Jul 19

In the tech world, you can always spot a hot platform by the number of first-time entrepreneurs swarming around it, hoping to get a head start in a new market. And in the frenetic scramble around the iPhone, few newcomers are as energetic as Jonathan Zweig, founder of Los Angeles-based Jirbo, a mobile games start-up that boasts a toothy gerbil for a mascot.

Zweig, a fast-talking, 30-year-old developer, and Jirbo have already churned out 14 games for the iPhone and iPod touch and have a pack more on the way.

Although the numbers fluctuate from day to day, as many as five of Jirbo’s games have ranked in the top 25 applications since the opening last week of App Store, Apple’s (nasdaq: AAPL – news – people ) new online storefront for iPhone applications. One game, “Jirbo Break,” made it up to No. 2 among the most popular free applications for the iPhone. (The top application is currently “Tap Tap Revenge” by Gogo Apps.)

It’s an impressive showing from an eight-month-old firm. After all, the App Store is stocked with 800 programs, including offerings from such tech powerhouses as AOL, Facebook, Google (nasdaq: GOOG – news – people ) and Apple itself, and many of the apps are free. Apple hasn’t told developers how many downloads it has racked up, but Zweig says his site has logged more than 250,000 “high scores” from its games in the past week.

Jirbo’s formula is simple: create applications that build on familiar games and themes, add a dash of whimsy and top with rich graphics. “Jirbo Break” is reminiscent of Atari’s classic “Pong” and the hit BlackBerry game “BrickBreaker.” “Jirbo Match” is an updated version of the time-tested card game “Memory.” “Jirbo Arcade” contains a game called “Jirbo Says” that prompts players to repeat patterns, much like “Simon Says.”

“Never underestimate the value of nostalgia,” Zweig says.

Jirbo spices up its applications with blazingly colorful, three-dimensional graphics and a cast of cartoon animals–the most popular one is a chubby gerbil–that pop up in each game.

To spur downloads, Zweig decided to give away six for free and price most of the rest under $1 apiece. The most expensive Jirbo app is $5. Ads may show up on the free games to help pay the bills. “We want to be on as many devices as possible and trump [applications] with high price points,” he says.

Though Jirbo was an early leader in iPhone Web games, with four of the top 10 most popular games on many days, its applications will encounter a lot more competition as more developers make applications for App Store.

Still, Zweig has visions of a gerbil-filled empire of iPhone applications. He plans to debut a set of workout-related applications, dubbed “Jirbo Gym,” this winter. The company is also developing several programs designed to test users’ mental and physical fitness levels, Jirbo Health, for 2009.

Foreign-language editions are another initiative, given the iPhone’s scheduled launch in 70 countries by year’s end. Jirbo already offers Japanese versions of two of its games. Combined with the casual games currently available in the App Store, Jirbo’s portfolio will eventually comprise as many as 30 applications.

Zweig also hopes Jirbo will become a utility for other iPhone developers. That’s part of the rationale behind Jirbo Avatar, another free application available through the App Store. Avatar is Jirbo’s attempt to create an online network of iPhone game players. Zweig describes it as a “mobile social gaming community … the glue between all our games.”

Jirbo is Zweig’s first start-up, and he’s tackled it with all the zeal of a fresh entrepreneur. In the run-up to the App Store launch, he printed several thousand T-shirts with Jirbo logos and the slogan “Free iPhone games” and arranged to have them distributed in cities around the country. He’s experimented with a few tricks too, including putting a number in front of the names of some of his games to elevate them in the App Store directory. (He’s since abandoned that tactic.)

Zweig is still getting accustomed to being a CEO. After majoring in computer science and engineering at the University of California, Los Angeles, he worked as a software engineer at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine. Jirbo kicked off last November with the release of several games that ran on the iPhone and iPod touch’s Web browser. With the help of angel investors, the company now has 14 employees, who work out of a Wilshire Boulevard office three miles from the beach. Three investors sit on Jirbo’s board with Zweig and advise him on business strategy.

In the meantime, he’s working at breakneck speed to get everything launched. “We don’t want someone like Nintendo saying, ‘We should do something on the iPhone,’ ” he says. “Then we’ll have been trumped.”

\\ tags: , , ,

Leave a Reply