SL13B Ebbe on Ebbe and the Lab

Ebbe Linden (c) with Jo Yardley (l) and Zander Greene (r) at Meet the Lindens, Tuesday, June 21st, 2016
Ebbe Linden (c) with Jo Yardley (l) and Zander Greene (r) at Meet the Lindens, Tuesday, June 21st, 2016

This page is a part of a transcript of the Meet the Lindens presentation held at the SL13B celebration on Tuesday, June 21st, featuring Ebbe Linden (Ebbe Altberg, CEO at Linden Lab), answering questions from hosts, Zander Greene and Jo Yardley, and members of the audience.It covers the questions asked about Ebbe’s role as CEO.

Please use the following links to jump directly to a topic of particular interest.

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Ebbe at the Lab

How did working at Linden Lab come about? Was it something that you sought out, or did the Lab approach you?

It’s a combination. So yes, I’ve been primarily working in technologies that empower people to express themselves or make a living of some kind, and I’ve actually known Linden Lab from the beginning. Jed Smith who is the chairman of the board, is a good friend of mine; we’ve known each other since college, so we’re very good friends.

Linden Lab's chairman of the Board, Jed Smith, is a long-time friend of Ebbe Altberg, and had reviously tried to get Ebbe to join the company prior to his appointment as CEO in 2014. (image: Owl Ventures)
Linden Lab’s chairman of the Board, Jed Smith, is a long-time friend of Ebbe Altberg, and had previously tried to get Ebbe to join the company prior to his appointment as CEO in 2014. (image: Owl Ventures)

And two-and-a-half years ago, he approached me about – you know, there’s been a couple of times actually, even back when Philip was running the company; you know, I met with Philip many times, way back in the day, even when Second life had barely started.

So I’d met with Philip, and spoken to Jed about the whole concept of Second Life, and it’s been really intriguing and appealing to me for many years.

Many of you already know, but my oldest son, who’s 25, had a really good experience in Second Life – when he was too young, actually, but he was still able to have a great experience because he was able to create some incredible content, start a business with some other people, find customers, make builds for customers. and for a kid at that age, he was probably fifteen or sixteen, I felt that was just an incredible opportunity for someone to be able to go on-line and doe those kind of things. Not just play, but actually create and do business. It was awesome.

So over the years, I’ve been approached a couple of times and talked about different roles, but it was never the right time or the right role. This time it was the right time and the right role when they approached me, and so it did not take me long at all to accept the opportunity when it came about some two-and-a-half years ago, and I’ve had the time of my life since then.

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What were your first impressions when you began to work at the Lab?

Honestly, I thought it was a little bit, I would say internally it felt unclear, felt a bit de-focused. And I’m not talking about everybody, but sort-of in general. There were a lot of projects, a lot of smaller projects. and it felt uncertain what the company was really betting on and really going after. so it felt like there were quite a few experiments floating around. And I felt the energy was a bit low, but you know that can happen when there are transitions of leaders and people and stuff like that

But I thought we pretty quickly got in a grove; we shut down some six or so projects [Creatorverse, and dio were dropped early on,  Versu, their interactive fiction game, was allowed to continue independently of the Lab, Desura, the games distribution platform was eventually sold, and development of Patterns also eventually shut-down and the game offered for sale].

We pretty quickly, within the first couple of months, decided to invest heavily in Project Sansar, and then went about how to organise the people around that and therefore had to set-up a sort-of dedicated Second life team, so the Second Life R&D or product development team is completely distinct, because early on there were people sort-of working on both sides and going back and forth, and that was really hard for people to focus that way.

But we set that up pretty quickly, and then it was an interesting journey to convince the board of the Sansar investment, because we’re talking of an investment in the tens of millions of dollars over many years, and we’re some 75 people or so now working full-time or just focusing on Sansar.

So, it was like I said, fairly fractured, a little bit unfocused and a bit low-energy. and now we’re working on fewer things, bigger things, with more focus. So I think we’ve come a long way. and the Second life team is awesome; they’re super-dedicated and absolutely love the product they work on. And the Sansar team still has to really show-off their stuff, but that project is coming along really nicely as well.

Blocksworld is a sandbox type game allowing users to create and build from blocks, purchase specialist packs, and even sell their own creations through a marketplace
Blocksworld is a sandbox type game allowing users to create and build from blocks, purchase specialist packs, and even sell their own creations through a marketplace

And then we have little Blocksworld, that’s a much smaller team. We do believe in the core asset pack there, but they still haven’t really found the grove where they can get the growth and monetisation that is really needed for that game to succeed. So we’re going to have to decide what the right level of investment is there; where we can make that succeed or not.

But Second Life, obviously, is going to have many, many years ahead of itself, so that’s where you can think fairly long-term; Blocksworld is very short-term thinking, and then Sansar is obviously incredibly long-term thinking. I mean, we’re betting on VR and stuff, and that market doesn’t exist yet; so that’s definitely a much longer thing. So it’s kind-of interesting to walk between different teams that are working on very different time frames and different types of use-cases and stuff. I’m just having a tremendous amount of fun there, though.

