Gemma Pepper is an alum of ACMI Xcel, ACMI's business accelerator designed for scaling creative tech start-ups.
Since completing the accelerator in 2018, Gemma’s company Audioplay has won the PAUSE Festival Creative Business Cup, taken part in the United States’ famous SXSW festival and helped discuss the importance of play at the invite-only LEGO Idea Conference in Copenhagen.
Audioplay is an action-based app that narrates children’s play with exciting stories and a blockbuster soundtrack. It’s a two or four player experience that allows kids to step into different characters. And it's really, really fun.
Gemma gave us the lowdown on how she switches between art and business, her experience throughout the ACMI Xcel program, and what it’s like to be a woman in the start-up scene.
Audioplay is such a unique idea, what inspired the concept?
Audioplay was created by my sister Zoe and I, and now our developer Arie Wilsher. Zoe and I come from a theatre background so we started with live performance shows – this has been a gradual evolution over time. We’re essentially taking a theatre show and asking: what if our audience could be anywhere, anytime?
We started Audioplay with a crime thriller for adults several years ago, but we found that adults really hate audience participation. With kids, you say ‘do you want to play?’ and they say ‘yeah, let’s do it!’, so we decided to change our audience demographic. In terms of building a business and trying to get traction, kids felt like a better fit for us – with the potential to go back into adult play later. For the moment we’re very much focused on great audio experiences for kids that gets them up and moving and playing.
How did you find ACMI Xcel?
It was really great. We are still at the very baby stages, but because we’ve spent over 15 years making theatre in the subsidised sector – where you go and get grants and you make a show and then you sell it to venues – this is a very different way of thinking about ‘product’. To be honest, we never really thought about product. Going through the accelerator, it taught us to use the LEAN methodology to rethink and define a product and to understand who the customer base is and really interrogate everything we assumed with a series of experiments. The program was really great in pushing us into areas where we were uncomfortable.
What were some those uncomfortable areas you had to rethink?
Actually going and having a conversation with our audience! We would just make stuff, and think ‘yep, people will come’ and Xcel was like ‘no, go and talk to them, understand how this product will be used in their lives, and then you can better design the product to fit the problem’ – as opposed to just making something up and hoping that people will like it. Which is how art is made, because it’s an expression. When you’re shifting into a more commercial paradigm, you have to think: how do we make this more marketable and make this the right fit for the user?
Do you think this is a common challenge for creatives trying to get a business off the ground?
There is a bit of a clash in ideologies. I think that a lot of tech is coming to the world saying: what is the problem, I will come up with the solution and fix it. But in the arts world, if you go to a gallery or a concert, you’re not going to have a problem solved, you’re going to have an experience. So the two industries are coming from very different points of view. I feel like the creative world is still figuring out the nexus of those two approaches; how do you create a product that is giving your audience something they’ve never experienced before, that may not be necessarily solving a problem, but is creating a whole new way of seeing the world? There is value in that – although it’s a harder thing to communicate to a user.
What’s it like being a woman in the world of start-ups?
Whenever you walk into a room in a start-up space, you’re so mindful of the fact that there are so few women. There does seem to be quite a prominent 'bro-culture' but it’s starting to diminish. Being a woman in the space makes you extra mindful, but it also gives us a range of opportunities because people are really wanting to support women founders. That has really helped us in terms of navigating the space and trying to break through.
Do you have any tips for other creative businesses just starting out? Anything you wish you had known?
Do the smallest possible thing to test whether or not what you’re doing is a good idea. One thing that really resonated with us all the way through the ACMI Xcel program was test every assumption! Do not assume anything. Seriously, go through your list of your biggest and scariest assumptions; go through the things that could be diabolically bad for your business. Identify those assumptions and then figure out how you can test whether they’re true. You can do stuff without laying down any coin: you could set up a website and ask people if they would sign up for a product – even if you haven’t made it yet. Test if there is an appetite for your product and how your users behave. All these things you can do without spending any money on software, and it’s better to know if it’s a good or bad idea before you jump into it.