Startup advice – and the story behind the app Zombies, Run!

How to make running more fun, especially for people who hate running? This question became a start for one of the world’s most popular smartphone fitness games – Zombies, Run! Over one million users have logged 40 million kilometers online on 200 epic missions against zombies. Here is how they achieved it.

Lisa Long is VP of Innovation & Product Management at Telenor Group. Before joining Telenor she was one of the founders of Six to Start, the makers of Zombies, Run!

“We started our games developer company in 2007. For many years, we worked on games and apps for different clients like the BBC, the band MUSE, and Penguin Books. But in 2011 we decided to try and create our own game app,” says Lisa.

They built several prototypes, but none of them made it past testing stage. But the team didn’t give up. The founder and game designer Adrian Hon had for many years thought about creating a game on exercise.

One day, Naomi Alderman, an author and longtime collaborator with Adrian, called him and spoke about an idea that had been sparked from a running group she had attended.  When the group was asked why they wanted to run, one person claimed it was to outrun others when the zombie apocalypse came. The idea for Zombies, Run! was born!

Used Kickstarter

At that time, Kickstarter was a relatively new platform.

Lisa Long

“We decided to test the idea before we developed it. So, we organised a campaign on Kickstarter and managed to raise over USD 72000. We achieved the highest amount ever raised for a game and had the most people backing a project. Subsequently, we received a great deal of press,” says Lisa.

More info on the Kickstarter project here.

Free to play

In February 2012, they released the app to their 3000 backers and the public. The app was both on Android and IOS. The original cost of the game was $7,99 and they adjusted it in the subsequent seasons.

For season five in 2015, they released the game for free. Read the co-founders blog on deciding pricing and also on going free to play.

“It was a gamble to make it free, but we had money in the company and we wanted to try it out. We were lucky and that led to a tripling of our user numbers, and our merchandise store became even more profitable,” says Lisa.

The main markets for Zombies, Run! are the US, Australia, and Canada, but there are players all over the world.

“There are many cultural and language differences so we are mindful of the fact that we have an international audience.”

White label platform

Today they are still developing new stories and missions for zombie-runners. Most recently, they have added virtual races.

“After we started the virtual race, we were approached by several organizations who wanted to know if we could put on a virtual race for them. A light went on and we realised we could make a white label platform for anyone to run a virtual race.  We have chosen to start with some well known charities in the UK,” says Lisa.

In the autumn of 2016, they organised a new Kickstarter campaign for a real-life board game based on the app. The goal was 50.000 British pounds, but they ended up doubling this amount.

“We have also launched a training manual book on how to stay fit if the zombie apocalypse happens,” adds Lisa.

– What mistakes would you try to avoid if you start something new?

“We learned to be very judicious about spending marketing money.  Many times, this money is wasted because of poor targetting,” she says.

Reasons for success

Lisa explains that timing for the launch of the app was really lucky.

“We used Kickstarter just before it became an established platform. So, by promoting us, they were also promoting themselves. It was also a great timing for the app market. There were almost no apps for people who wanted to combine fitness and gaming.”

“The third reason why we succeeded was our team, especially the combination of Adrian Hon as game design and the writer Naomi Alderman.  They have worked together for years, and they are both highly talented.  In particular, she is also an advocate for diversity in her stories and works hard to achieve it through telling very compelling stories,” says Lisa.

Identifying unserved customer needs

Lisa is still a non-executive director in Six to Start and is still a little bit involved in the developing of the company and other games. How does she  use this previous experience in her daily work at Telenor?

“I see that my knowledge on how to make products from scratch, build them up and scale them is useful and relevant here in Telenor. Innovation is really about how to make something out of an unserved customer need,” says Lisa.