Fast Company

Gaming is Serious Business (even at IBM)

How Phaedra Boinodiris turned IBM on to Video Games

The argument raged until 2am when the guy stormed out. The guy, an MBA student at UNC insisted that “games are for kids and IBM isn’t going to buy it,” while the demure Phaedra Boinodiris, also a first year MBA candidate, stuck to her guns, knowing the case challenge posted by IBM “screamed for a business SIM.”  Just a few hours later, Sandy Carter of IBM was asking Phaedra to build a prototype of her idea, an idea that became Innov8, a highly successful “serious game” that explains business process management to non-technical people and is my new favorite example of Marketing as Service.


In retrospect, it wasn’t really a fair fight. Phaedra was not your typical MBA student with ten years of entrepreneurial experience under her belt, having founded two companies including WomenGamers.com, now a popular portal for female gamers.  Thus, her expertise on the gaming world was substantial and while Sandy Carter’s request would have tripped up most students, Phaedra was up to the challenge.  In my interview with Phaedra at Impact 2010, IBM Software’s annual conference, her experience with IBM over the last two years provides a gripping playbook for innovators, especially “intrapreneurs” seeking to build “start ups” within large companies.


1. Pursue your Passions
Phaedra got into the gaming business back in 1999 because she was a gamer, her sister was a gamer but not one of the industry publications addressed the category from a female perspective.  Knowing that 35% of women play video and computer games, she leapt into the void by setting up WomenGamers.com. She became an activist for the cause, starting the first scholarship program for women to get degrees in game design and development in the US, helping to share her passion with others.  After two years full-time with IBM, her passion for the power of games remains strong, adding that, “through self-discovery and experience consumers can better understand what you’re selling.” 


2. Find a Champion

When Sandy Carter first approached her at the Case Competition, Phaedra wasn’t sure what to make of her prototype request.  Now she knows that Sandy is the kind of internal champion that every “intrapreneur” dreams about finding.  “What amazed me is that Sandy attends the Case Competition’s herself instead of delegating this to a junior person,” marveled Phaedra.  “That takes real cajones and reflects Sandy’s commitment to find innovative ideas,” added Phaedra.  After the Case Competition, Sandy offered Phaedra an internship that lasted the rest of her time at business school and led the way to the now successful Serious Gaming group at IBM.


3. Partner with Pros

Given only three months to build a prototype, Phaedra and her team at IBM knew they needed great partners and aligned with Centerline.”  “There are so many bad games out there,” noted Phaedra, “you really have to find a developer with a light touch,” to create an engaging experience.  In fact, Phaedra notes that of the three key ingredients of entrepreneurial success; people, process and ideas, people is by far the most important.  “A great idea without the right people will fail, whereas even an okay idea could succeed with great people,” she added.   Phaedra’s confidence in Centerline was thoroughly justified as they turned the initial idea first into a prototype and later into a simulation game played now played at over 1000 colleges and business schools around the world.


4. Start with the Low Hanging Fruit

Once Innov8 was produced, it was quickly adopted and lauded by teachers, students and the press.  USC’s Marshall School of Business soon required every student to play Innov8.  Phaedra noted with understandable pride, “One class at a Turkish University uses Innov8 for its final exam!”  Teachers thanked Phaedra because “BPM is not an easy thing to teach.”  “We took something that was highly technical and made it more intuitive,” added Phaedra.  “Students were the low hanging fruit but they also represented future business opportunity,” which would eventually help to get Business Process Management software adopted by more and more companies.


5. Build from Success
Once Innov8 had gained traction with graduate schools, Phaedra got approval to develop a flash-based online version of the game that could reach and engage a wider audience.  Adding social networking elements like a leader board, the online version soon became a lead machine.  Currently thousands of potential and current customers play Innov8 2.0 Online per month generating thousands of leads, many of which have been converted into sales.  In fact, Innov8 online generates many times more leads for IBM’s BPM software than any other source, creating an ROI that even “VCs would love.” “We took baby steps, building our case internally, showing ROI of each subsequent project, just like we would have to external investors,” offered Ms. Boinodiris.


6. Don't Sell Chocolate Broccoli

One of the happy by-products of the online Innov8 game was that it introduced the idea of serious gaming to a broader audience.  Soon IBM’s business partners were asking if they could customize Innov8 for their customers.  And eventually a new group within IBM Global Business Services was set up to do just that!  This speaks to the power of selling by educating as well as the quality of the game itself.  As Phaedra opined, “people can smell chocolate broccoli from a mile away,” so even educational games have to be extremely well crafted.  This insight is a truth for all such marketing as service programs, if the experience isn’t top notch, the customer or prospect simply won’t engage.  On the other hand, if the experience is rich and educational, there is simply no better way to sell.


7. Revel in the Naysayers
Since her late night argument with a fellow MBA, Phaedra has reveled in the challenge of selling games as a serious business tool and formidable marketing weapon.  Some have resisted the idea, calling games “fluff” and “kids stuff.”  When I asked her about sales force adoption, she noted that there has been some resistance there too. “Sales has their lucky underwear and don’t like to change it,” she winked. Fortunately, her continued emphasis on proving ROI internally has been rewarded with the green lighting of a next gen simulation game called CityOne that will launch Fall 2010.  CityOne is already being lauded by the press, with Gizmodo saying “if SimCity introduced legions of gamers to the world of urban planning, then IBM's upcoming CityOne game looks to take that education to the next level.”


Final note: I consider myself lucky to have met Phaedra.  As proud as she is of her accomplishments thus far, she remains humble.  She states with realistic clarity that “games won’t displace anything; they will supplement other sales tool, driving people down the purchase funnel.”  My guess—the potential for games as educational sales tools for highly technical products is truly unlimited and Phaedra will remain on the forefront for quite some time. 

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