Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Focus on our Customers: Brad Wardell and Stardock, Inc. – An Accidental Entrepreneurship

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As Brad Wardell, the energetic founder/owner and CEO of Stardock, Inc., a highly successful computer software and games development company, tells it, he never intended to be an entrepreneur.

“Originally, my dream job was to design central processing units for computers at Intel or another large company. But I started Stardock in 1991 to help pay for college and opportunities presented themselves. So I seized them and have continued to grow the company. We incorporated in 1993 and are celebrating our 20th anniversary this year,” he explained.

Wardell, a client of Monroe Bank & Trust’s Wealth Management Group, was born in Texas in 1971. He was raised in Gibraltar, Michigan where he attended Carlson High School and, later, Western Michigan University where he earned a Bachelor of Science degree in electrical engineering.

“I started working in high school to save up for college and one of my first jobs was at Sedlock & Francisco, a local excavating firm where my mom worked. Basically, I cleaned filth off of equipment and painted fences. Then I got a job at Old Kent Bank where I was a proof machine operator and also picked up checks from branches. It was great because I got to work in an air conditioned room,” he quipped.

“While I was in college, I figured out how to buy parts wholesale and started building computers and selling them to my professors. Everybody was happy because I could sell them for far less than it cost to buy an IBM or Compaq at the time. There weren’t any companies like Dell as there are today.

“And I was interested in IBM’s OS/2 operating system and I loved games. So I got a couple of books, learned how to program and, with some help from two friends, wrote my first game called Galactic Civilizations. But I didn’t have any money – I was a college kid. So we were approached by someone who claimed that they could publish and market the game and we sold millions of dollars of product. Then the so-called publisher filed bankruptcy and we never saw a nickel. That was a tough lesson. I couldn’t even try to sue because, again, I didn’t have any money,” Wardell explained.

However, Galactic Civilizations was so popular that Wardell made an expansion pack which he sold over the phone and used his portion of the proceeds to create more games – becoming a developer and publisher primarily for the OS/2 platform.

“Before the OS/2 platform was replaced by Windows, we had 13 employees. When OS/2 crashed, I had to downsize to three or four and mortgaged my house to get the funds to migrate to Windows. Thankfully, my wife was very supportive,” Wardell stated.

The move paid off.

Today, Stardock employs approximately 50 people in Michigan and a couple of dozen contractors throughout the United States and overseas. The company intends to grow by opening studios around the country in areas such as Raleigh, Baltimore, Austin, and elsewhere.

Not surprisingly, the Stardock culture is laid back and highly creative. Housed in a spacious 23,000 square foot building, employees enjoy being able to bring their dogs (and birds) to work and have the opportunity to work with a fitness trainer every day for flexibility and strength. In addition, a nutritionist is available once a week – and there is always a great coffee and tea selection at the coffee bar. Maybe best of all, employees can dress casually.

“One of my personal challenges was not having a mentor,” Wardell said. “Many people who start businesses come from wealth or have a strong network which changes the dynamics of risk versus reward. I wish I had had someone to assist me with things like access to capital and also learning basic business skills. For example, the experience with Galactic Civilizations delayed our real startup by several years. My mom gave me a lot of help in terms of common sense advice and support (she even took telephone sales). Having help is a huge multiplier on getting started.

“I think business owners need to be financially conservative. My advice is to not assume that your next idea will succeed because 9 out of 10 will fail. That can be tough if, for example, your first idea is a huge hit. I always wonder what my next catastrophe will be.”

Wardell stays based in Michigan because of family and his love of the Midwestern culture, but says the state tax laws are tremendously adverse to businesses. Additionally, he noted that access to capital is an on-going problem, particularly for intellectual property companies. He also stated that the impact of the Affordable Care Act is problematic for businesses and employees alike.

On the personal side, Wardell met his wife, Debbie when they were students at Western Michigan University, where Debbie graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in computer science. They live in Canton in a completely solar powered home with their three children: Alex (16), Ryan (12), and Ashley (6). Bailey, an Entlebucher Mountain Dog, is also in residence.

Uniquely, Wardell is also a beekeeper. “I wanted a hobby that was non-technical and didn’t require any hand skills! Plus, I was afraid of bees as a kid and thought this would be a good way to overcome that – although I still wear more protective clothing than the average beekeeper,” he joked.

Wardell is also the author of the fantasy novel Elemental: Destiny’s Embers which is a companion piece to the game Elemental: War of Magic. He is active with the Community Foundation of Plymouth and is in the process of establishing the Wardell Foundation which will focus on defeating cancer.

Wardell’s relationship with MBT’s Wealth Management Group began when he was introduced to Tom Steele, a respected attorney, wealth advisor and member of the MBT Private Banking North Region team based in the Plymouth office. “I’m happy with the service and the portfolio performance – and I like the local connection,” Wardell said. “Plus MBT’s investment professionals are customer focused and highly experienced.”

Stardock games and software can be purchased at
http://www.stardock.com. The company is located at 15090 Beck Road, Plymouth, Michigan, 48170. They can be reached by telephone at (734)-927-1513 or on the web at info@stardock.com.

For information about Monroe Bank & Trust’s Wealth Management Group, please contact Tom Steele at (734)-454-1346, email at
tom.steele@mbandt.com, or visit on the web at www.mbandt.com.

2 comments:

  1. I have been a fan of your company for a long time now. Good to meet the man and the family behind Stardock. Special kudos to your wife. You are a lucky man.

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  2. I bought Start8 a few months ago and it is one of my favorite pieces of software. It doesn't hurt that the price is RIGHT! Also, it does everything I hoped it would do and MORE! I enjoyed reading this article and look forward to trying more Stardock software. Brad Wardell reminds me a bit of Bill Gates, but without the cut-throat mentality. I wish him much success. I think he deserves it.

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