“It’s very polarizing when we say that we’re married and work together,” says Keith Shepherd of his partnership with his wife Natalia Luckyanova. The couple founded Imangi Studios, a mobile gaming company, back in 2008; their app Temple Run is iconic, having garnered over 170 million downloads, with a sequel out today. “It’s always either, ‘Awesome, that sounds great,’" says Shepherd of reactions to their working arrangement, "or ‘Oh my God, that sounds like the worst thing ever.’”
For Shepherd, 33, and Luckyanova, 31, it’s mostly been awesome. Indeed, without having their life partner also be their business partner, Shepherd and Luckyanova wonder whether this journey would have even been possible. The two met as software engineers in Washington, DC; when they married a little over five years ago, they found themselves continually scheming about how they could work for themselves. When news came out about Apple opening up its app store to independent developers, they decided to take the plunge.
Or rather, to take half a plunge. Shepherd quit his job; Luckyanova kept hers as a kind of insurance policy (and as a literal one—Shepherd became a dependent on her health care plan). “The huge advantage of being married,” says Shepherd, “is you have a built-in safety net. We knew that if one of us could support the other while we got something going, it was less risky than going it by yourself.” Luckyanova says the couple hardly fits the profile of dice-rolling entrepreneurs. “We’re surprisingly risk-averse,” she says. “We were scared.”
In July of 2008, they launched their first app, a word game called Imangi. It made $5,000 in its first month. “We were like, ‘Hey, cool, we can make some money at this,’” recalls Shepherd. In October, they pushed out a second word game which was likewise profitable. Then they got overly ambitious, launching into a 3-D sled-racing game, Little Red Sled, that they intended to put out by Christmas. In fact, they released their sledding game in February of the following year, just as the snows were beginning to thaw. The game didn’t make back its investment.
“That’s when we thought, ‘Wow, do we really have any idea what we’re doing?’” recalls Shepherd.
It was the kind of moment that breaks many nascent entrepreneurs. But Shepherd and Luckyanova had each other. “We’re always bouncing ideas off each other, lending moral support, brainstorming,” Shepherd says. “I think that helps tremendously.” They went on long walks, dissecting what went wrong with a project and what went right. And at this moment that ought to have been a low point, the husband-and-wife team instead doubled down on their investment. They realized that while they’d had a flop, they’d also had two successes. And they’d learned a lot. Luckyanova decided to quit her job, too, joining Shepherd on the venture full time.
“Looking back on our financial records there, I think we were insane to do that,” confesses Luckyanova. Partially, she and Shepherd recall, they were simply having too much fun not to go all-in. “There was no way Natalia was going to let me continue doing this full time,” says Shepherd, “while she was stuck in a job she didn’t like.” For Luckyanova to quit proved to be the right move. Their next game, Harbor Master, climbed into the top five paid games in the app store. And in 2011, they launched the game that made them famous among app enthusiasts: the kinetic Indiana Jones-like sprinting game, Temple Run. If you haven’t played it yourself, odds are a few hundred people you’ve passed in the streets, glued to their smartphone screens, have.
Shepherd remembers the first time he realized their game was an outright sensation. He was headed to do an interview about mobile games on the Kojo Nnamdi show, a D.C.-area radio staple, when he saw two young women on the D.C. Metro passing an iPhone back and forth. They were playing Temple Run. “I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s something I created!' I was too shy to say anything about it.” One the way back from the interview, he saw another stranger on the Metro playing the game.
Not long after that, Luckyanova spotted a girl at an airport playing the game on an iPad. “I freaked out, I was so excited,” she recalls. “I took a totally creepy picture of her over my shoulder. I have this deranged, excited look on my face.”
The two recently moved from D.C. to Raleigh, North Carolina, where they bought a house. (They won’t disclose exact numbers on Temple Run's revenue, which comes mostly from in-app purchases, but they say it’s in the “millions.”) They have a recent arrival to the family, a baby girl, and modestly introduce themselves as app developers around the neighborhood. Their runaway success, so to speak, led to a partnership with Disney and Pixar for a Brave-themed version of Temple Run. Shepherd has mostly taken the lead on Temple Run 2 (along with a handful of others on a very small team), while Luckyanova has largely chosen to spend the last few months raising the baby.
It’s not always easy, being partners in this dual sense, they admit. Shepherd and Luckyanova point to disagreements that have grown tense (Luckyanova thought the “evil monkeys” that chase the hero in the game were “way too scary," though sales proved her wrong), and Shepherd says that when you’re “working together on the same thing all the time, it’s sometimes hard to find boundaries between your work life and your personal life.”
Still, it’s a mad dash they say they wouldn’t trade for anything: “It’s a really great thing to be able to work as a married couple,” Shepherd says. “There’s a lot of fulfillment.”
To read about another couple-turned-entrepreneurial team, check out “Like Sonny And Cher—With More Google Analytics.”