Barbara Sapik, founder and CEO of STYL, on the future of gaming and female entrepreneurship
Playing is enmeshed in the fabric of society. It serves a ubiquitous role in learning and creating social bonds. Gaming constitutes its most modern version, pushing the boundaries in countless directions. Today we immerse ourselves in the world of gaming with Barbara Sapik, founder of STYL (Smart Technology You Love) and alumni of the HEC - 42 Launchpad.
Hi Barbara, could you tell us a bit about yourself?
I’m Barbara, a woman entrepreneur. I’m the founder and CEO of STYL. I like to say that I am dancing in heels through the manly tech world.
What concatenation of events propelled you to create your own business?
A great way to start is to say that I am an artist and a freethinker, always reaching for new experiences. Ever since I was six years old, I have been interested in all forms of arts. Going through art school, I was always looking for a deep understanding of design. It wasn't just a beautiful picture which interested me. Anytime I was doing anything, I kept questioning the meaning, why I'm doing it and what's the purpose.
In Czech Republic, where I grew up, all the schools I went through mostly emphasized the technical aspect. They focused on how we do it, rather then WHY we do it. Then I started to travel, my first destination was Italy, where I discovered new media and digital motion art, and how we can use it in marketing. Then after spending time in London, a much more open-minded city, I ended up in Paris in 2012. I started to focus on strategy in visual communication. At Ecole de Condé, I gained a deeper understanding of customers, marketplaces and needs. I participated in multiple hackathons with Facebook or Google. But the most important milestone was the “Smart Object” challenge with HEC and 42. That moment changed my path and the seed of STYL was planted. During the school year, I took the opportunity to launch my project and thanks to our first investor Xavier Niel it all became reality.
A recent study ran by BCG reveals that women-led startups since 2008 raised on average 2.5 times less than men-led startups in the tech sector. Does this resonate with your own experience? What are some of the difficulties you’ve faced specifically as a female founder in the tech sector?
Thank you for this question, because I think it's a very sensitive subject today and we're still not doing enough. I definitely agree with you. Woman entrepreneurs are less funded than men. I was very lucky to be honest. Our first investment came through Xavier Niel, the big founder of Station F and Ecole 42. Therefore in my experience since the early beginning, it wasn't a question of man or woman.
But since then, obviously, we've been trying to raise more funds. In my case in particular, I would say it's not only the fact that I'm a woman, but mostly that I'm in hardware and who says hardware says hard. To get some money, you need to make some money. But to make some money you need to have some money. It's like an endless circle. And so I was stuck in it for a very long time.
Also, questions from VCs and business angels are very different for a man and for a woman I think. Men are raised to think that they are the best and that they can achieve whatever they envision, no limits. Questions for men are designed to boost their motivation. Questions for women are: “How are you going to make sure that clients are going to stay with you?”, “How are you going to make sure you’ll still exist in 5 years?”, “Is the business you’re in safe enough?”, “Are you sure you’ll have enough clients?”, “Do you really need that much? Maybe we can do less.” and so on. Most questions directed to women revolve around safety. It is very difficult to change the mindset we are born with. But I guess it’s slowly evolving, more and more women are creating their own startups and becoming leaders.
Do you think diversity is critical for innovation?
Definitely. The more diverse people from different backgrounds, education, cultures, religions and genders are part of the team the greater your chances of success. Each of us has a different experience and brings unique insight. At STYL, we have a very diverse team which makes it more interesting, and offers us a variety of point of views to be inspired from.
What is STYL about?
STYL is about fun, smart objects, and merging two universes, creating hybrids between classical tools and digital connection. Our very first product is called Spinity, it’s a motion control for smartphone games in the shape of a pen. It was inspired by everyday games, specifically pen spinning (twirling a pen in your hand) which many of us do in school or in meetings. It can also be used to write on one side and as a stylus on the other side. Once it is connected to our app via Bluetooth, all the movements you are able to make with Spinity are registered thanks to its motion recognition technology. This way you can improve your technique, learn new pen spinning motions and also find a complete gaming market place.
What are your thoughts on the future of gaming in the next 5 or 10 years?
Let’s go back in time first. When I was a kid, I loved to play with everything around me, balloons or even a piece of wood. Nowadays, when you think of a game, you generally think of a video game. I find it quite sad. I think we are increasingly looking for reality in our gaming experience, through emotions and sensations, seeing, hearing but also touching. We’re already seeing huge progress in video games requiring players to be active. That’s also Spinity’s objective. And that’s the big vision, on a new level, not just being behind a computer, but being connected with someone we do or don't know, finding the beauty of sharing and playing with someone, touching real objects. We created a game around an object and only then did we use technology for data tracking and to achieve a fuller gaming experience. So we looked at the problem the other way around.
How would you like to see STYL evolve? What are your next steps?
STYL is making a huge step forwards near the end of September: we will be the launching the Kickstarter campaign. It's very important for us. Thanks to this campaign we will be able to launch our first production and bring SPINITY to its first users. But this is only the beginning. Once we are able to grow our team, we dream about going into the health and education sector to improve motor abilities or learning.
Is there any piece of advice you would like to share with other female entrepreneurs in the tech sector?
I would say stay authentically and deeply yourself, don’t try to do things like others. Follow your intuition, it’s the best way to motivate yourself to keep going.