Reflections & Lessons Learned from Roblox, After More Than a Decade of Partnership

By: Chris Fralic

With their direct listing on the NYSE, today Roblox becomes $RBLX. It’s a day that’s both well-earned and a long-time coming. After more than 13 years of knowing and partnering with David Baszucki and the entire Roblox team, I’ve seen the incredible amount of work they’ve put into building this company firsthand.

Roblox CEO in front of NYSE
A photo I snapped of Roblox founder and CEO David Baszucki this morning

To mark the occasion, I thought I’d expand on the handful of memories and reflections I shared about Roblox’s journey (and First Round’s front-row seats) over on Twitter this morning.

This has become one of my favorite stories to tell. Many investors will tell you about when they “just knew” a startup was going to make it big, the moment that solidified their conviction to cut the check. In the case of First Round and Roblox, that wasn’t how things played out.

We were originally introduced to Dave in late 2007 by Rick Lewis, a friend of ours who we knew from the myYearbook board and later worked with on HotelTonight and Stensul. The game had just launched out of beta a year earlier.

We spent some time exploring, but we ended up passing on the investment opportunity. The game was really early and very basic. Additionally, the investment didn’t perfectly fit our model, given that the valuation was close to $10M, so I had to tell Dave we were passing.

A screenshot from our notes in 2008 in First Round’s Salesforce account.
A screenshot from our notes in 2008 in First Round’s Salesforce account.
A screenshot from our notes in 2008 in First Round’s Salesforce account.

While we were originally learning about the investment opportunity, I had asked my son Max — who was 8 at the time — to test out the game. Even after we ended up passing, he kept playing and playing. I’d see him on Roblox night after night.

Thankfully, I had kept in touch with Dave. I would even visit Roblox’s early office sometimes on my trips out to California. There were about 8–10 people in the company at the time, including Matt Dusek, Keith Lucas and John Shedletsky.

I remember Dave sharing updates with me, and I was impressed with the growth. In the 12 months since we first looked at Roblox, they had gone from 300K to 1.6M hours played per week, with revenue jumping from about $15K to over $220K per month. But the number that impressed me most? Dave said he was on version 87 of his business model already.

Here, Max and a buddy can be seen playing on the first day avatar clothing was introduced on Roblox, discovering that pants can be underpants.
Here, Max and a buddy can be seen playing on the first day avatar clothing was introduced on Roblox, discovering that pants can be underpants.
Here, Max and a buddy can be seen playing on the first day avatar clothing was introduced on Roblox, discovering that pants can be underpants.

Here’s what I wrote to my fellow partners at First Round:

My 9Yr old Beta Tester Max has been using it more and more, as have his buddies. Been talking to CEO David Baszucki and there *might* be a chance to join in at least partially…This thing is rocking and I love the way that [Dave] is tracking the business.

We ended up investing in July 2009 — all thanks to Max sticking with the game and our willingness to take a second look and rethink the valuation piece.

As an investor, I’ve been fortunate enough to partner with a wide range of companies, from Ring and Hotel Tonight, to Warby Parker and Flurry. Through the repeated process of raising a fund and deploying capital to back founders as they bet big on unique ideas in different markets, you start to see patterns emerge across each “vintage.”

Looking back, it’s notable that First Round’s investments in Roblox, Square, and Uber all came from the same fund. It goes without saying, of course, that we were incredibly lucky to partner with their respective founding teams from their earliest startup days, sitting courtside and lending support wherever we could as these impactful businesses took shape. Although each of these companies wound up at incredible destinations, their journeys looked very different — and their arrivals were not preordained.

After our initial investment in 2009, we ended up leading Roblox’s next round, and I joined the board of directors, a seat I held for several years. The honest truth is that across all of those board updates, there were highs and lows, fits and starts, growth spurts and lulls. Sometimes they made their numbers and sometimes they wildly missed. Certain key hires worked out and scaled alongside the business, while others parted ways. For many years, the company struggled to raise capital.

Fellow First Round community members like Uber and Square were more of what we’d call a “fast bake,” where the ingredients seemed to coalesce from the start. They had momentum, off-the-charts growth, and widespread recognition and buzz in and around the tech world.

With Roblox, I watched the company grow, but remain well under the radar. During that time whenever I’d mention it as a company to watch to fellow investors — or anyone really — I’d usually get the response “ROAD BLOCKS???” While the company wasn’t a household name yet, Dave was always steadfast in his vision to create a new category of the “human co-experience” and the “metaverse” — even when others didn’t fully see it.

Me and Roblox CEO Dave Baszucki in 2019.
Me and Roblox CEO Dave Baszucki in 2019.
Me and Roblox CEO Dave Baszucki in 2019.

For both founders and investors alike, this is a reminder of the role that patience plays in company building — many breakout startups aren’t built overnight or immediately off to the races. Some, like Roblox, are more of a “slow bake.”

The lesson here is that it takes a long time to build a transcendent company, and you’ll often be misunderstood or undervalued for most of that time. The bulk of Roblox’s journey was steady, heads-down community building and product refinement. As a 2019 TechCrunch article highlighted, “Roblox experienced 10x growth in about 3 years, from 9 million users in February 2016 to 90 million in April 2019” — just one leg of their 17-year company building journey.

My partner Josh Kopelman made this slide a while back, which captures this dynamic well:

Chart showing Roblox’s valuation growth that says: Valuation growth isn’t linear

We now, of course, have the benefit of seeing how the story shook out. Eventually others began to catch on. The game climbed the charts in Apple’s App Store and has become one of the top-grossing apps on Apple and Google devices. Journalists started writing “The hot game kids are playing that you’ve never heard of,” or “The best kept secret in Silicon Valley” type of stories. (Take this recent PCGamesN example — “Somehow, Roblox keeps escaping my attention, despite the fact that it’s one of the biggest games in the world.”)

In 2017, they crossed 1M concurrent players for the first time, and Mary Meeker mentioned Roblox in her famous internet trends report. Brand affinity and recognition continued to grow, as toys and gift cards popped up in physical stores, while the team offered weekly tours of their HQ for users.

My personal “Wow, this is going to be big” moment was in 2011 when I visited their office and saw all of these letters from kids mailed to Roblox HQ and taped to the walls.

A wall lined with letters from young Roblox fans
A wall lined with letters from young Roblox fans

Now, we’re a decade on from that “envelopes on the wall” moment. So much has changed about our world in the last 10 years — particularly in this past one. Roblox faced real uphill challenges all along the way, such as expanding into iPad/mobile, going international, “aging up” their audience, dealing with new competitors, and creating a new category by borrowing from social, gaming, and toys. Over the course of 2020 and the pandemic, their business accelerated dramatically, with more users spending more time than ever with the product.

Despite the exciting nature of today’s direct listing, it’s not an endpoint in Roblox’s journey. There are markers still to come on the road ahead, from virtual concerts to the ability to build more polished experiences.

And stepping back even further, I’m excited about all of the nascent ideas and new opportunities that are shaping up in the gaming space. As an example, First Round has also partnered with Rec Room. It’s a virtual hangout and game creator that has seen explosive growth across all platforms since it was first released in 2016 — they just announced their activity stats were only a year or so behind the gaming company that just went public today.

So here’s to the tiny team that’s just getting started, the next Roblox of whatever space you’re in — whether you bake fast or slow, I’m rooting for you.

The first round for remarkable founders.