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Small startup hits Google paydirt Add to ...

Its creators, who had funded the entire project with their own money and were running low on funds, hoped the concept of connected mobile gaming would appeal to venture funds and angel investors in California. But the completion of SocialDeck’s first product just happened to coincide with the global economic downturn. Everywhere the two engineers went, nobody was feeling particularly generous. “The timing wasn’t great,” says Acharya. “Everyone was keeping their capital. The risk appetite wasn’t there.”

By September, 2008, Acharya and Patel were back in Toronto. They finally released Shake & Spell to the public at the end of the year. The duo had tried to drum up attention for their company by networking and appearing at some of the events in the Canadian tech community. In April, 2008, they attended DemoCamp Toronto, an event where small companies make pitches to potential investors. But they were still without funding. Acharya was about a week away from selling his sole asset, a $10,000 Honda Civic, when an injection of cash essentially saved the fledgling company.

Ironically, the fund that wrote SocialDeck its first cheque–and helped turn it into the company Google eventually bought–is affiliated with one of Google’s arch-rivals in the mobile space: RIM. In keeping with the new mantra of doing more with less, the BlackBerry Partners Fund, which invests in companies doing interesting things on mobile platforms (particularly the BlackBerry), put about $500,000 into SocialDeck. “Acharya and Patel were looking at social gaming from a mobile perspective, on multiple platforms, in the wireless and wireline worlds,” says the fund’s co-manager, John Albright. “There’s no solution that does that other than their solution.”

The investment–which paid off handsomely for the fund thanks to the Google acquisition–helped SocialDeck launch three more games. By the end of 2009, it had racked up one million mobile downloads in a single year.

It was during that year that Acharya and Patel went to hear a seasoned tech entrepreneur, Steve Woods, speak in Waterloo. A veteran of the dot-com boom who had already run two companies and worked at some of the biggest names in technology, Woods had taken over as head of Google’s Waterloo campus.

After the talk, the two engineers introduced themselves to Woods, and they had him try out some of their games. A year later, Acharya and Patel would find themselves working for him.

Steve Woods still remembers how America Online ruined his company.

In 1998, Woods and a group of partners founded Quack.com, a tool that allowed users to access various services and information using voice commands. The computer scientist, who’d earned a master’s and a PhD from the University of Waterloo, quickly caught the attention of AOL. The company bought Quack.com in 2000, just a year after its purchase of Web browser giant Netscape Communications Corp.

By the time Woods joined AOL, he says, “Things were on the path to disaster. I was there two years–I was reorganized seven times, I was a VP of a bunch of different things.”

His experiences at AOL–not only the way his product was reshaped (Quack has since been turned into a search tool for Apple’s iPad tablet) but also the torment of watching as Netscape slowly faded away–have altered the way he views acquisitions today. “I was brought into Google to be an entrepreneurial advocate, to help drive some innovation, to help champion ideas and get them bought into across the company,” he says.

A big part of his job at Google is to look around for potential acquisition targets–the company, on average, makes anywhere from 10 to 20 corporate purchases a year, the majority of which tend to go unnoticed. But when he met SocialDeck’s founders in the summer of 2009, Woods didn’t see a potential acquisition; he simply saw two bright engineers from his alma mater with a neat product on their hands. It wasn’t until early 2010 that discussions between the two sides really began. And the initial impetus for those discussions didn’t come from Woods or SocialDeck–it came from Mountain View, California.

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