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Small startup hits Google paydirt Add to ...

“We want to be at the intersection of social, mobile and gaming,” says Patel. “We want to be the EA of the new world.” He’s talking about Electronic Arts, one of the largest video-game publishers in the world.

Patel and Acharya sit in a small meeting room at the Toronto offices of their new employer. Google’s downtown location is on the sixth floor of the behemoth formerly known as the Toronto Life building, at Yonge and Dundas streets. Like many of Google’s offices, this one is a mess of plywood and primary colours that looks like a cross between a kindergarten playpen and a modernist carpenter’s workspace. An entire meeting room is occupied with an elaborate Rock Band video-game set-up, and, just past the lobby, a newly hired chef lays out the day’s lunch. There are racks of free snacks and coolers full of drinks. It’s a pretty nice place to work.

Patel and Acharya speak with a sort of guarded intensity that hints not only at a mountain of drive and ambition but also a sense of humour about the engineering lifestyle they have embraced ever since they started going online some time around the sixth grade.

In a way, Patel’s comparison of SocialDeck (with its three-man management team, including CEO Dan Servos) to Electronic Arts (with 8,000 employees worldwide) is not as far-fetched as it seems. In the past 15 years, especially following the tech-bubble collapse a decade ago, the process of starting a technology firm has undergone a fundamental overhaul. A traditional hardware company, such as a microprocessor firm, might have required tens or hundreds of millions of dollars in funding. Even the process of creating robust software for a desktop computer might have cost its creators well into the seven figures.

But the rise of high-powered mobile devices has slashed those costs dramatically. Today, a couple of application developers can turn around a decent piece of software for a BlackBerry or an iPhone in a weekend. Not only are many of the software coding tools free to developers, but the methods of distribution are readily available: The average app is approved and uploaded to the iPhone or BlackBerry app stores in a matter of days, sometimes hours.

The end result? A tech start-up that may have called for $2-million in funding a decade ago can get the same mileage out of $200,000 today.

That new reality has created two classes of tech companies: small, nimble start-ups such as SocialDeck, and traditional titans–the Microsofts, Intels and Electronic Arts of the world. More often than not, it is the goal of entrepreneurs in the smaller class to have their companies become, or get bought by, firms in the bigger class.

But that’s easier said than done, and, it seems, more likely to happen in the United States than in Canada. While the U.S. boasts the most important tech hub in the world, Canada has few big names outside RIM. “In California, you can see and hear examples [of companies receiving funding]” says Patel. “You start seeing examples of what’s possible, and everybody knows everybody.”

Not only did California contain countless angel investors on the prowl for early-stage companies they could finance, it seemed to the two young entrepreneurs to be full of other hungry Canadians looking for their big break. So when Patel and Acharya left their jobs in Seattle for a loft in San Francisco in early 2008 (with a few months’ stay in Toronto in between), they believed they were entering the best incubation chamber in the world for a small tech start-up.

Their thinking was right. Their timing couldn’t have been worse.

the prototype for Shake & Spell was completed in the summer of 2008. Although the programming concepts behind the game were complex, the game itself was simple, designed to be played on an iPhone, a BlackBerry or on Facebook–it was essentially a virtual game of Boggle.

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