Call of Duty
Seed Hatchery helps local startup Knoco and Kenn Gibbs get in the game.
Memphis video-game designer Kenn Gibbs knows there’s a problem.
“Educational video games, by and large, are awful,” Gibbs says. Other forms of media have conquered the education question with high-quality television shows, books, and movies for kids. Video games, however, are still mired in the false choice between entertainment and learning. New Memphis company Knoco might have a solution.
Founder and CEO Kenn Gibbs knew he could make games with what he calls “accidental learning” potential. But what he didn’t know was how to turn his idea into a viable company.
That’s why Gibbs recently headed to Seed Hatchery, a business incubator in the EmergeMemphis building downtown. Its principal mission is to find and nurture high-growth-potential business startups. Backed by Nashville Venture capital firm Solidus, Seed Hatchery is led by Eric Mathews, Launch Memphis founder and current executive director of EmergeMemphis.
“Seed Hatchery has activated latent entrepreneurial capacity in our community as well as a groundswell of supporters on a level not previously seen in Memphis,” says Mathews.
The success of the first round of Seed Hatchery companies last year encouraged an increase in applications for the second round this spring. More than 50 prospective businesses applied for the six slots available in the second session, which took place from January to May.
The approved six companies, of which Knoco was one, received $15,000 in startup funds and, more importantly, connections with mentors who guided them through a 90-day business bootcamp. At the end of the program, the newly born and refined companies got a chance to make their pitches to potential investors.
Gibbs began his love affair with video games early. Since he was young, the 28-year-old designer has been a devotee of Nintendo. Even now, Gibbs lists his favorite games as the ones he played early, such as Metroid and The Legend of Zelda.
He moved to Memphis in fifth grade and attended Germantown High School. Soon after graduating from the University of Memphis in 2008, Gibbs began working for local game developer Resolute Interactive. Eventually, Gibbs decided to strike out on his own.
The video-game industry is multilayered. Like the film industry, the game world has a number of big-budget, multibillion-dollar franchises, such as Call of Duty, Halo, and Assassin’s Creed. Small independent games have also become massive successes, such as Angry Birds and Farmville.
With tablet computers and smartphones demanding more of consumers’ attention, and educators looking for new ways to stimulate learning, Gibbs believes he’s found a unique opportunity to fill a niche.
When Knoco was accepted into Seed Hatchery, it caused Gibbs a combination of relief and stress. Though excited to have the financial backing to work on his dream project, Gibbs was worried about the pace and expectations of the Seed Hatchery’s rigorous schedule. He was right to be worried.
At first glance, the Seed Hatchery schedule looked nearly unmanageable. Not a day was left open. Many of the company founders continue to work their day jobs throughout the program, and, between full-time work and the rigorous mentorship schedule, working 70 to 90 hours a week was common.
The very first weekend of the program boasted schedules beginning at 8 a.m. and ending at 9 p.m. Every spare moment was spent designing the first game, developing a business plan, and honing, over and over again, his pitch. Gibbs worked with his mentors and many special guests, developing his public speaking and examining the best way to approach investors and attack his market.
Knoco enlisted as mentors Cliff McKinney, Work for Pie’s CEO and graduate of the first Seed Hatchery; Elizabeth Lemmonds, Launch Memphis brand director; and Meka Egwuekwe, software designer for Lokion.
McKinney and his partner, Brad Montgomery, recently received a round of funding allowing them to leave their day jobs and devote their efforts to Work for Pie full time.
“Being a mentor was a fantastic experience,” McKinney says. “I would say it’s a great way to give back, and it is, but I honestly learned a lot about my business, too. Seeing things from the perspective of an outsider has no doubt made me a better entrepreneur, and I hope I was able to impart what little wisdom I had as well.”
Gibbs decided to focus his game on fourth-grade math. Other educational companies, like LeapFrog, don’t have much curriculum past second grade. By the time a child reaches fourth grade, most will be well-versed in video games, and the simple flashcard-like games available won’t keep their attention.
“We’ll provide kids with fun and engaging games to play,” Gibbs says. “They’re games made by game developers rather than educators.”
Designers polled teachers and students and came up with a design. The first game, Aerial Dogfighters, encourages kids to learn multiplication and division while steering a biplane piloted by a dog. Kids learn basic mathematics searching a map for enemies and dispatching them. The game is currently available at goknoco.com.
The games also give parents and teachers a window onto their children’s strengths and weaknesses for math. It tracks a child’s answers and gives specific analytic information about the problems and progress made.
For 90 grinding days, the Knoco team attempted to create a solid business plan while at the same time tried to make their Aerial Dogfighters demo as smooth as possible, all with the aim of reaching two milestones: Governor Bill Haslam’s Innovation Conference on April 27th in Nashville and the Seed Hatchery investor day on May 3rd.
Knoco was among three Memphis startups, along with fellow Seed Hatchery companies Choomogo and Paytopia, to present at Haslam’s Innovation conference.
Each company delivered its pitch to a committee of business experts who would award $5,000 to the most compelling business. Gibbs had a difficult time, having to react quickly when the demo video of Aerial Dogfighters failed to play.
The committee spared no quarter tearing apart what they saw as Knoco’s weaknesses. Patrick Woods, director of the Archer Malmo-backed venture fund AM Ventures, saw some of the critiques as excessive considering the early stage of the business.
“There can be a bit of groupthink that goes on in panels,” Woods says. “It seemed like they didn’t understand how early in their development these startups were.”
In the end, the committee awarded the $5,000 award for innovation to Stall Talk, an Oak Ridge-based company that sells advertising space on portable toilets.
Gibbs took the abuse in stride.
“It was difficult,” he says, “but that’s going to happen when you’re in such an early stage. It’s opinion.”
Gibbs is encouraged that the people who came to him with the most enthusiasm were teachers.
“There are teachers out there who want to provide these games to their students,” says Gibbs.
May 3rd was the finale for Seed Hatchery. Memphis mayor A C Wharton spoke about the spirit of entrepreneurship in Memphis.
“Entrepreneurship is one of those things Memphis is doing right,” Wharton said. “It’s everywhere you turn.”
Gibbs feels good about his pitch at the Seed Hatchery investor day. He had delivered it dozens of times by then, but with this being the finale, he had an extra bit of tension.
“I felt good going up there. It still makes me nervous,” Gibbs says.
Though he was approached informally by a few investors, no big checks have materialized yet. Still, Gibbs feels confident that with the skills Seed Hatchery has given the company, it’s only a matter of time.
“I can’t quantify how much I’ve learned,” says Gibbs. “Perhaps the biggest lesson was learning the market. Every day I spend a huge amount of time researching and focusing our business plan to best take advantage.”