Josh Nilson has a lot on his mind
The East Side Games co-founder and BC Tech’s 2022 Person of the Year is contemplating how to shape the next generation of entrepreneurs.
Josh Nilson and his dog, Bear. Photo credit: Stanley Rashai for Vancouver Tech Journal.
Josh Nilson is adjusting a pillow. He lifts up the stylish sleeve of the chore jacket he is wearing to reveal several strands from the cushion. “Fuck, I just lint-rolled, too,” he says, with a sincerity that is befitting of his stylishness. The pillow in question comes courtesy of the North Point Cafe and Brewery, a spot cozily tucked between Bentalls III and IV. His company, local gaming fixture East Side Games, calls the business complex home, so it was an easy commute for my coffee-mate.
The Bentalls, though, are not exactly East Side: the neighbourhood from where the company got its moniker. And the Nilson story starts not in Downtown Vancouver or even East Van, but in Northern B.C. Luckily, it appears I’ve caught him at a time where he is particularly contemplative — often answering along the lines of, “That’s something I've been thinking about,” as the two of us dove into his past, present, and future. Like the strands of fabric on his jacket, his thoughts seemed to braid.
Nilson's Northern B.C. roots are planted in the town of Willow River. It’s a spot 2.5 kilometres southeast of the confluence with the Fraser River, and a 25-minute drive to Prince George, if you floor it. Nilson told me that the population numbers were pumped up when he was a kid, advertising a 200-person town. More accurately, only 100 reside in Willow River.
He describes it as, “Country country”; that secondary emphasis making the point. You could do whatever you wanted, he said. No one bugged you. Nilson and his friends grew accustomed to riding their motorbikes down the middle of the street.
He went to a country school that was even more remote than his home, spending the first 18 years of his life as comfortable in the bush as the confines of Willow River. Nilson’s dad worked in Edmonton in oil or construction jobs, perhaps inspiring a near-religious fandom of the Edmonton Oilers in his son. Attending a game there was an experience that Nilson said felt like the ecstasy devout Christians feel at a church service. His mom, meanwhile, worked in forestry. She just retired, he shared with a smile. She worked until she was 70, notching 40-something years at the same place.
Instead of following in those vocational footsteps, Nilson was drawn to the world of restaurants. It’s what he did from the time he was 15 to the time he was 27. Still, nothing up until that point in our conversation made me think founding a Vancouver-based tech company was a natural milestone. So, I asked Nilson to connect those dots: a guy grows up in the bush, loves restaurants, and now runs a tech company in Vancouver. How does that happen?
Nilson chuckled. “Yeah, huh,” he says, as if he’s never really thought about it like that before. And fair enough. But his time working in restaurants and his love of the industry were rich soil to cultivate the skills that make him a strong leader in the tech community. “I always wanted to work in kitchens,” he reflected. “I wanted that Anthony Bourdain, hard workin’ environment. I wanted the challenge of a busy service and not freaking out. I think that’s something that’s still one of the hardest things I’ve ever done professionally. Just being able to hold it together. David Chang talks about how it still makes him anxious. There’s that scene in [the TV show] The Bear where tickets are printed to the floor. Nothing is harder than that. Working in tech we do long hours, sure. But the person you’re serving isn’t in the same room.”
Nilson can live vicariously through his brother, who owns a cafe and a couple of food trucks in Ucluelet. Family is obviously important to Nilson, and I enjoyed the view into that part of his life. But I was still curious how tech got on his radar. I probed further, asking if he had any professional role models.
“I probably should’ve had more,” he answered. “I wanted to be a web designer because I saw what Joshua Davis made for Praystation back in the day. Back then, a website was your entire identity. But I was kind of discouraged because not a lot of people wanted that. Most people just wanted a generic, shitty website. I wasn’t into that but I was good at biz dev. So I just sold a bunch of websites and packages. Got a little bit into video editing. A lot of that was for the BC Sports Hall of Fame. There’s an interactive Canucks exhibit that I did.”
Photo credit: Stanley Rashai for Vancouver Tech Journal.
