Stay focused and choose wisely — it’s easy to spread your company and yourself thin by chasing new opportunities, but always have them related to your core business focus. We’ve turned away more than one ‘party planning project’ because our core focus is connecting brands with the communities and audiences that matter to them who are looking for innovative ways to use emerging technologies to connect with them. Basic event planning is not what we want to do. Proven ROI is a must for us to do an experience.
As a part of my series about strong female leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Amber Allen. Amber is the CEO & Founder of Double A Labs, a fanatic of emerging technologies and gamer when she is not running the company. Fast thinking and always exploring new ideas, she gets her energy from talking to everyone. Amber envisions how to make the impossible a reality for her clients. She started Double A Labs to build innovative new immersive experiences using emerging technologies after spending time at Disney, Warner Bros. and Riot games. Her vision is to create immersive experiences via apps and digital platforms in which people become a part of the narrative with the ability to change and influence the story not just for themselves but others who are also participating. In 2019, she is serving as an adjunct professor at the University of Texas, School of Design and Creative Technologies, teaching a class on how emerging technologies like AR can help businesses better connect with their customers. She also serves as a mentor for Girls Who Code and the University of Texas Leadership Program. It’s not unusual to find her toying around with a new approach to AR (check out her business card) or listening to live music on her patio.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
While most of my background is in marketing and sales, what led me to building Double A Labs was my fascination with immersive experiences. I’ve always been an avid gamer and knew technology had a great deal of potential for interactive storytelling. During my time at Disney, I saw the power of immersion and brand affinity. Fans want to interact directly with the brand and when you give people a chance to feel a part of the story, they become more invested. In 2013, I put together my passion for technology and immersive storytelling to create better experiences for fans of gaming, entertainment and emerging technology, and founded Double A Labs. Our mission is to help brands enable their fans to not only interact but become part of the story, to take a memorable moment in time and make it something that lives on after the event through shared content and interactions outside of the event. It’s our job to build experiences that empower audiences to become active participants in the story and take fans on a journey that strengthens their connection with the brand. Over a year ago, we were fortunate to do a project for the launch of season 2 of Mr. Mercedes for AT&T Audience Network in which we build both a VR and an AR app which we launched at San Diego Comic-Con. Today, those apps are still in HTC Vive and Apple app stores, and several key AT&T retail locations providing fans the ability to continue to play the games and experience the show’s storyline.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Building my own company from the ground up has been one of the most difficult and rewarding experiences in my career. I knew, having worked with large companies such as Disney, Warner Bros. and Riot Games, that my success depended on the right company culture and team. Highly unusual at the time, one of my first hires at the company was a game developer to help build the technology we needed to prove that our experiences could be ground-breaking with completely fresh new ways for brands to engage their fans. At the time, augmented reality and virtual reality were very new technologies and people were hesitant to give it a try. I faced some resistance to its use when pitching my ideas for an interactive experience for fans. While hiring a developer for an event company at the time seemed crazy to some people, having the tools and data we needed to back up our ideas gave us a unique edge in the industry and helped us find our footing as a fledgling company.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
About 4 years ago we built an augmented reality technology that was very cool. My engineers thought it would be funny to put an AR spider on our business cards to demonstrate the technology. The spider would suddenly appear, crawling around the card and scare whoever was holding it. Although people’s reactions were hilarious it was the exact opposite of what you would want from looking at a business card. Instead of learning more about the company, people were turned off by the spider. When we switched to an animation and trailer about Double A Labs, our sales jumped up 80%. This really cemented in my head that immersive technology can be a powerful tool for storytelling when used in the right way. Although cutting edge technology is often super cool, you really need to be thoughtful in how you use it.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
What makes Double A Labs stand out is our focus on emerging technology to build better programs for fanatics of gaming, esports, entertainment and tech. We want to connect these fans with the stories and tech that they love in a way they have never experienced before. To be able to truly connect fans with brands in a sustainable way, I needed to do two things:
1. Build a team of people who know these communities inside and out.
2. Create an in-house engineering team capable of developing these custom experiences that uses data to track what works and what does not.
We started building experiences that blended both physical events with digital opportunities for fans about 3 years ago. We knew online entertainment had the potential to engage a much larger audience than traditional programs. One of our first forays in blending the physical and digital together was for the Paramount Pictures Xander Cage premiere at TwitchCon. We wanted online fans to be able to interact with people attending the conference physically. Our solution was to create a game where the online audience controlled the fate of the physical player in real time. At the conference players balanced on a mechanical board while playing a video game and an online audience voted on different items being tossed at them such as foam snowballs or stuffed animals. Our vision was to give the livestream and social media audiences a way they could become part of the game, to digitally engage with the players by changing what was happening to the people at the physical event, which they could watch on the live stream. The event attendees were attracted by the chance to see what objects would be included while they were on the board. We broadened audience participation and changed how people could see the story of the event unfold. It was fun to see the community of 3 million people respond so enthusiastically to the game.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Right now, we are working with Genentech to create an internal app that uses augmented reality and 360 volumetric videos to create impactful employee engagement and education. Genentech is a biotechnology company, doing some really great work in cancer research and other serious diseases.
