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.

Julie Thorne Engels: Measuring Herself by Different Standards

Juliete Thorne EngelsWhen you look at the course of Julie Thorne Engels’ career, a few themes and success factors repeatedly pop up: passion for creativity, support from good female friends and family, a willingness to push through fear of failure, and a strong desire to champion women, especially in business. Optimistic and confident, Julie herself is curious and always open to change and improvement.

Never really traditional in her choices (at least compared to those of us outside California), the 45-year-old started out dreaming of being an entertainer. She studied film and video, waited tables, and performed Improv with a Chicago-based troupe for a few years before deciding she wanted to be behind the camera versus in front of it. Julie moved to Santa Monica to launch a career in the business side of the entertainment industry. She landed her first job as a runner and later an associate producer at Channel 1 News and eventually worked her way up to a producer on a show for Lifetime. Being exposed to the genesis of reality TV, Julie made a conscious decision to pursue a more personally rewarding path.  “I wanted to attach myself to something more inspirational and soulful … it was an important turning point for me, moving away from what many considered to be a stable career.”

So for a few years, Julie channeled her creative spirit by writing screenplays and teaching herself to paint. At the height of the dotcom boom, she launched her first start-up, Soulgarden. While the business ultimately didn’t take off, it taught her valuable lessons that would guide her future direction: “I was always networking, and I found the best feedback I was getting was from women my own age. All of my vital professional connections came from these women.”

This realization spurred Julie to start a women’s business group called iBettys, in honor of her close-knit group of high school friends who called each other “Betty.” It grew from a small group of 5 women initially to more than 100 (including men), meeting monthly to share ideas, provide feedback and encouragement to each other, as well as solid networking leads.

Julie continued to host iBettys meetings as she launched what became a very successful career at consumer marketing agency, The Regan Group. “I saw for the first time that my ideas could generate significant money. Very quickly I went from being an executor to new business development,” she recalls. This was a pivotal era for Julie as her work involved executive leadership, overseeing budgets, and team building and development. Patti Regan was a great mentor but equally Julie was a great investment, eventually tripling the agency billings and staff.

After nearly a decade, Julie couldn’t shake the notion that something powerful was going on with the iBetty gatherings. So with the confidence she garnered at The Regan Group, she decided to focus more time on championing the needs of women. Julie launched Bettyvision, a community empowering women to visualize their dreams and create goals to make them come true. A first workshop was followed by a second, third and so on … their success propelling her to invest more of her time and money into the concept.

In 2012, she left The Regan Group to work on transforming Bettyvision into a real venture. Her goal was to develop a tech platform to support vision boards (an Oprah favorite), which are essentially a collection of images to show what a woman wants to have happen in her life. “It’s like Pinterest with a purpose for women,” Julie explains.

She raised seed funding again mostly through family, which allowed her to build and launch her propriety vision board platform. Her expectations of the business were blown away after only a short time.  Julie recalls that she could have been better prepared but that her naivité of what lay ahead was beautifully inspired: “If I had really known what I was getting into, I probably wouldn’t have done it.”

The initial funding for Bettyvision was not enough to support the high growth technology play, and Julie all too quickly became aware of the discouraging reality that less than 10% venture funds go to women. It became increasingly challenging to raise the necessary capital to take it to the next level and attract advertising targeting millennial women.

But, Julie’s efforts were not in vain. Having pitched her platform to investors, corporations, women’s groups and brands over the course of the year and invested significantly in her technology platform, she was well poised to pivot to her next venture. She partnered with two women within her inner circle and launched Tribemint, a branding, digital communications and experiential marketing agency focusing on millennials. “I got to the point where I had no funds left. I had to figure out what I do really well, what I am passionate about. It kept coming back to the agency world. All my experience led me to this stage and being focused on helping brands and companies create meaningful conversations and deep relationships with this young, enthusiastic Gen Y tribe.”

Only a few months in, Tribemint is making a go of it. When asked how long she is giving herself to see the agency succeed, Julie is adamant: “I’m going to make it work. I am a female pioneer in the tech space and now need to fund future development – mine and that of others – which led me to this moment. I know how to make money in the agency world.”

While growing the business is of course her main focus, the end game is to build the Tribemint Fund  to support millennial entrepreneurship. “I have been fortunate to be surrounded by strong mentors, who have made a large impact on my entire life and career choices. Now, it is my turn to champion the younger generation and help them succeed. ”

A percentage of all Tribemint profits in the first years will go to the fund. “It was really hard not to see Bettyvision take off. My biggest passion takeaway was figuring out how I could turn this around. How I could raise more awareness about the lack of venture funding for women. The Tribemint Fund is my opportunity to make a difference and start being a woman who invests and writes checks to for-profit ventures.”

And if Julie’s chances of success are dependent on her drive, optimism, and spirit, there is no stopping her this time round.

Julie’s Tips for Success
  • If you are going into a new venture, create authentic business relationships.  Also, make a mutual investment with a millennial. They are hungry for experience and are a wellspring of inspiration, knowledge and fresh perspective.
  • Be clear and stand strong in your ultimate vision and “why” you started your business.   However, be prepared to be flexible in “how” you reach your end goals.  Knowing when to pivot is key to maintaining cash-flow, while on the path toward success.
  • It’s empowering to be in charge of your own destiny.  If you are going to make money, make it for yourself and then have the power to pay it forward.
  • Women have such a unique opportunity to leverage their feminine strengths in business: creativity, collaboration, flexibility, nurturance, and multi-tasking.  Since women have more “natural” milestones (such as having children), they are often faced with evaluating their different life-stages and recalibrating to stay on track with their career goals and vision.

Discussion

Julie Thorne Engels has learned from BettyVision that dreams are so personal. What is your dream and how do you plan to make it a reality?