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How two SFU alumni built a startup that was acquired in 10 months
By Vivien Lee
One year ago, Rana Taj and Tawanda Masawi dove into entrepreneurship with a bright idea for a high school esports platform called GameSeta. It is a turnkey service for high school teachers to add an esports program at their school. In early 2020, they tested their idea by pitching to a panel of judges in SFU’s largest entrepreneurship competition and received the result they were hoping for. They won the Top Idea Prize out of many other brilliant business ideas, thereby giving them confidence to turn GameSeta from an idea into reality.
Ten months later, the co-founders of GameSeta graduated from SFU and sold GameSeta to PlayVS, the leading amateur esports platform in the US. Post-acquisition, Taj and Masawi joined PlayVS to lead expansion efforts in Canada. The team achieved all that just shy of GameSeta’s one year anniversary.
Here’s how the duo did it.
Where did the idea for GameSeta come from?
TM: Rana and I are really into gaming and the business of esports. One day we were at a coffee shop talking about this topic when we realized there aren’t programs for high school esports players in BC like there are in other places. There’s some data for college players, but it’s fragmented. Instead of waiting for the infrastructure to be built, we decided to create it ourselves right here in BC.
What made you decide to enter GameSeta into the Coast Capital Savings Venture Prize 2020 competition?
TM: We wanted to test our idea. One of our friends knew about Coast Capital Savings Venture Connection and suggested we go to Mentor Meet. We met with mentor Dave Thomas and that was the first time we spoke to someone else about the idea. My friend told me about the competition two days before the deadline and we entered not expecting to win, but to get feedback. Fortunately, we did win!
RT: It was a good opportunity for exposure. We’re international students and wanted to build a local network.
Tawanda is from Zimbabwe. Rana is from Saudi Arabia and Pakistan and grew up in the US.
What were the steps you took after winning the Top Idea Prize to turn GameSeta from an idea into a venture?
TM: Prior to the competition we did customer discovery by talking to high school teachers in Burnaby and Coquitlam about esports. They were interested, but had difficulty scaling due to the amount of time it’d take outside of teaching and lesson preparation. Through these talks, we built a good relationship with school district 43 (Coquitlam) to implement esports in their schools. The Top Idea Prize title also gave us validation.
RT: When we started the whole development, it was just the two of us learning everything. We don’t have design backgrounds, but we made it work. Tawanda didn’t sleep and worked nonstop on our first website! The $5000 award helped us a lot. We incorporated and got our first UI design for the platform which really helped in later stages.
How did you establish partnerships with local high schools and BC Sports?
TM: We are very customer-centric. Our approach was to understand teachers’ needs. One teacher at Pinetree Secondary School talked to us for two hours and we could tell he was so passionate. To this day, he still works with us. People know us and not necessarily GameSeta. We leveraged these relationships to build partnerships. It’s the same with Jordan at BC Sports, who is careful with choosing the right partners because minors are involved. We were honest about what we wanted to build and set the right expectations. We stick to our promises so people like to partner with us.
What was it like in the beginning starting a small business while at SFU?
RT: We knew we still had to focus on school because we didn’t know if our business would be successful. But we were able to balance both from the beginning. I believe it’s important to get myself to a better stage while I’m still young so when I look back later in life I’ll be proud that I made the most of my youth. The great thing about having a co-founder is having someone to lean on. If I’m preparing for a final exam, I can count on Tawanda to handle the business.
TM: We worked crazy hours, but we made sure to check in on each other to prevent burnout. Rana would message me and remind me to take a break. People praise grind culture, but we believe in slow and steady wins the race. As an economist I think about compounding and its effects. Each day, we focus on three big things instead of many things. It’s a startup, so unpredicted things will happen and we need to be ready for that instead of overloading our plates.
How did the acquisition by PlayVS happen?
TM: Quite frankly, we had a few offers to acquire GameSeta early on in our venture. We were in and out of boardrooms to discuss. PlayVS reached out to us and we had conversations with their CEO and executive team. The conversations came from a position of respect and understanding about what we had achieved in BC and us understanding what they were working on in the US. We were excited about PlayVS’ vision for esports. For what we were trying to achieve as entrepreneurs, PlayVS was the right play. It was a unique experience being approached and going through the negotiation process of the deal. You have to be prepared to go into these meetings knowing what you want and your value. Don’t underestimate yourself!
How does it feel to have your first startup acquired?
TM: It’s important to celebrate the wins, but not get stuck in the moment. We want to keep improving and working on the next opportunity! We’re also helping other entrepreneurs make connections because we know how important the help is.
RT: The excitement was there for a week then it was time to go back to work. When you’re an entrepreneur it doesn’t fill the glass no matter how many businesses you sell. We’re always thinking about the next game plan. You can’t really get comfortable just yet, you’re never going to stop as an entrepreneur. We became very busy because we are setting up operations in Canada.
What is day-to-day work life like at PlayVS?
TM: PlayVS is still a startup so we’re still trying to solve problems daily and add value. Things change daily. We’re involved in the US business to learn their operations so we can build out the Canadian business. It’s a dream come true. You don’t typically get to work in this type of environment to leave a mark in the industry. We’re learning a lot and enjoying the experience.
What’s the biggest lesson each of you learned over the past year?
RT: Always be ready for a change. Changes are very normal in any startup world. It’s crazy how many different strategies will apply. With PlayVS we’re going through a change every day and we’re trying different methods. Also, never be in your comfort zone. The moment you’re in your comfort zone, that's the end of your entrepreneurship career because you’re not doing the work!
TM: Perseverance is important. Things are very uncertain in life in general, not just during a pandemic. Life is a do-it-yourself project. When you’re in a system like school you’re in a routine, but in life you need to believe in yourself and persevere. Rana and I would look at each other and wonder what’s the path forward. We just keep moving forward to create the path we want.
Is there anyone you’d like to give a shoutout to who helped you on this journey?
TM: GameSeta was built by three people: Rana, myself and Veneous. She’s one of our first early believers. I’d also like to thank the person who designed our UI. The mockups were seen by big investors across Canada and even in the US. She spent a lot of time and attention to build out our vision for the platform and it took us very far. One of my biggest mentors at SFU is professor Simon Ford. He was one of the first professors who taught me about the fundamentals of entrepreneurship and the first prof I told about GameSeta. I went to his office hours and we just chatted. He continues to move mountains for students at SFU.