Startup of the Week

Finding Your Niche: How Being a Nerd and a Dungeons and Dragons Player Helped me to Build a Business

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Every week, the NYU Entrepreneurial Institute elects a Startup of the Week. We invite the founders of these startups to share a blog post with our community. These posts can be inspirational, educational, or entertaining. 

This blog post was written by Joanna Liu (Steinhardt '20), Co-founder of Cartographr, a social media augmented reality (AR) platform that reinvent the way tabletop roleplayers build visualizations for their players.

The bell in the town square strikes 12 times, and you see a blue bright portal appear in front of you and your peers. As you extend your hand to touch it, a semi-translucent ghost appears from the portal, shrieking in agony. Everyone, please roll initiative! 

Hi! I am Joanna Liu and I am a huge nerd! I am also a dungeon master—no, it’s not a sex thing…. It means that I am a game facilitator for Dungeons and Dragons—a tabletop roleplay game invented in the late 1970’s that has become a booming industry with 15 million active players in North America alone. The game can be described as a combination of improv theatre and board games, where players gather together around a table and play pretend. 

The tabletop gaming industry (valued at $12 billion) is growing at an accelerated pace due to the impact of the pandemic. Popular gaming software Fantasy Grounds has had 50,000 new users in April 2020 alone, which represents a 25% increase in users. A live-streamed Tabletop Roleplay show, Critical Role, raised $11.3 million on Kickstarter to create an animated series of their game in 2019, becoming the most successful film and television Kickstarter in history. 

The tabletop gaming industry is my community and my niche. I am in the business of making Dungeons and Dragons more immersive for its players by creating the first holographic-like gaming experience using augmented reality technology. I work with a small team of nerds. Our app, Cartographr, provides the fastest way for players to create 3D dungeons, caves, and terrain for their games, using just their smartphones. 

person using cartographr app

Needless to say, when it comes to getting your business off the ground, you need some funding. The sad fact is that board game nerds like us are frequently overlooked by investors and accelerators. We are simply not “cool” enough to attract big money. So in order to thrive, the creators in this community stick together and frequently give each other a helping hand. Dungeons and Dragons is a collaborative game—its players go on adventures together in a fantasy world and defeat bad guys. I believe it is the nature of the game that makes its players generous and helpful. The tabletop games category on Kickstarter has had its best six months during the first half of 2020, raising $117.6 million in total, surpassing all previous years. This is why pretty early on, we decided that we needed to run a Kickstarter campaign for our little venture. 

Running a Kickstarter campaign is no easy feat. Community-building is the most essential part of it. I started this venture as part of my thesis project at NYU Steinhardt’s Games for Learning Master’s Program, so I already had some contacts from my research. I also have another hobby, making dice necklaces for gamers—my Instagram account gave me access to many gamers in the community. During our participation in the NYU Entrepreneurial Institute's Startup Bootcamp and Startup Sprint programs, we were encouraged to reach out to a lot of other game facilitators in the community. We had a strict quota to fill, so we worked our hardest to get people to talk to us, asking for help from the community. We had an overwhelming response! We talked to 100+ dungeon masters and won the “most interviews” award for both the Bootcamp and Sprint.  Also, we are currently still running playtests, gaining hardcore fans and supporters. 

person using the cartographr app to scan their environment

Being a player myself, it was not hard to build rapport and genuine relationships with other Dungeon Masters. It was evident, I think, that I have great passion for what I am making, and that my team genuinely wants to provide a solution that improves the game experience. We made lots of friends along the way, which made it possible for us to efficiently work on our venture throughout the last year, allowing us to finally gather the courage to launch our Kickstarter. 

Finding your niche can be an interesting challenge and journey. I like to refer to the Japanese concept of “Ikigai”—reason for being. When doing what you love and doing what you are good at aligns with what the world needs and what you can be paid for, you have found your niche and a life’s purpose! 

We just launched our crowdfunding campaign on Friday, Feb 26, 2021. It’s been 4 days since the start, and we currently have 89% of our goal funded (at time of writing). Check us out on Kickstarter!