AFTER HIGH SCHOOL, Priebatsch headed off to Princeton. But he didn’t stay long. The summer after he won the school’s business-plan contest, a tech incubator in Philadelphia called DreamIt Ventures offered him office space and guidance — and $35,000 — to come and further develop his plan. Michael Hagan, a veteran of two startups, worked at DreamIt as a strategist, helping young entrepreneurs find their way. He says that when Priebatsch first explained his vision for building a game layer on top of the world, “I thought it was so nuts — that it had such balls that you couldn’t help but get excited about it.” The two began working to grow SCVNGR, and by the end of the summer had reeled in about $80,000 in revenue.
With the business doing well, Priebatsch decided to drop out of Princeton. This did not thrill his mother. Suzanne Priebatsch was walking down Newbury Street when she got the call from her son. “My instinct was to fall upon the ground and flail,” she says, “but it was a rough sidewalk.”
When the 19-year-old Priebatsch moved the company to his hometown of Boston, Hagan, a Philadelphia native then in his late twenties, followed. He became SCVNGR’s “Chief Rockstar” (that’s COO to the rest of us), and moved into Priebatsch’s parents’ house for a few months until he found a place of his own. That was not Norman and Suzanne’s only contribution to the company: They plowed in $60,000 (still considerably cheaper than three more years of Princeton), making them two of their son’s biggest early investors.
SCVNGR’s big break came one Saturday morning in the fall of 2008, when Priebatsch received an e-mail from Peter Bell of Highland Capital. Highland, which has invested billions in companies over the years, is one of the most respected venture capital firms in the industry. Bell had read a story about SCVNGR on the website Mass High Tech and was so impressed that he did something he rarely does: cold-call an entrepreneur. It was as if a Red Sox scout had, without warning, suddenly showed up at a youth baseball game.
Soon after, Priebatsch delivered a pitch to the Highland board at the company’s Lexington headquarters. Highland eventually gave SCVNGR $750,000 in funding. In typical form, Priebatsch inserted a clause into the deal saying that the cash had to be delivered to him on a poster-size check, even bigger than the one he’d received from Princeton. This time, instead of jamming it into an ATM, he hung it up in the office.
By the end of its first fiscal year, SCVNGR had cleared more than $1 million in revenue. By its second year, Rich Miner — one of the men who invented Google’s Android operating system — had invested $4 million of Google’s money in SCVNGR. And by the end of its third year, 2010, the company had moved to Kendall Square — and had raised $15 million more in VC funding.
SCVNGR now employs 54 people, with plans this summer to add 60 more interns to help it scale up quickly. Each one will be armed, Hagan says, with the standard-issue Maverick REV-6 Nerf gun. That type of quirk, of course, is all part of the Priebatsch brand. It’s the same reason he always wears orange and loves talking about lugging around 19 cell phones and the cacophony that erupts whenever he gets a call. (All the phones are so he can be certain the SCVNGR app is operating properly across all platforms.) He has merged himself and SCVNGR into a single, hyperenergetic entity. “There’s an element of myth-building in Seth, in that while the things he says are true, there’s also a sophisticated sense of image-building,” says Baker, his high school English teacher.