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Kennedy: Entrepreneur wants to keep company small

Kennedy: Entrepreneur wants to keep company small

'I enjoy the dynamics and informal organization of a small group, so by staying small we can preserve that'

Tobi Saulnier expressed some concern as she displayed slides depicting a downward trend in entrepreneurship – even as she accepted congratulations from the group she showed them to as this year’s Entrepreneur of the Year at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
Saulnier, founder and CEO of 1st Playable Productions in Troy, earned bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in electrical engineering at RPI. She is the first female graduate to receive the RPI award for successful entrepreneurs, which has been given out nearly annually since 1990. 
Saulnier admitted she showed the slides to end her award colloquy on a provocative note: “To me, I think, the challenge is how can we change that?”
Saulnier clearly enjoys being an entrepreneur. She’s a “social entrepreneur,” and points proudly to 1st Playable becoming a “B Corporation,” a standard that looks beyond financial success to measure a company’s impact on its community. 1st Playable’s certification as a B Corp in 2013 was the first for a U.S. video game developer.
Saulnier started 1st Playable in 2005 after Vicarious Visions, the local gaming company she then was with, was acquired by video game giant Activision. She earlier spent 12 years at General Electric’s Research & Development Center in Niskayuna.
1st Playable is part of what the Center for Economic Growth calls a growing video game development cluster in the region, which already has a dozen or so companies. Together they employ more than 350 people, the majority of whom are software developers.
While 1st Playable develops its own games, it also works with licensors, such as Disney, interested in expanding their brands into video titles. Educational games for kids and adults are a big focus.
Saulnier is intent on keeping 1st Playable small – no more than 50 employees.
“There is a rule of thumb that once you exceed 50 employees, you need to evolve from a relationship-based and mission-focused organization to a new form,” she told me later. “I enjoy the dynamics and informal organization of a small group, so by staying small we can preserve that.”
Saulnier said growing larger also brings a bigger financial risk that can inevitably lead to merger or acquisition, neither of which she is interested in. “I haven’t ever sought venture money, and proactively informed a number of potential acquirers early on that it was not in our future,” she said.
By staying small and independent – “continuing to persevere,” she said – and by supporting similarly small and independent businesses, 1st Playable is doing its part to promote entrepreneurship.
Her success “was surprising to me,” Saulnier told those gathered on the Troy campus earlier this month to salute her. “I was thinking maybe it would be a year, and [then] everything would fizzle out.”
But, she added, “The lesson I take from my story is: how awesome it is that following my ideals, I can still have a business.”
Marlene Kennedy is a freelance columnist. Opinions expressed in her column are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. Reach her at [email protected].

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