Meet Margaret Johnson, CEO Of SABI Games!

INTERVIEWS | | July 13, 2009 at 8:46 pm


Margaret Johnson‘s passion is about providing kids with a fresh approach to learning. She is the CEO and Co-founder of  Sabi – a startup game company. Their mission is to take children’s computer gaming to a higher level. They are the creator of ItzaBitza the game that has wowed educators and entertainers alike. Mommy Niri has the utmost admiration for anyone in the education field but have to admit Margaret is an amazing woman. It was the reason that being sponsored to the BlogHer conference by her company is a true honor.

I have been impressed by her commitment to the product as she resolves customer issues directly and her savvy at the social media (find her tweeting @itzabitza) . Being always ready to learn and seize the opportunity makes her one of the the most interesting people I have come across.

I believe you worked at Microsoft, why would anyone leave a job surrounded by perks to explore such new territory?

I was honored to work at Microsoft for 18 years.  Yes, the opportunities and perks at Microsoft are exceptional.  Thanks to my employment at Microsoft, I and my husband are able to be the Angel Investors in Sabi, Inc.  I left Microsoft because I couldn’t sleep until our efforts that resulted in the shipment of ItzaBitza happened.  As a General Manager, I led the research team that explored how best to shape technology to engage our children in creative problem solving and reading.  After three years, I approached the game division at Microsoft and agreed with them that our target customer – Pre-K and up – was not within the range of Microsoft’s target game customers, which skew more towards 16 – 32 year old men.

So we cancelled the project, but I couldn’t sleep.  I truly believed in the games we have in prototype and the twists we had created with technology that earned us seven patents.  Microsoft didn’t want to let go either.  I worked out an arrangement where Sabi, Inc. was able to take all the work we had done as well as the core team and spin us off.  Microsoft owns an equity investment based on licensing of the work.  All capital for Sabi, Inc. comes from me and my husband.
Have you ever had a vision you felt you must see through?  That’s what Sabi, Inc.’s games are to me.

What do you believe is the most important feature of ItzaBitza?

We focus on two customers – the kid and the parent.  First and foremost, it’s all about the kid.
For the kid, the most important feature is the fun factor.  ItzaBitza was designed by gamers who have shipped successful games for the XBox and PlayStation.  ItzaBitza  competes with TV shows like those on NickToons for a child’s screen time.  Find out who created and designed these shows and you’ll find creative talents with a successful history of providing entertainment kids crave to see.  We took the same approach with the quality of entertainment in ItzaBitza.
For the parent, it is the way we teach a child to read and creative problem solve.  We collaborated for four years with a renowned learning science team led by Dr. John Bransford (UW) to understand and explore the best methods for injecting in how children will best learn to creative problem solve as well as read words and sentences.  Key to the child’s success is the always forward progress they are able to make based on the types of words and sentences and the loving word help that is provided for each word.
I remember back when I started this effort at Microsoft.  I was told it was a failure case to focus on two targets – the kids AND the parents.  I believe with ItzaBitza we were able to provide an experience that is entertaining for the kid AND provides and a valuable way to spark a lifelong love of reading.

How does Sabi Games ensure that they keep up with what the changing needs of young children these days?

It helps that I am a mom of two girls.  Actually, running Sabi has made me a better listener and observer of what is going on in their world of socializing, entertainment, and learning.  I also actively seek out conversations with moms and teachers at my kid’s schools as well as on social networking efforts like Twitter and FaceBook.  Also, throughout the development of a game, we are bringing in kids to test the game and find out a little bit more about them.  I make sure they know they are our “senior management.”  That their thoughts are the most important in what we do next in the game design.  We learn a lot by observing.  I also decided to be the support person.  I used to do this at Microsoft in the early 1990’s.  As my title and responsibilities grew, I found I got far away from our customer.  When I am handling support issues, I am talking with customers who are in all frames of mind – typically with children crying in the background because for some reason ItzaBitza isn’t working.  I want to get these kids playing as fast as possible.  Once we solve the issue, most parents have spent a lot of follow up time discussing their kid, why they purchased ItzaBitza, and what is important to them regarding screen time.

Knowing that the team at Sabi Games is smaller, and that people in smaller teams wear more than one hat, how does one stimulate the team?

Since most of us had worked on this project at Microsoft, we were blessed to continue with the core team intact where team members were exceptional at what they do and respected the abilities of each other.
The ability to realize our passion – shipping games that didn’t compromise on entertainment yet helped them succeed and from this success build self-confidence in their ability to succeed in school – is an amazing motivator for all of us.
The overwhelming positive reviews and customer comments has been a huge motivator.  It really keeps us going.
I am hoping in the near future I will be able to provide the team with the benefits they deserve – such as health care.  When this happens, there is no stopping the team from getting some really fun games with a positive twist out to our kids!

What are the plans for the future?

We are getting close to releasing our next game that will be available for Holiday 2009.  We’re really excited about it.  If you like ItzaBitza, you’ll love our new game.  In addition, we’d love to see our games on other platforms like the Macintosh.  I’m working on making that happen and should have something to say about this in the upcoming weeks.

How does one stay afloat in the competitive gaming market?

It’s no different than any other market.  It all revolves around two things. 1) a fantastic product at a great price and 2) people knowing about the product.  I’ve bet a lot on my belief that ItzaBitza is a fantastic product at a great price.  While we do a variety of efforts to build awareness, the most important will be the recommendations from parents.

What was your favorite response from someone using ItzaBitza?

It’s hard to pick one.  I’ll narrow down to two responses.  One response came from a mom while I was working through a support challenge with her.  She told me her kid loves the game, she is excited her child is reading while their drawings come to life, and – what surprised her the most – her whole family – including herself enjoys playing the game.
The other response was from a mom whose child has autism.  Her customer review posting on blew me away:
I wanted to share how much our family is enjoying ItzaBitza – It’s perfect for us! I have two children – a 5 year old daughter who is in Kindergarten and a 3 ½ year old son. My 3 ½ year old has autism and this game is fantastic for him – it really brings out the imaginative play for him as well as direction following – both are key development areas for autistic children – I’ve recommended it to his ABA therapist who loves it! My daughter is also learning to read and it has been really great to watch her progress – to “play” and learn at the same time! It’s not uncommon to hear fantastic hearty laughter coming out of the computer room!

Thanks for this innovative and great new tool to connect with and enable both of our children!

When things get tough, as they sometimes do, what gets you through the day?

The first thing I do is play ItzaBitza.  I draw really silly sketches for my Sketchy and crack up when my Sketchy interacts with it.  There are the comments parents share on customer reviews and directly to me from email about how ItzaBitza has been such a positive experience for their child.  I also love to check the entries in our Wackiest House contest.  These amaze and always excite me.  Finally, I want my daughters to see what it means to make a dream come true.  What it means to follow a vision and all the work that goes into it.

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