I have a Ph.D. in video games. I know. I sometimes find it hard to believe myself. Like so many of us, I graduated from college without the faintest idea of what I wanted to do with my life. All around me, wise and well-meaning elders dispensing unsolicited advice said that I should only do what I truly loved, and I truly loved playing video games. A few years and a few hundred hours in the library later, I was minted as a doctor in what I’m sure will continue to be a growing field of study.

And grow it shall: in addition to being, to borrow a complex academic term, freakin’ awesome, video games are ascendant because, being the first digitally native medium, they’ve a lot to teach us about various aspects of life, from relationships to religion. And business: convinced at first that my research would interest no one but a handful of equally obsessed nerds, I soon discovered that, in the still-new wilderness of the digital economy, video games make for excellent sherpas. Here, then, are the top five lessons every entrepreneur can learn from putting down that spreadsheet and picking up a joystick.

It’s not about the money. Way back when in the 1970s, when people still had to go to arcades to play video games, life was simple and straightforward: if you played well, you won a free game. It was a tradition adopted from pinball machines, and it made a lot of sense, a literal manifestation of that old adage about time being money.

A Japanese company called Taito changed all that. In 1978, it introduced a fun shooter called Space Invaders. There were a thousand games just like it in the market already, but Space Invaders had one nifty little innovation: instead of a free game, it let you register your high score, which meant that every time your friends played on that same machine, they’d see your name on the leaderboard. Taito realized something inherent and profound about human nature, namely that we may like material rewards, but it’s the emotional ones—like glory, or the ability to gloat to our buddies—that really motivate us.

Years later, Foursquare applied the same principle, letting its users compete to become “mayors” of their favorite places. Eager to outdo each other, users signed up in droves. If you want your company to attract a similar following, the incentives you offer better be all about feelings.

It’s emotional. Have you ever heard of Crush the Castle? It’s a great game. Operating a medieval catapult, you have to toss large rocks at the opposing team’s rickety structure in order to destroy their knights. When the game came out, many people played it, and it made the studio that created it some nice cash. A few months later, however, another game hit the market. It had the exact same design, except that instead of knights you had to crush evil green pigs, and instead of rocks you tossed around birds. Angry birds.

Why was one game a moderate success and the other a worldwide mega hit? I’m convinced it had to do with the brief video that launches Angry Birds, the one where you see those dastardly swine steal the birds’ eggs. After watching such a spirited intro, you’re not just trying to beat the game; you’re emotionally involved, dedicated to punishing those pigs for their bad deeds. The same principle applies to every other enterprise, online or off: it’s different when it’s emotional, personal, and urgent.

It’s a ritual. One of the most interesting things I’ve discovered about the way people play video games has to do with how little attention they actually pay to the story unfolding on the screen. Ask a group of young adults to describe the plot of the latest movie they’ve seen, and you’d be surprised at the level of detail they’d offer. Ask them to do the same for a video game they played just the other night, and you’ll get bits and pieces of incoherent recollections. This is because video games, like so much of good digital storytelling, isn’t really about the story. It’s about the experience, that all-consuming trance you go into once you sit down on the couch and commit to hours and hours of gameplay.

If you’re in the business of trying to engage people online, it’s precisely this ritual-like trance you have to offer: instead of focusing on complex attempts at commanding your users’ full attention, offer them short and thunderous engagements that, when repeated again and again and again, are impossible to ignore.

It’s about the little guys. Forget Superman, Batman, Iron Man, and the Hulk—superheroes are only good for a short engagement at the multiplex. If you want a character you can really live with for long periods of time—the average video game can now take more than 100 hours to complete—think small. Mario started life as a plumber. Link, of Legend of Zelda fame, is just a farm boy. We love them because of how ordinary they are, not in spite of it, and we form a special connection with these characters because, unlike most of the protagonists on TV or in the movies, they’re a lot like us, just regular schlubs trying to do their best in increasingly impossible circumstances. If you want to really connect with users, then, take a page from Mario and just be normal.

It’s about time. Before video games, media were very clear about the demands they made on your time. You want to watch a movie? That would be two hours. Interested in a TV sitcom? That’s 23 minutes, please. Video games changed all that. Increasingly, they’re geared towards giving players a growingly open-ended experience. Playing Skyrim, for example, an action role-playing fantasy game, you can choose to zoom through the game’s main quest, or engage in an endless stream of side-quests, wander aimlessly through the game’s gorgeous world, or even learn helpful skills like lock picking. Each player is free to build his or her own experience, based on how much time he or she wants to spend immersed in the fantasy. If you want users to reward you with their most precious commodity, their leisure hours, you have to let them choose how they’d like to invest their time.

