Tiina Zilliacus: From the Security of Tech Giants to the Competitive World of Gaming

Tiina ZilliacusTiina Zilliacus’ last name brings to mind the long-gone days of gladiators and Greek warriors. And in many ways, the Finnish tech entrepreneur has launched herself into a battle of sorts. Leaving the security of the corporate world, with three years of hard work and preparation behind her, Zilliacus has suited up to enter the male-dominated fray of gaming. “What I have initiated is not currently in the scope of most game developers. Within the next five years, instead of Coke and pizza, I hope more of them will become genuinely interested in health. When this happens, we’ll be there with cool employee opportunities,” she adds with a smile.

Following the career path her parents valued, Zilliacus knew she would go work for the big brands. After receiving a business degree from the Helsinki School of Economics, Finland, the dutiful and driven daughter did just that and spent 11 years at the Finnish tech giants, Nokia and Sonera, focusing purely on business-to-consumer (B2C) services such as management of online shops. A consistent thread of supporting consumers in mobile, online and digital environments has run through all her positions.

And yet, despite a clear future of fulfilling and secure corporate opportunities, Zilliacus knew her personality type was meant more for the smaller start-up environment. “I’ve always had something of a fearless adventurer attitude and love a certain amount of risk, so by my early-to-mid 30s I started seeking out CEO roles in the start-up world.”

For the next five years, she moved seamlessly among three start-ups, one mobile phone photo and video service (Futurice) and two gaming firms (Apaja Online Entertainment and Ironstar Helsinki), where she was Managing Director and CEO, respectively.

During her corporate life and especially the stressful years of start-up management, Zilliacus turned to yoga as a form of release. “First it was just a hobby, but quickly became a way of life. I’ve always made time for yoga and been on a lot of retreats. I’m even certified as an instructor.”

The gaming sector in Finland, as in most places around the globe, is male-developer driven. While this bothered Zilliacus, who herself is not a developer, she saw a clear opportunity: “They make games that they would like to play although 55% of casual and mobile game customers are female. I realized that I actually could use my professional competence and understanding of what women like in terms of entertainment to fulfill the needs of a major target audience that the market was not addressing.”

Zilliacus decided to start a business driven by her own values and her devotion to yoga provided the spark of inspiration. “Not many people have the digital and management experience that I have and understand yoga and the well-being world as much as I do. I decide to merge my professional knowledge with my passion to create a gaming business targeting women 25 years and older.”

And so as the next iterative step in her career, she set out once again but this time to found her own gaming studio focusedTiina Zillacius on fun mobile “free2play” games aimed at women with the unique underlying theme of wellness.

The last three years have not been easy. They were spent building a strategy, laying the groundwork, seeking angel and seed investment, and recruiting former colleagues to the team. As the 40-year old Zilliacus explains: “I’ve been married to this company. It wakes up with me on Saturday morning, my weekends, my nights…when you are so invested in bringing something like this to life, you give up not only your time but your mind space. As a yogini and wellbeing enthusiast, it took me two years to accept that there is a time that I just need to let all of this happen to me even though it’s work. But because it relates so much to my personal experiences, I can never describe it as work. It will simply take as long as it takes as long as I am where I want to be. That’s the attitude and mental model I needed to adopt and once I did that, everything fell into place.”

But the hard work has paid off. Gajatri Studios’s first simulation or management game, Yoga Retreat, is just recently available from the Apple App Store. Along the lines of Animal Farm, the mechanics of the game are familiar. Zilliacus has intentionally aimed to keep it accessible and not so difficult that it becomes hostile for the user. Players can access yoga poses, unlock small daily meditations, and challenge friends as they manage, expand, and customize their very own yoga retreat on a paradise island.

Zilliacus’ company has attracted the support of two Finnish female angel investors and a family-owned investment office that are drawn in by the health features within games. Her two co-founders are from Rovio, the makers of Angry Birds: “Games guys are open minded. They like to do stuff that reaches out to people so the first motivation is that they like the plan that there is a different type of business strategy and therefore also leadership style in what you do”.

