When one walks into Stardock Corporation’s Plymouth Township headquarters on Beck Road, a typical corporate atmosphere might not be the first vibe that comes to mind.
In lieu of a front-desk receptionist is a young, bearded man in a purple t-shirt, cut-off shorts and flip-flops. This is Matt Bertsch, a technical adviser for the independent software company. On his desk sits a variety of emptied craft-beer bottles, statuettes, a variety of props and an opened deck of playing cards.
Bertsch explains that the usual receptionist just moved to Dallas for other Stardock-related duties as he retrieves Brad Wardell, the president and CEO of Stardock, who occupies a top-floor office with his dog.
Wardell, a Michigan native who now lives in Canton with his wife and children, might also not look like your typical corporate CEO. His tone is pleasant and conversational, and his interactions with his employees are lighthearted and upbeat.
Stardock, it turns out, isn’t your typical corporation.
Wardell said he worked his way through college at Western Michigan University building and selling computers under a DBA (doing-business-as) license. He began programming computer games on the now-defunct OS/2 operating system. One title, Galactic Civilizations, he said “paved the way to a whole bunch of other opportunities.”
He said he then “pursued this sort of hobby that’s out of control.”
That “hobby” has led to substantial growth for Stardock, which Crain’s Detroit Business valued at $15 million in 2009 — before the company reached a deal for an undisclosed amount of money with video game retail giant GameStop for the rights to Impulse, its digital distribution platform for computer games and software. Think of it as Apple'siTunes, but with computer software and games, he said.
It’s this transaction that provided Stardock some “significant capital” to move forward. It also is the move that caused some of Wardell’s Plymouth team to relocate to Dallas, but adapting is nothing new for Wardell.
While developing software on OS/2, Wardell said the market effectively died when Microsoft’s Windows NT operation system was released.
“Our market switched almost overnight,” he said.
After the switch to Windows, Stardock began releasing what Wardell calls “desktop enhancements” to customize the look and feel of Windows-based computers. This includes icon packagers to have customized icons for specific software applications and ObjectDock, a docking feature that provides easy access to frequently used programs similar to what is standard on Apple operating systems. Wardell characterized the latter as “a really big hit.”
ObjectDock might look familiar to users of Dell and HP computers; it was repurposed as Dell Dock and Fences, programs pre-installed on each respective company’s systems.
Despite the success of these applications, Wardell said he doesn’t plan to make the same program for 20 years, particularly because he said Microsoft’s Windows 7 already looks pretty nice and the has shifted away from the desktop enhancements and into practical software, such as Multiplicity. This program allows users to control two separate computers with a single mouse and keyboard.
Wardell said he’s considering launching mobile and web software-development shops and studios to keep up with hot-selling gadgets such as Apple’s iPad and iPhone and Motorola’s Droid smart phone, but would want to keep that work separate from the software and games Stardock currently produces.
“Rather than me directly managing them, I would build teams and we invest in those companies,” he said. “We’d almost have like, a Plymouth-area, southeastern Michigan hub of software development on all kinds of things: mobile, web, that sort of thing.”
He said these entities would largely be owned by Stardock, but would keep its games and software divisions focused on their core duties.
Its games division has had some success of its own, with a variety of role-playing and strategy games for Windows systems. Titles such asElemental, Sins of a Solar Empire and Galactic Civilizations have built loyal followings amongst gamers, and have each spawned sequels.
The games team currently is working on Elemental: Fallen Enchantress, the latest in the fantasy strategy series, slated for release in September.
Wardell said the company’s location in Plymouth, where it has operated for about 10 years, has been key to its success in attracting top out-of-state talents.
“It’s just a beautiful city,” he said. “One of the things that’s very important, and a lot of people don’t realize it — especially in Michigan; it’s Michigan’s Achilles’ heel — is that if you want Michigan to be competitive in new emerging markets, you’re going to have to import a lot of people from other states.”