Our conversation was now moving from a simmer to a boil. At this point in his life, Nilson’s passions and hobbies moved from the kitchen towards gaming. As a child, he loved video games; when a friend brought him an OG XBOX or a PlayStation 1, he would spend endless hours playing. This was in 2007 and the iPhone was just coming out. There were no games for it yet. An opportunity.
Before East Side Games, there was DownTownEastSide Games. The Nilson-founded outfit was run out of the GrowLab space, the late accelerator on Hastings Street between Abbott and Cambie. He told me that they had to reinforce the walls. Somebody dug through the back staircase through the drywall overnight to break in — not once or twice, but four times. But Nilson had his start as a co-founder.
“GrowLab had the space and East Side Games was there, some other companies, and a one-desk company called Launch Academy, which Ray [Walia] had founded. How cool is that?” he said. “A lot of startups started out of that space. They had the meeting rooms and all that. And we had our little games studio. That first GrowLab cohort was pretty legendary. Summify was there, too. Twitter bought it. I think it’s natural human emotion to look back at those times when you didn’t really have great funding or great success but it feels like the most fun.”
Fast-forward a decade, and the company now known as East Side Games went public in February 2021. The outfit has made its bread recently by taking TV shows to the mobile game world. Trailer Park Boys. The Office. RuPaul’s Drag Race. Dr. Who. Star Trek. It’s an all-star roster of IP, that last one even netting East Side Games a Mobile Game Awards nomination.
The most valuable resource you can ask of somebody, Nilson thinks, is their time. This sentiment makes it obvious why the offerings produced by his company are at such an elite level, as they mine that most-prized of resources. Nilson also reminded me that games can be very intimidating. It’s why he hates the “gamer” tag, comparing the term to saying you’re a foodie because you eat food.
Nilson’s team’s wheelhouse is to augment the communities around these franchises in the worlds East Side Games create. All of its games are LiveOps-focused. There’s new content every week: new universes or new episodes. There are even more seasons in East Side Games’ Trailer Park Boys game than there were in the actual television show, for example, so the company works with the show’s writers to provide new content for its game.
The East Side Games team grew exponentially during the pandemic, and it’s clear that the period played a role in how he views things now. He spent increased time with his family, which includes a daughter and Twitter-famous pug, Bear. (Bear is so famous that Nilson subtweeted our photoshoot request.)
Photo credit: Stanley Rashai for Vancouver Tech Journal.
“I mean, I think that’s the one thing over the last twelve years that’s been pretty hard,” Nilson answered when asked how he balances it all. “It’s a lot easier to do the entrepreneurial grind when you don’t have kids. When you have kids and they get to a certain age, you want to be home more. The silver lining of the pandemic was I got to spend every day with my kid.”
Nilson is definitely a fan of the residual remote-work culture from the pandemic, describing it as phenomenal. But, he also thinks that it’s forcing us to forget some basics of humanity.
“Remember when it snowed recently?” he asked. “I knew people that were like, ‘Oh, so glad I work from home. I can’t go out in the snow. Time to order in UberEats and buy some stuff on Amazon.’ Like, ‘What the fuck, man?’ Those [other] people can go out in the snow? Throughout the pandemic, there were so many people out there still working to provide our work-from-home lifestyle.”
While obviously not on the frontlines or in the gig economy, East Side Games was definitely busy during our unprecedented times. I was curious, now that times are a bit more precedented, what work life looked like at the company. How does Nilson as a leader set culture?
Nilson thinks, like a lot of companies, that the team is still trying to figure out exactly what that is. East Side Games has that small Bentall office and a little place in Toronto. But pretty much everyone is working remotely. So, he’s thinking a lot about how to create a collaborative team, with the majority working in their homes or in offices three time zones apart. How do you collaborate? How do you work together? That’s the meat of your culture, Nilson told me.
It’s an interesting sentiment and the onus on collaboration exists not just within his team. Nilson walks the talk, though. He’s constantly travelling. Seattle and Vegas are frequent haunts. “There’s lots of people doing really cool stuff in Vancouver, but it’s weird: more people from Vancouver tech hang out when they are away from Vancouver than when they are in Vancouver,” he joked.