Gajatri Studios’ business model is sustainable and incorporates a wide theme of health and wellness that can molded into different content. Future games will look at food for instance and there is an opportunity for synergies with the forthcoming IOS8 platform and its Health Kit. “As the Apple platform evolves, we plan to utilize different opportunities in our games. For example, we could offer yoga challenges that we can verify have been completed because the user is wearing an iWatch or something like that. Essentially integrating some real life activity into a game, that’s the wider idea,” Zilliacus explains.

The female gaming entrepreneur, one of few in Finland, is optimistic of what lies ahead but acknowledges with these types of companies, funding must be sought out all the time. “It’s a continuous process and depending on which stage you are in, you know the sums are dependent on that. That’s part of the entrepreneurial life, until you are successful, you are every once in a while almost out of funding and when you are successful, you don’t need it any longer. You just need to go on until you reach that certain critical point.”

Zilliacus will know in a few weeks if she has hit that critical point as sales stats from Apple App Store are reported. But regardless the journey is what counts and of that she can surely be proud.

Tips from the Finnish gladiator of gaming:

  • Really be clear that the core of what you interested in is what you strive towards. It’s so much hard work to launch a business, make sure you like what you do and that you are good at it. Understand your strengths and weakness. If those elements are present, then it will be easier. Be grateful of what you get to do, not many people have the same opportunity.
  • Be persistent. Don’t get easily discouraged. There are so many people who are not going to help you, you need “sisu” (uniquely Finnish expression for grit) to get past the non-believers and be able to do things on your own. You won’t always get approval, but you must sustain.
  • Surround yourself with people with integrity.
  • Find a way to relax every day, clear your head in an efficient way. This enables you to focus on what is essential the next day.

Linda Picard: Film Distribution Phenom to Immigration Specialist

Linda2Born into a French-Italian family in Budapest, Hungary, Linda Picard was left to her own devices at the tender age of 16 when both of her parents walked out of her life. “It was a volatile marriage, a romantic drama. They had wed and divorced twice, and there was a lot of blame. When my father moved with his new family to the countryside, my mother left without me as I reminded her too much of what had passed between them.”

Staying in the family home alone with some money her father left her, Picard survived by teaching English and drawing to school children until she finished high school. It wasn’t easy, especially as she was unknowingly suffering from polycystic ovary syndrome, which causes infertility, compromises energy levels, and generally slows down metabolism. On turning 18, a time when most of us are dreaming of college, she was able to sell the apartment and invest in a small studio where she lived while she worked as a media planner at MindShare, the global media agency. From there she did a brief stint as a researcher manager for a music TV channel until McCann Erikson hired her.

Twenty years of age at the time, the independent Picard knew she needed to secure a degree if she was going to make a go of it so she enrolled in Kodolányi János University of Applied Sciences to study economics while she mastered marketing by day at McCann. “It’s all a blur. I don’t think I really slept for five years. I went to work at 9am, worked 12 hours and then hit the books until about 3am every morning. Somehow, I did it but it’s not an experience I would like to repeat.”

While still in university, the perfectly English-accented Picard headed to InterCom Ltd where she managed overall marketing communication for Fox, Sony, Warner and Disney titles in Hungary. After three years in film distribution, she moved to London as a freelance producer in the entertainment industry organizing music and film events. Discovery Networks recruited her as an on-air marketing planner. “It was a brilliant opportunity for me, but I just got a bit depressed with the weather and the mentality.”

An invitation to an international film festival in Dubai, United Arab Emirates (UAE), became a turning point for her. Picard was surprised at how at home she felt. “It’s a beautiful here. People are very friendly and it’s all so new.” That newness wound up speaking to Picard in ways beyond the shiny modern high rises of Dubai. “I got the feeling I could start over and do something completely different and interesting.” On her return to the UK, she sent her CV to a local film distributor, Empire International, which represents the biggest Hollywood studios in the region. After a second visit to Dubai for an interview, Picard joined the family-owned business as their marketing manager for the UAE, Kuwait, Lebanon, Qatar, Jordan, Bahrain, Oman, Egypt, Syria, and Ethiopia. “In the beginning it was a bit tough. Upper and mid-management were very welcoming, but there were a lot of challenges for me especially being a woman. I disrupted the equilibrium somewhat. While women are respected in the region, they are not taken that seriously although things are rapidly changing for the better in the UAE today.”

