It was Wii, the gaming console, that made Rajat Paharia into one of those people who waits in line at 4 a.m. after Thanksgiving Day.
He's not one of those guys. But he really needed it. Each year around Thanksgiving, Paharia gets together with his wife's family and plays game. For days, the family gets together and spends time playing all kinds of games. He knew they'd love it. And it was a hit.
In the early 2000s, the challenge came after the annual tradition. Everyone went their separate ways. While there were online games, it was difficult to really play friends. It was much easier, however, to play strangers. Paharia wanted to change that. Redwood City-based Bunchball was created in 2005 with that goal in mind. Today, the idea of providing the interactive gaming platform has turned into a leader in gamification — using the ideas behind games to increase employee productivity or customer loyalty.
"It's not about games at all. It's about human motivation,” Paharia said.
Clearly he didn't grow up with plans to create a company that uses game principles to motivate people. The 42-year-old grew up in Fremont. Self-described as a nerdy child, Paharia spent hours playing video games. He got a paper route to pay for the latest Mac, which didn't really have games but did allow Paharia to draw and print those drawings. He attended the University of California at Berkeley and Stanford University where he earned his bachelor's and master's degrees in computer science, respectively.
It was while at Stanford that he met his wife, Laura. She was a teacher's assistant.
"I got an A,” he said with a laugh.
The two became friends and were married in 2005.
Bunchball came later. Paharia worked for a variety of companies but found that he wanted a new challenge. He called his former professor, who was then at IDEO, and asked to interview. He spent four years there before leaving to create his family-inspired company. Laura Paharia was employee number one, director of everything else, Paharia said. She left about five years ago when the couple welcomed their first of three boys. Today, they have a 5-year-old, a 2-year-old and a 3-month-old.
The company started with the idea of helping connect people with well-known games. The idea of gaming for business hadn't really caught on at the time. Paharia was a little early with his idea.
"Being early is the same as being wrong,” he said.
Around 2007, the thinking changed. People wanted games they could play with their friends online. And the company switched gears to a gamification focus — a word that wasn't really coined until a couple of years later.
Gamification uses tools to drive participation, engagement and loyalty to company websites. The tools include earning badges, trophies or achievements; creating virtual identities for self-expression; competing; collaboration and tracking and rewarding online activity.
Using these sorts of tools really became possible when people started living lives online, he explained. Doing so puts our behavior, likes, dislikes, purchases, whatever, out in the world. It's about taking that information and using it to influence behavior.
Driving behavior started with working with companies who wanted to engage with customers. Slowly, companies have realized the same motivators for people outside of work can work to encourage employees. As of last year, the company spent half its time working to engage customers and the other internally with employees. Paharia expects the employee portion to become larger shortly.
He's now taken a back seat to the CEO job, which Paharia is happy about. Officially the chief product officer, Paharia spends more time helping with other projects and creating — the part he likes best. Later this year, Paharia's book about the lessons he's learned about motivating others will be released.
With three youngsters at home, Paharia's free time is often spent as a jungle gym. And, despite his ample knowledge about human behavior, he's still looking for ways to encourage his children to brush their teeth.
Heather Murtagh can be reached by email: email@example.com or by phone: (650) 344-5200 ext. 105.