Paint is big business—and for most of us, a big hassle. While American consumers are expected to spend just north of $30 billion on paint and paint accessories in 2019, the process of choosing, buying, and applying paint to homes, offices, and retail spaces is often an aggravating one.

“Buying paint has traditionally involved an overwhelming color selection, poor customer service, many trips to the store, and a lot of frustration,” says Nicole Gibbons, an interior designer who founded the direct-to-consumer startup Clare as a way to offer design-focused customers an easier, better way to engage with every step of the painting process.  

From colors named after trendy incense to paint that promises to reduce sound, new direct-to-consumer brands like Clare are proving that changing the color of your walls can be easy, cost-effective, and stress-free.

With Clare, it’s all about taking the guesswork out of painting a room. A point of pride for Gibbons is Clare Color Genius, a tool she describes as “a digital color consultation paired with a high-tech algorithm that delivers an expert color recommendation.” It prompts users to upload images and information about natural light in the space, furniture, personal style, and more before offering suggestions. An easy swatching system (stick-ons!) helps customers narrow the field to the color, and a calculator determines exactly how much paint is needed to cover the area.  

The direct-to-consumer startup Clare offers design-focused customers an easier, better way to engage with every step of the painting process.

More than anything, the future of paint is one in which logistics aren’t a concern—the direct-to-consumer model, says Gibbons, allows her to see in real-time what her customers need and offer them the right products each step of the way.

For Caleb and Natalie Ebel, the husband-and-wife team behind Backdrop, the frustration with the painting process was personal. “We’ve painted every apartment we’ve lived in,” says Natalie of the New York City-based couple, who previously worked in financial operations at Warby Parker (Caleb) and marketing (Natalie). So in November 2018, they launched Backdrop, their own direct-to-consumer paint company. From the start, they knew they’d tapped into something important.

“We had an amazing community of early Backdrop brand supporters—some of whom we met at WeWork Corrigan Station in Kansas City, Missouri (the Ebels call New York home but are originally from Kansas City, and often travel there to visit family)—who helped vote on colors and paint names,” says Natalie. Their colors, like “Palo Santo” and “Rose Quartz,” speak the language of Instagram, tapping into trends in design and decor.

Looking beyond home spaces, the Ebels note that the new wave of paint options could be a boon to business owners: “Commercial walls require so much upkeep that Backdrop can really help streamline,” Caleb says. Going the direct-to-consumer route cuts down on shopping time, and smaller color ranges allow businesses to home in on the right look for their spaces instead of poring over an endless array of shades.

Looking beyond home spaces, the founders of Backdrop note that the new wave of paint options could be a boon to business owners.

Other companies bypassing the hardware store are offering paint that does more than change the wall color. Airlite, a member at London’s WeWork 1 Mark Sq and recipient of funds from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program, offers a powdered paint product that uses titanium dioxide to reduce not just pollutants but also odor and bacteria.

Shanghai-based Hipaint, a member at WeWork Ciyunsi, offers paint containing polymer-nanofilm technology, which turns any wall into a whiteboard. The product was inspired by founder Justin Cheng’s then-2-year-old daughter. “She just grabbed a marker and drew on the wall,” he said. “An entire wall can hold a totally new world for kids.”

Jonah Lupton came up with the idea for his noise-reducing-paint company, Soundguard, while living in a loud apartment building after college. “I thought, there has to be a better way to deal with this than just trying to soundproof the room itself,” says Lupton, who worked with a team of paint chemists for more than two years to refine Soundguard’s patent-pending formula. The paint is proven to reduce sound through interior walls at nearly 90 percent and is already being used (or soon will be) in hotels and apartment buildings in vacation destinations like Hawaii and business hotspots like San Francisco. But Lupton, whose company is based at WeWork 745 Atlantic Ave in Boston, thinks it holds an obvious appeal for workspaces, too. “Imagine a law office that deals with sensitive information,” he says. “No more whispering and trying not to be overheard!”

One thing nearly every new direct-to-consumer paint company has in common is an emphasis on sustainability and safety—for humans, pets, and plants alike. The products are low-odor, low-VOC (volatile organic compounds), and GreenWise certified, meaning less stress for increasingly health-conscious shoppers.

