By the time he was nine, Danushka Abeysuriya and his family had experienced nick-of-time escapes from not one, but two, war zones. Not surprisingly, this gave him a non-traditional view on risk, and he founded his own game development company at the tender age of 24. Four years later the company has 20 staff and counts Microsoft, TVNZ, Samsung, Heineken and National Geographic among its clients.
You’d be forgiven for getting a bit tongue-tied over 28-year-old Danushka Abeysuriya’s name. It’s a reoccurring theme in his life, and the butt of many jokes. He was nicknamed “Danish cookie” in intermediate school, and one year received a birthday cake from his staff with “Happy birthday Danusdfgh Abeysurnamehere” in beautiful calligraphy icing on the top.
But when your first decade of life involves narrow escapes from civil war disaster in Sri Lanka and then Zimbabwe – and then the upheaval of starting a new life at the bottom of the world – a bit of ribbing about your name could be considered a first world problem.
Abeysuriya is a straightforward guy; a geek-turned- adept-businessman, whose smartphone video game development company Rush Digital, founded in 2010, now has 20 staff, turned over more than $1 million in 2013, and has clients (including Microsoft, TVNZ, Samsung, Heineken and National Geographic) in Europe, the US and Australia.
The company has also worked on technical stuff for some of the biggest conglomerates in the world, Abeysuriya says, though he can’t name them because of non-disclosure agreements that were included.
When Idealog catches up with the 28-year-old, he is dressed smart-casual in a blue denim shirt, tan jeans and a black jacket. He’s slick without being overdone.
Craig Boxall, founder of digital product development company Pixel Fusion, says Abeysuriya has come a long way from the scruffy, start-out developer he was when Boxall first started collaborating with him.
“Danu turned up looking like a typical Silicon Valley garage developer working on the ‘next big thing’. Huge beard, afro hair, but not from a stylistic perspective, more a this-is-how-I-woke-up-at-my-desk-from-last-night’s-code-marathon perspective,” Boxall says.
“Almost a different person to the slick, suave guy we see here now, although I know he misses those days of just getting lost in the code.” Abeysuriya still looks young for a guy running a rapidly-growing mobile development empire. Four years ago, when he founded Rush Digital, he would have looked even younger.
The engineering graduate had been holding down a job at Unimarket, a software company where universities could log in and bulk purchase supplies.
The company grew, but Abeysuriya’s heart wasn’t in it, as he saw more innovative areas of the industry – particularly mobile – were about to take off. He quit his job, started working from his bedroom writing software for post-production house Digipost, but at the same time started exploring the niche market that was mobile applications and games.
“I saw the rise in mobile and how video games might change things, so I figured while I’m young and stupid, that’s the time to be taking risks. I chose the name Rush to mean a rush of adrenaline, inspiration, excitement – that sort of thinking.” It was a tough start and it took Abeysuriya 10 months to get his first seed funding, as he tried to convince people where mobile was going to go. “I didn’t have the experience or networks to make this easy, but on the other hand, that meant I didn’t really overthink it too much. I would often revisit people several times, until it got to a point where it was clear I was serious and probably wasn’t going to give up.”
Finally, Abeysuriya secured funding from former Angel Association chairman Ray Thomson, who is now on the Rush board. Thomson says he was persuaded by Abeysuriya’s mixture of confidence, IT nous and an ability to make complex ideas simple.
“He’s very smart technically, but has good common sense. You can sit down and have a decent conversation as a layperson.” Boxall agrees Abeysuriya’s ability to share his knowledge in common language is one of his key strengths.
“As an entrepreneur, it’s invaluable to be able to explain a complex idea in manageable terms, allowing you not to lose your audience in the technical details and keep them flowing through the journey.”
Abeysuriya says the proudest moment in his career was after 18 months, when Rush Digital turned from being a product-focussed company to a services business. He says he started thinking like a businessman, not an engineer – and that was when the company’s finances moved into the black.
It’s hard to know what place a politically unstable childhood played in Abeysuriya’s emergence as an entrepreneur. Even as a child in Zimbabwe (where the family escaped after civil war broke out in Sri Lanka) he was inquisitive and interested in how stuff worked, says sister Saku, now Rush Digital’s office manager.
Like when he beheaded all her Barbie dolls so he could find out how they were built. He got into higher-tech gadgetry when his dad brought home an early model programmable computer, the ZX Spectrum. And he got into gaming as an eight-year-old, with the 1990s PC hit Commander Keen.
