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
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
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
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
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