She inherited a wild passion for games from her mother: board games, card games, word games, console games, mobile games, self-made games, all kind of games. And how lucky she was to be born in Dundee, the UK capital of video games. Great for the sheer fun, thrill and adrenaline of playing, games she soon discovered, also create spaces to engage with others, to learn and to bond. A thought caught her imagination. What if games could also be a source of social good? Meet Jude Ower, one of five women in tech to watch out for in 2016, MBE, Founder and CEO of Playmob a company that is building bridges between gamers, game developers and social causes.
What is the story of Playmob?
I was always thinking of the potential of games beyond pure entertainment. Around 2008-2009 a few charities came asked me if we could build a game that would teach about a cause and raise money at the same time. I loved the combination of teaching, raising money and making an impact not only online but also offline. The problem that I saw was how scalable this would be, which causes one should build games for and who would pay for it.
I started thinking of doing campaigns in teaching games that were out there, such like Guitar Hero, Endless Ocean, and Dance Dance Revolution that were teaching kids things like music, science or dance.
In 2010, after the Haiti earthquake Zynga made a campaign on Farmville that was very successful not only in terms of how much money was raised but also in terms of player engagement. People were talking about it on social media.
The solution was to build campaigns on existing games. That is when I thought there should be a platform that connects every single game to a live cause and allows players to give while they play.
How did Playmob transform from being an idea to become a business?
I started by sharing my idea of the platform that connects games and charities with people I knew in the investment space. They thought the idea was interesting but the concept had to be proven first. Someone asked if I had heard of Springboards, now called Techstars. They are a three month accelerator. Techstars helped me test my idea,build the product, receive mentoring and get my pitch ready.
Tech stars was also very good place to meet people. During those three months I met our now lead developer, Martin Grenfell, who was originally based in New Zealand. I was also focused on getting our first test cases out and at the same time I attended game shows. In one of them I happened to sit next to the CEO of a company called Per Blue. I pitched to him what we did and he loved it. Two weeks after that we had our first trial in a game called Parallel Kingdom.
That was a great first milestone. We had a product, a test case and we could show investors this idea could work.
Since then you have raised close to a million dollars for charity. Well done! What’s your ambition?
Our vision is to get to 1 billion dollars! That is our big goal. The more we raise for charity, the more good we do and the more Playmob grows at the same time.
Having a big goal means everything falls into place after that.
Talk to me about how Playmob supports causes and charities
Charities benefit in a several ways. As well as raising money for projects that they need to support, the awareness piece of being in a live game is really big for them. Games provide huge audiences that may have been otherwise hard to reach for charities. The value of getting in front of those players is huge: advertisers pay for that, but charities essentially get that engagement for free.
Two things happen in a charity campaign. Players learn about what a charity does and they also get to see where the money will be spent. This encourages people to donate to a charity even if they have never done so before. My thinking is that if we provide education about how money will be spent for a cause players identify with, they will be more likely to donate to that charity again, also outside the game.
How does the game developer benefit?
Games companies also benefit in different ways. When they run a campaign players identify with they see increased engagement. Players who normally do not spend in the game, may buy a charity item. Players who normally buy items may spend more. That is important for a game developer because most games are free to play, which means that game developer relies on advertising and in app purchases.
We have also seen that there is an increase in lifetime value (people play a game longer when they identify with a cause), player engagement increases by about ten times and these kinds of campaigns also lead to social media activity. Players are more likely to share that they bought an item in a game when it is for a good cause. Such gamer reactions mean there is a positive halo effect on the game. A game is a brand and when gamers feel good the brand is reinforced.
We have also heard that for many developers being involved with charities is something employees are proud about.
How do charities and developers choose each other?
We try to find perfect matches by looking at what we know from the gamers side and the charities or causes. Demographics and content are very important. If a game is about farming or animals it could work very well with certain types of charities. Another dimension to look at are key dates in the calendar that players care about. For instance, there could be interesting connections to be made for an event like Earth Day.
A good example when thinking about demographics, is a campaign we supported around cyber bullying, which is an issue particularly with teenagers. We paired a foundation called Cybersmile with High School Story, a game for teenagers from Pixelberry Studios. That was a very successful campaign. Players really engaged with it because bullying was something they really cared about.
Last September the UN announced the 17 new UN Sustainable Development Goals for the next 15 years. We were tasked with taking the goals to games and gaming partners. We were really pleased to feature the UN Sustainable Development Goals in 26 games and 3 stores: Google Play, Amazon and Play Station who did global featuring of these goals in their store fronts with wake up screens, photos and content. Having the developers and the stores working together took this campaign to a whole new level and showed the power of the community working together. There were 110 million players actively involved with the campaign and engaging with the content. This year we want to continue to work with the different goals and different charities.
So can a game become more fun with a cause campaign?
Game developers are always looking at what new content they can add to make a game more fun. They have to think what is different this week or month that will keep their players excited about the game. This is a great way for them to do it!
How did you come up with the name Playmob?
I was talking to someone at the time about what we should call our company. They said we are like a playful underground mafia, kind of like Robin Hood, wanting to do good. Play had to be there definitely! The word mafia didn’t quite sound right. When mob came up, it stuck: Playmob.
But, we couldn’t get the domain name. We could only get The Playmob, but what we wanted was Playmob. So we contacted the guys who had it; a company based in Austin. It was an intriguing company. They were not just buying url’s to sell them off really expensively. They bought url’s to make sure they were going to be used to their best potential. So we had to submit a proposal about how we would use the name and the url. Other people had also put in their proposal. But they liked ours best. They even gave us a discount! Rather than USD 140 they normally charged, we got it for USD 110! And they also put us in touch with the guys that had the twitter handle!
