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April 18, 2007
Working and Hiring in a Virtual World

As the CEO of an unusual startup marketing agency, I have recently been struggling with some equally unusual recruiting and staffing challenges. I thought it would be interesting to describe my conundrum to a broader set of professionals than my day-to-day colleagues to shed light on this new industry and its growing pains and opportunities.

I founded Millions of Us in July 2006 as an agency dedicated to helping real-world companies succeed in translating their products, services and brands into virtual worlds. Prior to starting the firm, I ran Business Development at Linden Lab, creator of the popular virtual world, Second Life. In the early days of Second Life, it was my job to explain to advertising agencies and large companies why this strange new thing was going to transform the way we all lived online. Unsurprisingly, they displayed considerable skepticism given the small numbers of users. Then, in March 2006, Second Life was featured as the cover story of BusinessWeek, unleashing a torrent of interest and activity from corporate America. As of March 2007, Second Life boasts nearly 4.5 million registered accounts with roughly 35,000 users logged in simultaneously at any point in time. $US1.5 million change hands among the users every day, and the population is growing 20 percent each month. Times have changed.

Amidst this climate of mass adoption, my company serves to help brands understand how best to set up shop in Second Life and worlds like it. To do this, we consult with companies to define creative programs that translate their brand into an experience that works well in the virtual world. Some examples include virtual car dealerships for Toyota’s Scion brand and virtual comedy shows for HBO. Our client list includes about one third of the Fortune 50 and is growing quickly. We currently employ 14 people from our headquarters in Sausalito, California, with an additional 70 contractors around the world who help us build the 3-D experiences in Second Life. Everyone communicates using Second Life (where we build things collaboratively in real-time), Skype for voice and an array of largely free, web-based project management and collaboration software.

That’s the good news. Now for the challenges. Our primary challenge is coordination and communication. Even the best established companies have to work hard to create processes to ensure good communication amongst their employees. This is all the more difficult when a large percentage of your work takes place in a 3-D virtual environment. In many cases, we are hiring contractors that we know only through Second Life. The irony, I think, is that despite the oddness of this situation, it works much better than one might expect. We are able to review project work in real-time, and because Second Life is such a tight community, we receive many hiring recommendations through friends of friends and social networks.

A larger challenge exists in making specific hiring decisions. For example, we have been searching for a Creative Director for the past month. What makes this so hard is that we are, in many senses, defining a new medium. While it resembles many that have preceded it, Second Life and virtual worlds are unique and make it unclear what skill sets will be most germane or apply to great candidates. Much of our work involves 3-D artistry and modeling. Does this mean we should seek candidates from the game development or 3-D effects business? Most of our campaigns interface with a variety of web-based elements. Should we seek people with Interactive Design backgrounds? Finally, we are always creating films of our work and the experiences we create that are narrative in nature (almost like 3-minute commercials filmed “in” the virtual world but viewable on the Internet). Should we look for filmmakers?

What I hope is that the answers to the above questions are "Yes," "Yes" and "Yes." I guess I believe that even when you are innovating, some basic things remain constant. One of those is that great people are great people, regardless of the medium. This doesn’t make conducting my search for a Creative Director any easier in the short-term, but it does comfort me to know that when the right candidate emerges, I’ll know how to recognize them. It won’t be that they’ve done Game Design or worked at the right ad agency but rather that they’re passionate, willing to take risks and super smart. And that’s as true in the virtual world as it is in the real world.

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Reuben Steiger is the CEO of Millions of Us, a company dedicated to helping businesses understand and harness the power of virtual worlds. Prior to founding Millions of Us, Steiger ran Business Development for Linden Lab, creators of the 3-D virtual world Second Life. Steiger holds a BA in English Literature from Brown University and lives in Marin County, California, with his wife and two young children. reuben@millionsofus.com

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