redirect people away from the Matatu app.

Thirdly, local advertisers in this case the traditional advertising agencies that represent the biggest advertisers are not early adopters, they don’t seem to want to get into unfamiliar territories, when it comes to digital advertising they only want to go places they are familiar with like advertising on websites.

And for a platform like Matatu it’s very new, and no one has used it and they see no testimonies, it’s the only one of this kind in Uganda. Well as for websites they are benchmarks and the Marketing Directors or core stakeholders will easily go on to advertise in their comfort zones.

Websites like Daily Monitor, Newvision, Techjaja and Pearl Guide will easily get business here than a mobile game.

But have you pitched to maybe the Telecom and Tech companies, they would be a better fit as your early adopters?

We’ve pitched to almost all these companies and many even give us a commitment but when we follow-up it never materializes. Earlier there was also a possibility that we might have been too early for the market but that’s no longer the case.

So, what was your business model in the beginning?

In the beginning, we actually didn’t have a business model. We were just trying to figure out stuff.  The first was having beautiful ads in the game, and that worked for us for about 18 months, but then we weren’t in position to sign on any new advertisers, and then eventually the ads ran out. Then we did Offline Activations at Legends for about 6 months every single week (but that model was hard to scale) it would wear and tear out the team, and the logistics to pull it off were out of our reach at the time.

Are you able to get data analytics and insights on the users that you acquired through the Offline activations?

Unfortunately, the analytics service (FireBase) that we’re using at the moment was not available at the time. We were using the Localytics service then and to drill down to that finer details, the tool would get expensive very quickly, that alone would cost us about $1,000 a month with our current users, so we opted for a smaller package and migrated to our in-house analytics service. But when FireBase launched we migrated to it, but it’s only barely a year ago, with FireBase.

Where the Offline activations your biggest challenges?

That was actually much of a challenge because it was fun for us to meet new people and acquire new users. But it was very involving it meant that our software development team wouldn’t be able to do any development work.

The activations were happening every Thursday evening, so basically from Tuesday we’d be doing housekeeping tasks, from charging, installing the game on the Smartphones, and the Tablets, to making sure that we erased all unnecessary files from the tablets, checking the WiFis, the internet connection all that sounds simple but was tedious to do for our small team.

So, on Tuesday we would be planning, Wednesday closing, Thursday was the main event and by Friday we would be too, too, too tired so we basically we’d only Monday for software development work.

Besides that what are your other challenges?

Sales has been one of our biggest challenge. It’s very expensive to hire the few very talented sales people and even the usual startup option of giving them equity doesn’t seem to yield. Since we don’t have many successful tech startups, so the good sales guys are hesitant to come on board with the equity swap deal.

For other Startups, funding is the biggest challenge how easy was it for you guys to get funding?

(Laughter) Actually Terry Karungi was the engine behind our funding, we didn’t know that startups get money from investors in exchange for equity.

Terry just informed us that she was applying for this fund and in our heads, we were sure it wouldn’t go through, but a week later we were shocked to hear that the investors wanted to speak to us. So, we did the late night skype call, they asked us about the team composition, the number crunching and in less than a week they were asking for our bank details, so they could wire the money. For us, it wasn’t a complex process.

Oh, so what did the funding come with?
It was the Savanah Fund. And the team was required to go to Nairobi for one and half months, and during that time, they were mentoring and coaching us. They invested $25,000 for 15% equity in our company, but they’ve recently upped it to $30,000, and they still want to up it even further.

kola studios
Kola Studio Team wins Social Media Award in 2015

Oh, that’s good to hear but have the investors got their money’s worth?

I think they have. We’re one of their portfolio companies that are still doing moderately well, we definitely haven’t gone down in funding.

Any takeaways from your different funding rounds?

Try to go for funding when you don’t desperately need the money, so this allows you to negotiate without being afraid of a burnout. And it’s the best position when it comes to attracting funds. In that position you’re at liberty to turn down the offer if you don’t agree to the terms and conditions.

Will you eventually ever sale the company?

If I were a buyer I wouldn’t want to buy Kola Studios without me, because what you’re buying is the people who are working there, and if you buying the company it means you lose the vision of the co-founders. So, I don’t think I would give in, I love the fact that I wake up to create things that I really love creating with Kola Studios.

How are you making money?

We are currently running amazon ads in our game. Amazon offered us a more effective conversion deal. With a better CPM, which allows us to make more money and as well we get a better deal than Google could ever offer us. But we also have in-app purchase in some of our games like Last Card for as low as 99 cents.

But, besides all that we also do consultancy for other firms. But all that money is reinvested in the company, we doing a lot of R&D and development of new apps and features for all our games.

What is or what was your cost for acquiring new customers?

It was almost zero. In the first year, it was just organic word of mouth, not a single paid influencer. But later we ran some ads because it was a condition after winning the Pivot East competition because we were supposed to use a portion of the prize money for marketing. That’s the only time we paid to acquire users for Matatu. But for Last Card we’ve ran a bunch of Facebook and Google Ads. But Facebook gives us a better conversion.

Along the way some crucial members of the team have left, why is it so?

Yes, along the way Terry and Guy Acellam left us. In fact, without their contribution we actually would be under. For example, Terry was with us for a much longer time and contributed tremendously as the business end of the company, as for Guy he did some crazy programming wizardry on our Multiplayer functionality of Matatu platform. To be honest we wouldn’t have easily found a way to do it in such a short time.  But their reasons for leaving were personal and amicable, we still keep in touch, but they left to join other ventures.

What’s inspired your management style and what defines the culture at Kola studios?

One word Happiness. I’m a firm believer in making our employees and co-founders happier every single day. So, I like a happy healthy team as opposed to a sad team.

I wouldn’t want our team to be like Apple under Steve Jobs. Some of things Apple employees went through then were unbearable for my beliefs and management style. I want a company that’s free of jeers and tears but full of cheers. So, we basically optimize for happiness.

Can you tell us more about your happiness culture?

You report for work anytime you want as long as you deliver. We don’t track sick or leave days so you can take leave whenever you want. As long as it’s within the limits

Thanks for joining us on our first episode of #UGTechUnplugged any last word to our readers?

Not much all I can say is please download our Kola Studios apps.