Founder story

Serbian startup Two Desperados is winning mobile gaming development—and gender parity

How a woman founder leveraged Google support to upend a male-dominated industry

If asked to choose our player to navigate the world of mobile game development, our first pick would be serial entrepreneur Marija Ilić. Marija has been an avid gamer since playing on her family’s Commodore 64 while growing up in Serbia. With almost a decade of experience in the gaming industry and over 12 years in project management and IT, Marija knows how to develop an idea into a successful final product. But five years after launching and building a successful software startup, Marija and cofounder Vojislav Milutinović realized their heart wasn’t in it. So in 2010 they went back to level one to launch Two Desperados, their Belgrade-based video games development studio. "My primary goal back then was to make a video game and get into the industry I was dreaming about," Marjia said. "Making a goal out of a childhood dream at this point sounds almost naive, but it truly was as simple as that."

Two Desperados’ first offering, Woka Woka, far exceeded their expectations by quickly becoming one of the top marble shooting games in Europe with over 30 million players worldwide. Their second game, Viola’s Quest, offered a more elevated experience and hundreds of levels of marble arcade games. As Two Desperados grew rapidly, Marija and her team needed to expand to match their growth. Marija was previously an active mentor in the Google Launchpad Start event in Serbia which was a five-day bootcamp designed for early-stage startups that have not yet achieved product-market-fit so she knew her budding startup could benefit from the tailored Google support and product expertise. Marija returned to Google for Startups Campus Warsaw for their Mobile Accelerator, a six-month program providing startups with one-on-one mentorship, workshops, and Google product support.

The Accelerator program kicked off with an intensive bootcamp. “Bootcamp week was packed with great workshops,” remembered Marija. “My favourite and the most beneficial ones were about leadership and user research.” Marija particularly benefited from the mentorship of longtime Googler Lucero Tagle, who specializes in working with growth stage startups to unicorns on their “people challenges”. Lucero and Marija talked at length about business development and leadership in many forms. Marija and her team also benefited from discussions on user experience, which is even more crucial for Marija’s startup than most. The only way to perfect the user experience was to get answers directly from the user and understand their thoughts and feelings on the product. The Two Desperados team also learned how to integrate Objective Key Results (OKRs) from the program, a goal-setting activity used extensively by Google, that helped them define short and long-term goals. Marija says the introduction of OKRs has given them better and more frequent benchmarks of success and sharper focus when it comes to making decisions. Today, they have over 60 employees and three games in their catalogue available globally on all mobile play stores.

The Two Desperados team is also using Google’s Firebase as one of their core tools. They leverage Firebase Analytics to gain insights into their players’ behaviors to use as the basis for tracking their Key Performance Indicators (KPIs). By understanding their players are interacting with the game, Marija and her team can make more informed decisions on marketing and performance. Firebase Remote Config combined with the AB Testing option empowers the studio to edit and tweak games remotely, constantly improving the player experience. To round it all out, Two Desperados uses Firebase Push Notifications to notify players of potential updates and Firebase Crashlytics to give them insight into users' problems, potential crashes, and other non-fatal errors in their games to always stay ahead of the curve.

Two Desperados doubled in size in 2019, doubled again in 2020, and are still growing strong. But the statistic Marija is most proud of is that almost half of the staff and a majority of the leadership team at the studio are women. This isn’t just because Marija is committed to gender equality; it’s also the best way to build products for her target audience. “The games we create are played mostly by women, and to me it is very important to have both points of view,” said Marija. “I hope that more and more gaming companies will follow our example and recognise gender parity as one of the very important topics.” But no matter how many badges she earns—chief product officer, mentor, role model—Marija always thinks of herself as a founder first. “There are problems you’d never see as an employee but you see everyday as a founder - in the technology, in people management, or even with customers,” Marija says. “You never have less work. It's always more work, but the responsibility and stakes are higher. My days are never the same but I wouldn’t trade it for anything else.”

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