Seriosly interesting

While the widgets and gadgets of Web 2.0 blur into one another in a whirl of user-generated everything, some interesting things are happening away from the buzz and fashion circuit. One case in point is Seriosity, a start-up funded by Alloy Ventures of Palo Alto.

Helen Cheng of Seriosity spoke at PC Forum last March, but she said very little about her own company  and talked mostly about her experiences as a level-60 World of Warcraft warrior.  She fascinated the audience,  especially with her persuasive assertion that “everything is so transparent; you can know people deeply by their behavior.” 

But I think what her

Helen Cheng

company Seriosity is up to is even more fascinating.  It now has a brand-new CEO - Ken Ross, formerly of Extricity, Pillar and Ross Systems - and 20-plus employees and offshore developers.  And its website gives a little hint of what it is up to. 

Last March, the pitch was: We learn from games to enhance productivity in the corporate environment.  The obvious conclusion was:  Dragons and dwarves competing to produce a payroll, or 10 cold calls puts you in a nicer virtual office. 

But no; that would be too shallow.  Instead, it’s using the kinds of reward systems used in games – its own in-world currency, in a word – to encourage whatever behavior a corporate customer wants to encourage.  But – and this is key – it’s not the game that rewards people; it’s other people.  In short, suppose you (representing FunCorp) sign up with Seriosity.  Each of your employees gets, say, 100 Serios a week.  It’s egalitarian: Chairman or charwoman, you get 100 a week. 

The underlying notion – just as in WoW - is that work gets done through the collaboration of people, each of whom knows more about some things and people than anyone else at the company.  Often, that knowledge goes to waste when a low-level employee can’t get a hearing for what he knows.  With Serios, anyone can bid for attention.  The FunCorp chairman can reward anyone with a higher salary, but now the lowliest employee can solicit the attention of the chairman if she is willing to spend enough of her own Serios.

Indeed, the Serios are a currency – and what they buy is attention.  Attach 20 Serios to your e-mail, and it’s likely to get read because the recipient knows you used something scarce to signal for attention.  Send someone 15 Serios to thank her for a thoughtful act – or for staying two hours late to finish a report.  

The underlying assumption – just as in WOW – is that work gets done through the collaboration of people…and they know better than anyone who is helpful – and who is useful. (Simply using money wouldn’t work as well, because people could bring resources from “outside the game.”  The point is to be egalitarian internally; each person has 24 hours of attention a day – and 100 Serios a week.) 

Of course, says co-founder and funder Leighton Read, there are lots of ways to game the system…and Helen Cheng, among others, has thought of many of them. 

For example, you have to avoid Serios being traded for salary raises, personal favors or other “inappropriate” bennies.  What’s inappropriate?  If you make the transfer of Serios transparent, which the system does, other employees and managers can make that determination. 


Transparency also has other benefits: If everyone in the company is always sending Serios to the chairman, there’s probably a problem.  Or are two people constantly trading Serios but ignoring everyone else?  And so forth.  Serios can help visualize the flow of interactions within a company or a unit.


How do you get users to use them in the first place?  The simplest way is to have the company chairman or other leaders use them, with enthusiasm….  Seriosity also wants to make sure they are used carefully.    Seriosity offfers “badges” (i.e. rewards) for certain types of behavior.  An example is a badge that rewards you for responding with a number of Serios different from  20 you received.  Nineteen Serios back means the recipient didn’t think the message was as valuable as the sender thought; 21 Serios (or more) means it was appreciated.

For now, Serios work in a closed system – typically a single company or a company plus certain close partners.   Someone needs to be in control of the money supply.  

More to come

There’s a lot more to Seriosity that the company isn’t telling yet….and there *will* be a lot more that the company can’t know until it has gone through betas and pilots and actual roll-out, but it’s one of the more exciting projects I have come across in a while.   

Of course things like this have been tried before; companies have had point systems and of course they have performance reviews and the like.  But the extreme version Seriosity offers – wherein anyone can send Serios to anyone, and all are equal – resonates in a way that healthily bypasses traditional reporting structures and HR departments.  It fosters the kind of collaboration most companies say they want…but don’t know how to encourage.

I’m sure there are corporate cultures in which Seriosity would be an abysmal failure, but I think that for companies that are halfway there, Seriosity could be a valuable tool.

Oh yes….  They have patented the basic idea.  But it’s probably too good an idea to stay proprietary too long.  Seriosity will have to learn from its customers and keep innovating to stay ahead.