Wes Keltner didn’t start his work life with the goal of developing video games, although the Campbellsville, Ky., native has always enjoyed games a lot. Now, it’s a serious career option for the evolving entrepreneur.
He and his Lexington-based firm, Gun Media, built a name across the U.S. marketing realm in the past decade as the go-to people to guide businesses through the tricky waters of using new media. Creating digital spaces that attracted millions of virtual visitors cemented a reputation for being out ahead of online trends.
Last year, “Breach and Clear,” a high-quality videogame for smartphone and tablet devices, came out successfully and another gaming product is in the works.
Before submerging himself into “Breach and Clear,” he and his boutique agency were already busy, having gotten into “app” development at its dawning. Keltner at one point regularly monitored a couple of hundred blogs, scanning what he estimated at about 2,000 headlines a day. Doing so gave him the capability to connect the dots regarding the significance of new technology, media and communication trends – leading national ad agencies to beat a path to his door for ideas.
Meanwhile, Keltner is adamant about learning how to talk to the people who support entrepreneurs and provide funding for nascent businesses. One of those is Warren Nash, director of the Von Allmen Center for Entrepreneurship in Lexington, which also houses the offices of the Kentucky Innovation Network. The network promotes new industry by helping businesses with fundamental startup advice, research, business planning and, perhaps most importantly, works to create partnerships with fledgling business and public or private entities.
“We helped Wes develop his ‘pitch,’ if you will, and adjust his message to the investor audience he needed to approach,” Nash said. “For the average investor we work with, gaming is an unknown, and he was very eager to know what they wanted and needed to hear to understand his vision. We helped him explain the business fundamentals of his venture in ways that made sense to people considering investing in Gun Media. We are very pleased with what Wes has done, and so are the ‘angels’ who supported him.”
The result was two fruitful rounds of fundraising in 2011. Other people’s money in hand, Keltner said he set aside all other Gun Media activities to focus on executing what turned out to be a successful product in a crowded sector.
A creative more than a techie process
Keltner has a record of coming up with breakthrough commercial communication.
In explaining what he and Gun Media do, Keltner quickly and perhaps surprisingly says he is not a “techie” and his isn’t a tech company – rather it’s a creative company that uses a variety of tools to make things in which people become immersed.
“I’m not a tech, but I sit down by a composer in front of a 45-piece orchestra and work on the soundtrack,” he said. “I don’t know how to program an app, but when I sit in a room (with programmers), I know what the logo should look like, what the branding should be. I write the game document: What is this game about, and what does it look like, and what devices does it run on? Then I find the people to do the work and it’s off to the races.”
The new media mastery all started when Keltner met a journalism professor in college in Lexington who ran a gaming website with reviews of current game offerings. Keltner wasn’t interested in becoming a gaming journalist – he liked the free games for writing reviews about them. And this also gained him admittance to the big gaming conventions, which introduced the larger gaming and new media world.
After a couple of years working for the website, he and a few friends started a gaming podcast “before there was a name for podcasts,” Keltner said. Soon realizing that project wasn’t going to reach the heights he envisioned, he started looking around and thinking about “what’s next” – a process that became a career steering mechanism.
In early 2005, he saw that major national and global brands were dabbling in gaming and the online world mediums.
“It was a bit like the Wild West because few were using it,” he said, “and for those that were, I didn’t think they were doing it very well.” He could see that what they were doing in terms of brands and commerce could be greatly improved.
Online marketing history is made
In late 2005, he was looking into Second Life, whose richly executed three-dimensional online site had exploded into a community where users’ avatars interacted and had complex relationships – even marrying – within a virtual world, replicating many physical places and social institutions found in real life.
Keltner noticed that although two-year-old Second Life had millions of deeply immersed users, there was brand presence but no corporate commercial activity. He saw an opportunity everyone else had evidently missed.
“It was a great place to put my money where my mouth is,” he said. “I’d been saying how everyone else was doing (online) wrong and this was a place to show how to do it right.”
He started looking for a brand willing to take a chance and called a friend’s father who was operations manager for young adult clothing maker American Apparel. He put Keltner in contact with its online manager, who liked the proposal and authorized a budget to put American Apparel into Second Life not just as a brand (there was already signage and virtual stores) but as a “real” vendor whose virtual store took real money. Come to the Los Angeles headquarters, Keltner was told, for a conversation about how to proceed.
With only enough money then to buy either a plane ticket or a business suit, Keltner said he chose the plane ticket – his father came up with funding for the new suit. An unexpected circumstance awaited when he arrived at American Apparel headquarters, however.
“Everyone was dressed like I am now, jeans and T-shirts,” he said, “but I was wearing an awesome suit that was tailored just for me.”
Nevertheless, the American Apparel team loved Keltner’s presentation on how “each Second Life character is ‘born’ in jeans and a white T-shirt. (Avatars) can get more clothes, but they are created in (virtual) 3D by other players, not companies like yours. They have their own shops – ones like you could create, and where people would use real money to buy the clothes.”
It had never been done. But with innovation came a problem:
Keltner had no idea what to charge, and did not know what American Apparel had been paying for online services. Would his project be considered marketing, advertising, online services, something else? He asked how they usually handled this and what they usually paid?
“After some discussion among everyone there, the manager said, ‘Look, I’ve got (X dollars) per month to spend on this,’ and I said, ‘Well, that’s exactly how much it costs! It will take four months to build it.’ ”
The manager agreed on the spot. In hindsight, Keltner said, “If I knew then what I know now, I’d have charged 30 to 40 times that amount, but it was totally new. On the other hand, the manager took quite a risk because it was totally new.”
