SEVENTEEN-YEAR-OLD JOHN ROA sat in his parent’s living room dumbfounded. He had just been pushed out of the company he had helped build piece by piece over the course of two years.
“I couldn’t even process it. It didn’t make sense that somebody could do that.”
John got an earlier start in the business world than most entrepreneurs ever will. He and a high school friend had launched an at-home computer repair service that was growing quickly and generating a reasonable income for the two of them. Sadly, John’s first experience with business would be a painful lesson on the importance of setting up good contracts before launching a venture with someone.
“I was working in computer repair for a company called Grosse Pointe Computer. People would bring their huge desktop computers to be fixed—you could tell people hated doing this. These things could weigh 40 to 50 pounds at that point and customers would bring them with their monitors, printers, cables, etc. and they’d just dump them on our desk. It could take a week to 10 days for us to take a look and fix it. We would end up charging $100 or more and they’d come back and pick it up. It was a huge mess.
“So I proposed to the owner of Grosse Pointe Computer that if he would drive me (John was 15) to people’s houses, I would fix them right then, and he would come pick me up and we’d get the same amount of money. We could do it in an hour instead of seven to 10 days. We were completely swamped where all the time slots that I could dedicate for this after school and in the summers, were completely consumed. We ended up making more money than the actual store was, which had a full suite of overhead.
“As soon as I got my license, I brought in my friend and we started a company doing on-site computer repair in 1999. We partnered with my former employer and customers would call us and we would just drive around all day to people’s houses and fix their computers at $50 a pop. For us, it was the easiest thing in the world. It might take 30 minutes total and it’s 50 bucks cash in your pocket. Eventually we brought more people on. We had an office, built out a website for the company and everything else that comes along with a small business.”
The business world has a cruel way of showing the difference between friendship and a business partnership. Friendship tells you it’s OK to trust that the other person has your best interests at heart. Friendship says it’s OK to work on a handshake agreement and trust that both sides will always make the right choice. The battlefield where friendship and profit meet is blanketed with the corpses of failed partnerships.
“We ran it for a couple of years and then my business partner’s father started seeing how well we were doing and how much money we were making, and told my partner that he should do it himself as he didn’t need me anymore. My partner was a couple years older so when we legally filed the business, I was 16 and he was 18, so it was under his name. Even though I had brought him into the business, he legally owned it. I actually got booted out of my own company and lost all the money in the bank account. It was a lot of money at that point. Worse, I lost my best friend. I haven’t talked to him since then; not a single word. So that was the first harsh business lesson.”
RIDING HIS PET DONKEY while growing up in Venezuela, early life was great for young John. When not riding the donkey, you would find him on his mini-motorcycle, playing with the family’s parrots, or chasing chickens around neighborhood. Through his early life, John’s family would travel back and forth between Detroit, Michigan, where John was born, and Venezuela for his father’s work.
“I have a great family. My dad was in the auto industry his whole life and he was born in Venezuela. My mom is Western European. So I’m actually part Hispanic, but looking at me, you wouldn’t know it. So, mom’s red hair, blue eyes and freckles and dad’s dark skin, black hair and an accent. That’s why I have dark skin and freckles. It’s a kind of a weird combo.
“My dad came to the US for college and then met my mom, and got a job with an oil company in Venezuela, so that’s why they were back and forth from there. I spent months at a time there when I was a kid, but then he took a job in the States with Chrysler, which is how we ended up permanently near Detroit. We would go back for periodic times to Venezuela to see my family.
“We settled and I grew up in Grosse Pointe, which borders downtown Detroit and is divided by a street called Alter. 50-60 years ago, they actually built up brick walls in the middle of the streets separating Detroit from Grosse Pointe. And they’re still there. If you cross from Detroit into Grosse Pointe, you go from the rapidly declining areas where most homes and buildings are abandoned, cross the street and there are these mansions and beautiful trees and it’s literally 20 feet away from each other. It’s truly bizarre and was something that never sat well.”
At a very young age John was exposed to computers, and it was love at first sight. He was amazed by the concept of being able to tell the computer what to do and get a response. That you could write these simple programs that would do entertaining little functions.
“The first thing I remember ever doing was making a game in Microsoft Basic. It was a Snake-style game in like 5th or 6th grade. After that, I was just hooked; completely fascinated and infatuated with computers. You could type code out and have them create an action in the computer. The computer actually understands what you’re telling it from the programmatic standpoint. I thought that was the coolest thing I’ve seen.
“I started realizing that somebody had written code to make it do that. Everything to me became reverse engineering. Everything. When the web started coming alive, it was… ‘How did they do that?’ And no matter what it was, I needed to see how it was done to get to that end result. I started buying books and learning HTML. I ended up making the website for my middle school in 7th grade and then was obsessed with web design and development from then on.”
John had always been a great student in school. As he has found in most aspects of his life, when he becomes interested in something, it tends to become a strong passion. He was becoming increasingly involved in computer development and gaming. Something shifted inside him and it was the kind of change that profoundly affected the course of his life.
