Innovator Article

Mark Otero Risks Everything to Follow His Passion
Alumni Association Honors Global Gaming Entrepreneur

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By Tim Akin

Depressed, exhausted and nearly broke two and half years ago, Mark Otero lay curled up in a fetal position, “paying dearly” for pursuing a childhood passion he was still not ready to give up.

After earning his UC Davis MBA in 2007, Otero made a risky and radical move to put his new knowledge and skills into play—literally. He quit his $130,000-a-year job as a financial analyst, sold his home in Sacramento’s Oak Park neighborhood, maxed out his credit cards, then raided his retirement account—all to launch a gourmet yogurt shop, Mochii Yogurt. Meanwhile, in a small office upstairs, he and a partner parlayed the cash flow from the frozen confections to code and coddle a dream to create virtual, viral and profitable applications and games.

Inspired by Otero’s enthusiasm, ideas and vision, a handful of diehard developers and designers joined his new venture, KlickNation. They rolled out 30 smartphone apps that eventually counted more than 400,000 users worldwide, many in non-English speaking countries like Romania, Chile, Mexico and Thailand.

But the flame was flickering out. The apps weren’t making enough money, and Otero’s debt was piling up. The explosive growth of Facebook presented a new opportunity: Otero and the team set out to bring the social web the scale of success of the fantasy role-playing board game Dungeons & Dragons, in which Otero had become a dungeon master by age 10.

With the IRS knocking on Otero’s door, KlickNation’s product No. 31 had to be a hit. Otero and his team huddled around computers in the office above the yogurt shop in early 2009, working feverishly to finish the first social game to feature animated battles and allow users to buy extra powers and weapons. Reinvesting every penny into KlickNation and unable to pay for counter help, Otero often ran downstairs to serve up frozen yogurt. He then worked late into the night on game specs, catching Zs on the sofa. The perseverance paid off.

Otero’s Superhero City came to the rescue, pulling in $5,000 a day by the end of 2009. Its success allowed Otero to grow KlickNation to more than 70 employees, move to a two- story, 11,000-square-foot headquarters in midtown Sacramento and open a business development office in San Francisco.

In 2010, Otero inked a multi-million dollar deal with NBC Universal. But he had even bigger plans.

Last December, KlickNation’s ascent lured one of the world’s largest video gaming companies to Sacramento. Otero negotiated with Silicon Valley–based Electronic Arts to purchase KlickNation for a reported $35 million to become part of EA’s wildly popular BioWare gaming division.

Now Otero is a general manager of BioWare Social, with 70 employees in Sacramento and 45 more in Redwood Shores creating fantasy and sci-fi role-playing games.

“When you have 30 failures, you are either a madman or you are onto something,” Otero told the audience at the Graduate School of Management’s Pier-to-Peer event in February, where he shared his rags-to-riches story experience bootstrapping KlickNation.

For his entrepreneurial business success and support of the School, Otero was honored with the GSM Alumni Association’s Distinguished Achievement and Outstanding Service Awards, becoming the first alumnus recognized with both in the same year.

Otero consistently credits his success to his MBA experience at the Graduate School of Management. In recognition of what UC Davis has given him, he has given back to his alma mater with time, expertise and financial support. He made a significant, multi-year major gift pledge to the School to name the Otero Faculty Resource Center in Gallagher Hall in memory of his sister, Elizabeth. Otero also gave a gift to support faculty in marketing and entrepreneurship—key areas among the building blocks for his success.

“The skills and knowledge I gained at UC Davis enabled me to scale KlickNation from two to a team of 70 in just 24 months,” Otero says. “Along the way, I tapped into organizational behavior and commitment theory for recruitment and team building; finance and accounting to shape a sustainable business; and courses that fueled my entrepreneurial drive. Today I’m running on the thrill of doing exactly what I want to do.”

And Otero continues to build more bridges to UC Davis. He has supported the School’s Business Partnership Program and Big Bang! Business Plan Competition. As a high-tech job creator, he has plugged into campus for new hires, bringing aboard UC Davis MBA alumni and other UC Davis graduates. They are helping BioWare ramp up a portfolio that attracts millions of players worldwide on Facebook and other social networks.

Recognizing Otero’s success, Chancellor Linda Katehi asked him to be the sole alumni speaker at the 2011 Convocation and at the UC Davis new student orientation last fall. At both events, he gave inspiring and energetic speeches.

Otero also has become a high-profile business leader in Sacramento, showing his commitment to growing the capital region’s economy. He is a member of the Next Economy Leadership Group, which is mobilizing stakeholders to forge new joint ventures and collaborative strategies to encourage innovation, new business development and build a stronger, more sustainable economy.

And most recently, Otero accepted Dean Steven Currall’s offer to serve on his advisory council. “It’s so crucially important for young people to see Sacramento as a breeding ground for exciting start-up companies,” Currall said. “Mark is so valuable in the current economic circumstances as a role model to others.”

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