Monday, February 22, 2010

An Interview with Rissa Maidstone CEO of World2Worlds™

Rissa Maidstone W2W CEO

The avatars began to arrive for the event, they rezz in at the entry point and straight away start toward the theater like seating area to their left. They're coming in from all points on the Second Life grid and the avatars that are assembling represent the assorted educational, business, entertainment and media communities operating in the metaverse. Occasionally there's someone from the general population who simply had been out exploring and found the topic being presented interesting. For the most part though, audience members are regular attendees of the events. The seats are filled and the chat is lively, mostly pleasantries being exchanged between friends, colleagues or acquaintances. On stage there are two stools, a few meters apart and both are occupied, one by the moderator the other his guest. They are silent while preparations are underway in the background, however the audience chat continues unabated on a myriad of topics.

Seated in the front row directly across from the stage is Rissa Maidstone (aka Kim Smith), the CEO of World2Worlds™, producer of the event. W2W is a full service consultancy whose client list includes technology giants such as IBM, Sun, Cisco, Intel and Microsoft and media companies such as United Business Media, Ziff-Davis, InformationWeek, eWeek and Dr. Dobb's Journal. By all appearances, everything is running flawlessly for a 1 pm start. Ms Maidstone who had been active in chat with the audience now reminds them in both voice and text to mute their microphones. She also instructs them on where to find copies of the material being presented and then deftly turns things over to the moderator as the session begins.

A few days after the event, I caught up with Rissa for a conversation. We met at the W2W SIM and talked about her business and second life. After taking seats at a conference table and an exchange of pleasantries we began.

Nazz: This is a nice facility … your build?

Rissa: Thanks -- this set has worked nicely for us. Not the table and chairs, no … the rest of the island, yes.

Nazz: I had stopped over the other day to look around.

Rissa: What was your impression?

Nazz: A simple style ... functional. I liked it.

Rissa: We like to keep our builds clean and light to reduce lag on the SIM as we often have audiences of 50-75 people … having said that, we're in process of some changes here because we're producing the virtual portions of a couple of physical world conferences that will be held here.

Nazz: Let's talk a little about Rissa first.

Rissa: Surely … what would you like to know?

Nazz: What brought you into second life?

Rissa: Previously I'd been business development director for a few of the large engineering firms that specialize in environmental services such as the design of water and wastewater treatment plants, environmental remediation projects and transportation infrastructure, as well as a variety of other types of work for municipal, state and federal agencies. As I've a long history in gaming, and had also been part owner of a school specializing in training people for enterprise level use of PCs, I'd been piqued by Second Life stories and popped in to see what this was all about. When I entered, I realized that Linden Lab had taken away the "game" aspect and replaced it with open-to-anyone building and scripting and e-commerce--I was primed to 'get it", and jumped right in, founding my company with a vision of using the platform to socialize public works infrastructure and urban planning projects. I learned an enormous amount about planning, producing and directing immersive virtual events at scale, and World2Worlds innovated or pushed the envelope on a lot of technology and strategy that's now become widely accepted as best practice in this medium: use of custom, web-based registration portals; metrics and analytics; access control, in-world presentation infrastructure; hands-on on-boarding, interactive chat bridging, video and more.

Nazz: What would you say has been your most memorable moment in Second Life?

Rissa: Oh geez … there are so very many. I can't say there is a specific one--what I can say is this. Before every conference, event, corporate meeting, or the public unveiling of a project we built, one becomes nervous that we missed something … that not enough people will show up, that the internet might go south that day. Each time the project "opened", whether for a conference or meeting, or a build, the huge sense of satisfaction overwhelmed me because they've inevitably been successful. To see 100 people show up in world for the Kelley Executive School of Business launch in SL, and stay for 4 hours--not to mention the web audience; to see the results of our work for Sun one of which was published by Dean Nelson, now Sr. Director, Global Datacenters at Ebay, for example, is pretty incredible.

Nazz: When you're not at work here hosting W2W events or working with one of your many clients, what does Rissa like to do? … by the way, I did see "professional shopper" on your interests / skills tab.

Rissa: Hah, my shopping … my shopping has slowed down a great deal these past several months. It's been hard to find something I didn't own already or that was different enough that it wasn't almost duplicating parts of my existing wardrobe. I do more shopping now for some of our clients when I'm customizing avatars. I'd say that one of the biggest needs … some talented designers in Second Life could fill would be a male hair design that is more in line with the 30-60 year old crowd--few wear their hair spiked, slicked back with longish hair, etc. Male hair in SL is truly a shortage. Professional male hair, that is. Lots of styles out there for male club go'ers, young men in their early 20s, etc. We also need more male and female skins and shapes that reflect that age bracket. There are some, but not nearly the assortment I would like to see. I'd add that there probably wasn't a big market for these until a couple of years ago, and that's it's been a slow but steady increase in demand, at least for World2Worlds. Our clients for the most part, would like to more closely resemble their age. However, having said that, some are tickled to have a young avatar.

Nazz: There's an underwhelming number of male cloths designers.

Rissa: I have no problem finding what I need for male professionals. There are actually quite a number of excellent designers providing this type of attire.

Nazz: I saw from your profile that W2W is a "Linden Lab Gold Solution Provider", has that been an advantage for W2W?

Rissa: We entered the program mid-January. As we've not been in it long, I can't say. What I can say is that we're very pleased to have been accepted, and that I believe Linden Lab is moving in a positive direction for enterprise and corporate business within the virtual world space. As with any enterprise program such as those you'll find IBM, Cisco, EMC and others offering--there is a strict set of criteria one has to meet in order to become one of their preferred vendors or channel partners. The Gold Solution Provider program is essentially the same.

Nazz: In the LinkedIn profile, World2Worlds is described as "a diverse network consultancy drawing on professionals worldwide". What challenges are there in building and maintaining a diverse network and does operating in a virtual world make that easier?

Rissa: Good question. I think one of the challenges is international tax requirements. There are a number of associated regulations in regard to this that make hiring subcontractors a real challenge when you're a small business. In regard to international clients, relationship building and maintenance, virtual worlds make this amazingly easy. I've met almost all of our clients in Second Life before I've ever met them in the physical world. I've now met almost all of them in the physical world, often during a contract or after we're finished. I don't know that there's much else to add to that, really. Networking and engaging with clients on an ongoing basis is second nature to me. I can do that here, or I can do that in the physical world.

Nazz: If someone who was going to start up a business in Second Life or any other virtual world came to you for advice, what would be the three most important things you would tell them?

Rissa: 1) Adhere to your physical world place of business legal and tax requirements. 2) Have a strong business plan. 3) Build a reputable advisory board of a few key people that can help guide you. Be sure to check their backgrounds closely and insure they align well with your business strengths and weaknesses.

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