Cost also proved to be a hurdle. The price tag for customized trainings approached six digits, which turned off the initially exuberant prospects. The process simply had too many variables, and MetaMythic lacked a portfolio of satisfied paying customers (Associated Electric had absorbed the security standards training costs, and the Marlin job was pro bono). The founders had an exciting concept but no product to sell, and without a huge influx of capital, it seemed there was no way out.
But early in 2015, a way presented itself. With more than 1.2 million customers, Arizona Public Services (APS) is the largest utility operation in its state and one of the largest in the country. The company needed MetaMythic to train employees at 30 locations around the state. But they needed it packaged differently—it needed to be online and accessible to different employees at different times. It quickly became apparent to Lazzaro, Evans and Dockery that they needed an e-learning product that they could tweak for different clients.
The job was the break MetaMythic was looking for: APS would fund the development while Lazzaro, Dockery and Evans would retain the intellectual property. But months of negotiations left them with just the final four months of 2015 to develop what was, for all intents and purposes, a short film, a video game and an educational website all rolled into one. Three months before the deadline, it became clear that their original third-party developer was going to be unable to come through, so a mad scramble to hire a national partner ensued. Then, at a fall conference it became apparent that competitors were entering the virtual training space. On the eve of publication, a problematic bug in how the program ran on Internet Explorer took three weeks to find, with a patch discovered literally 11 minutes before a hard delivery deadline.
But delivered it was. The finished product, named CIP Defender, is a browser-based program—an educational video game, for lack of a better term—in which users must defend their utility property against various evil robot attackers by employing the systems they use every day. MetaMythic has since developed a second season of the training and added customer-requested bells and whistles. It’s immersive, it’s funny, and it’s great-looking. Most importantly, it works. CIP Defender and MetaMythic have been showered with accolades from the industry and show sterling engagement rates from MetaMythic’s very pointed follow-up surveys, with rates consistently topping 85 percent. MetaMythic recently has been part of an official engagement study in conjunction with Kent State University and the University of Central Missouri.
Since early 2016, MetaMythic’s growth has been slow and steady, with custom applied-fiction products developed for nine clients working primarily in the utility-security industry. Lazzaro says the deliberate pace of growth for MetaMythic is partially strategic and partially due to the intrinsically conservative nature of the utility industry, with its penchant for slow decision-making and long time horizons. The antidote to this, Evans says, is customer relations. “The [utility] industry is highly relational,” he says. “Our company was birthed in this industry, we know the challenges, the people, and the needs,” he says. “Therefore, we can relate very well to our customers. In addition, getting some large customers out of the gate allowed us to assuage some concerns through stellar references with peers that they are comfortable with.”
With those positive relations under its belt, MetaMythic is exploring partnerships to expand distribution in America and to the Middle East and discussing new products in non-energy industries, including railroad, finance and health care. Although competitors are developing—one pursuer in particular will mimic MetaMythic innovations almost like clockwork—the strategy remains not to look back at the competition for ideas, but keep innovating out front. “We want to keep pushing the boundary of what’s possible and stay far ahead of the competition by being the thought-leaders in this space,” Lazzaro says. “The good news is that Applied Fiction is our unique innovation, and it’s not easy to duplicate, so it’s not been difficult to stay ahead of the copycat.”
And although the business goal is to become recognized as the “Disney of the industry,” Lazzaro, Evans and Dockery are all very cognizant that the non-fictional good MetaMythic does every day is very tangible—and very important. “We’re helping people learn stuff they should know and [making] them more effective at their jobs,” Dockery says. “And most of these jobs and companies are very beneficial for the average person who has no idea it’s going on.”