Blog Post by Lindsy Gamble, LearnLaunch Staff

Most people under 40 remember playing The Oregon Trail at some point in their early school years. Being subject to the plights of dysentery, scarce hunting, and harsh conditions of the land made history come alive before our very eyes. Now imagine the scenarios the Oregon Trail might’ve had if it had been designed by a 12 year old, and that the game’s creation propelled that preteen to be one of the most promising tech leaders in the world.

Zulama is a contemporary online platform that allows hard skills like game design, programming, digital art, and storytelling to be taught to middle school and high school students. It brings cost-effective yet high-tech computer-science education into every classroom through video game design. Programming may be the newest literacy, and students using Zulama today are actively pursuing college and career opportunities not just in game design but a myriad of high-tech industries.

Initially alarmed by the voracity with which her were 9- and 11-year-old sons began playing games in 2007, Zulama CEO Nikki Navta soon realized that her kids were learning the very same skills as the graduate students of the world-renowned game design program at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU). At the same time, the textbook industry she’d been working in for 25+ years collapsed because of the internet, necessitating a major business revamp. She already knew how to develop high-quality educational products and sell them to schools, but meeting Don Marinelli, co-founder of the prestigious CMU program, sealed the deal. The lightbulb went off and Zulama was born.

Today Zulama has over 100 schools in a dozen states as customers, plus one each in India, Vietnam, and Malaysia. In order to build more traction, sales reps and educational service centers are commissioned to sell Zulama to a superintendent, curriculum director, or principal on a per-building basis. Navta says the team’s small size and limited resources are sometimes frustrating because they want to accomplish so much, yet these also help them maintain creativity and focus. This ambitious group is about to grow, however, as they ramp up to having an inside sales department.

LearnLaunch is key to achieving Zulama’s goal of raising capital to grow the sales and marketing teams as well as honing their sales strategy. A hive of investment filled with mentors and other seasoned professionals, LearnLaunch and their Edtech Sales Playbook series have provided much-needed insight and tools so far. The most valuable lesson yet is to listen to every piece of advice, then view it all through their own lens, using the pieces that resonate and revisiting the rest later. Navta’s suggestion to new entrepreneurs is to ask for help: “So many talented people are willing to give their most precious resource—time—to help you succeed. But you need to ask; nothing just lands in your lap!” If she wasn’t so busy running Zulama, Navta envisions herself mentoring, investing in, and otherwise helping new ed-tech startups by sharing her own experiences building the company.

Newer technologies will continue to emerge in the future, and the need to prepare students to use (and invent) them will increase. In order to stay on top of these developments, the team regularly plays and reviews games themselves, usually at lunchtime. It helps them relax, team-build, and stay creative, reinforcing how much one can learn through game play. And it poises Zulama to remain on the leading edge of education technology—big data, cloud computing, virtual reality, augmented reality, and data mining included—while enjoying the ride along the way.