Deb Tillett has been around the world, pursuing a career in technology that started a few decades ago in the suburbs of Baltimore. She learned the ropes of the video game world while working at one of the local companies — MicroProse — that gave birth to an industry that's now thriving in Hunt Valley and other parts of Baltimore County and Maryland.
Earlier this year, she took over the helm at the Emerging Technology Center, Baltimore's main technology business incubator, after that organization's longtime head, Ann Lansinger, retired. Tillett brings her years of technology, marketing and strategic consulting experience with her to work every day as she helps develop the next crop of tech companies in Baltimore.
You started off your career working in Maryland's video game industry at the company that started it all: MicroProse in Hunt Valley. What was it like back then being a part of a new and growing industry, and how far have you seen it come in Maryland?
It was an amazing way to climb my personal career ladder. I came from starting my fashion photography studio after years in advertising and film. I was hired because the word "marketing" was in my resume. Frankly, the video game industry was so young, ... no one had experience. We were making it up as we went along. I started at MicroProse in 1989 as director of marketing. It was the only game company in Hunt Valley and on the East Coast. We had about 70 employees, and the company was growing exponentially. The first game I was lucky enough to work on was Sid Meier's "Railroad Tycoon." I came onboard in early December, and a month later my job was to run the trade show booth at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas and launch "RR Tycoon."
Our competition was Electronic Arts and Sierra — that's it. Now, there are many game companies in Hunt Valley of significant size with national headquarters and international reach. You don't go to the Consumer Electronics Show: The industry has its own show: E-3. I've seen the industry go from floppy disk — I mean 51/4-inch and graphics so primitive they can't compete with what's on your mobile device today. But man, we thought we could change the world, and guess what? Those guys in Hunt Valley did.
You have spent a lot of time consulting for international video game clients in places such as the Middle East. What did you learn about the video game industry from a global perspective?
The fascinating thing about video games is they are a universal language. When I first went to the Middle East in 2006, there were no video games translated into Arabic, and yet the culture was very involved with, ready for and conversant in video games. The power of visuals and simulated action drove sales and adoption of games. It was a great testament to the power of media in general, and this medium in particular. At the time, most U.S. games were translated into what's known as FIGS — French, Italian, German and Spanish. It was not cost-effective to do other languages, least of all Arabic. In 2012 we no longer just use the FIGS acronym but include BRIC — Brazil, Russia, India and China. At BreakAway Games, we broke ground and were pioneers. We made the first Arabic language video game about Arab culture for release in Arab countries. It was an awesome experience. I made lasting relationships and learned so much about international business and how much I took for granted being able to work in the U.S.
You served for six years as president of BreakAway Games, one of the more well-established "serious" video game companies in Maryland, and helped it grow significantly. What was it like running and growing a company? Any memorable moments or big wins for you?
Can I tell you they were all memorable. Seriously, we went from the lows of a startup business where I didn't take a salary for two years charging everything on my personal American Express card, to having an amazing run with highs overseeing the first $1 million quarter in company history. That was when we signed a contract with Northrop — the advance was thrilling. The other big milestone was opening a second studio in Austin, Texas, and a third in Corpus Christi.
What attracted you to the job as executive director of the Emerging Technology Center, Baltimore's main technology incubator? And what have you seen about the state of local tech startups during your time at the helm? How well-developed are our companies and how far do they still have to go?
I saw in the job at ETC everything I like about startups and the entrepreneurial process. The rush of going from zero to that first $50,000 or $1 million in revenue — it's a gateway drug! You really need to keep doing it. Once you have been through the process and sense some success: your first customer, the first time you see your product on the shelf or your first press release that gets you quoted in The Baltimore Sun — man, there is nothing like it. In my position with the ETC, I get to help people do that every day. I help people make ideas a reality. There are steps you take; sometimes you have to use the back staircase instead of the elevator, but the climb is awesome. I have been through the process myself several times. I was doing some consulting with tech startups, and frankly, it's hard to justify paying for consulting when you just need to survive. The ETC has given me the opportunity to experience the vibrant startup community in the city. The No. 1 issue for an entrepreneur is often access to working capital, and right behind that is the ability to make valuable connections. ETC provides those valuable connections. You only hear about the success, not the journey and the hard work to get there. Ask the folks at Millennial Media, Moodlerooms or Straighterline how hard they work, how special they are and how long it takes. But there is much going on in the tech community in Baltimore, and I am constantly reminded that the city has the resources, smart people and connections to make great things happen.
What do you do to relax or unwind in and around Baltimore?
I really enjoy a good murder mystery — someone must be dead on at least the first or second page to grab my attention, and then the unraveling of the mystery is so compelling. I rarely go a day without The New York Times crossword puzzle, but if the truth be known I can only really do the Monday ones; later in the week — way too hard. I love to try new restaurants with my husband — when he isn't inviting everyone he meets to have dinner at our house. And lastly, I am a distance runner and I train for two half-marathons each year, one in the spring and one in the fall. I used to do the whole 26.2 miles, but I really don't have the time to train any longer; so I compromise and do two half-marathons in one year. The city of Baltimore has done an awesome job with the Baltimore Running Festival, and it is a great race. Every time I run this race, I realize that you get to see almost every part of the city. It makes you so proud to be a part of it, with each different neighborhood doing their special part to cheer you on, HON!
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