What an unexpected joy the Venture Intern Program has been for me this semester. When I say unexpected, I mean that I never fully believed that I would be chosen as an intern, nor that I would receive the opportunity to work with a company as wonderful as Eksplor Gaming.
When I first applied for the program through the University of Arkansas’s Office of Entrepreneurship and Innovation, I didn’t anticipate my selection as a participant. As an English and creative writing major, I felt a little intimidated when I realized last semester’s Venture Interns were mostly business and engineering students. Was there actually a space for me in the entrepreneurial industry? Would any companies be interested in the skills I had to offer? Fortunately, the answer to both of those questions was a resounding and encouraging, “yes!”
Phil Shellhammer and Byron, co-founders of Eksplor Gaming, were part of that enthusiastic “yes!” for me. Turns out, they actually needed a creative writer, they just never expected to find one in the program. It was a perfect match.
To provide a brief overview, Eksplor Gaming creates customizable, location-based games for cultural and travel destinations (think museums, historical locations, zoos, etc.). These interactive games, which can range from a walking tour game to a digital escape room, aim to bridge the gap between fun and education. Ultimately, Eksplor’s technology increases visitor engagement to amplify learning experiences in an exciting, “lean-forward” experience, which simultaneously benefits the target locations through revenue generation and heightened interaction.
I was hired at Eksplor as a content writer and editor. Coming in, my first task was to play and then edit Eksplor’s first digital escape room, set in the American Museum of Natural History. I quickly realized that this internship experience would be especially fun and hands-on. I not only got to play and write games for my job, but I was also able to see my contributions in action and work closely with the founders of the company—how many typical interns can say that?
Alongside my first task, I was also asked to do some voiceover work for the game’s introduction and ending. Never would I have imagined my voice would be immortalized in a game, but that was just one of many delightful surprises of the semester.
After revising the first digital escape room, I then got the opportunity to build two games from scratch: (1) a puzzle-solving, walking tour of the University of Arkansas’s campus and (2) a digital escape room for the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. Here I got to tap into my creative writing skills to create content that achieves Eksplor’s mission and increases engagement through innovation. I also learned that there is an entire creative industry focused on gaming interactions as a way to increase engagement, which is something I wouldn’t have known if not for this incredible opportunity.
In addition to creating content, I was also tasked with compiling research databases throughout the semester. Among my research topics included types of puzzles to be implemented in game creation, social media strategy for Eksplor, and personalized research sessions in preparation for sales calls and customer discovery meetings (my personal favorite).
Beyond curating research for sales calls and customer discovery meetings, Phil and Byron also invited me into the meetings’ planning sessions, asking for my feedback and suggestions on presentation slides and allowing me to contribute my voice and opinions during calls. I am so grateful for the opportunity to participate in these meetings, and I found myself thoroughly enjoying the process of listening to customers and discussing the possibilities Eksplor could offer in terms of solutions. I feel confident that I wouldn’t have had this experience if not for this internship program.
Of course, I cannot reflect on my semester without commenting on all I learned about the entrepreneurial industry and mindset. Between my interactions with Phil and Byron, the Venture Program’s supplemental trainings, and three mini workshops that Phil led me through (we called them Entrepreneurship 101s), I found an increased respect and admiration for entrepreneurship. Below are my 5 big takeaways.
- Adaptability is Key. Entrepreneurs must be flexible when it comes to their business model, their target audience, and their overall strategy. Add a pandemic into the mix, and you’ll see pivots upon pivots! It was amazing to watch Phil and Byron roll with the punches throughout the semester, and I hope some of their innovative flexibility rubbed off on me.
- Problem Solving is Essential. Simply put, an entrepreneur is a problem solver. They see the world’s obstacles as opportunities for solutions, and they aren’t afraid to wrestle with any stumbling block in their path.
- Customer Discovery is Incredibly Important. How do you know if your product or service will work if you don’t even know if someone needs it? Phil taught me that it’s important to check our assumptions about our customer and never skip the customer discovery component of an entrepreneurial endeavor.
- Learning Always Pays Off. Every entrepreneur I interacted with this semester seemed to be a lifelong learner, and there’s a general understanding that there is always more knowledge to encounter. If you’re interested in some great resources, check out Talking to Humans by Frank Rimalovski and Giff Constable and the podcast How I Built This with Guy Raz (my favorite episode is with Joe Gebbia from Airbnb—thanks to Phil for the recommendation).
- Failure is a Teacher. Even in the less glamorous moments of the semester, Phil and Byron demonstrated a continual determination to learn. Their example helped me face obstacles with the same optimism, understanding that every barrier had something to teach me. As the Venture Interns were told at the beginning of the semester by one of the program’s director’s, Deb Williams, we needed to “get comfortable with being uncomfortable.”
Finally, I’d like to thank everyone that had a hand in my internship experience. To Deb Williams and Sarah Goforth at the Office of Entrepreneurship and Innovation, thank you for your constant support and encouragement. The commitment you both have to see students succeed is incredibly encouraging. To Phil and Byron, thank you for sharing your passion with me and trusting me enough to contribute to Eksplor’s development. I had a wonderful semester with you both, and I’m excited to see what lies ahead!