Sonny Spearman ’86 has traded technology for toys. As co-founder and chief marketing and operating officer of Matter Group, she leads a company focused on creating products to foster awareness of the environment.
Spearman started her career in technology and media, riding the wave of the Seattle-based tech boom in the late 1980s and early 1990s. She’d still be in the tech sector if she and company co-founder Amy Tucker hadn’t decided develop a business focused on sustainability.
Their first product, which was released in 2006, is Xeko, an award-winning eco-adventure game for children eight and older. With a force of “secret agents” intent on protecting the world’s vulnerable ecosystems and endangered species, Xeko’s players are offered “missions” that focus on biodiversity hotspots like Costa Rica and Madagascar. Gamers play by collecting animal cards to earn points as well as learn details about creatures like the European otter and the manatee.
Spearman recently sat down with Hannelore Sudermann at the Xeko headquarters in the upper rooms of an old sewing factory in Fremont.
Look around: I didn’t know what I wanted to do. Even when I went to school. First I was a phys-ed major. Then I was in engineering. That was for a semester. Then I switched to communication. It took me a while to find my calling. I knew I didn’t want to work for an (advertising) agency. So I sold IBM typewriters and the first PS2, a typewriter with memory. I wasn’t happy. I quit my job and worked construction for a summer. I did all kinds of informational interviews and found a job with a small publisher.
Get recruited: I got recruited out of there by a software company by the name of Aldus. Aldus is now Adobe. What a great, great company– really on the cutting edge. They invented desktop publishing. The culture created there was really fantastic–intelligent people from their 20s to their 50s and 60s, all going on 18.
Know yourself: I’m a startup person, I like to build versus maintain. While I was there (at Aldus) I saw all this opportunity the company was missing. So I put together a small business plan. The way that company worked was if you had a great idea and you presented it to the board, and if they liked it they would fund it. I started a little business within the business there.
Try new things: A friend of mine came up with an idea for a company–the first electronic commerce company in the world. We created the first software that allowed you to build a catalog and put it on CD-Rom. At the same time the internet was getting hot, so we started building the software so you could have the catalog online. It was called iCat, which stands for interactive catalog. We sold that company to Intel. Realizing it and building it–there’s a lot of adrenalin in doing that, which I really like a lot.
Work hard: (After the sale) Intel asked me to stay as part of the transition. I had been sleeping under my desk for five years working night and day. I lived out of my office. I had a pillow in there, a blanket, and my skis so I could take off and go skiing. I stayed for another year. Then I bought a one-way ticket to go to Hawaii. But our original investor at iCat called and said, “I want you to come and work for me and build my financial services company on-line.” I went out to Detroit to talk about it and left with a job. I commuted from Seattle to Detroit for almost three years. I never got to Hawaii. But I got to work with another group of brilliant people.
Travel: Then I took two years off and traveled around the world. That was really a great period. I took off by myself and had friends who met up with me along the way. I saw Kenya, Tanzania, Egypt, Australia, New Zealand, Micronesia. I really loved Cambodia.
Work with your friends: Amy (her business partner) and I met 12 years ago. We really hit it off. She’s an idea person, incredibly optimistic and fun loving. A lot of people say she’s air and I’m earth…or fire, whatever. We blend well together. Amy has about a million ideas a week. My skill set is in picking the ones that can resonate. We’re both strong in execution.
Brainstorm: We spent a lot of time in coffee shops. We’d also meet in her house and we had sticky notes up all over. Part of what we have going for us is that we don’t sit around very long. We move quickly. We had a prototype (for Xeko) put together in probably 10 or 15 days. Then we started to figure out how to make it work. We started reaching out to other people in the gaming industry.
Washington is a great place for innovation: I meet new people every day with really great ideas. I think it is sort of a brain ground. People come here from other states for it. This is actually a great place for gaming as well. You have Bella Sera, Cranium, and the granddaddy of the gaming world, Wizards of the Coast.
Seize the moment: Once we started to raise money, I left my job with a high-tech services firm and focused on developing out the business plan and raising money almost full time. As it worked out, I had (another) job offer and had to get back to them in five days. But within that five-day period we raised a million dollars for the game. So I didn’t take that job.
Find meaning: I wanted to do something that had more meaning in my life. Being able to build a healthy property for children and to do something that helps save the planet–that feels really good. I don’t sleep at my desk anymore. Still, if there’s no risk there’s no fun.