Tian Mu on Building Better Video Games & Putting Shoes on the Homeless
For anyone who has had a revelation, they’ll probably recount that it involved a particular success or even failure, or maybe it involved some wise words from someone with many years of experience. For Tian Mu, an entrepreneur, video game designer, and philanthropist, one of the biggest turning points of his life involved a cereal box full of insects.
When Tian first founded Naked Sky Entertainment in 2002, he was living with his business partners in Sherman Oaks, California, and needed a few part-time jobs to sustain himself. He calls it a period of being a “starving entrepreneur” where he’d do anything to make his dream real, and nothing else mattered. He was working several part-time jobs (including 12-hour overnight shifts) in between meeting with investors and getting one or two hours to sleep each night.
When Tian came home from one of his part-time jobs, all the food he had left was a single box of cereal, which was unfortunately infested by ants. At that moment of frustration, anger, and hunger, Tian felt a voice in the back of his head saying: “This is a defining moment. Either you’re going to make it, or you’re going to fail, depending on what you do next.” Tian, in his epiphany, decided to eat the cereal along with the ants. Deep down inside, Tian felt that he was going to make it by making whatever sacrifices needed. Such as eating ants. This became his driving philosophy as he continued with his video game company.
The mission statement for Naked Sky Entertainment is: “we make games that are fun, innovative, and socially responsible.” They wanted to stand behind every one of these tenets. These games aren’t only entertaining, but also provide educational value. One of which was RoboBlitz; a puzzle and action game that was the first to use the Unreal 3 Engine, along with Gears of War 3.
While Tian was working on his video game studio, he turned down several lucrative contracts because their branding and values weren’t in line with what he wanted to see in the world. At one point, Tian met the founder of Sega, and was offered 5 million to make the game for the Sega Dreamcast. Despite the offer, Tian walked because it wasn’t part of his vision. He wanted to do his own thing, something that no one wanted to do before. Tian also was offered a contract to work on a game based on the Saw franchise of movies, but turned it down because it wasn’t part of his vision of socially responsible and child-friendly video games.
He felt like that was a final opportunity, but two days later, got a call from a different publisher, and eventually another opportunity. “There was no luck,” Tian says. “These are tests to see if you’ll stick to your own principles.”
When a calling comes to you, Tian says, the appropriate response is to say yes and surrender to it. What really excites him is helping people in need, which is why he founded the socially-kind yet fashionable e-commerce site, Brethren Shoes.
The number one requested item for donations is shoes. Many homeless people have foot problems from ill-fitting and worn-out shoes. After a while, they can develop knee problems and hip problems, and pretty soon, it’s hard to walk. It’s a systemic issue.
With Brethren Shoes, for every pair you buy, another pair is donated to someone in need. Tian says that transparency with this kind of product is key, so he lets his customers know when the donated shoes go out and where. Many donations are to local shelters in the Los Angeles area. Tian visits the shelters himself and personally writes emails to each customer with a photo of himself at the shelter that received the shoes. Tian wants to provide every homeless person in the country with at least one pair of shoes per year, and eventually, two pairs of shoes per year. It’s a huge ambition, but Tian is an ambitious person.
Nowadays, Tian takes on more of an advisor role, helping young entrepreneurs such as aspiring mobile app developers reach their goals as he did. He’s in another exploration period and believes that we are in a constant flow of change. His role now is in the service of others, passing on his knowledge and wisdom. Tian loves cool apps and projects, but what really drives him is the passionate people behind them. The energy and pure hearts are contagious, he says.
Some people collect things. Tian collects friends and knows that magic happens when he gets his friends to meet each other. It wasn’t the games that motivated him in his ventures; it was the people he worked with.