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 Eisenberg: Letting Community Guide Career

JE profileRemember those friends in college who incited envy because they had their career path all worked out … in eighth grade?  Well, relax. That’s not Julie Eisenberg.  “I had no plan,” she shares. “Really, no plan! I don’t think I ever thought about the future when I was in college, or even now,” she insists.

But despite her claim that she was never one to look to the future, when you listen to her story it’s clear that she always paid attention to the, perhaps subconscious, need for community participation in her schooling and career choices. Lending her voice and skills to those in need and helping build communities is a thread that’s woven throughout her varied career, one that goes from union organizer to yoga studio owner.

In the early eighties, after the Linguistics and Women Studies major graduated from the University of Wisconsin, Eisenberg spent a year backpacking through South America, getting up close and personal with the people and politics she had been studying the past four years. Her attachment to the region deepened and she headed back to Madison, Wisconsin, to add a Master’s Degree in LatAm studies to her resume. Shortly thereafter, she returned to South America, this time to Chile.

Eisenberg cites a string of family and friend influences that led her to work in the union movement but it was her own experiences that played the biggest role. “I got a job on campus my freshman year at Madison and signed my first union card then,” she says. She felt strongly about the issues and felt close to that community. So when she went back to Chile, she landed a job as a community organizer, where she began to hone the skills she had begun to develop in her union.

“By the time I came back to the States three years later, I had been a card-carrying member of a union for years,” she added. “So it seemed like a natural fit to take a position as a union organizer for a teachers’ assistant union.”

She was young and had lots of energy for the job and she excelled at it. She would stick with this career for nearly 20 years. After five years in Millwaukee, where she worked for teachers’ and other unions, she was offered a job in DC working for a division of the AFL-CIO that represented some of their affiliate unions. Her division assisted unions seeking analytic research to secure financial data and anything else necessary to make their case in negotiations.

“It was a fantastic job. I loved it, but it was also very high pressure.”

Eisenberg was on the road a lot, working long hours, and representing everyone from airline to healthcare workers, but she spent the most time with meatpackers.

As real evidence of her passion for worker’s rights, the life-long vegetarian worked with the meatpackers union for years fighting for better work conditions. “It was challenging for me for sure. The smell of death around the meatpacking plant is brutal, but it’s a horrifically dangerous job for the workers and there are lots of injuries. When you talk about workers that need a union, meat and poultry workers are at the top of the list.”

Eisenberg’s Spanish-speaking skills were vital to help her communicate with many workers and get a real sense of the conditions. Despite the long hours and challenging conditions, Eisenberg didn’t consider a change. “That would have involved thinking about the future,” she jokes. Instead, she found another outlet – yoga.

Soon after she moved to DC, Eisenberg reluctantly started practicing yoga thanks to “a hippie neighbor from California who taught classes out of her apartment.”  The natural athlete was skeptical at first: “I sort of went kicking and screaming … there was lots of stretching and I wondered if it was really doing anything, but I kept going back.”

After four years of practicing yoga, she realized she was getting more serious when she sought out classes on the road while traveling for work.

“I went to a class in Omaha, Nebraska, once that I loved. It totally resonated with me. I also had a teacher in North Carolina. I was practicing all over the place.”  So, Eisenberg began taking teacher-training modules on weekends and immersion yoga weekends whenever her schedule allowed.

Upon moving to the Petworth neighborhood of DC, she found a new studio teaching Kundalini yoga. “It beat the crap out of me,” Eisenberg recalls. “It worked on postures but also a lot of breathing and chanting. It was very powerful and different from anything I had ever done. I found it so challenging but I loved it.”  She loved it so much she became certified as a Kundalini teacher.

It was right around this time that Eisenberg’s longtime employer decided he needed a change. “He was a wonderful boss and had given me so much opportunity, but when he decided to shut down the office, I realized I was tired too, and I didn’t want to go work for another union. It had been nearly 20 years and these campaigns really sap you.”

So Eisenberg decided she was just going to teach yoga and see where it led her.

“The financial transition? Oh my gosh — it was crazy. The things you take for granted when you have a full-time job, like going out to dinner, that all had to go, but the teacher training itself is powerful and gives you the sense that you can go off in a different direction and make it work.”

Eisenberg, who was single at the time, realizes she was very lucky to have severance and unemployment to get over the transition hump. She had a very low mortgage which was also a help but, “without the severance, I don’t think I would have been able to make a go of just teaching.”

It was just enough of a cushion to give her a couple months to develop a steady slate of classes.  She picked up students whenever she could at a variety of locations and then – fortuitously – a friend who worked at Miriam’s Kitchen called and asked if she’s be willing to teach yoga to the homeless there. She loved the volunteer time trying to “bring a little bit of peace and tranquility into the lives of the homeless men and women.”

It was through her work there that she connected with another instructor who was launching a non-profit to provide outreach yoga to underserved areas. Eisenberg was offered the executive director position and took it. Finally, through the combination of the office and the teaching jobs, she felt like she was back on her feet. But fundraising, a key part of her new job, was not really a natural fit. So, eighteen months later when a friend mentioned a space in Petworth that would be perfect for a yoga studio, she jumped at the chance.

Eisenberg initially partnered with a friend, but now runs Lighthouse Yoga Center on her own. At first, the overhead and rent were low, so the transition was smooth. After two years in the first location, she has moved the studio to a more central space in Petworth and expanded its offerings.

And in a way, Eisenberg has come full circle: no longer an official community organizer, her business has become the heart of her community: “My favorite thing right now about running Lighthouse is that we are becoming a great part of the community. Our students say all sorts of people feel comfortable coming here and we take that role seriously. We want to be there for the people in our neighborhood, providing a break from the stress of everyday.”

 

Tips from Julie Eisenberg:

  • Let go of your material needs. Stop shopping for things that aren’t critical, for example.
  • Develop a good network of friends and colleagues who will support you in your new venture. Don’t be shy about emailing them to invite them to classes or events.
  • Don’t get overly hung up on how much income you need to bring in each month. Build a little cushion and then realize that some months may be better than others, so you can make it through the slower months without freaking out.
  • In fact, try not to freak out in general. Everything works out in the end.