I first met Kellian Adams when I was speaking at a conference for Children’s Non-Fiction Writers. I was, as usual, talking about the importance of building your brand and using digital content strategies to get it out there, when I encountered the perfect example in Ms. Kellian. A spitfire with bright red hair and a bright mind, a bubbly curiosity and infectious enthusiasm, she radiated intelligence, energy and warmth. But it wasn’t just her personality that made her stand out.
In addition to being a games producer and entrepreneur, Kellian is a passionate swing dancer who wears her heart on her feet (in the cutest saddles shoes you’ve ever seen). Not many entrepreneurial goddesses and business owners rock a ‘40s collegiate look, complete with barrettes and two-toned oxfords. This bobby-soxer, martial arts enthusiast and interactive games guru is a modern-day Renaissance woman who pursues her passions with guts and gusto — and a dose of kick-ass, old school glamour as well. As Kellian says, “I’ve learned that fun is an art and I’ve spent a lifetime perfecting it.”
Kellian’s story is inspirational and instructive, and shows how your life’s passions and paths don’t always go in a straight line, but they can take you to some amazing places! Check out what she had to say about finding a creative career in unexpected places and building her own business:
So Kellian, how did you get started?
I was working as a teacher in Shanghai and a friend of mine asked if I could help them build a game to teach American kids how to speak Chinese. Eventually I ended up as their senior producer, managing their artists and development team — so it was trial by fire.
What made you go into this line of work?
I kept trying to be a teacher actually… but once I was bitten by the bug of producing games, I knew that was it for me. I went to grad school for teaching, but all the while I was building games for learning. I loved the process of production: taking a little idea and rallying a team to make it into something real and fun that could teach people. Building things is addictive — it makes you want to build more!
Why did you decide to start your own company?
I always imagined that I would have some sort of business and I always wanted to name it Green Door. My first “company” was created when I was 11 years old; I made jewelry called “Moon Units” and sold earrings and barrettes at local shops in the Northern New Hampshire town where I grew up. Then, as a teen I would paint faces for a dollar apiece at fairs (which incidentally was really good money)! In China, I had a “Tea Master” and learned everything I could about Chinese tea to start my own tea importing business, which I called Kai Li Teas. I came back to the US with LOTS of tea. I’m still drinking tea from that first shipment, but then I discovered that I didn’t really like tea enough to spend 12 hours a day on it! After that, I was working to start a company that delivered a Chinese language learning game and classes… so I had a lot of ideas. They say the key to having a good business is to have a lot of bad businesses first so I definitely covered that!
In the case of Green Door Labs (FINALLY, I got a company that I could name Green Door), I was building games for a company called SCVNGR and then they changed direction and stopped making games. Nobody else was building location-based games for museums and schools so I decided to start a business that would do it. By then, it seemed like the most natural thing in the world.
Tell us about Green Door Labs.
Sure! Well, after ten years of game design, education design and interactive design, I started Green Door Labs, an education games and game design company. Our very first platform, the Edventure Builder, lets you build your own games without needing to program. It allows educators to create, release (and edit and test and edit and test again) their own custom mobile games. I believe game creation should be accessible to everyone and we’re working hard to make the world a more interesting place.
We want to bring games and adventures out into the real world of museums, cities, libraries — all of these places with mysteries in front of us, just waiting to be unlocked! (In fact… we’d be happy to run a “like a boss girl” game building webinar for any Like a Boss budding game designer.)
What surprised you most about starting your own business?
I think it surprised me how challenging it is to manage people — and how hard it is to set up that relationship. Green Door was the first time that I really had to manage a team. I was used to people always being happy with me and suddenly in this new role, I had to do and say things that didn’t always make people happy. I wasn’t sure how to hire people. I wasn’t sure what counted as partnerships and what counted as freelancers or employees. I wasn’t sure when I crossed the over the line to “not nice,” when I wanted to get something done on-time and in a certain way.
I love to include people so whenever people wanted to work with me (I build games for museums so a lot of people want to work with me), I would say “Yes! Sure! We’ll find a way to include you,” but it wasn’t always as easy as that. It’s still something that I struggle with: how to give people the right roles but to accept that I am the boss and that Green Door is my own vision. I’m a super friendly kid but I have a very, very clear idea of what I want Green Door to be. People are used to my being friendly and so it can catch them by surprise when I have to draw a hard line — or even worse, let them go!
If you could go back in time, what would you do differently?
I think I was trying too much to do things the “regular” way when I started. I tried to find a co-founder when in fact my own husband was the ideal technical cofounder. I set things up for investment when in fact my company didn’t need investment at all, we were a bootstrapped company that had a product ready to sell. I looked for a board and advisors when in fact there are no real experts in this field because its so new. So I think I would have trusted my instincts and been more willing to do things my own way rather than trying to be a “regular” startup.
What are the biggest challenges? What are the biggest rewards?
One of the biggest challenges for me is just staying focused and having faith in what I’m doing. Sometimes I see the things that are happening in the world and I think, “wait no! I’ve got to go feed starving children! Wait no! I need to help fight to end classism and racism,” and… well, everything that’s out there. But you can’t fix all of the things at once and I have to remind myself that this is the corner that I have chosen to fight for: helping keep museums, libraries, education relevant and pushing technology to work WITH the real world not against it. I need to put all of my energy there if I want to make a difference. There are so many things to care about!
The biggest rewards, of course, are when I see people learning and having fun with our games. We just released a game called the League of Extraordinary Bloggers (lxbgame.com) and our testers told me that they loved learning about Asia. I like to give people “doors,” or access to these things that seem really complex and difficult. Art, history, geography and philosophy are things can be really fun if you approach them in the right way. There are great adventures hidden in there. The Boston Childrens’ Museum was so excited to see kids interacting with their content like it was a game (because it was)! That really keeps me going, bringing this content to life.
This year, what do you plan to do more of? Less of?
I hope to hire my first official Green Door folks this year. Until this point, I’ve worked with a lot of freelancers but I think I’m at the point where I need at least one other person who does only Green Door projects. I think this year I’ll do a little less worrying, a little less looking for advice. I’ve heard it said that nobody really knows “the way” to run a business but I still spent a lot of time looking for mentors who might be able to help. Turns out not many people know more about this particular industry than I do. Not many people make games for education and culture — especially location-based games. I’ll have to forge my own path since it’s really a new type of industry. I suspect that’s the case for a lot of people who are building businesses with new media.
Last but not least, what advice would you give young women today, in general, and in regard to starting their own businesses?
I think I would advise that you build an actual product or service that you can sell right away. A lot of businesses spend a lot of time on the “idea” phase, waiting for money and support when in fact it’s a great thing to have an MVP (minimum viable product) and see how people respond to it. You can do something with whatever it is you have, you can start this moment!
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