Keltner and his team fulfilled the contract, and the American Apparel store opened in Second Life. It paid off and in a big way. It made online history.
“We launched the store and ‘turned the lights on’ so to speak, and the first day it was open 150,000 people (avatars) came in. Over 1.5 million came in seven-and-a-half days,” Keltner said.
Shortly after, a reporter for The Wall Street Journal called him for an interview. The next Monday, the story was on the cover of WSJ’s Marketplace business section. Advertising Age, The New York Times and others followed suit.
Small agency steadily produces big ideas
Keltner founded The Ad Option, a new media marketing and advertising company specializing in video games and getting ads in and around the gaming culture. The name was shortened to TAO Agency, which today is Gun Media.
Notable TAO projects included allowing smartphone users to interact with Clear Channel Spectracolor’s 30-foot by 40-foot high-definition video billboard in New York City’s Times Square.
“Instead of just being sort of a one-way street and something people looked at, they asked how we could make it interactive for people on the street, which we did,” Keltner said.
“Soon after, the folks at Ford Motor Co. contacted us and asked, ‘What do you know about this (not yet released) Apple (i)Phone?’ We replied, ‘Well, nothing,’ to which they said, ‘Start researching it.’
“That was when Apple was about to open their app store. We reported back to them, and the Ford folks said, ‘We’re introducing a car called the Flex, and we want you to make an app for it. But we don’t just want a car app – that’s boring. We want something where you can edit photos.’ We made an app where you could take pictures, edit them and add little things to them. We would have been the first, but Audi beat us by three days to have the first car app because Apple held up the paperwork.”
A steady stream of people from large ad agencies and corporate marketing departments began coming to TAO to ask how to use evolving social media and mobile devices, and how to market their products.
“It was OK; we made some money,” Keltner said. “But I got tired of running a service business with a hunt-kill-eat cycle to keep the business moving. I wanted a business that avoided that daily grind, and where I could go to bed, wake up the next day and have made money while I was asleep. I wanted a product that was on the shelves around the world and you could buy it 24-hours-a-day.”
That was when Gun Media was born.
Keltner named it Gun, he said, “because when you say the name ‘gun,’ there is an immediate reaction, and it’s either good or bad. If I named my company Creative Game Design, that’s generic and people won’t remember it. I wanted a name that, love it or hate it, it’s hard to forget it.”
A product that sells 24 hours a day
During Gun Media’s first year, Keltner and his staff worked with major video game producers such as Electronic Arts, Activision and Microsoft.
“They would have a game in development and we would go play them, give them the game’s pros and cons, and tell them what to expect from critics.”
During that time, Keltner worked on his business plan and envisioned what he wanted to do – and that was make a game. He also spent time looking for venture capital under the guidance of people with experience in starting tech companies.
“Those people helped me find champions and craft my narrative into a more friendly chat to use in raising money,” he said. “People unfamiliar with gaming often have a mindset about what a game is and who plays them. That’s the biggest hurdle I have to overcome every day.
“There is also a bigger macro problem in that they also think only kids play video games, but more adults play video games than kids. Over 68 percent of all Americans play video games. The average age is 30, their average income is $79,000 per year, they’ve been playing for an average of 12 years, and 40 percent are female.
“How many gamers are there? Most studies say around 350 million – this is not kid’s stuff. Another mistake people make is thinking that television demographics reflect what gamers are into, but that is not so.”
Despite the uphill battle to create understanding with potential investors, mentors helped him get the funding needed to create one of the most popular games created for Apple mobile devices, “Breach and Clear,” which was released in July 2013.
How popular? It jumped into the 10 section of Apple’s App Store in its first 24 hours.
Despite his personal claims to the contrary, Keltner is considered part of a burgeoning tech industry in the state, and, like many entrepreneurs starting in the local tech industry, he works with the staff of the Kentucky Science and Technology Corp., a nonprofit dedicated to the advancement of science, technology and innovative economic development.
An emerging videogame business sector?
Sean O’Leary, associate vice president at KSTC, is among those impressed with Keltner.
“He’s a very smart, very creative person. He knows how to develop very engaging games,” O’Leary said. “He’s going into something new, and he’s done the hard work to make connections in the industry and understand the marketing and understand his audience. He’s got the vision and tools; he’s very driven and has the background to put it all together.”
KSTC likes to work with those advancing big ideas.
“Much of the tech we are involved with is either on the creative side – content creation for games – versus the efficiency side where people are creating things to handle a process or increase productivity,” O’Leary said. “He’s created a very unique business and knows just what he wants to do.”
KSTC and others have begun talking about an emerging video game business sector.
“There are more interesting, cool, and creative things going on in the last three years than I’ve see in the 15 that I’ve lived (in Lexington),” Keltner said. “Our generation is making it happen, not the government or local anything that’s doing it. It’s the people who want to see things happen here, so they make it happen. They do it.”
He answers indirectly regarding whether he is part of new business cluster.
“The curse of the entrepreneur is to live a life of constantly seeing potential,” Keltner said. “Some people see that as never being happy, but that’s not true. I’m almost always happy, but I look at a thing and think about how it could be better.”
One thing he’d like to see is a videogame design course of study at the University of Kentucky and other state schools. While that would be difficult to launch, still he has hope and thinks it’s possible.
When asked about the flood of apps that his product development efforts face, Keltner said, “Competition has completely changed in the last 10 years. It’s not me versus another company, it’s the clutter and noise” in the marketplace to overcome in getting a product to potential buyers.
“Breach and Clear” made it, though. Because of its success, a video game publisher came to Gun Media, which now has another game in development.
Frank Goad is a correspondent for The Lane Report. He can be reached at [email protected]