What My Time on Sesame Street Taught Me About Founding a Tech Company

My co-founder and I met when we both worked on Sesame Street. Here’s what we learned from those days that shapes our vision as leaders.

Written by Caroline Strzalka
Published on Apr. 16, 2024
What My Time on Sesame Street Taught Me About Founding a Tech Company
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This year, Sesame Street is entering its 54th “experimental” season of using media’s potential as an educational medium to teach kids. You would think that, after all this time, a cultural icon like Sesame would have it down pat! After all, it has a bevy of classic characters: the lovable, furry red monster Elmo, the curious overgrown canary Big Bird, and the overzealous devotee to snack food Cookie Monster. Despite its lofty cultural perch, Sesame Street is constantly reinventing itself, mixing live action with animation and sometimes even claymation to create the most fun, smart and safest street in the world for kids. 

Who are the folks behind these “experiments” with media? They’re devoted employees who are constantly creating what’s next, working for an organization that many people don’t realize is a nonprofit devoted to educating kids through media. Those who work at nonprofits are used to tightening their belts. With smaller staffs and less funding for projects than for-profit organizations, they have to get good at making a little go a long way. 

But, because Sesame has those well-known muppets, everyone from Netflix to Microsoft wants to work with them. Thanks to that experience, Sesame Street alums go on to do amazing things — from running media companies to running for Congress. They’re also founding startups. 

How do I know all this? My co-founder Dan Projansky and I did just that. In fact, we took our company, Overplay, all the way from Sesame Street to Shark Tank. Here’s how we’re creating what we think will be a revolutionary product and how you can too.

4 Steps to Building Your Idea

  1. Find a pain point from your own experience.
  2. Take time to decompress.
  3. Decide to build.
  4. Grow your team.

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1. Find a Pain Point

The first thing that you want to do is look at your own work and find a reoccurring pain point. Is there a way that, using technology, you might be able to remove a thorn that keeps coming up again and again in meetings or on projects? 

For Sesame, our thorn was the cost of making interactive content. I was running digital media business development when we started making Sesame’s very first apps. We worked with IDEO on rapid prototyping and app creation and, to this day, those apps are among Sesame’s best performing. But they also cost us hundreds of thousands of dollars to make. Let’s face it: making games is expensive and time consuming. You need to create the assets, have the right engineering and creative talent, and then you have to combine all that to build the app. 

This process is laden with risk, too. After all that time and money, the product still might be a flop. A console game is even higher stakes; despite investment comparable to a big-budget film, the game might go nowhere. 

With this in mind, we had to make some agonizing decisions in budgeting meetings: We have 10 game ideas, but which ones would be winners? We wished we could do all of them, but we just couldn’t afford to. If only we had a cheaper and quicker way to make games.

 

2. Take Time to Decompress

The second thing that you want to do is take some time off. I mean it. Relax after work. Take a walk. Spend time in nature. Go on a vacation. Travel. Remove yourself from the stresses of life and give your brain a chance to collect and process your thoughts. Our minds are amazing, always doing work in the background that we’re not consciously aware of. 

Often, we have our most brilliant ideas when we’re away from our problems. This is what happened to my co-founder, Dan. He ran interactive production at Sesame and was always thinking about how our content could go further. Dan is an avid mountain biker and would relax after work by watching his favorite creators’ YouTube videos. One day, he was watching a POV mountain biking video and realized that he was inadvertently moving his hands as if he were steering the bike himself. The video felt like a game! Dan’s aha moment was that we could use videos as the asset upon which we built games.

 

3. Decide to Build

The third step is to decide to build your idea. Having identified a problem with a possible technical solution, Dan set out to make the idea real. Given his film background, he had a unique insight about how to turn videos into games. After doing research, it turned out that nobody, neither the big behemoths of Facebook or Google or TikTok, nor a small startup, had tried anything like this before. In fact, Dan’s initial idea turned out to be the patent upon which we’ve built all of Overplay. 

But I’m getting ahead of myself here. On his own, Dan didn’t have enough engineering chops to build Overplay himself, but he thought that it was possible if he had the right person. At this stage, he tapped into his network to ask for help. Dan reached out to friends who had started an edtech company and they referred him to a dev shop that they loved. Through them, Dan met an engineer who would help him build Overplay on nights and weekends in exchange for equity. With that engineer’s help, Dan was able to build an MVP and apply for a patent.

 

4. Grow Your Team

The fourth step is to find a co-founder, raise money, and build a team. A lot of founders have issues with this one because it requires them to check their egos — they have to bring on folks who are good at the stuff that they’re not good at. We have to be realistic with ourselves. We can’t do it all, nor, frankly, do we like doing everything.

When I talk about building teams, I like to say that I collect good people for whom I’ve developed a deep respect and know what they can accomplish. I keep them in my back pocket. Maybe they’re former classmates or business partners or colleagues. These are my go-to people.

Dan reached out to me because he needed a co-founder. I’m good at the stuff that he’s not good at and vice versa. We knew this because Dan and I had worked together at Sesame for years creating award-winning products for kids, like Kinect Sesame Street TV on Xbox and Sesame Street Go. Dan and his team built the products, while my team and I created the partnerships and brought those products to market. Plus, as a former investment banker, I knew how to raise money. We had that gut feeling that, together, we could grow Overplay from an idea to a real, money-making company. So, I joined Dan and immediately went to work on strategy and fundraising.

Once we raised our first round of funding, we were able to bring on the key hires that we needed. For us, as well as for most tech companies, those are developers. But we weren’t looking for just any developers; we needed devs who wanted to be part of building something that had never been built before, and in native code. So, we had to interview and hire (and sometimes fire) quickly. We always look for both smarts and cultural fit.

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Make Your Vision Reality

Overplay is now a team of 20 people who want to revolutionize media by giving everyone the platform to turn their own videos into games and share them with the world. We already have hundreds of thousands of app downloads and millions of games played. Were raising a new round of funding and have investors and advisors who believe in us. In fact, we were on Shark Tank a few weeks ago, and Mark Cuban invested! 

We went from Sesame Street to Shark Tank, from Muppets to what we hope will be a unicorn. It’s not a conventional path and, if you’re a founder, yours probably won’t be either. But maybe the steps I shared will light your street, and along the way to founding your own company, you’ll meet some helpful characters not unlike Elmo, Big Bird, and Cookie Monster.

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