For Appian software firm founder, business is a lot like a game

RESTON, VA. OCT.27.. Matt Calkins, CEO of Appian, a firm that sells software to businesses also has a hobby of developing board games, his first game, Magnet has already been published and his second is Sekigahara, seen here in Reston, VA on Oct. 26, 2010 ( Photograph by Jeffrey MacMillan )
RESTON, VA. OCT.27.. Matt Calkins, CEO of Appian, a firm that sells software to businesses also has a hobby of developing board games, his first game, Magnet has already been published and his second is Sekigahara, seen here in Reston, VA on Oct. 26, 2010 ( Photograph by Jeffrey MacMillan ) (Jeffrey Macmillan - Jeffrey Macmillan For Washington Post)
By Steven Overly
Monday, November 1, 2010

Players of the game Magnet have a clear goal: Maneuver their king to the center of the board. But outside forces complicate the moves. Pieces can be pulled off course by a black pawn, or "magnet," or fall victim to a competitor who discovers your strategy.

Sounds a bit like business.

That's a parallel Magnet's designer, Matthew Calkins, lives everyday. Calkins, the creator of three board games, is the founder and chief executive of Appian, a Reston-based software company.

"I think I'm using the same muscles to do both," he said. "Playing an absolutely new board game is a pretty good proxy for whatever I'll face Monday morning when I come into the office."

The connections between board games and real-life decisions form a kind of business philosophy for Calkins. Like executives, he said competitive players develop a system by which they field challenges, especially those that they cannot predict and haven't encountered before.

Indeed, there have been key inflection points in the company's 11-year history that have forced Calkins to make tactical decisions. The first came soon after its formation in 1999, when the dot-com bubble burst and selling business process management software to corporate clients became unsteady.

Calkins shifted focus to beef up the sales rolls with government agencies, which he said were initially avoided because of the long procurement process. Today, Appian's software is used by the Food and Drug Administration, Federal Emergency Management Agency, and the Education and Treasury departments, among others.

Faced with reduced budgets and demands to consolidate information technology systems, some of those same clients now want Appian to address a new challenge: cloud computing. Calkins said the company, which has 170 employees, has adjusted its products and strategy to capitalize on the trend, whereby software and infrastructure are delivered via the Internet.

Calkins said Appian's sales so far in 2010 have eclipsed all of last year, and he estimates about 20 percent of customers now use cloud-based software. For that segment of his business, the real game-changer was an outside force: the economy.

"The real spark was the recession, actually," Calkins said. "They didn't have any capital budget to spend anymore, they just had operating, and they still had problems to solve. It made them look creatively for a solution by which they could just subscribe to the answer rather than buying it outright."

Calkins said creating board games is a hobby. He had two others in the pipeline that are designed to appeal to more niche audiences: Sekigahara is based on a historic Japanese battle by the same name and the second, tentatively named Propliner, was inspired by the early days of propeller-driven aircraft.

"I have always loved board games and simulations, for that matter. I use them as a tool to make myself better at things," Calkins said. "How many things in life give you a decisive verdict? If only every other activity would let me know if I had done the right or wrong thing so quickly or so abruptly."

Perhaps that's why he has amassed a personal collection of more than 1,000 of them, most of which have never been played more than once. After a game becomes predictable and the player's strategy grows stale, Calkins said it has lost much of its value.

"I know some people take games differently and they take it as an end itself. They practice for the game. For me, they're absolutely not and I don't practice them," he said. When a game is fresh, "it emphasizes the connection between the game and the living, which is the link that I find the most fascinating."

That's also the reason Calkins consumes himself with board games -- a seemingly archaic form of gaming -- rather than those tied to the computer or video console, despite the fact that Appian requires him to remain adept at the latest computing trends and technology.

"A video game is by its nature maddeningly repetitive, which is why I can't spend much time on them," he said.


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