Tuesday, June 28, 2011

(e)DUPS: The Real CEO of Empire Avenue

L-R: Chris Pirillo (e)PIRILLO, top player; Empire Avenue CEO Duleepa Wijayawardhana (e)DUPS

Empire Avenue (EAv) is a social stock market simulation game that has attracted millions of users all over the world. Thanks to Chris Pirillo's EAv Seattle shareholders meetup last week, I had a chance to talk with Duleepa Wijayawardhana, also known as (e)DUPS, the real-life CEO of Empire Avenue. Dups has to be one of the nicest guys around, and I was really knocked out by his engaging personality and wonderful smile.

He graciously agreed to this Q&A, during which I learned he is not just brilliant, but he's also charming and fun.


When you and your colleagues originally conceived of the idea, what were you doing? I mean, were you sitting around having drinks somewhere and the notion emerged? What was the inspiration? And was it meant to be strictly a game, or did you have other purposes in mind?

The founders of Empire Avenue are Niall Brown, Dr. Michael Mannion and myself. The story of how it all comes together involves Montreal, some beer and philosophizing amongst very opinionated university friends. It involves staring at Facebook and thinking about the future of the Internet and talking about Karl Marx's Das Kapital. We were saying that information production, i.e., that which you put out there as writing, tweets, photos and more, could become the cornerstone of economic production in the future. This led almost directly to creating the game of Empire Avenue which is, in essence, human beings and algorithms valuing networks and content. While the product has changed dramatically over the past year, our core belief that every person has value, and every person produces content of value in their networks, is still foremost and powers our vision.

How did the name originate and how did the very complex structure of the site evolve, and over what length of time?

Mike, Niall and I are from Newfoundland and are proud to be Newfoundlanders. When we had decided that we were going to create a Social Stock Market, we wanted it to be synonymous with Wall Street, except we wanted a street in St. John's, Newfoundland. Empire Avenue was available. Yes it's a real place in St. John's and we aim to make it a global brand.

Our initial prototype and planning took about a month or so, then we destroyed it completely and started fresh, mainly with Tom and myself sitting on his floor with a goal of releasing in a month. Much of the core concepts of the site were created in that month. Since then we've basically been adding and removing features. It is now incredibly different than when we started.

How did you convince your investors this idea had legs?

Doing a start up is about passion. I think every investor pretty much knows that what you will end up with is not what you start with. We have some of the coolest investors (check out empireavenue.com/about/investors) because not only do they believe in us as a team but they help out, they reach out, they tell us when we are doing wrong and when we are successful. I'm pretty sure all our investors thought we were crazy. What they believed in was the team — the same thing I believe in every day: we have one of the coolest teams on the planet!

Would it be possible to see a screen shot of a very early iteration of EAv?

We'll see what we have, we keep many of those locked deep in the vault. We're pretty sure no one has ever seen the very earliest, but maybe we can find some that haven't been seen for a while!

Screenshot from Empire Avenue, c. early 2010 ©2010 Empire Avenue

Who developed the logo and badge art? 

I'm going to point in the direction of Tom (@evolvetom) and Aaron (@aaronkwhite). Tom and I put together the very first design for Empire Avenue. Aaron contacted me as one of the first of the Friends and Family that signed up and he said, "Dude, you need help." I said, "Dude, spend the weekend designing a new version," and that was that. The achievement art and design is from another friend of ours, Mike Grills, from Calgary. The art really is amazing and we want more!

It seems like you have a sense of  humor in identifying noteworthy accomplishments. Do you stumble upon an anomaly, then create the accomplishment, or do you determine a behavior that will be recognized by an award? 

It's a bit of both. We take suggestions from folks very seriously. We love it when we get suggestions. A lot of secret achievements we've spent a lot of thought (perhaps too much) into them. We actually launched the site with secret achievements. We love games, we love laughter, we believe life is to be enjoyed!

A sample of badges for accomplishments awarded to Empire Avenue players. The "Spam" badge was the result of inadvertently spamming players with multiple copies of notifications on the morning of June 8, 2011.

I think you told me you have a small team of 5 people, but also you mentioned a lot of people helped you build Empire Avenue — people who are like volunteers? Who are they and how did they find you? How many people do you think have collaborated or contributed in some way to bringing Empire Avenue to fruition?