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Which part of the job do you like the most?

Well for me personally, it’s this intersect of technology and art, something I’ve been passionate about both those sides … so just being able to look at the work our artists are doing, our users are doing, and then the technologies to enable all these things. Just the sheer complexity of user-created [content], platform, marketplace places, currencies and exchanges, enabling people to make money, compliance. It’s just a really complex thing to get an ecosystem or a world  – in the context here we can talk about a world – but to make it sort-of functional, get the right sort-of levels of supply and demand, and the right types of users being able to do the right types of thing.

Every day, there’s like interesting puzzles to solve for, creatively, technically, so there’s never a boring moment.

And then VR, I’m very passionate about VR and the stuff we’re doing with Sansar to enable social VR; I mean there’s not really much out there with regards to social VR yet. and Sansar is now getting to the point where we can have some really neat social interactions in Sansar, and it’s quite a different thing.

I mean here it still feels slightly distanced from myself; I see my avatar there on the screen, but in Sansar I’m really inside the avatar and I’m really inside the place. So virtual reality is going to be just a huge, huge opportunity. and I just hope it grows fast enough for us to have a big business; but I’m very bullish on that. So that’s a tremendous amount of fun.

And there’s also a huge number of problems to be solved that no-one has solved yet. None of the big companies, none of the gaming companies, so we’re sort-of in uncharted territory a lot there, learning a lot about how do you move about comfortably, and what’s the right type of an avatar in a virtual experience. So a tremendous amount of things we get to learn for the first time and experiment with.

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What have been the biggest challenges you’ve faced since taking over as CEO of Linden Lab? – Onyx Gecko

Biggest challenges. Wow. I just don’t often think about things that way. You know, it’s the first time I’m a CEO. I mean I’ve been in very senior roles in large companies with many, many more employees than I have now. I had close to almost a thousand direct reports in previous roles, and here I have 220 at the Lab.

But as a CEO, you feel more lonely. There are things that come up, whether it’s personnel or thorny things where it’s not obvious who you can talk to about certain things. so that’s more on the personal side. But all-in-all, it’s very rare that I stress over anything. I think overall, the team here’s doing a fantastic job, It’s a fun group of people to be working with.

Challenges … I mean it always changes; the challenge always moves. I mean in the beginning, it took a little while to convince ourselves in the organisation and the board that we should go down this path of having this massive investment in Sansar. I mean that was a very big bet, so that was a challenge; but it was a positive challenge. It was like something painful to overcome, or something. It was just a fun challenge.

I think that a challenge that’s facing us every day is how do we get Second life to grow? That’s a tricky challenge. A lot of things for how Second Life functions has been very much set, and making dramatic changes in Second Life is like an incredible ordeal to try to do. So how do you find the ways to make the product incrementally better so that you can get growth and get more users, rather than having it stay flat or slowly decline over time. I think that’s maybe one of the most frustrating challenges.

And we continue to do smart things and good things, and the platform today is more stable and safer and better in so many different ways. but it’s not like there’s this magic, “Wow! If we just do this, we just add this one button, and *boom!* we’re going to get hockey stick growth!” No. So that’s kind-of an interesting and sometimes frustrating challenge.

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945 Battery Street: the Lab's San Francisco Office and HQ
945 Battery Street: the Lab’s San Francisco Office and HQ

Is there something we as residents can be doing to be better ambassadors for the platform? We’re as central to the growth of the platform overall as the employees of Linden Lab are.

In general, you’re already doing tremendous work. But obviously, if you have the opportunity to do even more, that would be awesome.

When new people show up, to show them around, help the out. I hear so many positive stories of where that happened. And for a lot of people who have stuck around for a long time, that was kind of the thing that made them stick; that they were greeted and taken care of, or helped out or shown the way or supported, included. That is what makes it an incredibly positive experience for someone.

We still have more work to do, and we’re going to do more with griefing and crap like that, where a first time experience for some users are really bad. But it doesn’t take much, when someone walks up to you and yells at you, you just want to leave.

I assume most people who turn up to something like this are the positive crowd that are motivated to have a healthy, human place together. So I assume that you already do a lot of these things. Being kind to others and helping others. Whether it’s talking about it when you’re not in Second Life, to other people and invite them over.

And then the other thing you can do is to continue to do what you so do, give us feedback on what we can do better and how we can make your Lives better, and how can we make you more successful. And that always helps us with how we prioritise things. So keep the feedback coming.

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You have a unique set of challenges in terms of managing a team which is fairly equal parts technical and creative. What is your management philosophy? Do you have to be a different manager for every single person, or are you a stick-to-your-guns, this is my way or the highway manager?

Well, I’m not a “my way for the highway” kind of guy, but I would say I’m transparent, I participate, so whatever meeting I’m in here at the company, whether it’s with artists or technologists or front end or back-end or business or operations, whatever it is, then I’m just once of the players that try to contribute to helping us do things better. What can I do to help my teams be more successful. That’s kind-of how I see it.

