The World is His Gameboard
Seth Priebatsch won a business plan competition in 2008. In 2009 he received $4 million in funding from Google Ventures, and in 2010 he delivered an oft-cited TedX talk. Early this year he secured $15 million in Series C funding, and is drawing up a strategy to expand abroad. We at Inc. have called him one of America's Most Productive CEOs.
Not bad for a 22-year-old college dropout. It's also not bad for a company with a whimsical objective. Scvngr, Priebatsch's Boston start-up, is attempting to build a layer of game-play on top of the world. Inc.com's Christine Lagorio spoke with Priebatsch about how he manages his dream team, why he thinks real-world game interfaces could be bigger than Facebook, and how techno music and distance running help keep him sane.
Congrats on your new round of funding. What's it like to have something of a comparable amount of funding as Foursquare?
We're really excited about it. Probably the most interesting thing is that we've always found we had a comparable amount of funding to Foursquare. We are out-earning them 10-to-one or 20-to-one each month, and the distance is growing, because we have a really solid business model. What we are building, while from a 20,000-foot view looks very similar [to Foursquare], it is not at all another social network. It is a game.
The core goal of Scvngr and the big thing we're trying to do is build a game layer on top of the world that everyone gets to build and everyone gets to play. So the implementation that we've built out is two parts, the first part is a location-based social, mobile game. The rules of the game itself are very simple: going places and doing things. We've partnered with our good friends at Google to get access to some 300 million across the globe. And we've set up challenges at places, and users have set up challenges at places. It's anything from naming your favorite piece of art on the wall there to snapping a picture of something with your phone.
We want to be the framework for taking game mechanics and putting them in the real world for both consumers and enterprises. Because both enterprises and individuals are playing and using it, it has a business model built in. Companies and institutions are paying $2,000 a year to north of a $1 million a year to use the Scvngr platform, and they are getting enough value out of the service that they are bringing revenue into our platform, and that means we will be able to continue to provide it for free for the rest of the world. We have over 1,000 enterprises building on it now, from the Smithsonian to Buffalo Wild Wings to the U.S. Navy. And with these partnerships, you and I and every user can unlock the rewards at those places, such as free drinks or appetizers—and 15,000 places on Scvngr now have rewards, real, free, valuable rewards for playing.
What are you going to do with all that money?
Well, there's a great new Ferrari that just came out and we'll first buy a bunch of those…no, no. The plan is to spend a lot of it doing a series of controlled pilots and mechanics tests on what game mechanics applied in the real world actually function like and look like. It's basically saying, hey, we want to be able to put game mechanics in the real world to make your life more fun and let you unlock rewards when you go places and do things. We are spending a lot of time and money researching and testing and running pilots and seeing which ones work. We're continuing to perfect the model in the states, and ideally six to nine months from now, we'll be able to grow this model internationally.
Where are you looking to expand first?
The top countries in order, are England, Japan, South Korea. We have relatively active user bases out there and we've gotten a lot of interest from enterprises. And Israel is very interesting, because despite that it's a small country, it has a very tech-y community.
You said in a TedX talk that the past decade was about building a social layer of digital interactions, a la Facebook, and that the next decade is about building a game layer on top of the world. What makes you so confident in that?
It's probably not an either-or situation. I think both are definitely going to happen. Facebook is becoming this behemoth framework we are all in some way beholden to. Everything else social is built as some kind of a subset to that. And that's going to keep happening.
What hasn't been done yet…is the digitization of motivation. We at Scvngr think a lot about things that already exist and digitizing them. I mean, we [humans] were social before Facebook, we were living in caves in groups, drawing on walls together. We also play games. We [at Scvngr] are not building a game layer on top of everything, we are just improving on it. Everything we do is already using a low-level of game mechanics. Just like we can now communicate a lot better because Facebook has allowed us to do that, we want to open up the ability for people to build up the game layer on top of things. We see this shift starting to happen, and we are very excited to be on the cutting edge of what is game science, and work very hard to be there for anyone to create anything.
You'd already tried two start-ups by the time you created Scvngr. What inspired you to move into the game sphere?
Probably every start-up has been driven by completely selfish motivations. My first one was a virtual wish-list. So, yeah, I wanted things. The second was a CD-postcard that allowed you to send a rich, multimedia program through the mail. I wanted to actually be able to share experiences much better than a postcard can.
This one, the motivation was that I love playing games, and I love software, and I love computers, but I also love going outside. In Princeton freshman year I was I think the only engineer who owned sunglasses. I wanted to be able to take all the fun I have playing games on my computer and play everywhere. The interesting part of it came because I realized it was almost impossible for me to build one game that was compelling everywhere. So we opened up a framework for anyone to create it. And it's coming true: Wherever I go, I want to be able to do something fun and earn some points. Literally wherever I go I can now play, and other people are using it, and there are people building rewards.
Can you walk us through a day in your life?
I try and keep most of my days in a pretty standard set: I'm at Scvngr closer to 24-7 than is probably healthy. I wake up early and go running for an hour and a half or two hours every morning. If I don't go for a run in the morning I'm a mess all day. I'm in by 9. I try to spend the most of the morning with the engineering team—my main job here at Scvngr is product and engineering. The afternoon and later on in the day is a mix of working with the sales team and game design team and brand team so that we are getting everything we need out into the marketplace. By 6, 7, or 8, most of the team goes home. We try to make sure everyone has a fairly balance life, even though we're a start-up.
In the evening, I will blast in the evening generally bad techno music, and draw crazy stuff on the white-board walls that are all over the office, and come up with crazy ideas, and then crash, generally in the office. I have a very comfortable sleeping bag at my desk. Saturday and Sunday, it doesn't change.
It sounds crazy, but it is awesome. Everyone here is having the time of their life all the time. It's super fascinating. We have hired 55 of the hardest working me and women from across the country, mostly newly hired from all over, and they're all here working on things that effect millions of people.
Everything on Scvngr is very self-directed. In a normal company environment, I would have a lot of trouble managing so many people. But here, the amount of time I have to spend managing anyone in is near zero. We're hired great people who are able to direct themselves and basically lead the teams themselves.
Do you have big plans for SXSW this year?
I do indeed. I'm delivering the opening keynote, which I'm really excited about. And we have a bunch of really cool stuff that we'll be announcing there, such as the results of our pilots. And we have some stuff with some major brands. They'd be upset if I told you, but it's pretty cool, believe me.
What was the most challenging moment of the past two years for you?
It's probably actually a relatively recent one. About two months back now I had a bunch of conferences to be at and I'd been on a plane three days straight, took a red eye, and ended up doing something called the Sandhill Road trek. And I literally did walk down Sandhill Road with a backpack and did a pitch on the hour every hour all day long. That was the most stressful day of my life. It luckily ended well.
CHRISTINE LAGORIO-CHAFKIN | Staff Writer | Senior Writer
Christine Lagorio-Chafkin is a writer, editor, and reporter whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Village Voice, and The Believer, among other publications. She is a senior writer at Inc.