I joke that it takes a village to raise an idiot (me) but it takes a small army to raise a company. We have 5 core full time: Robert, Tom, Aaron, Niall and myself. Surrounding us are the core group of another 7 individuals: Mike, Brad, Craig, Todd, Brent, Nithum and Ric, who help as they have time in their busy lives, and others who have helped us in the past. You can see everyone on our Team page (empireavenue.com/about/team). Every individual has worked with a multiple of us in their previous lives, and we continue to collaborate which is one of the coolest things in life. In terms of every person who have helped us, Mike, Niall and I will one day create an amazing map and graphic of all those randomly or otherwise who have helped us. Every one of our friends knows how amazing they have been.

The original idea was something like "buy your friends," but eventually that language was banished and it evolved to be a "social network scoring service." What was the catalyst for the change? 

We never really intended it to be "Buy Your Friends." I think that was part of us trying to find our way on the path towards defining oneself. We are not really a "social network scoring service" either. We are truly a social stock market which allows you to invest your social capital to build valuable relationships around the world. The scoring aspect and the buying aspect are simply part of the platform.

EAv has attracted real businesses, and those businesses have had an opportunity to interact with consumers on a very personal level. Was that originally part of the concept or was it something that happened organically?

This has always been part of the core fabric of Empire Avenue. I think we'll see more coolness along this front as the site and platform evolves.

What do you think of people who maintain spreadsheets on their investments? I mean, do you think they are seriously demented?

Not at all — I think we are lucky and happy to have such an incredibly involved community. These people are creating niches in a new economy — one we hope will lead to them earning an actual living from us as the platform grows!

A sample spreadsheet, before I came to my senses.

You have managed to establish relationships with some key entities (Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Flickr, YouTube). That seems like a feat in itself. Was it difficult to get them to partner up with you?

I hate to burst anyone's bubble :) but we use open APIs in each case. We would love to establish actual relationships as we grow!

I'm wondering if a location-based entity like Foursquare would ever be connected as well, or would you ever integrate geo-location into Empire Avenue itself?

Our next connection is Foursquare.

What is the end game for you? Do you want to sell Empire Avenue at some point, or do you have another goal in mind? What do you ultimately hope to get out of it?

Our end goal is to have created a global site (we're at 190+ countries right now) which has created some amazing connections, and where millions of users have had lots of fun. That should be enough and a fun way to spend one's life isn't it? :)


Now for the “Tiger Beat Magazine-style Interview” Segment...

What do you do for fun?

These days, mostly dream about mountains, climbing, camping and otherwise being in the wilderness. I can't do it in reality as I'm not allowed to go off-grid at this stage of our business.

Do you have any pets?

I have a 13-year old cat, Pixel, who thinks he's a dog (I grew up with dogs). I fear the day he develops opposable thumbs.

When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?

A writer.

Are you an only child? If not, where do you fit into the brood?

I have two brothers who are way smarter and way older than I :)

Do you play any sports? If not, do you work out?

Run when I can, not much for working out :) My other sport is to be annoying to everyone on staff...

Are there any missions that are of personal importance to you, like being a vegan, or a being "green," etc.?

Being a good person. Being a good friend. Protecting the employees of Empire Avenue as if they were family, and having lots of fun.

Favorite color?

The colour of the clouds in the prairies after a violent storm has just passed you by. The blue-green of a glacier-fed lake.

Favorite food?


What's the most recent book you've read?

Read? I'm allowed time to read these days?

What's the most recent movie you've watched?

"So I Married an Axe Murderer"

What song is going to come up on your iPod or playlist?

"At the Hundredth Meridian" — The Tragically Hip

I've heard you are fond of beer. Not that this is an endorsement, are there any you particularly like?

New Belgium Brewery — Anything from them! And Guinness!

When we met, you'd had 2 hours of sleep over the previous two days. Are you married or do you have a girlfriend? If yes, what does she think of your schedule? If not, describe your dream girl.

Hahahaha! If I had a girlfriend, by now she would have left me for all the work I do on Empire Avenue. My dream girl is someone cool, wandering the mountain peaks looking for me as I am her ;)

Describe a perfect day.

From sunrise to moonset, spending it with friends, good food and good wine!


Thanks to Dups and Tom Ohle for their help, and thanks to Chris Pirillo for making it possible to do this blog post.

If you're interested in joining Empire Avenue, feel free to use this link: http://empireavenue.com/?t=161d2i

The cool t-shirt we received at the shareholders meetup!
2011 Terri Nakamura


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