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Big Biz—After Gym
Case Study: How New Hampshire teens learned to reinvent their game company
By Scott Kirsner
May 13 issue — Two years ago David Bell convened the meeting that would determine whether his start-up company, Chasma Inc. of Nashua, N.H., would survive. Bell had blown through a quarter-million dollars of funding that year. His employees hadn’t shown up for work in more than a month. Eviction was on the way.

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  BELL NEEDED TO CONVINCE a big prospective client that Chasma, founded as an Internet entertainment site, could handle a project that involved developing videogames for cell phones. It would be a huge strategic shift. Bell begged his employees to come back to the office for the meeting, scheduled for late afternoon. That way, they would all be done with their classes at Nashua High School.

        The meeting was a success, and Chasma won $300,000 in consulting contracts. Bell renegotiated his lease, brought his employees back to work and, before long, actually managed to turn a profit. “You learn to manage through the stress instead of letting it freak you out,” says Bell, now a wizened 19 years old. Chasma is a rarity not just because Bell and most of his colleagues can’t have a legal beer, but because they’ve managed to shift focus from one business to another. Of course, it helped that Chasma’s highest-paid employees earn only $500 a week, and that most workers are still covered by their parents’ or their university’s health plans.
        Chasma has established a reputation as a pioneer in the still-developing field of wireless gaming. While most adults are content to talk over mobile phones, teens want to play, and send instant messages, Bell says. “Wireless carriers that want to attract Generation Y subscribers look to [Chasma] as a resource,” says Konny Zsigo, the chief executive of WirelessDeveloper, one of Chasma’s business partners.
        The company has worked with clients like Verizon Wireless and Qualcomm, and Bell, who is forgoing college for the time being, has become a fixture on the conference circuit. Last month, at a conference in Orlando, Fla., Bell announced the launch of the Chasma Wireless Publishing Network. Instead of simply developing games, Chasma now wants to be the William Morris Agency of wireless, matching up game developers with carriers and handset makers, taking a cut of the action as it goes. “We could’ve continued to be profitable as a developer [of games],” Bell says, “but we would’ve been one out of a thousand. Now we can represent the thousand, and be the company wireless carriers come to to identify awesome applications for them.”
IMG: Ask Newsweek

        Every day after 3 p.m., Chasma’s open-plan office pulses to the beat of techno music as employees filter in. Most of the company is testing the software that will allow developers to submit their games over the Web, and the system that will aid Chasma’s reviewers in evaluating the quality of the submissions. Beta models of various wireless phones are scattered around the office. The dress code is best described as “basement casual”; indeed, the company was started in the cellar of Bell’s house, and some of the well-worn office furniture came from other founders’ basements.
        Already Bell says that developers are sending new games their way, and wireless carriers are eager to have Chasma sort through them to find the most promising ones. Bell is raising more money from his investors—a group of fifty- and sixtysomething “angels” who call themselves the Breakfast Club—and he is negotiating deals with companies in China, South Africa and Europe to get Chasma-vetted games into the hands of wireless users there. But he’s also beginning to bump up against the limitations of running a company whose only adult employee is a part-time CFO.

May 13 Issue
•  Size Matters: Small Is Good
•  Big Biz—After Gym
•  Web Attack in the Workplace
•  Is That You in Aisle 6?
•  Out of the Dot-Coma
•  Turning Off the Music Tap
        “In order to succeed, we’re going to have to be as efficient as our competitors, and make decisions quickly,” Bell says. He’s considering a major jolt to Chasma’s culture: a requirement that all managers work from 9 to 5, five days a week. That could mean asking the college students to shuffle their schedules, and it could even entail hiring grown-ups. It would radically increase Chasma’s payroll, and chief operating officer Andy Eross worries that conflicts might flare up when ancient “35-year-olds have to take orders from teens.”
        But, according to Bell, Chasma needs to change yet again: “It’s frustrating to tell a customer that they need to wait until 4 p.m. for an answer to a question because someone isn’t back from driver’s ed yet.”

Kirsner is a technology columnist for The Boston Globe.
       © 2002 Newsweek, Inc.
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