Mark Cuban-funded startup thrives

When a spontaneous round of golf proved to be the turning point in his career as an entrepreneur, Ryan Ozonian thought nothing could get better.

Then, an email changed his life again: The Class of 2009 USC alumnus had come across the blog of billionaire entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, and after seeing a post expressing interest in social mobile game developers, Ozonian decided to reach out.

Game on · Mention Mobile’s newest game Word Derby lets players compete to try and create the best possible words from a pot of letters. — Courtesy of Chillingo

Game on · Mention Mobile’s newest game Word Derby lets players compete to try and create the best possible words from a pot of letters. — Courtesy of Chillingo

Eight minutes later, he received a reply that would, after two weeks of discussion, turn into a $250,000 investment. Ozonian was thunderstruck.

Two years before the email, Ozonian had just graduated from USC. Equipped with a major in communication and a minor in entrepreneurship, he teamed up with his brother and a friend to self-fund a social bookmarking project. The startup flopped, but Ozonian says the money lost was nothing compared to the hands-on experience.

“It was as good of a learning experience to do that on our own as it was to take four years of entrepreneurship classes,” he said. Needless to say, Ozonian pressed on.

He found himself at O Negative Media, a company that aimed to bring hit MySpace games to Facebook. He stayed through 2010 and early 2011, but after realizing that he wanted to go on to do bigger and better things, Ozonian left the company. He had the next three months to live on savings, his perseverance and an idea. So he played golf.

One fateful afternoon, Ozonian was paired by the course with a headhunter for various Los Angeles tech firms. After Ozonian’s mobile application ideas were exchanged over pars and bogeys, the headhunter gave Ozonian the contact information for Kory Jones, an iPad application developer in Los Angeles whose multimedia experience ranges from Star Wars to the Emmys.

“I remember telling him, ‘I have all these great ideas, all I need is a little bit of seed funding. Let’s see if we can create one of these games,’” Ozonian said with a smile. “He gave me the chance.”

Thirty thousand dollars in startup funding and an office space from Jones led Ozonian to create Mention Mobile, the company he currently co-runs with Jones. Together, they initially produced two Facebook games, Super Friends and Trivia Friends. The games didn’t reach the level of popularity that Ozonian expected, but he tried to stay focused on the positive.

“Our first attempts taught us that we knew we could execute on an idea. The moral to that story is that we knew we could do it,” he said. He never looked back.

The next item on the agenda was to develop a large-scale, asynchronous, turn-based game played between friends in which each person takes turns on his or her mobile device over the air (as with Words With Friends). That’s when Ozonian sent the email of his life. Mark Cuban’s endorsement gave Ozonian and Jones the money they needed to hire a small staff and begin development.

Ozonian has decided to share his success with the school he came from.

“Everyone I’ve tried to hire as interns have been from USC,” he said. “It’s awesome because I’m only four years out of school and able to bring on [students] is amazing.”

The staff of seven released Word Derby on Nov. 29. The app allows users to play games with up to four friends, where skillfully crafted words power avatars around a track toward the finish line. They partnered with Chillingo, the company behind games such as Angry Birds and Cut the Rope. After 30 million turns in one month, the game reached the second slot of the Apple App store’s top-50 word games and made the list of top-50 apps in the Apple App store.

“For a team of seven people, it’s been a pretty big success for us,” Ozonian said.

The team has plans to release an additional app in the spring, and Ozonian can barely contain his excitement.

Ozonian has not forgotten his roots. He explains how his experiences at USC motivated him to give younger Trojans the opportunity to work with him. As a student, he remembered how exciting the prospect of interning at a startup sounded.

“I wanted to be able to give back to the school I went to in one way or [another]. We have some of the most talented students,” he said.

Ozonian’s biggest advice to students looking to start up businesses is to stay persistent. He describes days when he didn’t feel confident in his ideas — days he knew he would have to get through to make his dreams become reality.

“I was scared that I could somehow take my ideas from paper and make them a reality,” Ozonian, “Eventually, I realized you have to keep trying and be as persistent as possible.”

Ozonian’s diligence paid off. After months of hard work, things simply fell into place.

As he describes it, “Had I never played golf that day, I never would have met Kory Jones. Had I never reached out to Cuban, I never would have received startup funding. As long as you’re working hard and what you have is quality and you continue to reach out to people, you can get pretty far.”