2021 Most Disruptive MBA Startups: Mystery City Games, IESE Business School

Mystery City Games

IESE Business School at the University of Navarra

Industry: Travel, Entertainment, Education

Founding Student Name(s): Emilie Mendes de Leon

Brief Description of Solution: Mystery City Games makes historically accurate games that teach us about our surroundings and our past.

Funding Dollars: Currently raising.

What led you to launch this venture? My business partner, Geert Sillevis, was a tour guide who had grown tired of giving tours in rainy Amsterdam. So he suggested that we make a treasure hunt to help people discover the city in an engaging and novel way, while he stayed dry inside. After a lot of trials and funny stories, we eventually launched our first game in Amsterdam. It got great reviews (and Geert got to stay out of the rain!)

For me, Mystery City started as a side project. I had a great, demanding job at a startup and was planning to do an MBA when Mystery City took off in 2019. We soared to number one on TripAdvisor and started getting requests to speak at conferences and requests from people who wanted to make something similar in their own cities.

I had already committed to IESE, but I knew we were onto something. So through the first six months of the MBA, I was double-timing by growing the business and developing products for new cities. Studying at business school was a great opportunity to practice pitching the business, shape our ideas, and gain access to a global network. Despite a trying pandemic, we adapted and survived so that post-MBA I committed full-time with Geert to lead us through the next phase of growth.

What has been your biggest accomplishment so far with venture? We work in the travel and events industries. After a great start in 2019, we survived a global pandemic with no debt, developed a new online channel, started our international expansion, and managed triple percentage growth vis-a-vis 2019 revenues. There were many rough moments, but we are proud that we adapted, learned, and took some big risks that paid off.

How has your MBA program helped you further this startup venture? On the MBA, I met talented people from all over the world who helped me to shape my ideas, encouraged me to think about the business in a new way, and solidified my confidence to pursue the entrepreneurial path post-graduation. Through the entrepreneur group on the MBA, I met some great friends who are always there to give feedback on slides, words of encouragement, and point me to resources as they pursue their own ventures.

What founder or entrepreneur inspired you to start your own entrepreneurial journey? How did he or she prove motivational to you? Each step in my journey led me to realizing that entrepreneurship was the path for me. Duffy Crane of The Vines was my first boss in Argentina and showed me what a strong, confident female founder looked like, even in the face of adversity. Tim van der Noordt at STX Group gave me the confidence to lead and taught me some commercial sense. At Coravin, I learned to build strategies, sell them to stakeholders, and then execute. After seven years in different companies and industries, I was ready to lead my own thing – and the MBA was a great experience to give me a bit more network and the final push.

Which MBA class has been most valuable in building your startup and what was the biggest lesson you gained from it?Entrepreneurial Finance was very helpful for thinking through the different financing options and their implications. Of course, practicing cap tables was useful (and now much less scary!), but there was one lecture where Luis Cabiedes brought in two entrepreneurs who had bootstrapped their way to great success. It was one of the most inspirational sessions of the course!

What professor made a significant contribution to your plans and why? I am grateful to the many professors and colleagues who took the time to hear my story and help me think through issues. However, Mathieu Carenzo deserves special mention for always encouraging me to just go out there and do it.

What is your long-term goal with your startup? We are changing the way that people discover cities and how communities tell their stories – first across Europe and eventually the world over! In a few years, we will be so prevalent in cities and cultural sites that everyone reading this article will have played at least one of our games.


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