The new crop of paint startups can’t promise that changing the color of your walls will be quite as easy as changing the color of your shirt—but their goal is to make it as painless, even enjoyable, as possible.

Prep school

Before you paint, check out these tips from our experts.

Stock up ahead of time. Instead of running around the hardware store hoping you get all the right supplies, try a preassembled toolkit, like Backdrop’s Essentials Kit, which comes with all the tape, trays, and brushes you’ll need to get the job done.

Try before you buy. Every expert we spoke to agrees—sampling is key. That’s why new direct-to-consumer companies offer low-priced, easy-to-use swatches you can consider in your space before committing.

Get creative. Have a vision: “Do you want it to feel calm and relaxed, energizing and vibrant?” asks Gibbons. ”Try to find colors that channel those vibes.”

Photos by Katelyn Perry

If you ask the judges of WeWork’s second annual Creator Global Finals how they ended up picking the winners of the international entrepreneurship competition, they have two words: “Adam and Ashton.”

Gary Vaynerchuk—entrepreneur, investor, and chairman of media company VaynerX—says actor and investor Ashton Kutcher and WeWork CEO Adam Neumann approached him on the same day. “They said, ‘We need you.’ And I said, ‘I’m in.’”

Kirsten Green, founder of Forerunner Ventures, came onboard in a similar way. “Ashton told me how passionate he is about the work he’s doing with Adam and WeWork, and how he thought this show was special,” she says. “The companies have ambitions and goals in terms of big business but are also about having impact. It’s an honor to come be involved for a few hours.”

Vaynerchuk, Green, and Kutcher were joined on the Microsoft Theater stage in Los Angeles on Jan. 9 by fellow investor (and rapper) Sean Combs to hand out prizes of over $1.7 million to three mission-driven business ventures and one nonprofit in the Global Finals. They explained what they were looking for in the winners.

Know your unique perspective: “The very basic criteria is, how differentiated is the business?” says Green, an early investor in retail brands like Glossier, Outdoor Voices, Dollar Shave Club, and Bonobos. “Are they really playing into a new space in the market? Are they offering an opportunity for business to get done better, both more efficiently and in terms of delivering a better experience?”

“The very basic criteria is, how differentiated is the business?” says Kirsten Green, an early investor in retail brands like Glossier, Outdoor Voices, Dollar Shave Club, and Bonobos.

When she listens to a pitch, she says, she wants to hear an entrepreneur tick off five items: “Define your business; say how it’s different; say what it is today, what it’s going to be in the future, and why you’re the right leader for it.”

Her dream pitch? “If you could figure out how to touch on each of those five things in a way that’s cohesive storytelling in a quick minute, that’s ideal,” she says. “But it’s really hard to do that.”

Think two (or three) steps ahead: The judges took their jobs seriously, looking for flaws that haven’t been considered or opportunities that haven’t been pursued during the Q&A. “That’s when I start poking a little bit,” Vaynerchuk explains of his investment strategy. “What are their reactions? Do they have a grasp of the second move of their business, not just the first?”

But be honest: While Vaynerchuk values leaders who have ready answers, he can easily suss out spin. “Don’t exaggerate something you don’t understand,” he says.

Chloe Alpert, whose medical-technology-resale startup Medinas Health took home $1 million in funding at the awards, had a ready—and honest—answer when Vaynerchuk asked her about hurdles her company had overcome. She told the panel that a subscription fee for hospitals to use their technology hadn’t worked because cash-strapped institutions weren’t interested in laying out an up-front payment for an untested product. When Medinas decided to charge a fee for each transaction performed on their platform, all 12 of the hospitals they’ve approached said yes.

Keep the consumer top of mind: There was an important human element to the winning pitches. Combs asked Rachel Corson, co-founder of London-based Afrocenchix—an affordable, all-natural hair-care line made for black women—why someone should use their products. Corson answered by pointing out the health risks posed by ingredients in many competitors’ lines. “Every single ingredient [in Afrocenchix’s products] does something for the customers,” she explained. Her products don’t add artificial fragrance on the misguided theory that “all black women want to smell like coconut.”

Take your pitch seriously: Talking to these industry giants was nerve-wracking for competitors—especially considering they were doing it on stage in front of 6,000 people. “Gary V. is an absolute marketing god. Kirsten Green, she knows brands,” Alpert says. “Sean Combs, that dude’s a business dude. My co-founder was like, ‘Oh, yeah, music is secondary. That guy knows business.’”

