Unity Software has a fleeting moment to win back developers — and investors

Jim Whitehurst, the recently named interim chief executive of Unity Software, has a brief window of time to restore trust between the troubled gaming development company, its investors and developers.

And he knows it.

In a brief Zoom call with analysts after Unity’s

disappointing third-quarter results Wednesday — in which the company offered no guidance for the fourth quarter — Whitehurst and Chief Financial Officer Luis Visoso said they are “examining the company from top to bottom.” The call was Whitehurst’s first since Unity’s pricing fiasco in September, which angered its developer customers and led to the departure of its controversial CEO, John Riccitellio.

Whitehurst and Visoso plan to restructure the company, cutting jobs, products and office locations. Unity stock fell 12% in after-hours trading Thursday, and its share price has been roughly cut in half since hitting a 52-week high in July.

“I mean, this is a ‘rip off the Band-Aid’ reset, and then we’re going,” said Whitehurst, who is also the former CEO of Linux developer Red Hat, owned by IBM Corp.

He said Unity was not giving an outlook for the fourth quarter because the executives did not want to be constrained from making tough decisions by a previous guidance. “I want to emphasize we’ve got to move fast, and we’ve got to be decisive,” Whitehurst said. He added that he hopes to be sandbagging by saying they will be done by the end of the first quarter: “I’m hoping we can do it a lot faster than that.”

But the problem facing Unity at this pivotal moment is that the needs of investors and its developer customers are not necessarily aligned. Wall Street wants revenue growth and profits, while game developers want cutting-edge software to help them build and advertise their games at the lowest price.

Even though Unity did an about-face on some of its fee hikes, the damage was done, and some developers are still furious with the company. Whitehurst described a conversation with an unnamed developer, who initially started out saying he wanted nothing more to do with Unity.

“It started off very, very negative — but as soon as we started getting into some of the features we’re driving, all of a sudden they went from, ‘We don’t want to deal with you’ to, ‘Oh, can we be an early beta customer?’”

That example, though, could be an anomaly. Game developers are a notoriously prickly bunch who can hold a grudge, and they made their discontent with Unity’s pricing fiasco known through social media, Reddit forums and a Change.org petition.

In contrast, Unity rival Applovin 
an app monetization company, reported stronger-than-expected results on Wednesday, and was praised by Oppenheimer analysts for outperforming its peers.

It’s worth pointing out that Whitehurst, who is in an interim position and would not comment on whether he will stay on permanently because he said he wanted to respect the board’s process, is also described in his bio as being a special advisor to Silver Lake, a well-known Silicon Valley private-equity firm. It’s entirely feasible that Whitehurst is charged with cleaning up the company ahead of a future attempted sale or merger.

Whatever Whitehurst’s mission is, it’s going to be a tough task.

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