Big Fish Games Founder Thelen Back in CEO Job

4/27/12Follow @curtwoodward

Updated 4:15 pm with comment
The surprising announcement that Big Fish Games CEO Jeremy Lewis was stepping aside was a planned change of power that puts the focus on founder Paul Thelen’s expertise in gaming and product development, Thelen says.

“It was in the planning with both Jeremy and myself, and the board, for a kind of natural transition,” Thelen tells Xconomy in an interview. Seattle-based Big Fish, a leader in casual games, announced the change Friday.

The 10-year-old company makes its own titles and also acts as an online and mobile marketing and sales channel for other studios’ games, using sophisticated analytics to maximize sales over a game’s lifetime in the market.

Profitable, privately held Big Fish reported 30 percent revenue growth last year with sales of more than $180 million. It has nearly 600 employees worldwide, mostly concentrated in its Seattle headquarters.

Thelen, who is the company’s chairman and largest shareholder, was Big Fish’s previous CEO when he recruited Lewis from Goldman Sachs in 2006. Thelen became chief of strategy when Lewis was promoted to CEO, and Lewis presided over a period of major growth, including an $83 million venture round in 2008. His skills were well-suited for that phase of scaling the business, Thelen tells Xconomy.

Paul Thelen

But with Big Fish operating well at its current scale and the digital games industry facing a period of rapid change and growth, Thelen wanted a different set of executive skills in the top job. Big Fish is in the middle of several major expansions of its business, including a foray into social gaming, “freemium” business models, and a cloud-based streaming service that could unlock its significant back catalog.

“If you look at the speed at which the games industry is evolving right now, we’re at more of a product and execution phase,” Thelen says. “It’s kind of a natural transition for me to be in a more senior leadership role to really push those initiatives forward.”

The push into social gaming was through the recent acquisition of Self Aware Games, an Oakland, CA-based studio that publishes a top casino-gaming title on Apple’s iOS platform. Big Fish intends to take that expertise over to Facebook, and could also see a big benefit from the ongoing loosening of legal restrictions around online gambling in the U.S. Regulatory filings recently showed that Big Fish paid nearly $12 million in stock for Self Aware’s parent company, along with an undisclosed amount of cash.

“This is a natural point in our company’s progression for me to pass my responsibilities as president and CEO back to Paul, who will bring his characteristic entrepreneurial drive and creativity to the forefront,” Lewis said in the company’s statement.

Lewis will stay on the company’s board indefinitely, unless he wants to move on to tackle something else, Thelen says. “We’d love him on the board, but the board shifts over time,” Thelen says.

Big Fish is frequently mentioned as an IPO candidate, but as Thelen said in a recent Xconomy interview, a possible acquisition by some larger company isn’t out of the question either. In any case, the CEO change doesn’t have any effect on those possible moves, Thelen says.

“We are at scale, profitable, and growing, and we continue to evaluate all options,” he says. “But at the end of the day, those are financing events, and there has to be a reason for that.” The company has been profitable for years, and hasn’t touched the VC money, even for the Self Aware acquisition, Thelen said recently.

Curt Woodward is a senior editor for Xconomy based in Boston. Email: cwoodward@xconomy.com Follow @curtwoodward

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