by Becky Hayes
Marguerite Dibble, native Vermonter and recent Champlain College graduate, is an entrepreneur who founded the gaming company Birnam Wood Games. Dibble discusses the challenges and benefits of starting her company in Vermont.
Q: What do you like about Vermont?
A: I like Vermont for so many reasons. First of all, it’s gorgeous. It’s so beautiful here, but I also love how strange it is. When you ask someone what they do, they will say I am a programmer, but I also make artisanal cheese and I also knit sometimes. Everyone has 10 things going on and I feel like each individual really is an individual. Everyone sort of recognizes that. That’s why they’re so excited to be in Vermont.
And I just really love the local energy - it feels like a community. People wave at each other to let each other go at intersections and speak to each other and are courteous. I actually rear-ended someone once and it was really nasty. When I spoke with the other driver, we were just laughing and talking about the weather. It was such a Vermont experience. No one is ready to jump down each other’s throats. It’s just a good place to be. Good people. Good community.
Q: As a native Vermonter, what made you decide to attend college in state?
A: It was really serendipitous because it just happens that Champlain has this fantastic gaming program and they’re here in Vermont so it worked out wonderfully. I glanced at some Boston schools, but really I applied early admission to one school and that one school was Champlain because of the entrepreneurship and just the vibe - it’s a very nerdy place and that felt right on the money for me.
It’s funny because that is a very Vermont thing too, the fact that you’re seeking things out particularly for yourself. It’s very independent and very local, so it would make sense that a school here would have the same kind of goals.
Q: How did you decide to start your own company?
A: I’ve always done projects. I organized a play when I was four years old in preschool. When I was in the fourth grade, I wrote, directed, started, made the costumes and organized a grade-wide production of a self-written play about Rudolph getting lost for Christmas. It was completely absurd, but I always liked doing things myself and seeing what those things turn into. I’ve always liked just seeking solutions rather than accepting a common answer and just seeing what happens because, why not?
You might as well try something before you recognize it’s going to fail, because it might not - you never know. You must try at least. Zero regret, zero guilt. I’m a very low guilt, low regret person. I like that and I'd like to continue living that way. I think that if people just tried things, there would be less regret and guilt, and the world would be a better place ultimately.
Q: Vermont has the stigma of being a place without as many job opportunities as other states. Why did you choose to start your company here?
A: What we do is very digital - the world is digitizing - so pretty much you are able to start a business where ever you want just because of the way you sell your goods. We sell a digital good, so you can basically sell that good from anywhere with an Internet connection.
Burlington is a cool town and I think it has a lot of potential to grow in the technology and creative economy sectors, because there are so many unique and talented people who are here. Living in this place really supports a creative mind and a healthy state of existence. It breeds that type of energy in people. I think it’s a good place to try and establish something and really build a business community around the creative economy and technology.
Again, it’s that whole, ‘I want to be here, let’s try it and see what happens.’ My parents were painting contractors in southern Vermont. Growing up they always told me I could do whatever I wanted to do, but I was exposed to a culture where they and a lot of other people I knew in southern Vermont made money by working for second homeowners because that was the opportunity there. Everybody always said it was hard to do anything besides that in Vermont. Contracting work and stuff like that pays well because there’s opportunity for it, but I wanted to give people the chance to live here and make a living in a different way.
Q: What do you do on a typical work day?
A: It’s all over the place. I start off by responding to a bunch of emails, catching up with clients for contract work and talking to people in the Burlington community who I’ve met and correspond regularly with because they are really great, creative people. I like to retain that sense of community and connection which ultimately has resulted in some really great contract work right off the bat.
The rest of the day is usually littered between managing the different projects we have going on. Right now, we have a couple. There are four of us in the office. So between the four of us, we have an independent game, Pathogen, which we got a publishing deal for last week. We are looking to push that as an iPhone app and will have a huge launch in October.
