Jess Trybus: Etcetera Edutainment
Jess is an unlikely entrepreneur. At least that’s how she tells it. While she had worked at Alta Vista (as employee #38), she had never thought of doing a startup herself. Jess attended Cornell as an undergrad and studied English and theatre. She attributes much of her entrepreneurial talent to her creativity, honed and practiced on the stage, literally.
As a 12-year old, Jess showed an entrepreneurial spirit, although no one recognized it as that. Jess wanted to play ice hockey – on the boy’s team of course. Her parents, daunted by the $700 minimum for equipment allowed her to play but refused to pay. A native of Pittsburgh, which is home today to her gaming startup, Jess called up the local paper and asked for a paper route. It took her three months to get the money to buy the hockey equipment and along the way, Jess learned to sell. She got paid for the route, but also got bonuses from the paper for every new customer.
After college and before Alta Vista, Jess traveled across the country to LA where she ended up turning 22 completely alone in a big city. Eventually she found work with a film production company. She had ideas at the time of how the Internet was converging with entertainment, but got the job offer from Alta Vista just as she started pitching her business plan around the concept of using the Internet for entertainment. Jess rode the Internet bubble along with Alta Vista as the company ballooned to 800 employees. She recalls, “It was like the Wild West. They had offices all over, including Paris.” Of course, we all know the end of the tale with 9-11 and the unraveling of more than just Alta Vista.
As she returned to Pittsburgh, Jess came across Carnegie Mellon’s Entertainment Technology Center (around town both Jess’ company and the university department are called ETC; here ETC refers to the academic program and EE refers to Jess’ company). She interacted with Randy Pausch, of “The Last Lecture” fame, and Don Marinelli, co-founders of the ETC, which was the first masters program designed to blend entertainment and technology. Jess was intrigued by interdisciplinary nature of the program. As she tells it, “The ETC program involved technology, acting, and project management. That was my strength at Alta Vista; I was the liaison between engineers and sales.”
So, come the fall, 2002, Jess started her masters at the ETC, “From the first day at school I wondered how to create a for-profit company that did what the ETC did.” She took business classes at CMU’s Tepper School of Business. She remembers taking an entrepreneurship class and they were discussing the personality traits of an entrepreneur, “That’s when it hit me. They were talking about ME! It was eye-opening; it was also embarrassing that I was only just discovering this.” Jess had dinner with her dad, who had his own business, and she asked him straight out, “Do you think that I could do this, that I could start a company?” He must have indicated his approval because Jess wasted no time. Going from Randy to Don, to CMU President Cohon, to the Governor of PA Jess touted the idea of starting the gaming industry in Pittsburgh beginning with her own company. She chuckles as she recounts how Don Marinelli became a co-founder, “Don was like Yoda saying do or do not, there is no try.”
Remember, Jess knows how to sell, I mean SELL! She is dynamic and persuasive and she won the battle and the war when she started planning the newco upon the heels of her marriage in the fall of 2004 to fellow entrepreneur, Anthony Lacenere, of Propel IT.
Etcetera Edutainment (EE) was founded in 2005 to bring gaming technology and techniques to industries focused on worker safety. Hence the all encompassing “etcetera” coupled with “edutainment” or gaming that educates. EE provides game-based training and simulations for forklift, electrical and other situations where worker safety is a major concern. The company was bootstrapped with customer contracts for the first four years. Early customers included McKesson, University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) and Alcoa. Current customers include USX, Westinghouse, Wegmans, and other Fortune 500 retail and manufacturing companies, as well as government organizations. Since 2009, EE has raised $3M in outside funding.
Today, EE is focused on delivering specific training modules to large customers very quickly. These modules are reusable within the industry so Jess and her team are working on reselling them to gain traction within the industry. Two product suites in particular include modules on “slips, trips and falls” and “strains and sprains.” As Jess tells it, “These are two employee incident areas which represent the most cost to companies, and in many environments – from office cubicles to bakeries to steel manufacturing facility to hospitals.”
Jess adds, “We are starting to think of our products and company more as health and wellness as opposed to safety or gaming or corporate training since we have found that our applications are broader than safety departments and really aim to affect behaviors and wellness of employees. We are attacking areas that represent some of the biggest issues in industry however do not necessarily have regulated content associated with them.”
Jess leads the marketing and sales efforts, trying to gain more customers and ride the momentum established. It’s not easy being in front: “I believe the adoption curve for delivering massive amounts of game based training as a reality in companies is still six to12 months from noticeably accelerating.” But EE continues to get more interest than they can respond to from all types of companies and organizations.
Says the erstwhile unlikely entrepreneur, “While I’ve always been passionate about EE and love what I do – I can’t really do anything I’m not passionate about – I can’t remember the last time I’ve had this much fun at building this company. We’ve learned a lot; nothing ever happens as quickly as you want or even truly believe. While we always proceed with typical entrepreneurial urgency, right now things seem to be gelling; we’ve got a great team, great clients, and we’re making money! And we have such a HUGE market opportunity right in front of us…we just have to play our cards right.”