Aroostook businessman expands company out of home with hit mobile app 7 Little Words

Posted May 25, 2012, at 11:25 a.m.
Last modified May 25, 2012, at 2:14 p.m.
Christopher York, owner of Blue Ox Technologies Ltd. in Caribou.
Christopher York, owner of Blue Ox Technologies Ltd. in Caribou. Buy Photo

A word game for smartphones launched just a year ago by an Aroostook County businessman has turned a one-person home-based business into a multi-employee company that can design and support products for popular platforms and in different languages.

Christopher York’s 7 Little Words game took off after being featured in Apple’s App Store in May 2011, hitting 1.5 million downloads quickly. It was the latest and by far the most successful game York had developed out of his home-based business, Blue Ox Technologies, in Caribou.

That would have been a nice enough story.

But 7 Little Words is approaching 5 million downloads, with an average of 3,000 a day, and its hit status has allowed the small company to expand its reach well beyond the walls of its Caribou home.

Today, York has eight employees around the state that work on technical support, programming, content editing and more, and he has contracted puzzle makers working all across the United States and Canada.

The game is available for both the Apple and Android phones, with a version soon to be available on the Kindle tablet. There’s a French and a Spanish version. And York has just worked out a syndication deal with Universal Uclick to offer a daily print version of the game in newspapers around the world.

“I don’t know if it’s really sunken in at this point. I’m really kind of amazed at how it’s taken off,” said York, 43, who is running the business out of his home in northern Maine.

Typically what happens in the App Store is a game becomes popular fast, climbs the charts and is gone almost as quickly, said York. While 7 Little Words isn’t as popular as it was when it first launched, it’s been steady over the past year, and at a pretty high level, he said.

For a comparison, the popular Angry Birds game just hit a billion downloads, York said. But those games are in a different league from just about every other offering, he noted. York’s game is pretty much the opposite of games like Angry Birds; it’s simple, text-based, and totally cerebral.

“It kind of speaks to the fact that it’s not just about how much bling there is in the game,” said York. “It’s the game itself and whether it’s compelling.”

One of the reasons for his game’s success has been the recurring revenue model he’s established. The initial game is free and comes with 50 or so puzzles as well as a new free puzzle every day. But Blue Ox also offers packs of 50 puzzles, at 99 cents each. The company has a lot of people who have bought every pack. In fact, York said, the company pays for all its costs in producing a new puzzle pack within two to three days of publishing it.

As the game’s popularity spread, York realized he needed to start hiring people.

“I tried to hang on as long as I could, doing everything myself; it was becoming increasingly obvious I just couldn’t do everything,” said York.

He started his expansion by offering technical support, as he was getting hundreds of emails from customers needing help to solve technical problems and other issues. He initially tried contracting with a tech support service, but that didn’t work, so he hired some family members to do the work part-time.

Next, as York worked on improvements to the game, updates and other features, he hired a part-time programmer, then a full-time programmer. He needed another programmer, but first had to hire someone to manage the programmers — a former colleague he enticed away from his previous job with a strong offer. The manager lives in Hope, and the programmers are mainly on the midcoast, from Brunswick to Topsham to the Rockland area. York also just hired a content editor in Ellsworth.

“We pay good wages,” said York.

And while he wouldn’t release revenue figures, he said the company is “extremely comfortable.”

To protect the company’s intellectual capital, York has a trademark on the 7 Little Words name and has filed a patent for the game. There have been some copycats over the past year, but none of them did well and they soon disappeared, he said. The barrier to entry in this model is the puzzles, he said, which are challenging and time-consuming to create.

He said he used to be worried that the game’s popularity would drop suddenly, but with the staying power it has shown he’s no longer concerned about that. The company keeps consumer interest with new puzzles, and continues to explore new areas including a possible version for the Microsoft mobile platform.

The print syndication deal is another way to get the game out in front of more potential users, he said.

“My whole goal is not to increase our revenue, so to speak, at least not directly,” said York. “I just want people to have exposure to the game so they recognize it. It’s more of a brand-building type of thing.”

John Glynn, vice president of rights and acquisitions at Universal Uclick, said the fact that the game has done so well digitally will help sell it into newspapers — there’s hard data proving its popularity.

“It’s consumers saying ‘this actually works,’” said Glynn.

The game hits the right qualities for success, he said. It’s compelling and satisfying, and the rules are simple.

“It’s quick, it’s addictive, it’s satisfying, it’s simple, yet it’s a challenge at the same time,” said Glynn.

He said Universal’s sales force will start selling the game to publications this summer, and then launch it in the fall.

York said he has other ideas for games, as well as thoughts about rejuvenating games he already created, including Moxie and Moosentration. At this point, it’s all he can do to keep up with the success of 7 Little Words, York said. But he knows a broader portfolio of games would be a good idea for company stability.

The game has been used by some teachers in classrooms, and he’s exploring the idea of creating curriculum-specific puzzle packs.

For York, who started in the programming business by doing contract work for companies like former Fraser Paper in Madawaska, this success and growth across the state shows a business can be successful, despite geography.

“I really think there’s not a lot of limitation on who you can reach, if you have a product that’s based around ideas or technology,” said York. “The Internet makes it possible to reach the world, basically.”

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