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A screengrab from Leaftail Labs’ game, which is still in prototype. (Leaftail Labs Photo)

Top venture capital firms are making an early bet on a new Seattle startup that is pushing the envelope with immersive games.

Leaftail Labs CEO Jessie Quinn. (Leaftail Labs Photo)

Leaftail Labs recently reeled in $1.25 million from investors including Shasta Ventures, Maveron, Vulcan Capital, micro-funds, and angels.

The year-old startup is led by Jessie Quinn and Eli Tayrien. The co-founders met at HBO’s Seattle engineering office, where Quinn was a senior interactive producer and Tayrien led engineering efforts.

Leaftail isn’t revealing details about its games yet, but Quinn told GeekWire that her company combines gaming technology with the real world. She said the experience is somewhat similar to Pokémon Go, but noted that “we are doing things very distinctly different.”

Bay Area-based Shasta, which has made other recent Seattle-area investments in startups such as Suplari, Skilljar, FlyHomes and Highspot, invested in Leaftail via its Camera Fund that supports startups developing AR/VR and computer vision applications.

Michael Feller, technical artist (front), and Eli Tayrien, CTO, appear in a prototype of Leaftail Labs’ game.

“The team’s native camera-first approach to augmented reality and depth of creative product vision is incredibly compelling,” Jacob Mullins, partner at Shasta, told GeekWire. “I have no doubt that they will be driving to redefine the immersive gaming landscape with their work.”

Leaftail plans to grow its 5-person team with the fresh cash. Last month it hired Rich Werner, the original artist for the hit Plants vs. Zombies franchise, to be its art director.

We caught up with Quinn to learn more about Leaftail for this edition of GeekWire’s Startup Spotlight.

Explain what you do so our parents can understand it: We’re building a new generation of immersive augmented reality video games that hinge on player routine, key places, and social experiences in the real world.

Inspiration hit us when: In our previous job Eli and I both had the opportunity to work with really exciting storytellers and some of the most cutting-edge immersive technology and hardware available. Spending those years being hands on with new tools and innovative content really pushed us into thinking about our industry differently. We started to see new opportunities everywhere and became fixated on being able to bring something new to life.

VC, Angel or Bootstrap: We ended up working with a mix of VCs, micro-funds and angels for our seed round. When we were considering the right path for fundraising, the most important thing was being able to find partners who were excited about the specific future that we see over the horizon, regardless of their investment size or structure.

Our ‘secret sauce’ is: I think there are two critical ingredients. The first is on the product side: we think deeply about the player and the real world they live in as a razor for decision making. The second ingredient is internal to the team and our culture. We’re building individual accountability and an obsession with learning into the foundation of the company. We believe it encourages the non-traditional thinking that is required in order to innovate.

The smartest move we’ve made so far: Talking to other founders, a lot. Each founder that you happen to know (or don’t know yet) is a wealth of super useful experiences that could mean the difference between making a great decision or stumbling through a difficult situation. We’ve been extremely lucky that our personal networks included a handful of awesome friend-founders who helped us tremendously at various stages of our development. Taking advantage of knowing these folks has been definitely a smart move for us. Even if you don’t happen to have any friend-founders in your network, joining an organization like the Female Founders Alliance (which I also did) or a similar group could give you that experienced sounding board you needed at the exact right moment.

The biggest mistake we’ve made so far: Not starting our hiring process sooner. We were really focused on making improvements to our prototype, finding our new office space and closing out the fundraising round before starting the hiring process. If we could roll back time I think we would try to parallelize this process since it just takes so long to spin up and find awesome candidates. We’re extremely happy with the talent we have found now, but if I could snap my fingers and have them onboarded a couple months sooner I would 100 percent take that opportunity.

Which leading entrepreneur or executive would you most want working in your corner? I’d love to have Arlan Hamilton from Backstage Capital in our corner. I saw Arlan speak at last year’s Women @ Forbes event in Boston and her professional story was extremely inspirational to me. I had come to the larger event looking to connect with other founders and to start learning about the VC world, but I didn’t expect to see too many people like me in the crowds. Seeing her on stage and hearing about how she came to the venture side of the business and was able to do something new, different and totally on her own terms was really impactful. I felt much less afraid of jumping into our fundraising while still being my authentic self, which happens to be young, female and queer. I think in any capacity she’d be an amazing asset.

Would you rather have Gates, Zuckerberg or Bezos in your corner? I’d choose Bill Gates. I think he and Melinda would have an interesting perspective to bring to the table about social responsibility, impact and a global world view. I think he’s had a long, mature and diverse career that has changed over time and I’m sure we’d have a ton to learn from him across a host of different topics.

Our favorite team-building activity is: Talking about things we’re really excited about as individuals and sharing that with the team. We intentionally ask teammates to tell us about the things they love doing outside of work and share their excitement with us. Topics range wildly, from in-depth gardening conversations, Magic the Gathering chats, Halloween décor tips, the best Drag shows in town, awesome books people are reading, newest board games to hilarious stories about people’s kiddos. We think people being different and excited about something is a big part of what makes being around each other energizing, so we actively try to cultivate that feeling in the office.

The biggest thing we look for when hiring is: Self-awareness. Beyond the baseline skills someone needs to succeed in their role, self-awareness is the most important personal attribute. Work can be difficult, filled with hard decisions and conflicting opinions. Sometimes, a startup environment creates even more of these challenges. We’ve found that the more self-awareness a person has, the better equipped they are to learn, adapt and grow in the face of those moments. They’re more likely to lift the team up, or think about a problem from a different perspective, which we think is truly invaluable.

What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to other entrepreneurs just starting out: I’d love to give two, one about process and one about self-care. Regarding process: build a prototype as soon as you can and don’t be too precious about showing it to people. We could have done this sooner, but the second we did, people understood our vision more quickly and had a deeper belief in our skills. If you had to choose, I’d take a prototype into a pitch over a fancy deck any day.

And, regarding self-care: make sure you have someone in the wings who understands your business – or at least what you’re trying to do – and will help you celebrate your small incremental wins. Ideally, this person is not your significant other. They’re great, of course, but you’ll overload them if you’re constantly leaning on them for detailed feedback and cheerleading. Finding another founder or someone who you’ve worked with in the past who can take on this support role will help tremendously. To be clear, this isn’t just a typical mentor: it’s someone whose goal is to actively help you recognize positive moments and draw your attention to them. It will mean a lot more if this comes from someone who knows your business or has also walked the path you’re on.

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