REPOD S4E10 – Digging for a Pony: David Spigner, CEO of Boda Borg, Sweden(ish)

In Season 4, Episode 10, we head to Sweden to explore Boda Borg… or at least that’s where we thought we were going with this episode. As it turns out, the President/ CEO of Boda Borg is an American business strategy visionary living in Laguna Hills, California named David Spigner. There is surprisingly little information about the Boda Borg story, and we are thrilled to share the tale of how he became the owner and President of what was originally a Swedish company.

Boda Borg has been around since 1995. That is way longer than escape rooms have existed, and it was ingenious in the way it approached what they call “reality gaming.” David Spigner recounts how he helped propel it from rooms decorated only with flat, 2D paintings into interactive multidimensional sets with movie-like narrative and feel. He candidly shares his global ambitions as well as the hurdles of trying to explain the appeal of Boda Borg to financial lending communities.

background of people hanging from ropes and the wall, in front is an image of an african american man in a suit with glasses and shaved head, the logo for Boda Borg, and titled Digging for a Pony: David Spigner, CEO of Boda Borg, Sweden(ish)

David Spigner is an excellent storyteller, and we were enthralled with his tale of discovering and shaping Boda Borg. Spigner is an unusual guest in that his approach to the immersive gaming world comes from a very business-oriented, strategic mindset with aspirations towards massive global expansion. And yet, in chatting with him, it was clear that he intuitively understands the appeal of physically immersive gaming. This was a fascinating conversation that you shouldn’t miss.

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Topics Discussed in this Episode

