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.

MoolaHoop Crowdfunding: Helping Women with Small Businesses Reach for the Crowd

by Brenda Bazan and Nancy Hayes, CoFounders of MoolaHoop

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Brenda Bazan

When we first met Sonal Gerten, founder of Tumblewalla, a children’s clothing line, we were struck by her story.  Sonal had taken the courageous decision to step out of her comfort zone and start a new career as an entrepreneur and business owner.  She needed to raise the funds to produce her organic children’s clothing Spring 2014 collection and worked with us to launch a crowdfunding campaign on MoolaHoop. Exceeding her goal of $9,000, Sonal raised $10,600.

At MoolaHoop, we work with women owners of small businesses to build crowdfunding campaigns to grow their companies. Many of the women we work with are like Sonal and others profiled in Career 2.0 – they came to entrepreneurship or their “Second Act” after other careers and are embracing the opportunities and challenges.

We ourselves are no strangers to “mid-life” career change.  Having  met at IBM 30 years ago, we kept in touch through job changes and geographical moves. Brenda left IBM after 25 years and worked for an organization providing microloans to women in Africa. She also has experience as a small business owner and consultant to women-owned businesses. After 20 years, Nancy moved from IBM to serve as CEO of two different nonprofits. From there, she became dean of San Francisco State University’s College of Business and subsequently CFO of the university.

Nancy Hayes
Nancy Hayes

MoolaHoop was born from our  shared interest in issues affecting women in business – first women in the workplace, then women as entrepreneurs and business owners. It is incredible that women launch more than 30% of the businesses in the US, yet receive less than 5% of venture capital funds and 12% of institutional debt. To start their companies, women tend to use more personal debt than men (read, credit cards) and so their businesses start smaller and grow less rapidly.

Aiming to address this problem, we tried a couple of approaches but all our efforts were very time-intensive and helped just one business at a go. While it was very rewarding to see those companies flourish, we felt the problem needed bigger solutions in order to reach more women, especially as there weren’t many debt- and equity-free options (two things that put a huge burden on a small business) for funding out there.  We finally hit upon the idea of adapting the crowdfunding model so women could use it to raise funds for a specific business projects.

MoolaHoop works with women entrepreneurs to define a project that will help support business growth. These women offer their customers, potential customers and friends and family “rewards” – their products or services or special experiences – in return for funds pledged up front. Sonal, for example, offered her supporters early order access to and special pricing on her new line, and unique opportunities such as naming items in the collection, participating in a design session, and having your child professionally photographed to appear in Tumbelwalla’s online marketing. Once the woman reaches her financial goal, she delivers the “rewards” to those who pledged. She neither owes any money nor relinquishes any ownership in her company as a result of the campaign.

moolahoop full logoIn essence, the business owner is conducting a funding and marketing campaign to get her “crowd” excited about her project and the rewards offered. It’s a great opportunity to grow her network, as followers often share the campaign among their networks. And it can even be a great way to generate ideas and feedback on a new product or service offering.

If you are considering crowdfunding as a means to raise money for your business, you will first need to meet certain requirements:

  • You have a customer-facing product or service: some examples include fitness studios, food products and clothing or accessories lines. If your customers are businesses, there are better marketing approaches. The same goes for professional services.
  • You need between $1,500 and $20,000 to take your business to the next level: the best projects are ones where your customers see the benefit too. For example, you are a yoga studio and if you move to a bigger and better space you can offer more classes. In general, if your audience can’t visualize your end product and creative rewards are difficult (ie, websites and apps) crowdfunding won’t be easy.
  • You have an established customer base and/or a strong social media presence: one of most misunderstood aspects of crowdfunding is the “crowd” element. You are marketing your idea to your network of customers, potential customers, professional contacts, family, and friends. If you do not have a strong existing network, you won’t be able to spread the word about your project. Remember, this is a business you are marketing, not a personal or charity cause. Of course, there are exceptions – if you have a really unique product and can get publicity for your crowdfunding project, you could be successful.

Want to build a successful crowdfunding campaign for a small business? Here are some important tips to remember:Tumbelwalla MoolaHoop Tumbnail (1)

  • Tell your story in a succinct yet engaging way.
  • Build a presence on social media (Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Instagram) and/or have a solid email list.
  • Engage your customers and potential customers regularly.
  • Have a project your customers can get excited about that will help you grow your business.
  • Offer creative, unique rewards – not products or services your customer can get anytime on your website.
  • Be willing to ask people personally to pledge to the campaign. It’s not charity – it’s a business transaction.

At MoolaHoop, our overarching goal is to help women grow their businesses.  We want to see more women like Sonal “reach for the crowd” and make their dreams a reality. We offer women complimentary conference calls where we discuss their business and their goals and offer advice and suggestions. If crowdfunding is not the right fit, we advise on other funding sources. To learn more, just email us at info@moola-hoop.com.

Brenda and Nancy