Minecraft whizzkids hit the mother lode / by Jonathan Black

A 21-year -old from Derry is making hay from Minecraft. Jonathan Black’s Blockception has taken the digital world by storm and is one of Ireland’s fastest growing software businesses.

A tool created by Black’s firm called Lost Civilisation was downloaded 850,000 times in a single day over the Christmas period, but the road to winning the market started out rather simply.

Black began working in software when he was 14 and by the age of 18 he realised he never wanted to have a boss again.

While most people in their late teens just see that as a dream, Black went to work on finding a way to make it a reality. He started the business in September 2015 with co-founder Alex Bellavita.

“Basically, I had a few bad experiences working for people. I decided that I didn’t want to work for anyone any more and I had the skills to go independent,” Black told The Sunday Business Post.

“I was on the phone to a few people and one of them, Alex, ended up being my business partner.

“We compensate for each other’s weaknesses. I’d be much more on the business and finance side; Alex is more the creative guy. Not that I’m not creative, but he’s better at that. We have great chemistry.”

The business essentially creates virtual Lego, sets of blocks and items for use in Minecraft. As with sets in Lego of castles and spaceships, Blockception creates sets for Minecraft to enable users to build different environments and adapt them based on their imagination.

“Lost Civilisation was part of a 12-day marketing campaign by Microsoft around Christmas. Microsoft released a free product from one of their partners and ours was chosen,” said Black.

“It was a set based on a Machu Picchu-inspired world that the user could explore. For Christmas we added snow to it to give it a festive feel.”

The partnership with Microsoft came at an opportune time for the firm. Having just completed a separate commission for the tech giant, Blockception was chosen as one of Microsoft’s pioneer partners to support the Minecraft Marketplace, a partner program between Microsoft and content creators.

Up to then the business had been relying on local contracts to keep the lights on, with businesses and government organisations in the North commissioning the business for specific projects.

“We were getting by but we weren’t making money. Before the Microsoft partnership we did work with the Carrickfergus Museum to recreate Carrickfergus in the 17th century. We did projects for the Belfast Telegraph and CultureTech in Derry,” said Black.

“We were getting a couple of grand here and there but there could be six months between jobs. Then Microsoft commissioned us, the marketplace came along, and work started to pick up.”

Black had already started working on a part-time degree with the University of Hertfordshire when the Microsoft deal came through. At the time he didn’t see the potential, but he quickly recognised the impact it would have on the business.

“When we launched our first product in June, Annie: The Rise of Londinium, it made more in a month than I had made in several years of freelancing.

“Then we saw it with the second, third and fourth month. Even last month it made more than I had made on several commissions,” said Black.

Now Blockception has 50 people working for the business, including contractors. None of them shares an office and the team is scattered across the globe.

“The business is going steady. We’ve got some content coming that we believe has the potential to be viral. We’re expanding into other markets within Minecraft as well. Most of the money we’ve made has been invested back in to make the brand bigger,” said Black.

He splits his time between Derry, where his family lives, and Belfast. He only sees his co-founder a handful of times each year but that hasn’t stopped them growing the company.

“There’s not much we need to do in person aside from signing pieces of paper. We use software to track time on tasks, which is useful,” he said.

As a young entrepreneur Black is used to getting asked what’s required to succeed in business. Unsurprisingly, he finds it a little odd that people come to him for advice. For him it’s just a case of taking care of the challenge in front of him and going from there.

“Perseverance, just sticking at it, is so important. I learned from my own experience that fighting through it and going through the ups and downs matters. It was the months where we were making less that the company was working the hardest,” he said.

“You need to not get disheartened because you can put a lot of effort into something and it end up a flop. We thought we had a flop but we picked up the pieces, moved on, and kept going. You can’t stand still or wallow in the situation.”