DC: The Game

GTJ had a chance to speak with Avi Millman, the co-founder of Stray Boots and creator of a series of DC: The Game. This is one of the latest in a series of city-specific cell-phone scavenger hunts designed to familiar users with locations and fun facts of a new area.

Avi and the Millman family, on the Rome trip that started it all...

You call your project a twist on the original scavenger hunt. Can you explain this?

Yes, we’re actually calling them interactive tours now, since that’s really what they’re more about. The reason we called them a twist on the original scavenger hunt was that a) you’re not collecting things b) it’s all text-message guided rather than on paper and c) most importantly, we provide fun facts about the area as you go, so you learn while you do it all, which makes the whole experience much more than a scavenger hunt.

How much is it/can it be tailored to individual interests?

We actually don’t tailor our tours or scavenger hunts, but each one definitely has a unique flavor. We’ve built each one a bit differently so it highlights what it is about that particular area that makes it unique. When you’re doing a Georgetown Tour it’s centered around the history, but also the shopping culture that’s grown there. The Smithsonian, as the title suggests, is all about the Art, while Penn Quarter is an eclectic mix of history and pop culture.

What was the inspiration behind Stray Boots?

I was on a trip with my parents and sister to Italy in the summer of 2008, exactly 3 years ago, actually. We were visiting all of these amazing sites-the Coliseum, The Pantheon, the Trevi Fountain-and while i was nose-deep in my guidebook, I realized that the whole thing felt a lot like a scavenger hunt. There was this long list of things we were “supposed to” do there, and we were going down one by one checking them off. That got me thinking, couldn’t exploring a city independently be a lot more fun if you turned it into a game (an intelligent game).

How do you determine which sites/attractions/city facts are featured in your game?

It’s a combination of research and really pounding the pavement. We do a lot of research up front on each area, the history, the coolest sights, and most popular, interesting spots. We ask a lot of locals for their input as well via our network of family, friends, and customers. Then I visit the area and spend, quite literally, days walking up and down its streets. Delving into nooks and crannies and finding interesting things to feature, whether it’s bizarre shops, cool murals, obscure plaques, or the like. The best things along the tours tend to be the things that you can’t really find online, the stuff that you can only find by walking the streets time and again and looking for oddities.

Completing challenges correctly earns one points.  Are these just for keeping score or are there other benefits to winning?

If you play with just one group, the points are just for keeping score against yourself. We tell you the total potential number. It’s interesting that people actually get really competitive to get everything right. If you want to split up into multiple teams and make the tour into a little competition, the points will tell you who won. This is great for larger groups like birthdays or some of the other types of clients we get like corporate team-building groups, tour groups, and student field-trips and orientations.

We’re so excited you guys have included DC in your expanded list of cities!  How do you decide which cities are cool enough to get your attention?

Great question. We’ve identified what we consider to be the largest markets for our concept based on population, tourism, and general “walkability” of the city. We’re still old-fashioned New Yorkers, and that means we love to walk. We also think our product is suited to walking more so than driving or biking. That’s why we’ve opted to go with cities where you can go by foot (Philly, DC, Seattle, Portland) over some larger cities that tend to favor driving (Dallas, Atlanta). Geography and seasonality have also played a small factor (launching cold weather cities during the spring and summer, with warm weather places in fall and winter). But we plan to expand to even the big driving towns soon. There’s no reason a Stray Boots tour can’t be everywhere.

I see that you have branched out beyond the scavenger hunt cell phone game and now do events (bachelorette parties, team-building events, etc).  Can you talk more about that? Is that only available for New Yorkers or for all cities where your company features games?

Since almost the moment we started, we had customers who played on their own, and then loved the experience so much, that they wanted to share the experience with others, be it their coworkers during company outings, or their best friend for her bachelorette party. We began to get loads of requests for these types of events, and developed products suited to each. What we’ve found is that there’s a huge market in every city we go to for these sorts of events. In cities other than NYC, we offer what we call “self-start” options for these events, which allow customers to print out instructions we email them, and get started on their own. It’s super-simple and allows us to offer an amazing experience at a fraction of the price of our competition. Throughout the events we provide customer support by phone, which even if we sent someone to the event would be the same type of support since they’re wandering around the city anyway. The feedback we’ve gotten in every location has been nothing but top-notch.

You started this is 2009 and have gotten your sister involved, also. (Awesome.)  How big is Stray Boots? What’s the company structure?  What does the expansion of the game to other cities mean for this?

Noemi has always helped out a lot with Stray Boots, but with a small infusion of capital we received over the winter we were able to hire her on full time. Noemi acutally built our entire technology platform and website from scratch and was only the third full-time employee after myself and my co-founder Scott.  Customers always think we have a team of engineers here, but it’s really a small operation. We’ve recently hired a Head of Marketing as our fourth, since we decided that relying solely on word of mouth was not a great marketing strategy. Given our rapid expansion, we’re anticipating hiring on many more people soon. In fact, we’ve already got two job postings out for an event coordinator and a mobile application developer. In addition to us full time folks, we’ve also gotten excellent contributions from a number of part time interns who have played an integral role in Stray Boots’ development. They’ve been a tremendous asset and have learned a lot about business in the process. We’re always looking for more interns, in case anyone reading this is interested in getting great hands-on experience.

Can DC residents get in touch with you guys with suggestions or additions to the sites/attractions/fun facts for the DC version? If so, how?

Absolutely. We love that. The more feedback we get from customers and potential customers, the better we can make the experience for everybody. Definitely no hubris here.  The easiest thing to do is email us at DC@strayboots.com if it’s DC-related or more generally at info@strayboots.com. We love to hear from everyone!