building a game layer on top of the world

Alumnus and entrepreneur Seth Priebatsch [Junior '98, Intermediate '02-03] is taking his mobile gaming company, SCVNGR (pronounced “scavenger”), to new heights. In fact, he plans to make SCVNGR "a game layer on top of the world." The premise of SCVNGR — the game, the platform, and the company itself — is to "discover new places, new things, and to share your experiences with friends." Talk about a mission that hits close to home.

SCVNGR is a location-based, mobile social game that anyone can play. Participants "go places, do challenges, and earn points." Seth believes that one of the things that has made SCVNGR so successful is its simplicity. The company offers the following explanation of how it works:

"You visit a place, say your favorite burrito shop, open up the SCVNGR app and are shown a list of challenges. One challenge might ask you to snap a pic for a couple points. Another to solve some location-based riddle that the owners of the shop have added. And yet a third to do the tin-foil origami challenge, where you must carefully unwrap your burrito and create an origami sculpture out of foil. Snap a photo of your creation for three points!"

Build up enough points and earn rewards — a mini burrito, for example, at your favorite dive. Straightforward, fun, delicious. What's not to like? People are playing SCVNGR around the globe. By early 2011, the company surpassed more than a million players.

SCVNGR is also wildly popular at the corporate level. Businesses, ranging from local coffee shops to large universities (participating businesses include Sony Pictures, the Smithsonian Museums, the Celtics, Zip Car, and more than 100 colleges and universities) are engaging customers by developing fun, creative challenges for them to complete. More than a thousand institutions are building on SCVNGR. "It's powerful enough," Seth says, "that we can see that it hooks people into these dynamics, pulls them back to the same local businesses over and over, creates huge loyalty, and is able to drive meaningful revenue and fun to the businesses." Players and businesses alike are reaping the rewards of this deceptively simple, inventive gaming application.

An inventor and entrepreneur from a young age (he launched his first start-up at age 10 — a professional lemonade stand for which he secured a permit from the city of Boston to set up shop on Newbury Street and managed to earn nearly $1,000 a day), Seth's latest enterprise is by far his most successful. Initially backed with $730,000 of early venture funding from Highland Capital Partners, SCVNGR later received $4 million in funding from Google Ventures, and most recently secured $15 million from European firm Balderton Capital. Seth says there were about 20 firms competing to invest in SCVNGR in this latest round, and he spent a long time negotiating the right deal. Balderton, he says, is "an awesome fit." The alliance with a European company that has so much global experience is perfectly timed with Seth's goal to take SCVNGR "big internationally."

For now, though, Seth is keeping it local. He grew up in the Back Bay neighborhood of Boston and currently works with his team about a mile and half away in Cambridge. At company headquarters, which he describes as a "26,000-square-foot palace," Seth goes by the title "Chief Ninja" and can usually be found barefoot and in one of his six orange polo shirts, a testament to the fact that although this young entrepreneur is engaged in serious work (Seth has been known to work for 96 hours straight and to regularly sleep in the office), he isn't taking himself too seriously. Other job titles at SCVNGR include Chief Rockstar, Pixel Czar, and King of Bling, so it's clear that a sense of humor and a bit of irreverence are SCVNGR job requirements. There are currently 55 employees at SCVNGR, six times the staff that were at this time last year. And just over two years ago, SCVNGR was a company of one.

Both SCVNGR and its Chief Ninja are receiving due accolades in the press, including several articles on technology news websites and in the New York Times, as well as a recent mention in Boston Magazine. The company has also engaged in fundraising and PR work, doing a promotion in Times Square on New Year's Eve, partnering with American Eagle to raise money for Big Brothers Big Sisters, as well as a promotional giveaway with Coca-Cola.

As impressive, Seth has been invited to be a keynote speaker for some major technology and innovation events. Last summer, he was asked to speak at the 2010 TED Talks in Boston (TEDxBoston 2010), an event organized by "a team of executives committed to fostering a culture of innovation and sharing revolutionary ideas with citizens around the world." Seth's TED Talk insisted that "building a game layer on top of the world," is a powerful and significant objective for the next decade. It is the important next step, he asserts, now that the last decade's work of establishing a framework of social connection is complete ("It's called Facebook," he jokes). Seth is clearly excited about this mission, both on the micro-level of SCVNGR and on a much larger one. He stresses that this next decade of "building the game layer" will require collaboration, and he invites us all to take part. "Let's all build it together. Let's do it well — and have fun playing." The executives at TEDxBoston 2010 "sought out luminaries who hail from the local area, are driven to make the world a better place, and have developed viable business models for implementing their game-changing ideas." This is one Exploration alumnus who is doing that... quite literally.

Seth was also asked to be a present an hour-long keynote address at the South by Southwest Conference (SXSW) held in early March in Austin, Texas. Seth's talk was a kickoff to "five days of compelling presentations by the brightest minds in emerging technology." The interactive address about the powerful implications of "the game layer" to a crowd of more than 2000 people was very well received. Seth's talk included audience participation in a live collaborative game, which resulted in a $10K donation from SVNGR to the National Wildlife Foundation for a job well done (this "win" had quite an incentive). The response in the press to the SXSW presentation has been outstanding, and both Seth and SCVNGR have benefited from the buzz.

Named one of the "top young entrepreneurs to watch" by, this talented, opportunistic young man with a laudable affinity for the color orange (the signature hue for both SCVNGR and Exploration) is ready for the next level (see "LevelUp" sidebar at right).  A trailblazer with keen business sense, Seth has bottomless energy for ideas, work, and--perhaps most importantly--play.

To learn more about Seth, SCVNGR, and to follow the achievement and antics of both, visit the SCVNGR "blag", follow them on twitter, or "like" them on Facebook.

Published February 21, 2011
Updated March 21, 2011