In the moment, standing in front of them, Alpert remembers thinking, “I need them to know the economics. Every time Gary asks a question, it’s a laser. When Green asks a question, that’s like a bomb.”

The judges clearly enjoyed having a crowd witness the kind of conversations that usually happen behind closed doors. After one exchange with Alpert earned her a round of applause, Vaynerchuk leaned back in his chair and looked out into the theater. “It’s more fun to do this with an audience,” he observed.

The last thing Chloe Alpert did before going on stage to compete in the WeWork Creator Global Finals, which took place at the Microsoft Theater in downtown Los Angeles on Jan. 9, was set her Apple Watch to airplane mode. She didn’t want to feel the constant buzzes of the device’s notifications. “I call it my shock collar,” she says.

Just 11 months ago, Alpert and her three co-founders launched Medinas Health, a resale marketplace for medical equipment and technology. Now, her wrist silent, Alpert pitched Medinas to Creator judges Ashton Kutcher, rapper and entrepreneur Sean Combs, entrepreneur and chairman of VaynerX Gary Vaynerchuk, and Forerunner Ventures founder Kirsten Green—and won the top prize of $1 million. Only after the win did she switch off airplane mode—and her wrist blew up not with work reminders, but with congratulations from her team and their customers.

“The team makes a business,” Alpert says, basking in the afterglow of her win and the opportunity to share it with the people who’ve believed in her and Medinas. “My co-founders and my team, they’re the reason I get up in the morning.”

“I was like, I know my business. I know this opportunity. I’ve done the work—and when you’ve done the work, it’s easy,” says Chloe Alpert of Medinas Health.

Alpert credits their intensive prelaunch research-and-development phase with helping her impress the judges during the Q&A portion of the event. They needed to determine how much money hospitals lose by getting rid of old but still functional equipment instead of reselling it to smaller institutions. “I couldn’t find a study, because it just doesn’t exist,” she says. “We had to spend a year doing our own study, walking into hospitals, calling customers, reading clinical engineering books, and being like, ‘What the hell is going on?’”

So when Vaynerchuk, whom Alpert calls “a marketing god,” was quizzing her about her company’s trajectory, she felt prepared. “I was like, I know my business. I know this opportunity,” she says. “I’ve done the work—and when you’ve done the work, it’s easy.”

Fine-tuning a vision

For Rachel Corson and Jocelyn Mate, the co-founders of Afrocenchix, a line of affordable, all-natural hair-care products for black and mixed-race hair, preparing for the awards was an opportunity to refine their mission and plan for the future if they won. “We spent quite a bit of time talking through our five-year plan,” Corson says. “What are the steps to get there, and how we can help more people? How we can impact our community and have a global impact? We just wrote notes and turned it into a pitch.”

Their planning clearly impressed the judges, who awarded Afrocenchix the second-runner-up prize of $180,000. Corson and Mate were particularly grateful for the opportunity because African-American women receive less than 0.2 percent of venture capital—and it’s even less in their native UK.

“Having the triple barriers of prejudice of being young, black, and female, it’s been really difficult to raise money,” Corson says. “Going through the WeWork Creator process has been fantastic. And the prize means we get to retain control over our company. We’re not forced to say, ‘Do we keep our values or do we take money?’ We can do both.”

Angel House founder Kate Wang says having a long-term vision has helped her organization survive frequent moves over the past 17 years. Now it will have a home of its own.

Angel House, a Shanghai-based organization that supports children with cerebral palsy, won the Nonprofit category prize of $250,000 by audience vote. Founder Kate Wang says that having a long-term vision has helped it survive having to move multiple times over its 17-year history. With the prize money, the organization will finally have a home of its own.

We’re thankful for WeWork’s generosity,” she says. “WeWork is an amazing company that has provided us with an opportunity to help us achieve our dreams.”

Starting from a place of passion

As important as understanding your market is, Tomás Abrahão, founder of Raízs—a platform that connects Brazilian consumers with organic farmers to make it easier for them to access local produce—cautions future contestants not to get too wrapped up in details at the expense of losing your sense of personal urgency and mission. In preparing his pitch to the Creator judges, he said that he talked to his girlfriend and created a list of must-pitch facts.

“We didn’t want it to be something rote, so I just knew bullet points, and then was talking from the heart,” say Abrahão, whose company took the first-runner-up prize of $360,000. “I think we just figured out how to transmit with passion—and hand gestures,” he explains, joking about his full-body presentation style.