  • David Spigner explains Boda Borg and how “questing” works. He calls it “reality gaming… real people trying to conquer real, life-like games.” He explains that it’s a series of tasks or a sequence of challenges that you try to conquer in order to progress to the next room. At the end, you get a final reward that he says is purposefully low-tech. A Boda Borg facility will have up to 25 quests. If you fail at any point, you must exit the game and start over from the beginning. [3:17]
  • David Spira adds that the admission price for Boda Borg is for entry to the facility for a set number of hours, and you can bounce around among the 25 different quests. Spigner calls it “quest hopping” and says, “you pay one price and you can go to as many as you want, as often as you want, during the time that you have at Boda Borg. That’s why we call it Quest hopping, and it’s a massive component of our strategic offering for our guests.” [5:28]
  • Spigner says you can’t play as an individual or even as two people and that you need a team of three to five people. He says “by strategic design, a clever team is going to figure out that not everyone should do everything and that there may be a wise allocation of who should do what. And they’re going to figure out if you’re truly clever, that it’s an iterative learning process that you’re going to fail. And the trick is to determine what you’ve learned in that failure and to apply those learnings the next time in a persistent effort. And that’s how life works and that’s how questing works. So there is a purposeful, strategic corollary to how we live our lives and how we design quests.” [7:27]
  • Spigner tells us about how the first Boda Borg was created in 1995 in a very small town called Torpshammar in Sweden. He says that one day, four Swedes came upon the idea of “making video games real” and explains that the city basically gave them these abandoned mental hospitals to use for their game. [8:19]
  • Spigner tells us the origin of the name “Boda Borg,” explaining that Boda is a very small town that you drive through to get to the original Boda Borg location, and that “Borg” is a Swedish word for “fortress” or large edifice. [11:06]
  • Spigner says that he loves the name “Boda Borg” and intends to keep it, even though he’s been asked countless times to change it. David and Peih-Gee talk about how sometimes having a name whose meaning you don’t understand can help when marketing something unique. [12:10]
  • Spigner tells us about how he discovered Boda Borg while on a family vacation in 2007. He says that at the time, he was an executive at a commercial bank in Southern California, but he had been looking for a business to purchase. [13:26]
  • He says that their vacation home rental only having one bathroom is the reason why he owns Boda Borg today. He goes on to explain that when he had an issue with the bathroom, he went up the road and asked a neighbor for help. Afterwards, in conversation with the neighbor, she insisted that they needed to check out a local attraction called “Boda Borg.” [14:30]
  • Spigner continues his story about his first visit to Boda Borg, where his family makes their way to the facility in Oxelösund (Boda Borg’s fifth location), and are introduced to “banor,” the Swedish word for “tracks,” which is what they used to call the games. [17:25]
  • Spigner tells us about a few incidents that made him interested in Boda Borg as a business. One was seeing that his wife wanted to continue playing, despite having injured her foot. The other was when his notoriously frugal daughter said she would pay to go back again. He said he wanted to figure out what made it so addicting and fun. [24:46]
  • Spigner tells us about meeting the franchisee owner and chatting with him about the business model. He says that he was trying to figure out what it was about Boda Borg that was bringing in tourists from five or six different countries all the way out to a tiny town in the middle of nowhere. [29:29]
  • Spigner tells us a fantastic joke about digging out a room of poop, and compares it to discovering Boda Borg. [32:00]
  • Spigner says he used to be a business consultant and a C-level executive. He tells us that Boda Borg didn’t seem to have a target niche or conform to any business model that he had heard of, and so he started a due diligence process to see if he would be interested in making an offer for it. [32:54]
  • Spigner says that he told the owners at the time that in his opinion, the banor, or quests, were disjointed and without a through line. He said it might work better if it was more like a movie. [34:05]
  • Spigner says that after that conversation, one of the owners built a new game called Pirates. He flew to Sweden to see it, and said it was a vast improvement. Instead of painted murals on the wall depicting a pirate scene, the room itself was now outfitted with props and scenic design. He notes that the guest numbers spiked after implementing the new room. [35:08]
  • Spigner tells us that they started experimenting with the business model. They experimented with things like simplifying the pricing structure, or stratifying the production value of different quests. He says every time they implemented something new, the guest numbers kept going up, and at the end of it, he was mostly convinced he wanted to buy the company. [37:54]
  • Spigner says his main concern was the global recession in 2008, but figured he needed the time to go live in Sweden and spend two to three years honing the business model of Boda Borg. [39:53]
  • Spigner says that there were two other factors which convinced him to buy Boda Borg. He says one is when he realized the broad age/ social demographic of Boda Borg was an asset instead of a weakness. [41:10]
  • Spigner continues to say that the other factor he noticed was the cultural diversity – that there were guests coming from all over the world. He notes that other executives were interested in acquiring Boda Borg, but that it was probably too rough and unfamiliar at the time. [43:06]
  • Spigner says that’s when he decided to form a company and purchased the entire Boda Borg franchise. [44:10]
  • Spigner talks about some of the changes he made once he took over Boda Borg, including changing the way the “banor” worked and renaming them “quests.” They went from flat scenes with murals painted on walls to 3D set design. [47:39]
  • Spigner tells us another difference is the strategic direction of Boda Borg. He calls it “reality gaming” and says their direction is towards “ever more real” adventures. [49:45]
  • Spigner talks about the proprietary process of “questing” and various spin offs of Boda Borg. He says that most have been unsuccessful, but that the successful ones help give more credibility to the reality gaming business sector. [51:05]
  • Spigner talks about his belief that the future of immersive gaming is firmly rooted in physical gaming as opposed to virtual gaming, and he says that if they had a mission statement, it would be something like “keeping humans human.” [53:20]
  • Spigner talks about his big plans to expand Boda Borg globally, and candidly discusses some issues holding it back, mainly the difficulty securing investment from the financial sector. [55:41]
  • Spigner talks about the physical requirements of a Boda Borg location, requiring at least 30,000 sq ft, and multiple stories. [56:44]
  • Spigner mentions some hurdles to securing investment, including unfamiliarity and being rigid in terms of location requirements, and he frankly admits that he himself has done things counter to his business training for the sake of making Boda Borg better instead of merely more profitable. [59:20]
  • Spigner mentions that he has received many offers from investors that would have required him to change his vision for Boda Borg, and he says that he does not want to compromise the guest experience. [59:48]
  • Spigner talks about being a baseball umpire at the high school and college level. He says that how an umpire moves is critical. It’s about how they navigate a field physically. [1:01:38]
  • Spigner talks about umpiring at different stadiums. [1:03:25]
  • Spigner shares some of his favorite experiences outside of Boda Borg including: The Basement series of escape rooms in Sylmar, CA; Koezio in France, which is like a cross between a ropes course; and Boda Borg, and mentions that he was particularly inspired by Chris Lattner’s vision. [1:05:16]
  • Spigner tells a bonus story about his first visit to Boda Borg and a negotiation with his 13 year old son. [1:10:42]
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Resources Mentioned in this Episode

About David Spigner

african american man, shaved head, wearing glasses and smiling, wearing a grey suit with floral tie

President/ CEO Boda Borg Corporation

Career strategy/ operations executive with an entrepreneurial flair. Expertise in business strategy development and execution leadership… including tactical plan development and operational management (something I call “tactical strategy”). Strong experience with marketing and brand positioning. Substantial experience as a business consultant to Boards of Directors of Fortune 200 companies, and also as Executive VP of Strategy/ Planning or President within international companies. Considerable international and cross-cultural business experience, including considerable time living in different countries.

Focused today on bringing Reality-Gaming, via Boda Borg Questing, to the world.

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