But even more than those down South, Prince George or Kelowna are destinations for Nilson. He envisions a connected province, and we spent a considerable amount of time chatting about it. I was tipped off at these takes by his tearful speech upon winning Person of the Year at the 2022 Technology Impact Awards, the preeminent personal prize in our province’s tech community.
Nilson is thinking about how to get more visibility for people who are working in tech, but not in Vancouver, or Victoria, or even Kelowna. It’s a challenge because you can’t just go to those places and say, “This is how you do it,” he says. Post-pandemic, people can live and work anywhere. The challenge for companies, including the one that he works for, is figuring out how to hire across B.C., and allow those people to live where they work. Nilson said that’s another thing that’s constantly on his mind.
Also taking up mental real estate for him is the idea of Vancouver being a destination for international tech talent. Nilson doesn’t think it needs to be about getting people from all over the world into B.C. tech. It’s more of a question of how we get kids who are just out of school to work where they live, start startups where they live, and make games where they live. Then, getting people in Vancouver or Victoria’s startup ecosystem to go out there and boost up those scenes across the province without sounding, as Nilson put perfectly, like a bunch of dicks.
“I know when I lived [in the north],” he recalled, “and people came from the city to be like, ‘This is what you should do. But I’m going home tomorrow. Peace out.’ Fuck you. I’m not going to do anything you say. You have no idea what it’s like to live here. It’s a totally different mindset in northern B.C.”
The mindset may be different, but the workforce is built different too. Not only is there talent, but employees are proven in the hard-working, blue collar industries that hinge on that work ethic. How can we create jobs in tech for those folks? Nilson wonders. In his mind, the positions shouldn't compete, with hiring running in parallel to the sectors already thriving in the North. A new startup in Prince George shouldn’t mean we’re taking jobs from forestry, he said.
While his provincial pride is clearly present, Nilson is also proud Métis. He is an important voice not just for Indigenous people in tech, but for the entirety of B.C.’s tech community. As a very imperfect ally I asked for Nilson’s guidance: What should I know as a settler about Indigenous representations in tech?
“That there’s still a lot of learning to be done,” he said. “I think people aren’t so keen to learn because you’ve really got to put in the work. But, just start with the basics. [For example,] ‘What does the term Indigenous mean?’ I have a lot to learn about that as well. You need to know what that encompasses. You need to know what the groups of people are within that term.”
There are a few action items that Nilson lays out. Firstly,: know which Indigenous peoples you are working with. What challenges do they face? What are the distinct parts of their culture? You may work with various Métis people, and you need to know what that means, and how it’s different depending on where they are from. It’s a lot of learning, Nilson acknowledged. But it’s vastly important.
Photo credit: Stanley Rashai for Vancouver Tech Journal.
He’s encouraged by seeing some companies start to embrace that. Nilson cited a TAP Network report that saw Indigenous representation move from 0.7 percent to 1.4 percent. It’s a small step forward, but he doesn’t think it just means that Indigenous people are getting into tech. Nilson sees another factor: more safe spaces to talk openly about Indigenous culture. It can be one of the adjectives we use to define an entrepreneur, but it doesn’t always have to be an “Indigenous entrepreneur,” he reminded me. It can just be an entrepreneur. “We have a lot of work to do in all of our companies first,” he said.
As for what’s next for his own outfit, Nilson is thinking on a grand scale.
“Megaverse,” he says with a smile. “Metaverse wasn’t big enough. A lot more people want to play games. And a lot of people are absolutely attached to their mobile devices. I imagine people would rather lose their wallets than their phones. Our technology will allow more people to access more interesting content in more ways.”
There was indeed a phone in one of Nilson’s chore jacket’s pockets. I know because he and I both did the same quick scroll of our notifications as we exited the cafe. As he turned back into the Bentall building, I noticed the strands of fabric on the sleeve were gone. Nilson had pruned well over the duration of our chat. A short while later I got this email from him:“About the interview, I’ve been thinking a lot about determination in getting more ppl into tech, especially in the North and outside of Van/Vic/Kelowna. I look for it often but unlike strategy, you have to prove out determination. You have to outwork and that’s not sexy for headlines. I’ve never been the most qualified by a long shot but I’d match my work ethic with anyone’s, and that’s everyone [from] where I grew up.”Nilson clearly still has a lot on his mind.