When we interviewed Jeremy Handel (@Mrjhandel), president of Handelabra Games (@handelabra), for our report "Best Places to Live for Tech Entrepreneurs," we learned he founded a business with a partner he'd initially only interacted with online. Even more interesting? He did so while living in Cleveland – a city without the tech resources residents of Silicon Valley or Manhattan may take for granted.
Handel gives us a glimpse at how his business got its compelling start and why Cleveland proved to be the perfect place to launch.
The transcript below has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Can you tell us a little about Handelabra Games?
The company has been around since 2007 or 2008. We started life as an app studio and out of that grew this idea of what we do now. We call ourselves a digital tabletop game studio. We partner with companies that make board games, which are a lot of independents with small print runs, and we take their games and adapt them for digital platforms, whether it be iPad, iPhone, or computers. We become their digital partner, helping to grow their brand. We have a couple of apps that we still sell, and we still maintain them, but all of our new development is for digital tabletop gaming.
How did Handelabra Games come to be, and how many people work for you?
My business partner [John Arnold] and I were partners for nine months before we were ever in the same room together. We knew each other from an online gaming forum. We played Halo and Rock Band together, and we just got to talking one day about making apps. The iPhone was a new development at that time, and we just gave it a try. The first time we were actually ever in the room together was at the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference.
When we started, we were a completely virtual company. I was working out of my house. My business partner is actually from Canada, and we have another full-time developer in Canada. We have a full-time developer here [in Cleveland], and the person we just hired is a marketing assistant / community manager who works here.
What brought you to Cleveland and why did you decide to start your business there?
I'm originally from Cleveland. The only time I lived outside Cleveland was when my wife was going to grad school in Milwaukee. When she finished that, we were trying to figure out what to do next and decided for the time being we'd just go back home to Cleveland because the cost of living is cheap.
When I started the business a couple of years after that, we were already starting to have kids and we just had a moment when I was trying to raise money. I thought, "Okay, if I have to move out to the coast to raise money, should I do that?" We decided the answer was, "No." We like it in Cleveland, our family's here, and frankly Cleveland at that time was beginning a bit of an upswing that it's still on right now.
There's a pretty vibrant startup community here. There's an evolving ability to raise capital, and there's quite a talent pool of engineering and artistic people, which is great, especially for a game studio. We have a number of really great schools, like the Cleveland Institute of Art, which has lots of graphic design students. They even have a dedicated game design major.
A lot of the talent in the area wants to stay. Sure, some kids really want to go to Silicon Valley to work at Google, Apple, or Amazon – you'll have that anywhere. But a lot of kids grew up here and they'd like to stay here. One of the things I'm hoping to do – because before us there wasn't much of a gaming industry in Cleveland – is help the talent who wants to be able to stay here.
What makes Cleveland an appealing place for people working in tech?
We are kind of on an upswing right now. In 2013, we went through a business accelerator called LaunchHouse, which is based on a real concerted effort by the city to try to bring this vibrant, entrepreneurial spirit back home to Cleveland. A hundred years ago, Cleveland was an amazing hotbed of entrepreneurship, and there were a number of fortunes made here.
What makes something like a Silicon Valley so successful, in my opinion, is you get a couple of people who start companies that go big, they exit, and they turn around and put that money back into new companies coming up in their area. We haven't really had that yet in Cleveland, but it's coming. All this interest in the entrepreneurship world has been happening in the last five or six years. Some of those companies will mature and exit, and those entrepreneurs will hopefully put that money back into the system here in Cleveland. That’s the hope, anyway.
What is the tech community like?
It's growing for sure. It's not what you'd expect in Chicago, Boston, or Austin, but it's definitely growing. Personally, I am a member of some informal Meetup groups. One of our hires came from an amateur hacker gaming group. It's people who are engineers – they work at Progressive or American Greetings as tech support – and in their off hours, they make games, and they all get together to show them off. It was through that group that we found our hire that was here in Cleveland.
There's a bunch of other gaming Meetup groups as well. There's actually a conference called Industry in downtown Cleveland. I think it's like 350 people, and they had to cap it because it sold out and it was going to get too big for the venue they picked. That's been growing for the last few years. It really serves to sort of check in with Cleveland and say, "Okay, what industries are growing here? What businesses are people starting here? What are some of the success stories, how big are the success stories, and what can we learn from them to make the next success story?"
What is your favorite thing about living and working in Cleveland?
Taking the train to work. I live only a couple of blocks from one of the two lines that serve the East side. Not having a car downtown, I've been walking a lot more, which is great. We also have an amazing theater community with three historic theaters. And our art museum, which just finished a huge renovation, was voted the second best in the United States.
To learn more about the tech scene in Cleveland, check out "Best Places to Live for People Who Love a Comeback Story."
About Jeremy Handel
Jeremy Handel is the founder and CEO of Handelabra Games. He holds a Bachelor of Science in Information Resources from The University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. Handelabra Games creates digital tabletop games and is headquartered in the historic Terminal Tower in the heart of downtown Cleveland.