“My parents were scared to death to be honest, because until then, I was the perfect student. I was always in accelerated courses, and suddenly I was going another direction and just lost interest in school completely. I don’t think they actually knew what was going on. After a while they weren’t that worried because I was still being productive, but it was a profound shift in a lot of aspects of my life.
“I had a healthy dose of non-technology, such as sports and volunteer efforts at the school, like Students Against Destructive Decisions. My mom spurred me to go on extreme hiking trips and backpacking around the country, which wasn’t what your normal high-schooler was doing. At 15 I spent weeks out in Yosemite backpacking with a group called Adventures Cross-Country. It was a three-week survival mountaineering program and was an experience that solidified my passion for traveling.”
His parents certainly couldn’t figure it out and to this day, John doesn’t really get it either.
THE WORLD OF COMPETIVE GAMING was just starting to take off when John took notice of it. He had become an expert player in the first-person shooter game Counter-Strike and found himself hanging out in online forums talking about strategy and news and just enjoying the camaraderie between fellow players. The more intensely he got involved in the community, the more he realized something was missing.
“I joined my first Counter-Strike clan when I was in high school, and I happened to be on the team with a guy named Ryan Schumacher. We had our little team forums where in which we talk, and there was one website called GotFrag that was being a true journalist about the world of gaming and capturing the reality of eSports. They were interviewing people and talking with the teams like a true publication.
“Ryan and I started thinking more about, ‘What is this thing we’re seeing happening?’ People are starting to talk about competitive gaming. You could feel movement coming, so we decided that we want to do something similar except make it better than GotFrag—bigger, cooler and really bring gaming to the mainstream.
“We created a website called AmpedNews.com, which was an eSports portal where we would write about competitive gaming as if it was ESPN writing about the NFL. We’d write about teams and leagues and what people are doing. The exact same time the industry came alive with large company and monetary backing, resulting in legitimizing entities like the Cyberathlete Professional League (CPL) that worked to create a profession out of gaming.”
It’s important to keep in mind that at this point around 2002, the idea of computer gaming being a true sport and the people doing it being considered athletes was on the cutting edge. John and his partner Ryan were launching a publication that was for early adopters in a brand new industry. That’s something that can be looked at as genius or ridiculous. Turns out, it was genius.
“At the same time the CPL was gaining traction for computer gamers, leagues like Major League Gaming (MLG) came alive, legitimizing the console side of the business. All of this started within our first 12 months, and Amped ended up being this media arm that brought everything together. We’d interview players, we’d write about scores and tournaments and winners. We’d review games and release scoops about future hardware and technology. We started to travel to all these events around the world.”
“The leagues like the CPL, in their infancy, were basically a bunch of gamers at LAN centers—it was nothing. Three years later, the CPL was taking up entire convention centers. Tens of thousands of people would come. There’d be professional gamers there. There were kids that were 17 or 18 years old making millions playing video games. These players had contracts, signing bonuses, coaches—the whole nine yards. Players from dozens of countries would come. The biggest teams were from Korea, Japan, Germany and Brazil. They would come from all over the world and play in these massive tournaments.”
The more it took off, the more time John had to dedicate to the business and further distract himself from college. His grades were sinking and he ended up switching universities three times.
“My parents made me go to college from high school. I had little choice, and so I decided to go to a school called Lawrence Tech University, which is near Detroit. I lived in an apartment nearby and spent about 99.9% of my time working on AmpedNews and the other 0.1% going to class. I think I failed all but one course that first semester. Crazy thing is they were all computer classes. I just didn’t care, or go, or do anything. So after my semester at Lawrence Tech, I transferred to Wayne State University, which is downtown Detroit. But that didn’t go well either. I only passed two classes that semester, and again this during the big upswing of AmpedNews.”
Focusing all of his time on AmpedNews really started to pay off. As the gaming industry took off, so did the types of coverage. Now they were covering all aspects of the competitive gaming world.
“We got to the point of having a full team working on Amped—journalists, writers, designers, programmers, etc. It was the same makeup you’d see at ESPN. You’d have your “anchors” and they would interview players, report news and rumors, travel the world to all of these events. We integrated built-in hooks with all these leagues with real-time scores. We actually built a pseudo fantasy league around gaming. AmpedNews became the AmpedNews Network, with multiple sub-sites. Millions of hits a month were coming to our network, and we were covering tournaments from here to Sweden.”
The balancing act between time in Detroit and LA was tough, but John somehow managed everything.
“I flew a lot, but the majority of what we did was virtual so we’d work from anywhere. I was getting most of the work done in Detroit, actually. But I’d spend a lot of time in L.A. (where we were based). We’d go to all of the big gaming shows (CES, E3, ect.) every year, which is where a lot of our business got done.
Naturally, where else than Vegas would the cutting-edge world of gaming and electronics host their over-the-top conventions and conferences? Sin City is an amazing experience for anyone over 21. For everyone else, it’s actually a really boring place. It’s especially boring when everyone you’re working and meeting with is significantly older than you are.
