Boston-Area Entrepreneurs and Innovators Take to the Streets in Mobile Scavenger Hunt

Opinion

What would you think if I told you that a 20-year-old with an iPhone could turn hundreds of Boston’s sharpest entrepreneurs, business leaders, and students into human game pieces on a life-sized game board? Last Friday, that is exactly what happened as The Quest for Innovation put the spotlight on Boston’s history of entrepreneurship and innovation with a high-tech twist on the classic scavenger hunt.

The Quest, organized by Michael Gaiss of Highland Capital Partners and Seth Priebatsch of Boston-based startup Scvngr, brought together over 100 teams (and some 350-400 participants) from leading Boston-area startup companies, university entrepreneurship programs, industry organizations, and services firms for a mobile phone-enabled scavenger hunt through downtown Boston. The teams each had two key goals: raise funds for local non-profit organizations and entrepreneurship programs (the amount raised has not yet been announced) and secure the Boston technology scene’s ultimate bragging rights. Pulling the strings was the 20-year-old Priebatsch, “chief ninja” of Scvngr, which provided the technology behind the Quest. While the Quest was created using Scvngr’s Web-based game design platform, Priebatsch was able to kick-off and manage the event on site, right from his own mobile phone.

When I decided to assemble a team from my company, Westford, MA-based startup Virtual Computer, I knew I wouldn’t have any trouble finding volunteers. The Virtual Computer team is an extremely competitive bunch. Our office bulletin board is covered with everything from competitor trash talk to disputed scorecards from “friendly” mini-golf outings, and during our recurring trips to the F1 Boston race track it is not uncommon for at least one employee to put victory over career prospects by introducing a company executive to the track wall. Sure enough, within five minutes of sending out an e-mail about the Quest, I had my roster filled.

Seth_PriebatschThe organizers of the Quest were fairly tight lipped about how the event would work, so we arrived on Friday afternoon ready to quickly assess the game and develop a winning strategy on the fly. As the team “pilot,” I would be responsible for submitting our team’s answers to each challenge, so I downloaded the Scvngr iPhone application, hoping it would provide even the slightest advantage over the standard SMS text message method of game play. I used the application to officially register our team and then provided my team members with a special code that would allow them to see the game challenges and clues simultaneously as they were delivered to my phone. This way, we could “divide and conquer” as necessary.

As the game kicked off, the teams dispersed in various directions, with the Scvngr system starting the various teams with different clues to avoid a pileup at any given location. Our team quickly locked into a rhythm. The word on the street was that the game designers went to great lengths to come up with challenges that required physically visiting each location, as opposed to performing a quick Google search to find the answer. It was actually a bit crueler than that. Often we would be able to get an answer correct through a Web search, only to have the euphoria of “beating the system” crushed by a follow-up question that required a physical visit to the site. We quickly adapted to an approach where would continue using Google on our mobile phones, but even if we felt we had the right answer we would hustle in the direction of the location, anticipating potential follow-up clues. This quickly began to pay off, as in some cases we did actually need to visit the location, while in others we were able to jump right to another location in the same vicinity.

An interesting strategic decision during the Quest involved figuring out whether to stay together as a group or split up. We tried both, and each approach had pluses and minuses. When we split up into smaller teams, we were a bit more efficient, since all team members would receive new clues simultaneously on their phones. As one group would solve a challenge, often times a second group could race to the next location and get started on the next challenge. However, there were also periods where one group would be able to knock off several challenges in succession on their own, and the second group would be spinning its wheels trying to figure out where to go next.

Also, as efficient as it was at times to separate into groups, there were a number of challenges where having the complete group together enabled us to solve the riddles more quickly and accurately. More than a few challenges were no cinch even if you had all of your team’s brainpower at the location of the clue. In several cases, group brainstorming prevented us from needing to skip challenges or sacrifice valuable points by requesting a hint from the Scvngr system. There was also a notable example where having several sets of eyes at the challenge location avoided making a careless error in haste. A riddle about a shoe store brought us to a Foot Locker storefront on Washington Street. I was about to hit “submit” on my phone with the seemingly obvious answer of “Foot Locker,” when a teammate yelled “Stop!” and pointed me to a stone carved sign higher up on the building indicating that it was originally the location of the Aldo Shoe Company, clearly the correct answer.

Even as a cold drizzle set in over Boston, the Virtual Computer team moved through the city knocking off challenges at a frenetic pace. We thought we had a solid chance at our goal of taking top honors, but as time elapsed on the Quest, we were devastated to learn that victory had eluded us (Congratulations to prevere9, a team from Dart Boston, a social group for young entrepreneurs). Although we fared respectably, it was a tough blow for a competitive bunch giving it their all for several hours, and as we made our way to the Quest afterparty at Felt we were already plotting ways to improve our strategy for next time. Rest assured, we will have a few new tricks up our sleeve for Quest 2010.

Doug Lane is Senior Director of Product Management and Marketing at Virtual Computer, a Westford, MA-based provider of PC virtualization and management software. Follow @

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