However he never became addicted, he says, with the fascination being as much for the maths and programming, as the games themselves. These days he plays for “voyeuristic engineering reasons.”
In 1995, when Abeysuriya was nine, his father calculated economic instability and political unrest in Zimbabwe, the family’s “refuge” from the civil war in Sri Lanka, was heading to crisis proportions. He reckoned (rightly as it turned out) that if the family stayed in Zimbabwe any longer they were likely to lose everything. For the second time in a decade they escaped in the nick of time – this time to Auckland. Thousands of other ex-pat Zimbabweans weren’t so far-sighted.
Abeysuriya says his dad’s decision showed him that taking a leap of faith could pay off, and led to him being comfortable making choices that might or might not turn out for the best. “It’s the big point of difference with my upbringing compared with other people, because I’m a lot more willing to take risks and I’ve never been scared of falling on my ass.”
Abeysuriya’s first business venture (“the hustle”) was when he was in seventh form statistics class. He and some friends put in $5 each to buy hosting for a website from where they sold their own custom-built computers. The students opened an office and made a bit of money, although they shut up shop after they got to university to concentrate on their degrees.
Saku Abeysuriya says she isn’t surprised her brother turned out to be an innovator. “You know when you read biographies of entrepreneurs and the common quality is their mind is like tick-tick- tick-tick?” she says. “That’s Danu.”
Abeysuriya went on to study a bachelor of Engineering at Auckland University but hit a speed bump in his second year when he struggled to absorb information in lectures and failed a paper.
He thought about dropping out, but chatting with friend Guy Sherman (now lead engineer at Rush Digital) decided the problem was not his ability, but a fundamental incompatibility with traditional university teaching methods. He realised he worked best as a self-directed learner, decided to skip lectures, get a contract job and teach himself software engineering. It paid off and he graduated with honours.
Start up Speed Bumps
Life as a start-up wasn’t always straightforward either, Abeysuriya says. His first development idea after founding Rush Digital in 2010, was a product that made it easier to create video games for smart phones.
Lots of time, money and effort later, the product was a market failure. Still, he says the experience formed the DNA of Rush and fuelled Abeysuriya’s determination to build great software.
Since then, Rush Digital's bread and butter work has been creating applications and games, including working with Auckland-based games company Ninja Kiwi (of balloon-popping game Bloons fame) and Wellington-based games creators Pikpok (Into The Dead and Flick Kick). The company also created the Cesar Millan 'Dog Whisperer' mobile app, which uses facial recognition technology to match dog-adopters to a shelter dog that looks like them. And it was behind the Monteith's Meatpack Hunt augmented reality game, where users win prizes by targeting and hunting virtual animals walking around in the user's camera view.
More recently, Abeysuriya has branched into experiential marketing, which fuses digital and real world experiences. For example, the company was involved in TVNZ’s trans-Tasman tug-of-war project, part of the TV station’s publicity push for the The Amazing Race.
Rush Digital designed the interactive game, where Aussie and Kiwi teams pulled on ropes and their pulling force was measured and put into the game real time. Players watched each other via huge LED screens in shopping centres, one in Auckland and one in Sydney.
Abeysuriya’s advice to up-and-comers in the mobile game development sector is to give it a go and don’t give up. “It seems to be related to that 10,000 hours. 10,000 hours gives you that mastery. It’ll be that seventh or eighth game that really is up to par.” He remains tight-lipped on plans to eventually open up international Rush Digital offices, but says he would readily sell to an overseas company for the right price.
Meanwhile the thrill of the unknown venture still beckons Abeysuriya, who confesses he’s a serial entrepreneur. But it’s not just moneymaking ventures; he knows what it’s like to live in a country where life is uncertain, and co-founded the P3 Foundation around the same time he started Rush Digital. P3 aims to tackle extreme poverty in the Asia-Pacific region.
“Having the third world as a key part of who I am as a person, and seeing the different ways people live across the world, I have an appreciation for giving back. I wanted to stay grounded and remember why I’m doing this,” he says.
“One big dream of mine, one hairy, audacious goal, is to start a non-profit pharmaceutical,” he says. “[Microsoft founder] Bill Gates is someone who’s got his head screwed on right and realises he can’t take any of that money with him when he dies. He’s shown that if you put some effort into areas of disease that aren’t profitable, you end up taking huge strides.”
- This article originally ran in issue 55 of Idealog magazine.
- Click here to read more stories in the 'Rise of the machines' series.