We also have another game we are working on with a client called 8BitFit, which is all about fitness driven game play. You’re playing a little classic arcade style pixel robot game and the energy you get for the game comes from real-world fitness. So if you go for a run, you earn energy to use in the game - it tracks all that. That will also be done in October.
In addition to that, I am exploring some other entrepreneurial ventures in the area just because I have a problem where if there is a good idea, I feel bad if I don’t fully explore it. I also provide the art for all the games. All that fills-in a busy day.
Q: What is the gaming industry like for female players?
A: Very interesting because people think it’s mostly men, but the ratio is actually approaching close to a 50-50 split between men and women playing. The single largest demographic group is currently 35- to 45-year-old women. They play more games than boys under 18, which shocks a lot of people. And that’s mostly because of mobile. Mobile is really changing the way people play games. Where it used to be a very cliché image of 14 to 18 year old boys sitting around an Xbox, playing these games together very aggressively. That all has changed.
Q: What is it like being a female in a generally male-dominated profession?
A: I’ve always done kind of boy things and I’ve always done nerd culture stuff. In Champlain, I went into film for a year, and then I went back to games because I really missed my nerd friends. I missed talking about Star Trek during lunch and Firefly. I wanted to feel like I was surrounded by my people again, so that’s why I went into that.
It’s also a beautiful art medium. It has something that other art doesn't have - humility, which I think is very interesting. You do a painting, put it on the wall and it’s your piece of art. A game doesn’t become a product until someone else experiences it. So you’re almost completely trusting someone else’s perspective to define your art. It takes a great amount of courage to do that. You don’t get the pretension that a lot of art does. You don't get the sense of control. Your art is defined by another person’s experience completely, I’ve always found that really interesting. And just the fact that it combines so many mediums to create a video game. I’ve always liked dipping into a lot of pots and video games let me do that.
Q: What do like most about your job?
A: I love having so much going on in a day that my brain is constantly bouncing all over the place. I love that by making video games, you have so many things going on. You have an artistic perspective. You have a consumer perspective. Marketing. Design. You have to look at a problem scientifically and logically, but also creatively. That’s really what I enjoy doing the most is combining creative, artistic thinking with logical, linear thinking. I’m a big fan of breaking things down into manageable steps. That’s what really draws me to entrepreneurship in general, accomplishing goals like that.
Q: What are the biggest challenges you faced when starting your own business?
A: Money. Straight up, money is always hard. We didn’t take investment because I don’t think making video games is the type of thing that benefits from an injection of capital in a classic startup sense. Making video games is sort of like making art in a lot of ways. Investors don't invest in artists. It’s a tough science to get your hands around. I think it’s going to be really exciting for us to create a small studio that makes awesome products and 10 to 20 people can work at, but that’s the extent of that growth.
Also, you have to make ends meet. There were a couple months this year that were tough. The biggest challenge by far was to come up with enough capital to just keep everyone motivated to continue working.
We are really excited to have a publishing deal to help release some products in October. Those are going to be really defining releases for us. How those games are received and how many sales we see is really going to be the future of our company.
Q: What advice would you offer to students interested in also becoming entrepreneurs?
A: Try everything while you can. Learn how to fail well and fail every day. You should never have one thing that you keep in your mind, and it’s perfect and shiny and you add to it every single day. If you think of something good, try it right away, see what works, see what doesn't and move on to another idea. If you baby concepts and ideas, then you're not going to see the faults in them and not going to learn to move on quickly.
The way we make video games is we come up with a little thing, we test it and we do that 50 times in two weeks. We throw out 90 percent of the stuff we make because once you learn not to be afraid of throwing things away, you make much better things. Just get in the habit of making things all the time. There is a difference between conceiving of things and actually making them. If something’s a concept, it doesn't really exist until you actually do something with it. So do something with it, see what happens, and don't be afraid to throw it away and move on to the next thing.
During high school and college is when you have the time and space to do that, so try as many things as you can.
Gaming is not just for boys, it’s art for everyone
by Becky Hayes