An artist at heart, Danielle King had no doubts about forming a creative arts company. But it was her time in Red River College’s Small Business Management program that really put her at the top of her game.
“When we landed our first big project, Clandestine: Anomaly, I can tell you in all honestly that we might not have made it through if I didn’t have the practical business skills I acquired at RRC,” says King, who co-founded the Winnipeg-based company ZenFri with her husband Corey in 2009, and graduated from RRC in 2010.
“The creatives in us would have drowned.”
After receiving $700,000 from the Canadian Media Fund and plenty of worldwide recognition, ZenFri’s Clandestine: Anomaly was released in June 2015. The groundbreaking mobile game uses augmented reality with GPS to allow players to crash land an alien vessel in their own city. It’s the biggest original game ever made in Manitoba – and it marks the start of other big things for ZenFri and King, who recently took the time to discuss her experience at RRC, the gaming world, and her future.
What drew you to RRC’s Small Business Management program?
I was drawn to RRC and the Continuing Education [option] due to classes offered in the evening and part-time, which fit my schedule and let me pursue creative endeavours during the day. While business and management were never really what I dreamed of doing for a living, I also don’t see it as a diverging path. I see it as having the skills to supercharge the path I was already on, which is to be a creative.
What was the program like?
I really enjoyed the Small Business Management program and especially the amazing library filled with books on business. I learn best with my nose deep in a book, so the wide availability and extensive collection of materials in the library was extremely useful. I was definitely one of those students who would drag 10 books to class with me to read during breaks. This balance between reading, talking to the instructors and taking the Continuing Education programs helped ensure that I could both learn what the instructor knew would help me succeed, as well as tailor my knowledge to suit my goals.
How did your experience at RRC help prepare you for your career?
After just coming from the Film Studies Program at the University of Manitoba, it was refreshing to change my learning habits to how RRC works, with more emphasis on practical skills such as payroll, managing human resources, applying for business loans, and anything else that might come up in the first years of a business that needs the owner’s attention.
How did ZenFri come about?
ZenFri as a brand started in 2006 as a way to reference works created in collaboration between my partner, Corey King, and myself. We were working towards becoming filmmakers, and wanted to turn our little brand and earnest collaboration into something more substantial.
Corey had an amazing idea for a game that could take place in your environment, and all around you using the new technology. So this new adventure needed more skills and we knew it would require a budget, and team of people beyond anything we’d done before. We especially lacked business skills, so I enrolled into RRC’s Small Business Management certificate program and I’m very glad I did.
What is a typical day at work like for you?
No two days are ever the same. Some days we are roaring through production managing a 30-person team and large budgets, other days we’re traveling to conferences around the world, or submitting applications or just creating poetry or paintings.
What are the advantages and challenges of your work?
Projects are exciting; we work really hard to only take on projects we’re really passionate about. It is enjoyable to work in a field that is growing and experimenting. Working for yourself can really be scary at times, though. It takes a lot of guts to be self-motivated, to keep trying, and to get the same amount of excitement out of a project on year three as you did on day one.
In Clandestine: Anomaly your phone has been hacked by an alien vessel on a collision course with your city. They need your help to safely crash land and fend off a growing intergalactic threat. Using alien software that is installed on your phone you’re given the ability to see a covert war, taking place in the skies above.
Unlike most games, Clandestine: Anomaly takes place at real-world GPS positions around your home or place of work. Basically when playing our game you’ll see and engage in an epic sci-fi battle that is made to appear as if it is happening within the real world, using a technology called augmented reality.
What is it like working with your husband?
Great! We’re one of those rare couples that spend every waking moment together. While we have our ups and downs like every normal and healthy couple, we have skills that complement each other. ZenFri wouldn’t be ZenFri without each of our contributions, and there is something very special [about] investing so much of our lives into each other.
The gaming world tends to be pretty male-driven. What sorts of challenges do females face in this industry?
Usually on Clandestine: Anomaly I was the only female on a team with 30+ others, from marketing to programming, art and even sound design. Occasionally we would welcome RRC students from the Digital Media Design courses, and they would be female, which would change the daily dynamic. But I think it is similar to any male dominated field, where you must take on more male traits and dialogue to effectively and efficiently work and get your ideas across.
Do you still have any involvement with RRC?
We often participate in internships through the Digital Media Design program at RRC, and we like to draw talent from this and other programs.
What does the future hold for your company?
In terms of big ideas and out-of-the-box projects, Clandestine: Anomaly was a stepping stone to some much wilder possible futures. We have a number of projects currently in development across augmented reality, virtual reality, film and animation; however I can’t speak in too much detail about what we’re specifically up to. Oh, and of course we still do mini-projects like painting and poetry (#HerArtHisWords). Keeping that creative soul and doing some things purely for the love of it is important to us as Winnipeg entrepreneurs.
Profile by Lindsey Ward (Creative Communications, 2004)
(Responses have been edited and condensed for clarity.)