The story does not end there. A few months later I attended SXSW in Austin and while I was in the line for my ticket a person approached me: was I Jude Ower? It turns out it was the man I had bought the domain from!
Have you received any gamers stories about what Playmob means to them?
We are mainly in the background working with the developers and the charities. But people do reach out to us to ask us to work with a specific charity or to get certain games to work for good.
Occasionally we get consumer emails. One email we will not forget was from a 14 year old teenager. He emailed to say how rubbish he was at school and how hard he found life. But he admitted he was good at playing games and if he could give back to the world playing, then he would be a much happier person!
Why does gaming get bad PR?
Journalists sometimes focus on negative aspects of gaming. They may look at specific violent content or they look at cases where kids are playing games and haven’t been out for days.
We have to take responsibility. There are ways to dose games and notify players it is time to move.
We also need to look at the positives and the potential of gaming. If you look at the size and the reach, it is one of the most powerful industries, certainly in the entertainment space. We have a huge opportunity to make a difference: we have reach, engagement and the ability to tell stories in games too.
Having so many players playing our games is game changing and gives us the opportunity and responsibility to give back.
What is it like to be a woman in this industry where there are few?
I’ve always been in the industry so never really thought about it. I stand out a little more but if I can leverage that to get more gaming done for good, then that is what I will do!
I think it is great to have more women join the industry. It has to happen. There’s a fifty fifty split between male and female gamers. We need more women designing games for women!
Where do you find inspiration for your work inside and outside games?
I find inspiration from talking to interesting people. I go to different events, not just gaming ones. I meet with entrepreneurs, charities, people in tech, other startups in other fields. I also like getting out to more far away conferences and events like SXSW where I listen to the different talks.
I mentioned earlier I met the CEO of Per Blue at a gaming conference. The funny things was that I met him at a talk I wouldn’t have normally picked and initially felt maybe I was in the wrong place. Now I do that systematically. I go to talks I wouldn’t normally pick. I also follow people in Twitter and Facebook!
In 2014 you met with Richard Branson when you were selected for the Talent Unleash Awards. How was pitching to him?
It was a great opportunity! He asked a lot of questions about what I did. They were great questions about player conversions and things I would not have expected. He also talked about business and family and we had a good laugh. What I remember the most is how down to earth and humble he is despite all he has achieved. He is the kind of guy who still wonders if he got across ok when he comes off stage.
What qualities does one need to have as an entrepreneur?
I think you’ve got to be pretty fearless, tenacious and not worry about what others think about what you’ve got to do. Listening is a big one!
I have always been quite determined. I have two older sisters who are 6 and 9 years older than me, and I always felt I had to live up to. I always wanted to do whatever they did. My mother was shocked when I jumped in the pool age 2, with no arm bands on or try to complete an obstacle course for the older kids. So I guess at a young age I learnt those traits and pushed myself.
But there are other things you have to develop.
When I started out I met my mentor, Bill Liao, cofounder of Xing.com. One of his first exercises was to get me to look at my fears and getting me over them because fear can paralyse you from getting what you have to get done.
As part of the exercise, I had to list all of my fears. I listed 10 and sent them back to Bill. He sent them back with the comment “No, there is more”. So then I had about 50 things I was afraid of! We went through them one by one. For instance, one of my fears was fear of getting sick. Bill told me it could happen, but it hasn’t happened, so what is the point of worrying about it now. I was also afraid of egos. He agreed that was a good one to be afraid of, because “they are usually hiding something”.
It’s not that I have stopped being afraid, but I have stopped worrying about things I don’t need to worry about now.
How do you measure success?
Making a positive impact. For Playmob, it is the impact campaigns have. The size of the developer and the reach that they have is important. With big audiences, there is potential for bigger donations which translates into a greater impact. That will reflect on the impact we have on charities and also on our growth as a company. This helps us focus on ‘effective altruism’ – meaning it is not giving money away for the sake of it, but really understanding how the funds will make a meaningful difference and solve the worlds biggest problems.
How do you build a team?
I have never used a recruitment agency. I build the team thinking of the type of person we need and then I contact my network. I always find the best people come through referrals or by meeting them at events. I always keep an eye out for people.
People are attracted by what we do. For instance, Lee Hinds who is our campaign director used to work at Playfish which used to be owned by Electronic Arts and is a studio we worked with before.
Three words that describe you….
Tenacious, determined, chilled out.
What is happiness to you?
Seeing other people happy. Chocolate. Having been to the gym. Getting a big campaign off the ground. Having time with friends and family. Having time with the team. Sunshine. Holidays. Living. Doing fun things. Laughing. (not in any order off course!)
What is the most underrated value?
Courage. It sometimes takes knowing someone for a long time or knowing them in depth to see the courage they have. and it isn’t always the loudest who are bravest and have courage! It comes in all sorts of forms. But having courage to do what you believe in is sometimes the thing which goes unnoticed and is undervalued.
What is the most overrated value?
Fear. We all have fears but they can get in our way and get in the way of us doing good stuff. If we can tone down being afraid of fears I bet we would all do more stuff, not be held back or have regrets.
Do you have a life motto?
There is always a way!
One thing I learnt from my mentor is “expect the unexpected”.
Sometimes the way is different from what we thought originally. And sometimes the unexpected can also be good. For instance, we have been thinking how to bring brands also into the mix, in addition to game developers and charities. I think we have found a way. Maybe different to what we thought originally, but we found a way.
Picture by photographer and game designer Izzy Gramp.