The project is really exciting because we’ve always felt gamification could have serious impact on productivity and retention in employees. People learn differently than they did 20 years ago, attention and learning expectations have changed with access to technology. Reaching employees that are mobile, who don’t spend time on a PC is also fundamentally changing how companies need to think about employee engagement, culture and education. It’s exciting for me to be able to create a more meaningful connections for employees to the content. For example, in the Genentech i20 Virtual Tour, employees can hear patient stories told by the patient, which creates a deeper emotional connection than just reading about it. As digital natives, my team and I have the opportunity to help companies completely reinvent how they share their company message and engage employees with AR applications like this one.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
Be thoughtful about your hiring to build a team who believes in taking the journey with you and give them the space to create the path that your company will pursue. I learned a lot about how to learn versus manage and it’s figuring out who you can rely on in your team to help you when you are down and will energize the team when it’s tough going. Be purposeful in hiring people who are very different from you because they will bring a new lens to projects and help you create a culture that is open and inspiring for others to join.
What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
Do not lose touch with your people. As a company grows you set up structure and put managers in place. It’s important to make sure your vision is shared across the company and that visibility is being shared too.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I’m grateful to so many people who have helped me achieve success along the way. But one person who comes to mind is my landlord, Les Gibbs, from when I lived in Santa Monica. When I first started Double A Labs it was out of my apartment’s guest bedroom. My landlord saw that I had four people at standing desks working in there and let me know he had a house available with a garage if I was interested in more space. As we started scaling even bigger and got our San Francisco office, he called someone he knew to help us get our office in Santa Monica. He’s really been that person in the background that helped with our infrastructure because he believed in me. He was one of the people that always found a way to help us be successful. To this day we still have office space with him.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I believe in supporting the next generation of technologists and entrepreneurs. I’m an adjunct professor at the University of Texas, School of Design and Creative Technologies, teaching a class on how emerging technologies like AR can help businesses better connect with their consumers. I also know that giving back is an important aspect of company culture. Double A Labs has participated in the Safe Alliance Campaign and donated money to several causes including the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.
I’m also particularly proud of one project — Blizzard Puppy Rumble, where we celebrated Blizzard Overwatch: Year of the Dog event by creating a live streamed puppy rumble that brought awareness to the plight of shelter dogs across the country. We helped more than 300 dogs find their forever homes.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
1. Understand the biggest difference between cash flow and revenue — I’ve always bootstrapped my company, but in year 3 I had a large payment delayed by 7 months which meant I had to figure out payroll, rent and taxes — lots of expenses. I learned quickly about having a line of credit and how important a good banking relationship can be.
2. Think and act like the company you aspire to be like, for me that’s Disney. I set up a company structure that included things such as benefits, project management and IT systems to be able to scale our processes to support how I wanted to grow the business. I often remind the team that we have the same skill sets as many of the big companies we come across. I wanted our clients to see that we are an organization with the systems in place that they can rely on to make their experiences a huge success.
3. Stay focused and choose wisely — it’s easy to spread your company and yourself thin by chasing new opportunities, but always have them related to your core business focus. We’ve turned away more than one ‘party planning project’ because our core focus is connecting brands with the communities and audiences that matter to them who are looking for innovative ways to use emerging technologies to connect with them. Basic event planning is not what we want to do. Proven ROI is a must for us to do an experience.
4. Leadership means you must focus on the good of the entire team, not just the individual. Be prepared to disappoint or say no to a single individual (whom you may highly value) because they may want something that is not best for the entire team. For the good of the company I had to shift our focus to emerging tech from doing traditional events. This really upset a few people on our team, but I knew that if we wanted to continue growing as a company, we needed to focus on our core values of knowing the code to fans and promote our capabilities in our proprietary tech we build.
5. There are days you will think it’s not worth it, remember why you started your company and connect with the people around you who will re-energize and inspire you to keep going. Earlier this year, one of our clients rescinded a fairly large project that we were excited about doing because they had canceled their launch plans. Our client had loved the work and we were very proud of what we had done so far, it was very hard on me and the entire team. Although these things happen in every company, that day I wanted to go on a really long vacation and potentially not come back. As I talked with the team, I was reminded that there was some good that could come from this: we could streamline, evaluate the systems we needed and let go of the things that were not moving the company forward. The team rallied together — they believed in me and I believed in them. It was the boost I needed to keep pushing through that difficult moment and the company has come out even stronger.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
Inclusivity in gaming — there are so many stereotypes about gamers and who is “allowed” to play certain games. I’d love to inspire the community to be more inclusive because gaming can inspire confidence, bring people together, and create shared understanding around the world. The old views of who is a gamer no longer apply and the gatekeeping I’ve seen in the community can only be detrimental to the industry. Anyone can pick up gaming and many individuals like myself, have grown up playing Mario and other classics. Gaming is a unique medium in its ability to bring people together regardless of gender, age or demographic. That may seem like a lot to ask of a game, but I believe shared experiences bond people together.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Instead of thinking about lines as boundaries and ways to cross them, let’s think about how we look beyond the lines to new combinations and innovations. What can we create that will amaze our clients and their fans?” This is something I say to myself and my team as we brainstorm projects. With our expertise, what can we build that will be new and fresh? I often look at the latest technology and see if I can use it in a new way to make mind-blowing immersive experiences for clients. I work with incredible brands that focus on tech, entertainment, esports and gaming. I have to continually innovate and cross lines to make memorable experience for fans that are constantly expecting something new.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them :-)
I’d like to have a meal with Jeff Bezos so I could pick his brain about innovation and how he fails fast when trying something new. Trying new things and being open to cutting them when they don’t work is a trait I am continually developing. He has a vision for what is possible and will pursue it, yet he is also open to quickly shifting the steps in the journey to achieve his goal.
Thank you for all of these great insights!