So I’m not so much of a boss-boss type of person, I’m more of a participant who just enjoys solving problems with people and trying to enable people. And sometime, yeah, trying to rein things in to make sure we keep focus, because we’re working on products that are so complex, you start to sometime think we’re trying to completely solve world hunger in one fell swoop. And you have to decide where to spend your energy and not to spend your energy. So maybe where i help most is trying to figure out things to not do; to make sure we don’t spread ourselves too thin. Which is a difficult one with such a complex product.

So yeah, empowering, transparent, and a member. That’s kind-of how I see may style.

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What are the things you see Second Life residents doing that gets you fired-up and admire?

It’s the breadth of things that blows me aware all the time. The fact that every day in Sansar [I think this was meant as “Second Life”] someone is creating just for the sake of creating. Whether it’s art or the fact that it’s music, the fact that there are health professionals and educators, and students and role-players, and just this incredibly diverse set of reasons for why people come here.

People often say like “the Second Life community”; I’m like, it’s actually not a community, it’s lots of communities around completely different reasons for being here, which is more similar to the physical world we spend most of our time in.

It’s that diversity, I think, and the opportunity for people who come in for various reasons to be able to interact with each other and learn from each other and share with each other. That it’s not just all of us coming in to shoot the same monsters or all of us coming in to try to get the highest score, but it is this incredible blend of things that is awe-inspiring to me.

People are often like, “well, what’s the vertical, and what’s the focus?” and even with Sansar starting out, “well who, are the key users, and what are they going to do?” And it’s like, well how do you find that balance between enabling almost anything and not water it down to the point where  people trying to do things can’t succeed because it’s too generic. So how do you give people the right tools and the right capabilities to express what they want to do, and be successful at it.

And just seeing so much success. I mean the fact that people were able to redeem really close to US $60 million last year, so people making a living. All of that is what inspires me. And just the kindness; you know, people raising money for all kinds of different things and helping each other and just being human – or variants (laughs) of some warm-blooded animal!

More than any one specific thing, I think it’s the diversity that sort-of appeals to me.

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Critics of the digital age say technology has made us more isolated, less social. do you think that’s a fair critique, or do you feel those folk are missing the bigger picture?

In the role I’m sitting in (laughs) I can tell you, they’re obviously completely missing the point. I mean I think technology has, even though we all look silly staring at our mobile ‘phones all day long, but it used to be staring at newspapers or something.

I think, certainly what we’re working on, Second Life and Sansar, I think we enable social scenarios that otherwise just wouldn’t be possible. For people who it otherwise wouldn’t be possible to do what they can do in these environments. And then for all of us to be able to interact with other human beings from all over the world for all kinds of reasons, is for me is a social enabler, not a social disabler.

Of course, we should all get some sunshine and move about in physical space as well. But there’s not doubt that for a lot of people, Second Life has been, socially, a Godsend. It’s improved their lives, it’s changed their lives; they’ve found their loved ones, they’ve found friendships. There are few platforms that have enabled that, and that’s something that we are obviously extremely proud of. And it’s also what motivates us; to enable these incredible social interactions that are taking place in second Life.

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Have you created your Linden Bear yet? – Darktiger Ditko

No. I’ve had one made for me with the idea that I’d start with that and put my own touch on it, rather than start from scratch. But I just haven’t done that.

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Is the difficulty in generating adequate monetisation model a / the reason behind Blocksworld not reaching the Android platform? – Inara Pey

No, I don’t think so. because it’s not that we need a tonne more users, then suddenly it’ll become profitable. What we’re looking at here is how much money are we making off the users we have, and before you go to more platforms you want to make sure that you have something that is actually working, and the iOS system is definitely big enough for us to validate the product to that degree.

I think it’s more important for the team to focus on getting the right formula on that platform before we expand to a bunch of other platforms, although we are experimenting with also being able to do it on the web, so you can actually go to Blocksworld and actually play some of these games on the web, which is kind-of interesting because it kind-of tells us what’s possible in WebGL. That’s kind-of a more interesting technology evaluation, and learning when will WebGL be sufficiently performant directly in the browser to be able to run some of these experiences.

The Lab is experimenting with Blocksworld and WebGL - although at the time of writing, I've admittedly been unable to get it to run, despite having WebGL enabled in Firefox and Chrome
The Lab is experimenting with Blocksworld and WebGL – although at the time of writing, I’ve admittedly been unable to get it to run, despite having WebGL enabled in Firefox and Chrome

But yeah, I think there’s more about going deep and understanding the exact thing that users want and need. Are we targeting the right demographic? Blocksworld is kind-of making it challenging. First it was iPad only, which is a fairly small audience. And then it was a very young demographic; we want it to be a young demographic, but maybe it was too young of a demographic, you know.  It’s certainly a demographic that without parents’ help is not going to give us any money.

So that team has to, I think, fiddle a bit more on the platforms where we already are before we expand out.

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