Abrahão advises anyone pitching their company to investors to maintain a balance. “Of course, it’s business, but it has to be some passion, some need that you have, that you see in the world. That’s what you have to connect,” he says. “Business is the way that it comes, but you end up winning because of your heart.”

Leave it to Ashton Kutcher to redefine the idea of a unicorn. The actor and investor kicked off the second annual WeWork Creator Global Finals by asking the audience to think of unicorns not in traditional investment terms—as companies valued at more than $1 billion—but instead as “a company that gives to its consumers, to its clients, something that unlocks the potential inside of them.”

Creator is intended to foster exactly this kind of thinking: They reward innovative business ventures and nonprofits not just for creating new markets and higher margins, but for originality of thought, depth of passion, and the meaning of their missions.

The Red Hot Chili Peppers get the crowd on its feet.

There’s a lot of that out there right now. In 2018, WeWork held Creator in seven countries, generating 36 regional winners. Eight of them—five business ventures and three nonprofits—were chosen to compete in the Global Finals, which were held last night at the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles. Kutcher served as a judge alongside rapper and entrepreneur Sean Combs, Forerunner Ventures founder Kirsten Green, and entrepreneur and chairman of VaynerX Gary Vaynerchuck. The night was capped off with a performance by the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

WeWork co-founder and CEO Adam Neumann led off the evening by encouraging the crowd to dream big: “In case you’re wondering, you’re a creator,” he told the 6,000 people who’d come to cheer on the competitors. After the three Nonprofit finalists were introduced via video, the audience—as well as those live-streaming the event at home—were asked to vote on which organization should win the top prize of $250,000.

Judges Ashton Kutcher and Sean Combs ask questions of the finalists at the WeWork Creator Global Finals.

The Business Venture competition was live. The judges heard 60-second pitches from each of the five competitors before cross-examining them, testing their knowledge of the markets they work in and their visions for the future. The questions were varied—and often pointed. “Talk to me about the money,” Combs urged Stephanie Benedetto after she had described her marketplace for unsold fabric, Queen of Raw.

Asking the right questions was one of the most critical parts of the night for the judges. “Ten minutes to ask questions is a very small amount of time, so I think it’s on us to think about what are the most meaningful questions,” Green observed before the show. “That feels like a lot of pressure!” She proved her point by asking the U.K.-based Afrocenchix co-founder Rachel Corson to guide her through the line of all-natural products that Corson and her business partner Jocelyn Mate have developed for black and mixed-race hair.

Tomás Abrahão, founder of Brazilian agriculture startup Raízs, pitches his business to the judges.

Vaynerchuck was looking to the Q&A portion to reveal the most about each company and its leader. “It’s not what they pitch up front, but when I start poking a little bit,” he explained. “What are the reactions? Do they have a grasp of the second move of their business, not just the first?” With that in mind, Vaynerchuk quizzed Tomás Abrahão, founder of Brazilian agriculture startup Raízs, about the intricacies of supply and demand in small-scale farming.

For all of the seriousness of the night, there was also plenty of comic relief, especially from the judges. At one point Combs tried to get his hands on a prototype of finalist Modoo’s fetal-heart-rate monitor, detaching himself from his headset mic in the process, and ended up briefly sharing Kutcher’s instead, their heads pressed close together.

Afrocenchix co-founder Rachel Corson explains the inspiration behind her line of all-natural hair-care products.

“I hope my breath is fresh,” Combs said.

“I want my breath to smell like yours,” Kutcher responded. “I want to invest in that breath. That is unicorn breath.”

When all the presentations (and the high jinks) were over, it was time to announce the winners. Wang Fang earned her nonprofit Angel House $250,000, which will help fund a building to house their programs educating and caring for children with cerebral palsy in Fang’s native China. In the Business Venture category, second-runner-up Afrocenchix took home $180,000 to help expand its product line and scale its production into the U.S., while Raízs netted the first-runner-up prize of $360,000 to continue making connections between small organic Brazilian farmers and local consumers.

The winners take a moment to celebrate.

The big win went to Chloe Alpert and her startup, Medinas Health. What Alpert described as “the un-sexiest problem in health care”—the resale market for used but still functional medical equipment—held so much promise for the judges that they awarded her $1 million.

“I did not expect to win. At all,” a dazed Alpert said. “Every other finalist is at the top of their game. Every single person would take this money and put it to use in such amazing ways.” But she was already determined to make the most of the moment. “I’m just sitting here like, I have to prove these people right,” she said. “I have to be worthy of this.”