Q&A with Demiplane co-founders Peter Romenesko and Travis Frederick
TitletownTech’s Startup Spotlight series provides a glimpse into the companies and founders building the future of sports, media & entertainment, digital health, supply chain & logistics, construction & manufacturing, and agriculture, water & the environment.
Let's set the stage...
With Activision Blizzard and Roblox gracing the headlines of every major newspaper, you’ve probably concluded that the gaming industry is ablaze with interest and activity. And you’d be right. However, there’s one red-hot segment of the gaming market that’s notorious for flying under the radar, which is perhaps why TTRPG, game master, or d20 aren’t ringing any bells.
But as it turns out, according to the publisher of a popular tabletop role-playing game (TTRPG), Dungeons & Dragons (D&D), more than 50 million people worldwide have interacted with their game since it was created in the mid-1970s.
So, with D&D moving into popular culture, how can you learn to play one of the various TTRPGs that are out there?
Enter Demiplane, the place for digital tools, content, and services to discover, prep, and play TTRPGs. Demiplane is attempting to make playing a variety of TTRPGs more accessible through game matching, digitization, and handy guides.
Q & A
How did you meet?
Travis: Peter and I grew up across the street from each other in Sharon, WI. Peter was a couple years older than I was, so he was the cool kid, and he would bring over these TTRPGs like Dungeons & Dragons and Star Wars d20. He was always our game master [player who leads and narrates the game’s storyline]. And much to my mother’s chagrin, we would play these games and not play outside like we were supposed to.
Tell us about your differing career paths.
Peter: I graduated from St. Norbert’s College in Green Bay, WI, and the economy was in a tight spot, so jobs were hard to come by, but I was fortunate enough to have an opportunity to work for a startup in the area. It was a relatively small company at the time and was growing rapidly. I saw everybody lifting and sharing the work that was required to bring an idea to life. That business, Breakthrough Fuel, started to take off and has become quite successful and respected in the transportation industry. After that, I worked at StageThree in corporate innovation and product development before joining TitletownTech as a partner in the VC space. These experiences were fundamental to creating Demiplane.
Travis: My path was a little bit different than a standard one. I went to the University of Wisconsin-Madison and double majored in computer engineering and computer science while playing football. I grew my love for technology and realized I wanted to create with technology, probably because I saw technology as a form of art. With a blank sheet of paper, you can do anything you want given the right tools and approach. The same goes for technology. I had a group of guys that I would do a lot of my projects with. I was jealous of them because they were going to job fairs and ended up landing jobs at some of the big tech companies. I went to a different kind of job fair called the NFL Combine and ended up getting selected 31st overall to the Dallas Cowboys in 2013 and spent seven years playing there. I was focused on football and didn’t do too much in tech at the time, but one night, Peter and I were talking about our very different corporate problems, and I said, “Hey, we can solve that just by using a few lines of code,” so I wrote something up and it ended up being used by Breakthrough. When Peter approached me with the idea for Demiplane a year before I retired from the NFL, it sounded like a great opportunity for me to get back into that space.
When did you realize the TTRPG community needed Demiplane? And how did Demiplane come into existence?
Peter: While I was a partner at TitletownTech, I was doing a deep dive into the gaming space, and I particularly looked at some social media research on the most talked about games. The list I looked at included really popular video games like Fortnite and Overwatch, and then right up there with them was Dungeons & Dragons. Comparatively, D&D wasn’t getting much mainstream love. This disconnect between the major games, traditional media coverage, and social media coverage tipped me off on a potential opportunity in the market.
Travis: We started on a part-time basis, working after-hours and didn't fully dive into it, but when we both jumped in full time, it was because we knew we had validated the need for Demiplane and came up with a proof of concept. Because we played, we knew a lot of the challenges the games presented.
