On Saturday, Charles Forman turned 32. He celebrated the evening with close friends in New York City including Hunch co-founder Chris Dixon and OMGPOP CEO Dan Porter.
Part of him thought that’s why he had been called to New York for an emergency trip. His friends were luring him from Chicago with a surprise party.
Instead, they had something much greater to celebrate. Zynga was buying Forman’s company, OMGPOP, for $210 million after its smash game Draw Something hit 35 million downloads in 5 weeks.
One week prior, Forman’s bank account had $1,700 in it. But sitting at dinner surrounded by friends, Forman was a multi-millionaire.
We grabbed drinks with Forman on Wednesday night, the evening Zynga acquired OMGPOP. Here’s what he had to say.
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Forman grew up in Chicago; he never went to college. He always loved video games although he wasn’t allowed to play them.
As a kid, Forman mowed every lawn on his street to afford a gaming console.
Still forbidden to play, Forman found there were two hours every day, between three and five, when he was home alone and his parents were still at work. He’d remove the console from its hiding spot, untangle all of the wires, and play until he heard the garage door open. Then he’d race to hide the device. This became a daily routine.
Forman says he was always curious about how game cartridges worked. He’d pick at them with a screwdriver, wondering what it would take to make the game stop working.
He learned to program by taking game codes from magazines and plugging them into his computer. If one symbol was typed wrong, nothing would happen. If it was typed in perfectly, the computer game would come to life.
When Forman co-founded OMGPOP, he wanted to create a business to harness his childhood obsession with video games. But OMGPOP didn’t start as a gaming company.
In 2006, Forman was approached by a friend he met in Japan, Dan Albritton. Albritton applied to Y Combinator and lured Forman to California by telling him it was a free trip (Y Combinator covers the cost for startups to fly out and pitch it).
The pitch went terribly. Paul Graham hated their concept but realised Albritton and Forman were smart. He asked what other ideas they had.
Forman pitched a business he had in his back pocket. The idea had been a joke between him and friends.
When asked what he did for a living, Forman would often reply, “I’m the founder of an auction dating site.”
Forman pitched it to Graham without knowing Graham had a soft spot for dating companies. Graham asked if the pair would join the 2006 class to work on that instead.
Soon after the program began, Forman met John Borthwick. Borthwick, who is now CEO of Betaworks, was an executive at Time Warner who made his fortune as an early AOL employee. Through Borthwick’s introductions, Forman and Albritton raised an angel round for their startup, I’m In Like With You. Later it raised $1.5 million from Spark Capital, Marc Andreessen, Baseline Ventures, Betaworks and Ron Conway.
Although I’m In Like With You was technically a dating site, Forman always considered it a gaming company. “Dating sites are really just games of arbitrage,” he says.
I’m In Like With You used technology to aid flirting. When a profile was created, users were rewarded 500 points that they could use to start bidding on other members. Whoever bid the most points could send messages to that desired user.
Overtime, I’m In Like With You became a gaming site entirely and was renamed OMGPOP. During the transition, the founders grew apart. Albritton stayed with the company for eight months then left. He still owned OMGPOP stock at the time of the sale last week.With its new angle, Forman’s company began to attract attention again. He became awestruck when Napster co-founder Shawn Fanning reached out to him and asked to build a game on the platform.
In 2008, Forman also received a phone call from Mark Pincus. Pincus wanted the young designer and founder to work for Zynga but Forman wasn’t interested.
The next few years proved tough for Forman. OMGPOP didn’t have many hit games and it ran out of cash more than once. Other companies offered to acquire OMGPOP but none of the propositions were compelling. Instead, Forman raised $10 million.
Soon after, Forman left the company. He says he fell out of love with gaming.
“I guess I grew up,” says Forman, who says he has no animosity towards anyone at the company or its investors. “I wasn’t pushed out. I wanted leave in the most graceful way possible. There was no press story so I guess I did it right.”
Forman says he kept all of his stock and stayed on OMGPOP’s board when he left to co-found his new startup, PictureLife. Forman declined to say how much he made from Zynga’s $210 million acquisition of OMGPOP but said it yielded at least 10X more than if he had joined Zynga pre-IPO. The New York Times says Forman is worth well north of $22 million.
“When I started OMGPOP, I wanted to capture that feeling of when you’re a kid and you just LOVE doing something. But when you turn 30, things change,” he says.
Turning 30 made Forman realise he was an adult. A once prominent and even cocky voice in NY tech, Forman became recluse. His sarcastic, joking personality didn’t translate well in the articles that featured him. So while OMGPOP has been featured on every major site in the past few weeks, Forman hasn’t spoken to anyone. He prefers his business be kept private.
“When you get older, you realise you’re going to die,” he says dramatically. This realisation inspired him to start his new company, Picturelife.
Forman says he doesn’t have many regrets, but does have one. When he was 17 and moving out of his parent’s home, he went through his closet. He found a stash of old photos, looked at them once, then threw them out.
“I thought they had been seen. But you get older and your memory starts getting fuzzy. I can never get those memories back. I would pay $50,000 just to have those pictures back.”
Forman is co-founding Picturelife with New York Tech Meetup’s Nate Westheimer and Threadless’ co-founder, Jacob Dehart. Forman formerly worked at Threadless in its very early days.
Forman says the app will make saving and organising pictures a seamless experience. iPhoto, he feels, is frustrating. “You spend all of this time organising photos and writing captions, and then all of the captions and tags don’t transfer across devices. Picturelife will be meat and potatoes, a service that just works,” he says.
Forman began OMGPOP with $80,000 in savings and a desire to capture a childhood passion. Now that he’s had a successful business venture, Forman plans to continue building things. He also wants to give back to the tech community.
“I’m going to start angel investing,” says Forman. “And, after [Picturelife], I might become a teacher.” He mentioned the tech-focused high school Fred Wilson is financially backing in Union Square and said he’d like to be a part of it.
“I want to redistribute the karma.”
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