“I’m 19-20 years old and my title was the Vice-President of Strategic Alliances and Marketing. I didn’t know what that really meant at that time. My role was building the relationships with other companies, media arms, sponsors… I negotiated sponsorships with Intel and companies of that nature. I’m going off and sitting in meeting rooms at CES with the presidents of major companies. I’m in there with my black Amped t-shirt on, but I felt it was a very natural thing and I loved doing it. Afterward, it was basically, ‘Well, I guess we’ll go back and sit in our hotel room now.'”
It’s hard to have an exploding company in a growing industry and fly under the radar, especially when you are the mouthpiece of that industry. Even with his company’s success, John was still taking a very modest salary and using his student loans to help cover the rent. Even without the eventual payday he needed, and there were signs that AmpedNews wasn’t heading the direction he wanted, and after three years, it was time to get out.
“There was some turmoil at the very end, and I was actually starting to remove myself from the company. I saw a lot of things happening that weren’t in the best interest of everyone involved. The William Morris Agency, a major talent agency in Los Angeles, had recently launched a division of their company called Games Media Properties. They made an offer to buy us and my thought was, ‘Yes, please take it!’. There was also a big shift happening in the gaming world itself.”
WANDERING NOMADICALLY FOR A WHILE after the sale of AmpedNews was a necessity in John’s eyes. In just a handful of years he had been through two very different but equally exhausting businesses that had both, on a personal level, ended on bittersweet notes.
“With what I had just gone through, the last thing I want to do is jump back into a venture that I had to run. It made me sick to think about it at that point in time. So, one summer I put on a backpack and went to Europe with my cousin. It was really exciting—we virtually had nothing planned. We knew that we needed to end up back in London, so we would just look at the big departure board at the train station and say, ‘Well, that city looks cool!’, hop on a train, spend about two days in each city, and go back to the station and do it again. I traveled about 4,000 miles by the time I got back to London.”
The sale of Amped and the traveling allowed John to finally focus on school (now at Western Michigan University), and complete degrees in Sales & Business Marketing and Computer Information Systems.
EVENTUALLY FINDING HIS WAY TO CHICAGO, John decided that he was going to chase after one of his favorite activities from his time at AmpedNews: User Interface (UI) design. This time, though, he was going to do it on someone else’s dollar and simply practice for a while. He worked with a number of interactive agencies until finally deciding he had had enough. Something different from what he was seeing needed to exist, and out of that passion his UX company, AKTA Web Studio, was born.
“The more I learned and researched, the more I saw it wasn’t being done the right way—in Chicago, especially. The coasts are much better at it, and most of the companies who were winning in UX were coming out of the Bay Area, and a lot of the flashy stuff was coming out of New York. In Chicago it seems to be, you can have form or you can function. Choose one. And I couldn’t disagree more.
“Nothing is more important than the ultimate user experience. It’s a logical challenge. You’re talking about connecting a living, breathing creature with a piece of technology. It’s a very difficult thing to do—to get a product to be intuitive and fast and easy and fun and friendly. But when people talk about application design, they’re not talking of the aesthetic anymore. The aesthetic is really a by-product of a great design process.”
John’s goal with AKTA is to position the company as the definitive User Experience strategy and User Interface design company in the city of Chicago. The more you listen to him talk about UX, the more you can see how deeply rooted his intensity for it is. Out of that kind of intensity you are going to get some strong opinions, and John isn’t shy about sharing his.
“Making a website or application pretty is really, really easy. Any graphic designer or art school student can make a pretty picture, but the part that is excruciatingly challenging is WHY. Why are we doing it like this? What have we learned to actually get us to this end-result? How does this meet the current unmet needs of our identified users? And that’s what so many companies get wrong and undervalue. They really don’t understand what it actually takes to make a winning experience.”
That passion has driven AKTA’s growth over the last year and their client list continues to expand. Even though most of John’s client list is private information, I can personally attest that it is pretty phenomenal, including projects with prestigious local groups like Excelerate Labs and Lightbank. Apparently he was right—there was tremendous need for great UX design in Chicago.
“If anyone had told me before I started that AKTA would grow to a team of 10 and see 7-digit revenues in the first year, I wouldn’t have believed them. It has already been an amazing journey and is really only just beginning.”
As for what the future holds, John makes it clear that he will never again let work take over his life like it has in the past.
“I’m now in a different mindset, where business is no longer the only important thing to me. Volunteer work, my non-profit, traveling the world, staying healthy, my friends and family—it supersedes business. I think that these are supposed to be the best years of my life. That’s why a lot of people have criticized my view about business. They say, ‘You’re running a growing business and would be stupid to not put every waking moment in to it.’ I used to be in the ‘live to work’ camp, but have completely reversed that in this latest venture, and have never had more fun or success.
“I prefer to live in the moment and still have a lot of fun and make money as well. There is a balance if you look for it. I’m not very good at working toward future benefits years and years down the road. If I do that, I just stop being myself.”