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His business is fun and games

Precocious and entrepreneurial are not words often put together when describing children, but they describe Jason Arena, CEO and president of Workinman Interactive LLC, and his adolescence pretty well.

“Jason is somebody who makes things happen,” says Keith McCullough, partner, vice president and chief operating officer at Workinman. “There’s some sort of energy about Jason where he makes things happen, makes things succeed and continue.”

Workinman Interactive is a video game developer whose work has been sought out often by companies such as Nickelodeon, the Walt Disney Co., NBCUniversal Media LLC, IMG and Defy Media Inc.

The company, once run out of a small room in Scottsville, has grown to 45 employees who fill a large and bright two-story office across the street from the Village Gate. McCullough declined to disclose revenues for the privately held firm.

Arena, 42, is the youngest of three children, whose parents both worked at Eastman Kodak Co.

“There’s a six- or seven-year difference between my sister and brother,” Arena says. “I think my parents at that time were like, ‘go do whatever you want,’ so I had a lot of freedom, hence the graffiti-ing, free-spirited child that I was.

“I’ve always been very entrepreneurial, even going back to 11 years old,” Arena recalls. “I remember my parents were gone and it was a summer day and I just gathered stuff up in the house and had a garage sale. I sold all sorts of stuff and once my parents found out I sold it we had to go collect it back up. So that’s the kind of kid I was, where I was like ‘all right let’s do this!’”

Work ethic is something Arena thinks about a lot, especially as a model for his children. In addition to running a fast-growing company, he teaches at Rochester Institute of Technology as an associate professor for the School of Interactive Games and Media.

“I think about building a work ethic in them, and I think it’s really important,” Arena says. “I had a very supportive family, but there’s something to be said about going to work and making my own money and buying my own stuff. It made me aspirational to be successful, because after working a lot of those jobs, I knew I didn’t want to do any of that for a living.”

Work is not something Arena has shied away from; if anything, he runs toward it. He worked his way through all the typical high school jobs: pizza delivery, dishwashing and retail, even competing with friends over how many jobs they could have.

“I always worked, even through college,” Arena says. “(It’s) probably where the name Workinman comes from. (In college) I framed houses, did roofing and siding. That’s how I spent my summers. I even thought about doing it as a profession for a little bit. There’s something nice about seeing a house built.”

However, that kind of work takes a big toll on the body, he says, so he is glad his path turned toward a different kind of building and creating.

“I think that’s what’s so nice about what we do now; it’s all virtual but we’re building stuff. We plan it out; it’s got to work just right, the code and the design, and if you don’t build it properly you get something really flimsy—just like a house. So it’s really nice when you see something at the end, and I think that’s what attracts me to this. I’m very visual.”

From an early age he knew he wanted to do some kind of art and spent most of his middle school and high school years drawing, mostly graffiti.

“I was pretty serious about it, big murals. It was right when the hip-hop culture was really taking off, early ’80s, mid-’80s. I was very taken by it, and I already knew I liked drawing so I participated that way,” he says.

After graduating from Gates-Chili High School in 1990, Arena attended SUNY College at Buffalo where he earned a bachelor’s degree in art education in 1994.

Finding hi-tech
During his senior year he finally touched a computer and used Photoshop and Illustrator for the first time.

“And I just thought ‘this is where I should be.’ So I kind of found my passion. I didn’t need any more education; I just dove in and did that stuff,” he says.

Around the same time his former girlfriend suggested he “check out this thing called the www,” which is how Arena got his start making websites. He then decided to move to New York City and was accepted to Pratt Institute’s master of fine arts program, where he dove into computer graphics and interactive media.

“I always wanted to move to New York City,” Arena says. “From high school I should’ve gone and I didn’t, and I knew that I should have. But it all worked out. Personal things happened and it was a perfect storm and opportunity to leave here. Going to New York opened up tons of opportunities, going to Pratt opened up tons of opportunities. Workinman would not be here if I had not gone to Pratt or worked at Nickelodeon.”

It was the early 2000s and people were hungry for content and interactive experiences. Everything Arena was doing was Adobe Flash-based: Flash interactive projects for movies, TV shows, any entertainment-based content.

“One of our first big projects was making a video player for NBC,” Arena says. “That was one of their first video players; we designed and developed a lot of it. That was kind of the project that really kicked things off.”

Arena moved back to Rochester to start a family in 2001, after working at Nickelodeon in New York City for three years as a senior interactive designer and Flash developer.

“I had emailed RIT asking if they had any open positions, and they did, and they pretty much hired me immediately as a professor. So I ended up working there and that’s when I officially started Workinman.”

Launching the firm
Workinman started out with Arena doing freelance work for New York City clients he had kept in touch with after leaving Nickelodeon. At first he was just doing small Flash projects, but as more and more people sought him out for interactive projects, Arena had to start hiring people in 2005. That was his toughest decision.

“Fortunately the decisions here have been not too tough,” Arena says. “But really I think the toughest decision I ever made for Workinman was hiring my first employee. And the reason was, once you take on an employee, if you’re a good employer, you feel responsibility for that person. You’re asking them to believe in you and you’re asking a lot of that person to give their time and their effort to you to build something.

