The Haas MBA Behind Pokémon Go

Haas MBA John Hanke

Haas MBA John Hanke

For the naysayers who pooh-pooh the notion that you shouldn’t go to business school for an MBA to become an entrepreneur, here’s an introduction to John Hanke.

He arrived on the UC-Berkeley campus for its full-time MBA program in 1994 with a goal of launching a company. His MBA essay even centered on the opportunities in interactive gaming and technology. “I wanted to build applications that would deepen people’s involvement in their town or community, to encourage people to actually meet up in the real world,” explains Hanke in a Haas video.

As the CEO of Niantic Labs, the Haas MBA is the driving force behind Pokémon Go, the hottest craze to hit the App Store. Since its release last week,the “augmented reality” game has sent millions of smartphone-toting players to the streets on the hunt for animated Japanese characters that pop up with the help of location services. The download explosion almost crashed Niantic’s servers and got the attention of The New York Times.


“There are video games that go viral overnight, causing people to coop themselves up in their homes for days to play,” according to the Times account of the product’s success. But the opposite has happened with Pokémon Go, a free smartphone game that has soared to the top of the download charts: It has sent people into streets and parks, onto beaches and even out to sea in a kayak in the week since it was released.”

Hanke’s Niantic Inc. was put together inside Google and spun out last year. The company’s first augmented reality game, Ingress, is based on Google’s digital mapping service. It was a huge success as well, having been downloaded by some 15 million users. Hanke then partnered with the Pokémon Company to make Pokémon Go. “We expected it to be popular, but we didn’t expect it to be like this,” Hanke told the Times. “We’re just getting our feet underneath us.” In fact, demand for the app has been so great that Niantic had to postpone the game’s introduction in additional countries for a few days so it could accommodate the demand.

For Hanke, his obsession with maps and places occurred early. He was a dreamer of sorts in his home town of Cross Plains, Texas, thinking about faraway places that he would someday like to visit. He earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Texas, Austin, and then, after working in foreign affairs for the U.S. government in Washington, D.C., and Myanmar, went to Berkeley for his MBA with the startup dream in his head.


As he once told an interviewer, “I grew up in a really isolated town in West Texas, so I kind of grew up daydreaming about other places. And I think a lot of people who grow up in small towns share that feeling of ‘I can’t wait to go out and see the wider world.’ I’ve always carried that with me. And as a parent, the idea of appreciating what’s in front of me is important. And maybe it’s the economy, or maybe it’s just a trend, but people are trying to figure out what can make their communities better, versus, I don’t know, daydreaming about that trip to Europe or going off to Hawaii.”

Hanke generously credits his business school experience as a turning point, giving him both the tools and the confidence to pursue an entrepreneurial route. As an MBA student at Haas in the mid-1990s, he co-founded a company that developed one of the first online games to allow users to play together in a virtual environment. Hanke then co-founded a company called Keyhole, which bridged the gap between geospatial data visualization on high-end computers and the navigation apps we all carry on our pockets. Google acquired Keyhole in 2004 for a reported $35 million, and Hanke stayed on to lead the development of Google Earth, Maps, and StreetView. He then launched Niantic Labs inside Google to focus on next-gen games, and spun it out as a separate company last year soon after Google’s announcement of its restructuring as Alphabet Inc.

“John represents many of the best attributes of entrepreneurship and Berkeley-Haas: Leadership through continuous cycles of innovation, without attitude or bravado, creating value for society and all who collaborate with him,” says Jerome Engel, founding executive director of the Lester Center for Entrepreneurship, who recently wrote a business case that explored Hanke’s decision to separate from Google.


In common with many mobile games, Pokémon Go is free to play but then allows players to buy virtual items for a few dollars to quicken their progress through the game. It’s also possible down the line for Niantic to offer sponsorships to fast-food restaurants, coffee shops and other retailers to motivate users to go into the stores to buy product.

Pokémon go’s success is in some ways the realization of the vision he laid out in his MBA application essay to Haas. It brings the concept mainstream through the appeal of cute animated characters—Pokémon translates as “pocket monster”—beloved by those who came of age playing the video games and trading cards in the late 1990s.

“It gives people an excuse to meet other real people. It’s incredibly rewarding for me to see these people coming together and to see the happiness, the joy that people are getting from exercising, exploring their city, and making new friends,” Hanke told Haas.