'We're only just getting started': Scots Minecraft and gaming mogul Chris van der Kuyl on being honoured by the Queen and a bright future
As the congratulations pour in for renowned Scottish entrepreneur Chris van der Kuyl being awarded a CBE, he talks through his career with Emma Newlands - and stresses that he is only getting started.
He is famous for his key role in putting Scotland’s gaming industry on the map with 4J Studios – which is best known for developing Minecraft Console Edition. And in a career spanning nearly three decades, he has built up a fortune thought to be around £150 million as well as a string of honorary degrees.
But the Dundee-based entrepreneur believes that both 4J and his own role as a prolific serial investor have a lot more fuel in the tank, and he is seeking further investment opportunities, having already ploughed sums into up-and-coming tech firms that are collectively “well into eight figures”.
Van der Kuyl was announced on Friday evening as having been awarded a CBE in the 2020 Queen's Birthday Honours for services to the economy. He says wryly that he had been worried that it was all “some kind of elaborate hoax” – but in truth was “delighted and humbled” to be on the list.
To have his work regarding the likes of 4J, as well as the games and broader tech industries in Scotland, as well as his work to help foster entrepreneurship and enterprise, is “a really nice thing to get recognised that way”.
The Scottish Games Network said: “This is an incredible achievement for Chris, who has been an outspoken advocate for the videogames industry across the whole of Scotland for many years now.”
His path to becoming a major player in the tech sector was buoyed by his childhood coinciding with increased access to computers. “That was really magical to get hold of these things.” There was a flirtation with, say, music, but the “underlying strand for me has always been pulling me towards technology – I don't think I was ever going to do anything else”.
Van der Kuyl, who has Polish and Dutch ancestry, studied computer science, with a trip to Silicon Valley early on in his career making him think that there was no reason he couldn’t start his own business in Scotland, and that “lit the blue touch paper” to get cracking.
He started computer games company Vis Entertainment, which had a big hit with State of Emergency, and he was later chief executive of IT firm Brightsolid. And in 2005, along with schoolfriend Paddy Burns, he co-founded game development studio 4J Studios – whose name famously highlights Dundee’s “jute, jam and journalism” with joysticks representing the fourth “J”.
Van der Kuyl sees the last ten years as particularly significant for 4J, where he is chairman, saying it has been the “Minecraft decade” for the firm. “We still believe 4J has got a fantastic future,” he states. “And really, it's only just begun to scratch the surface of what we can achieve. What we're really enjoying is trying to envision the plethora of things we can do, and that is incredibly exciting.”
4J is part of a globally recognised Scottish gaming scene – also home to companies like Grand Theft Auto studio Rockstar North. But Scottish Games Network founding director Brian Baglow recently said some of the industry may be struggling.
Van der Kuyl said any prospect that the sector is in retreat is “completely nonsense”. Every sector naturally ebbs and flows, he adds – stressing that the Scottish games industry is worth billions.
“We can tell you from the inside, there are more people coming to Scotland... to develop games, which is great. And in addition to that, there's more competition for talent.” He adds that the games industry is now “by a significant factor, the largest entertainment industry in the world... in the next decade, it's going to exponentially grow again, so Scotland will have its part in that, for sure”.
Van der Kuyl has undoubtedly enjoyed huge successes, but also a major bump in the road in the collapse of Vis in 2005 after a deal went awry. The entrepreneur had to lay off more than 100 staff – an experience he deems “pretty humbling and pretty awful”.
But he adds, without wishing to minimise the impact of what happened and stressing that he had to totally start again professionally, that ultimately he wouldn’t have achieved what he has without things going the way they did. “If you don't take risks, and significant risks, you're never gonna have significant successes.”
Something he says has played a key role in his success is the mentorship he has received along the way, from the likes of Sir Tom Hunter and merchant banker Sir Angus Grossart, and he has paid it forward in style to a wealth of up-and-coming tech firms in Scotland.
This includes TVSquared, which helps businesses measure returns from TV advertising, meal delivery firm Parsley Box and aquaculture specialist Ace Aquatec. “I know how much it takes to get out there and start to do it so I just want to see everybody succeed,” says Van der Kuyl –who stresses that he likes to give himself a new role every six to 12 months.
While his investments might not be totally altruistic, he is adamant that he want to make a positive impact, particularly given current economic turmoil – and citing the philanthropic work of Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller.
Such an approach was instilled in the gaming industry veteran as soon as he got into business in Scotland, he adds, being asked how he could help the next generation. “And I think quite quickly, I realised that that sort of symbiotic relationship you could create was going to be brilliant for all of us anyway, because the more successful Scotland is as a country, the better a society we can build, and the more people will want to be here to be part of the things that we’re creating.”
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