Catching up with… Ken Koontz!

In our series “Catching up with …”, we catch up with former IMPROVERS to see how they are doing and what they are working on!

Ken Koontz started his own company. He consults, designs and produces interactive experiences and games that have an applied purpose. From learning objectives to increasing engagement to behavioural interventions, his work uses the power of play to teach, connect and inspire for lasting effect.

Ken is one of our IMPROVE alumni. We’re curious to find out what he’s up to these days.

How did you originally come up with the idea to start your own business?

“I have been working in game development since 2007. A couple of years ago, I moved to The Netherlands because I got a great job at the Radboud University – Creative Director of GEMH Lab. I was hired to increase engagement of participants in studies through games, one of them was able to significantly decrease weekly smoking rates over time, with higher doses of gameplay leading to better outcomes. The link this job had to social and behavioural sciences and psychology, it just clicked with me. I was able to create tools to help study and observe behaviour. It felt like a very honest environment at GEMH Lab and I really enjoyed the fact that my work was helping people. I had found my niche!

After my project at Radboud ended, I decided I wanted to keep working on social and applied games to help people, so I started my own company. Starting a company in a foreign country can be challenging (I am originally from North Carolina in the United States). Luckily, the system in The Netherlands is so welcoming to young starting entrepreneurs, even if they’re from another country. 😊 My next challenge was to define my services; what do I offer that is so unique that people will hire me? How do I explain what I do and sell it? And that’s when I found the IMPROVE programme at Mercator Launch. The first part of the programme helped me realize that I already knew a thing or two about setting up a business, but the second part helped me figure out how to grow my business. My business coach Brechtje helped me compartmentalize what I needed to do and this really helped me in my process. I needed to take one step at a time.”

What are you currently working on?

“Right now, I’m finishing up my last project for Radboud University. This project aims to create awareness of social media use for people. We are creating an app where youth can reflect on their social media use and what they find important in life, regain control and agency of their relationship with social media and ultimately improve their wellbeing.

After this project is finished, I am really proud to say I have my first two official customers signed up already! For one of my new projects, I’ll be working to develop a playable game prototype with the University of California, Berkeley that tries to prevent aggression and promote prosocial development. This project is the first step toward providing at-risk youth with access to an innovative, youth-centered, engaging intervention for positive development.”

What challenges did you face over the last year?

“The biggest hurdle I had was to figure out how to explain to people what it is that I do. It is hard for me to tell people what I do in a way that just anyone can understand. The mentor I was paired with during my IMPROVE programme was close to my industry and had a marketing background. He helped me understand what my company actually is. I always thought: I make video games.

But my added value is that I am the interface between science and development. I am the one who can integrate the science in the game, maintain its integrity and still be fun. My mentor helped me see that. Now my story is clear and I’m working on how to pitch it. The only thing left to do is… figuring out how to explain what I’m doing to my mom, haha.”

What is your ultimate goal with your company?

“Now I could say I want my company to go BIG! But the truth is, I really just want to enjoy my work, contribute to creating helpful and meaningful games and work enough to sustain my desired lifestyle. Doing what I do gives me the freedom to work anywhere, and that’s what I love: being able to live where I want, do what I’m good at and hopefully help some people on the way!”

What inspires you to do better every day?

“Fear is a double edge sword to me, it is a great motivator but fear of failure, fear of not making it is a constant struggle. When I get up, ‘fear’ is the first thing that runs through my head: you have got to get up and do it today, or else! Once I get up, the motivation and eagerness to do great things helps me to keep going. Then I get into this flow state and lose track of time just because I love what I’m doing so much!”

Do you have one last tip for entrepreneurs (to be) who want to turn their passion into their job?

“Something you hear a lot is ‘if you are doing something you love, you don’t have to worry about money’. In a way I agree, but my tip is: if you turn your passion into your job, find another passion. Then you have something to get lost into whenever you hit a brick or when you’re in a slump. So, get a passion to be able to reignite passion into your company!”

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