“So when I brought on my first employee I really felt this huge responsibility. You’re saying ‘hey, I’m going to take care of you.’ When I ask them to come here I’m hoping that they’re going to grow with us and be with us for a long time. …You’re taking on a financial responsibility and responsibility to grow the business to make sure it’s sustainable.”

There were moments where it would have been easy just to settle in and be content, but that is not who Arena is.

“He’s never sitting around. He’s always working and he’s always excited about it,” says Matthew Leffler, one of the lead developers at Workinman. “He’s definitely got a pace to him; you can tell when he’s walking in the office.”

Arena has applied his high energy to Workinman. Every year since hiring that first employee business has grown by 60 to 100 percent, except for one year, Arena says. When Leffler started in 2009 there were roughly a dozen employees, today it has 45.

“I don’t think there was ever any intention for him to make Workinman what it became,” adds CTO McCullough. “It was a side project, hobby almost. But there was no way he wasn’t going to see it through. So as it began succeeding I doubt it ever crossed his mind to do anything but pursue it and push it, and I think that’s true of everything he undertakes. I don’t think he’s driven by anything but this natural inclination to make sure that stuff works out.”

As for focusing on video games, Arena likes them but adds he is not a serious video game player, compared with most people on his team.

“I’m probably more of a casual consumer of games,” Arena says. “What I like doing is creating interactive experiences. I really enjoy creating content that people engage in and are entertained with. And that started when I was at Nickelodeon. We would make these incredible projects and hundreds of millions of kids would play these every year.”

The games Workinman makes are some of the most popular in the business. Super Brawl 3 and Super Brawl 4 made for Nickelodeon’s website have been played 40 million to 45 million times. One of its more recent app store releases, SpongeBob Game Frenzy, has been the No. 1 paid kids app on iTunes. Arena says it is Workinman’s most successful game and was in development for nearly a year before release.

In the field of youth market gaming, Arena keeps Workinman focused on making quality games. Smashing Ideas, in Seattle, used to be a direct competitor but turned more toward advertising as they grew bigger.

“For them it’s probably about revenue and growing more, and maybe kids entertainment doesn’t pay as well as they’d like,” Arena says. “Rochester is an inexpensive place to live compared to Seattle or New York City or San Francisco, so we can do things more affordably.”

But Arena’s biggest challenge is keeping young talent in Rochester.

“A lot of people graduate college and then go off to a big city,” he says.

For businesses such as Workinman that rely on young creative people there is risk in taking on new graduates who are soon attracted to the wealth of opportunities big cities seem to offer.

It is a big concern for Arena, but he adds he is confident in Workinman’s attraction.

“We have really cool work, we do awesome games and there are not a lot of companies that do what we do. And we also offer a cool environment, a very cool work culture,” he says.

Arena’s attitude and energy add to that work culture.

“I think he lifts the spirits of the office,” Leffler says. “It’s not that he’s bubbly or anything; he just keeps morale up. When I came in for the interview I walked in and everybody was playing Call of Duty, and I was like ‘Hey guys, I’m here for the interview’ and they were like ‘Great, we’ll be with you in a minute.’”

A growth focus
Right now growth is the only plan on Arena’s horizon, from finally releasing Workinman’s own intellectual property in September, a game called DeathState, to growing their service business. They do not own the games they make for other companies. DeathState will be the first one to which they own the rights.

“I just made four job offers this morning, and growing to probably 50 or 60 (employees) by the end of the year. So we have a lot of growth plans,” Arena says. “There are still a lot of youth market clients out there that we don’t have or we’re not their number one developer and we want to be their number one developer. We are Nickelodeon’s developer of choice; we do 85 percent of their work and we’re quickly becoming a favorite at Disney.”

DeathState debuted at the PAX East video game conference in Boston in March and was a big hit, which gave Arena and the team confidence to push the project.

“We’d love to do our own IP, so if DeathState is really successful it’s going to allow for us to make more of those,” Arena says. “If that’s profitable, or even if it pays for itself, it’s easier for us to make a second one. I think if you’re going to do your own IP it’s risky, but if you can pay for it you can do another, and that’s what we’re hoping to do.”

Arena lives in Honeoye Falls with his wife, Jennifer, and their children, daughter Mia, 10, and son, Cash, 6. Arena’s hobbies include excessive working out and cathartic, repetitive guitar playing.

“I own four guitars, and you’d think I’d be a lot better for having that many, but my skills don’t match up,” he says.

Besides not moving to New York City right after high school, Arena has no regrets and adds that in hindsight that decision worked out for the best anyway.

“My philosophy is every decision I’ve made I base it off being authentic and true to myself,” he says. “When you think that way, I think it’s hard to have a regret. I have a great wife, great kids, great business, a great life, I could not be happier. So yeah, no regrets at all.”

Lisa Maria Rickman is a Rochester-area freelance writer.

Jason Arena
Title: CEO and president, Workinman Interactive LLC
Education: B.S.in art education, SUNY College at Buffalo, 1994; MFA in computer graphics and interactive media, Pratt Institute, Brooklyn, 2004
Family: Wife, Jennifer; daughter, Mia, 10; son, Cash, 6
Home: Honeoye Falls
Interests: Working out, guitar playing
Quote: “My philosophy is every decision I’ve made I base it off being authentic and true to myself.”

7/31/15 (c) 2015 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email rbj@rbj.net.

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