Peter: We saw early on that there were two major imbalances across the industry: there were more people who wanted to play these games than game masters to help guide people through the games, and two, a single game was dominating the market, while plenty of other awesome games weren’t getting as much visibility. In my experience, whenever you have an imbalance, there is value if you can even out the scales. And that's where the first idea for Demiplane came in. If you're not a spellcaster yourself, you wouldn’t know this, but a Demiplane, in the gaming world, is a place between places. We always knew from the start that we wanted to be the place that connected folks to other places. Our name has always been our objective.
In a sentence or two, describe how your users, or “adventurers,” interact with Demiplane?
Peter: Demiplane brings fans of role-playing games together within one exciting online platform. It really comes down to having a one-stop shop where you can explore the games, build a team, grow your team, and expand the types of games you're playing.
You recently inked a partnership deal with Marvel to be the official digital toolset of the Marvel Multiverse Role-Playing Game. Congrats! What’s next? Anything exciting in the works?
Peter: We have a vision for Demiplane that Marvel helped validate. We're excited about where Marvel is headed in this new era of tabletop games. It's cool to see an industry titan, like Marvel, look at this space and realize it's an important part of its ecosystem. They haven't had a tabletop game for over 20 years, so to come back and throw a hat in the ring now is exciting. I think what they saw was that digital is an important part of game play, and we bring that element to these games. We’re currently working on building our various Nexuses, which are the individual tool kits for each TTRPG. An additional focus is developing our character builder, so being able to create your own character digitally and take those characters with you wherever you are.
Wisconsin: the birthplace of D&D, where you both grew up, attended college and currently reside. Demiplane is also headquartered in the State. How much has place played a role in the Demiplane story?
Travis: We have a lot of history here, both personally and professionally. You talk about D&D being created in Lake Geneva, which is only 20 minutes from where we grew up. There are industry conferences still hosted there. Within the TTRPG community, a legacy has been created here that has expanded worldwide. It's important for us to continue to bring the focus back to Wisconsin given that a lot of the industry has moved out to the coasts where the entertainment industry is. For such a long time there’s been a flood of talent going to the coasts, but with the rise of remote work there’s an opportunity to bring people home. Over half our team is in Wisconsin and most of them are in the Fox Valley. We've been able to gain access to talent, resources, experience, and know-how regardless of geography. Peter and I never really talked about moving our operations to the coasts because it was just understood between us that we could build this team on our own terms.
Seeing where you are now, if you guys had an opportunity to go back in time, what advice would you give your younger selves?
Travis: Don't be afraid to enjoy what you're doing. There's been this stigma around tabletop role-playing games for such a long time (I think it’s finally starting to break), but the industry right now is so colorful, diverse, and inclusive that it really is a great space to be in. I think the world is a better place when more people play these games because it requires and teaches empathy and understanding because of the collaborative aspect.
Peter: These games are a fantastic way to hone your creativity. It's a model that can be reflected in lots of different places, whether it's on a sports team, at work, or with your friends. Injecting imagination into everyday life just makes it more enjoyable. Try more of these games. We stuck with the Star Wars TTRPG for a long time, and it was great, but I would love to go back and look at some of the early Lord of the Rings games that I picked up that we never played. It has just been so much fun to see how other people interpret storytelling.
Any advice for a fellow first-time founder?
Travis: 1. Work through self-awareness and know exactly what your limits are, and 2. Don't have an ego. There are very few people in the world that can span the entire course of a business. Whether that's legal, HR, accounting, design, product development, backend development. At some point, there’s a limit to what you know, so don't be afraid to ask for help. Don't build a team where you think you’re the best. I will admit wholeheartedly that a lot of people on my team are way better at some things than I am, but we work efficiently because we all work together. We know each other's strengths and weaknesses, and we can build upon those.
Peter: Find your network early. I'm so fortunate to have a co-founder in Travis. Growing up, Travis and I actually worked at a small retail store in our town, so you know, we’ve technically been working together for a long time. We are so different in a lot of ways and that is so valuable when you’re working towards the same goal. If you're a solo founder, it's important to find people you can trust and ask for some feedback. As a startup, it's all about your network and learning from the experience of others, because the only true resource you have is time. Even with the best idea you can run out of time and never see it come to life. Leverage other people’s experiences to save time.