We’ve sat down with Lindsey Tropf, the Founder & CEO of Immersed Games. Lindsey spoke about game development, how she grew the company and shared her advice on overcoming challenges as an entrepreneur.
What is your background and how did you come up with an idea for Immersed Games?
I was an undergraduate student studying psychology and used to spend tons of time playing World of Warcraft. Then it struck me one day – I was able to learn an insane amount of information while playing this video game, without trying at all! That was something that stuck with me as I then went into graduate school the next year for School Psychology.
While researching and learning about education, I accidentally kept linking back best practices and models around learning to what happened in video games like World of Warcraft – for instance, being able to solve problems by using everything that you’re learning in the game, developing strategies, collaborating with other people. These are incredibly powerful learning tools that are naturally used in many games.
I started looking for educational games that I could study for my dissertation. It turned out that a lot of the games out there were very shallow compared to what you could be doing. And even if you found a great educational game, it was often an hour max, maybe 15 minutes of gameplay and that was it.
I never finished my dissertation and decided to start a company instead, working to solve those two problems: making a deep, long-term experience. In the early days, while I was still in my Ph.D. program, I recruited other students at the University of Florida where we were at the time and started working on the idea nights and weekends. In 2014, we ran a Kickstarter and got our first $50,000 to help fund the company. In 2016, we released a small portion of our gameplay to experiment and learn from that first release instead of building a giant product initially.
Where is your company today?
We have received a couple grants from both the National Science Foundation and the Department of Education that helped to support and expand our work. It’s a long journey developing a product like ours. It takes a long time, and we’re excited to finally be at the inflection point where we’re ready to start selling it more broadly. Especially with the help of 43North here in Buffalo, we’ve started going to market with schools. We’ve done pilots, we’ve collected data, we know it’s working, but now it’s time to start selling it: which is exciting and terrifying.
What is your goal for this year?
One major goal for this year is to get one, maybe both of our follow-on grants from the National Science Foundation, the Department of Education.
Another is on sales. Right now, we’re in conversation with various districts or educational service districts to use our product. We want 50 to 100 teachers potentially using it during the next school year in their classrooms. We, of course, want to make sure that we’re giving the best support possible and learning everything we can alongside them to make sure that it’s a very smooth rollout and is working as effectively as we can.
What was your biggest challenge growing Immersed Games?
The type of business we’re creating takes a lot of upfront capital. In hindsight, it was a highly risky decision for me to spin up this type of company without 3 million in the bank on day one. What we are building is massive.
I’ve talked with people like Tom Kalinske, who was a CEO of Mattel and SEGA of America, and others and shared what we’ve accomplished and how much money we used and they’ve been so surprised at what we managed to pull off without the substantial initial investment.
We’re fully committed to the problems we’re solving and our unique value in what we are making. I am an expert in education and game-based learning and want this product to exist in the world! If I were an entrepreneur wanting to just build any brilliant business, I would have chosen something that requires much less capital upfront to develop. However, because this has been my passion, my desire to change the world and have a social impact, we have made it happen for Tyto Online. We’ve had to be very scrappy with it piecing together every possible way you could think to get funding. I’ve pretty much done it all at this point!
Sometimes starting a company with very little capital can be advantageous, so you stay focused on what’s important. Do you agree?
In many contexts, I would agree with that because some people get too caught up on creating something before they really need to. However, for what we’re building, we have to validate with the product, which is time consuming. We’ve broken it into smaller pieces so we could release and test frequently, and managed to pull it off with little capital initially.
However, if we had more upfront capital, we could have gone to market much earlier, and time to market is essential. Another difficulty of building without a lot of initial capital is the smoothness of the products that you’re able to create earlier in the process. The type of product that we’re building and the content that needs to be powered is very intensive, and definitely benefits substantially from more resources.
What has helped you to succeed and power through these challenges?
Working 80 hour weeks help certainly, but also being methodological. I’m researching a lot, talking with my advisors, taking all of that in. I’ve been told my several people that I’m the most prepared entrepreneur they’ve ever met.
You have to accept the risk factors as well, so you’re not too overwhelmed by the anxiety of your situation. There could be ten possible outcomes that you’re aware of, and you need to recognize that it’s okay, no matter which works out. As one of my investors says, “You are loading the chess board with as many options as possible” so that’s really the goal in these early stages of a startup, because it’s tough to predict how some of those things will play out.
Being the CEO of the company, how do you deal with team building and scaling challenges?
I think team building is all about being able to see things from your employees’ perspective, and making sure you’re meeting their needs. I see a lot of people struggle with this — like one company owner who asked me how to get their employees to work on side projects besides their primary duties without offering any compensation, not even any ownership in the side project. Would this person be motivated to go above and beyond in this situation? Probably not. So why would their employees? That’s something that’s amazing to me that people don’t pause to take perspective.
We are fully transparent with our team members and have a high level of trust. I respect all of them so much and want to make sure that they get what they deserve. We have our regular full team meetings to keep everyone up to date on company news, make sure that everybody knows what they’re working on and how they contribute to the overall business goals. It’s 13 of us, and we all make a huge difference in what we’re doing.
Are you involved with the tech community?
Yes. I get invited to speak at different events especially back in Gainesville, FL where I was one of the only female startup founders there. So frequently I was asked to talk on various topics. I’m happy to contribute where we can.
43North does a great job of engaging with a community! Last month I spoke at the Founders Institute event. Coming up, we have some fireside chats with students, and a talk at a University — my favorite is definitely when we get to support students. We’ve regularly talked with students in Gainesville about game development careers. Those jobs are a great connection to STEM and the arts and how everything blends together and why you should care about math in school, since math is a critical component in game development.
Game development space along with other areas of programming is male-dominated. Do you see many women working in this space?
Certainly, there are a lot of struggles for women in this space. Women have a more challenging time than men finding jobs in this industry. When we put out new job positions, 90% of our applicants are men. It’s definitely challenging for us to cast a wide enough net and get a good pool of candidates so we can fight against that pattern.
However, it’s not just a pipeline problem. Once people go into tech, women leave tech at a much higher rate than men do, due to the challenges that they face in their industries. It’s a frustrating problem as a woman CEO, and I’ve certainly encountered my share of interesting comments that people don’t even realize they’re sexist… which is always entertaining. There are also constant biases you have to deal with. For instance, when women present to investors, they tend to get loss prevention questions. They get questions such as – how are you going to fend off your competitors and how are you going to prevent yourself from losing market share? While men tend to get gain questions, i.e., How big is the market you could get?
Do you have a suggestion on how to overcome this bias?
An interesting strategy that works for women is that they need to act more like politicians and answer the question that they want to be asked and not the question they were really asked, i.e. try to turn the loss question into a gain answer. Also, this is a part of being a ridiculously prepared, researched entrepreneur, which women pretty much have to be, since they need to be aware of the biases and prepared to face them.
You’ve spent a few months in Buffalo since you and your team have moved here. What is the most unusual thing that stood out the most for you?
We’ve really loved Buffalo! And despite being Floridians, the weather has not been much of an issue!
The most unusual thing I’ve had to get used to… Is honestly just the driving in a city in the North where the infrastructure is quite different than the South. There aren’t many visible lines on many of the roads, for example, so we’re all just kind of guessing at what lanes go where!