After three years and a few marketing awards, she felt it was time to move on: “Dubai is such an exciting place to be. Everything is developing, growing out of the desert. But at the same time, because so much is new, the employment legislation and contract law is evolving. So career moves always come with potential risk but nevertheless, I decided it was time to jump to a new opportunity. Unfortunately I jumped into a big hole.”

Picard signed on with a licensing agency that had a contract with some major studios. At the time, licensing was not well established in countries like the UAE and the dynamic Picard felt she could make her mark in the up-and-coming field. By three months, she realized something was seriously wrong. Despite having closed a $100K deal with a large local company, she failed to receive any commission and her salary was not forthcoming. With her employer holding her passport, which he needed to apply for her work visa, Picard had had no alternative but to wait the situation out. It turned out the agency was not processing her visa but rather holding her passport as collateral. “It’s hard to say why I waited so long before acting when it felt fishy from day one. I guess I thought I was just being paranoid. After all, the visa process can take up to two months so I just hoped it would all be fine.”

With no other recourse, Picard reported her employer to the Ministry of Labor. Although the authorities were helpful, there was a language barrie2014-07-01 17.10.32r and misunderstandings on both sides. “Everyone was following procedure, but I couldn’t decipher what was happening around me. In the end, the authorities invited me to the Ministry eight times for mediation to resolve the situation, but each time my employer failed to show.”

After eight weeks, the Ministry finally launched an investigation and uncovered the extent of the agency’s fraudulent activities. Picard was not the only employee to be deceived. She ended up filing two cases with the courts, one to recoup the owed salary and fees and another to get her passport back. “I couldn’t leave the country without a passport. I couldn’t work as I had no visa. I didn’t have any income. I had not done anything wrong. I had simply signed a contract and became a victim of the system.”

It took ten court hearings over the course of a year for Picard to see justice. She drained her savings, resorted to freelance marketing work, and finally ended up sleeping on friends’ sofas. A Latin and Oriental dancer of more than ten years, dancing helped see her through the tough times. She won her case with the help of an Emirati lawyer and – despite not receiving back-pay from her bankrupt employer – got the recognition that she had been wronged.

The damage was done, however. Any potential employers in the film and entertainment industry were nervous about her status and so she found it difficult to find a job. As luck would have it, a friend put in a word for her at a well-established British law firm, which was looking for someone to manage a visa and immigration system they were establishing. “They were interested in my experience as I had been through the ringer so to speak. The good part was that they understood my situation and where I was legally so it worked out well. As I had gone through a terrible year, struggling to understand with the legal system, I really felt I was in a good position to help others navigate the process. Unfortunately, the only way to learn the legal system here is to experience it.”

Despite all she has been through, Picard is keen to stay on in Dubai for now although she has images of Singapore in her future. Ever the optimist, she sees her experience as just that – experience. “My life would have been a lot easier if I had stayed where I was but I’ve learned a lot from the highs and lows. I never expected to end up as a specialist in visa and immigration policy but things have a funny way of working out. What might seem like a blow at the time, can turn out to be a pivot point from which many new opportunities become available once you open yourself to the possibilities. Just don’t give up. I’ve worked hard to get where I am today and, for the most part, I’ve done it on my own, more by necessity than choice.”

It’s been an interesting ride so far, let’s hope those possibilities are a little smoother in Picard’s future.

Tips from Linda Picard

  • Never take anything for granted!
  • Fight for your rights and whatever you believe is right.
  • Find the time and place to give back, there is always a need and a cause.
  • Don’t forget to be grateful and thank everyone who has ever helped you. If there is no one to thank, then don’t forget to be grateful to yourself and the universe.
  • There is no such thing as impossible, never accept it as an option.
  • Dance and sing as much as you can…