Former Microsoft manager blends technology, teddy bears, and tourism

By James Tabafunda
Northwest Asian Weekly


John Chen works on a computer at the Geotouring kiosk at Pacific Place Mall in downtown Seattle. (Photos by James Tabafunda/NWAW)

John Chen’s passions — technology, adventure, and human change — have combined in such a way to create a successful corporate team-building business. His current project enables individuals and groups to enjoy a special “high-tech treasure hunt” in downtown Seattle.

His deceased grandfather — Look Lowe, an immigrant from Luang Tou Wan Village, Guangdong, China in 1917 — was also an entrepreneur who first worked as a cook for the U.S. Army in Suisun City, Calif.

Chen is the chief executive officer of Geoteaming and Playtime, Inc. — Geoteaming’s parent company — and his grandfather started a lawn-care business. “My mom actually remembers writing out receipts for him,” he said.

After saving his money, Chen’s grandfather bought and operated a grocery store in Oakland, Calif.

Originally from Stockton, Calif., Chen, 42, attended the University of California, Santa Barbara and earned a bachelor’s degree in computer science in 1990. Soon afterwards, he moved to Redmond. He now lives in the Shoreline area and has three children: Max, 13, K.J., 11, and Kelson, 9.

While at Microsoft, he worked in program management, testing, and development and as a manager until 1999.

Chen is proud that one program he worked on, Microsoft Exchange, sold more than 100 million client licenses. He said, “I earned two U.S. patents for the process that I developed for that.”

“That’s where I got the results for cross-team collaboration. That’s where my real passion and interest for it came from,” he said.


Donna Lowe demonstrates a GPS receiver at the Geotouring kiosk at Pacific Place Mall in downtown Seattle.

While working on a training program that allowed Microsoft employees to think “about their careers and what they were going to do,” Chen said, “this is where my passion for technology and adventure to create human change really started to come out.”

“Then, the person in charge killed my program,” he explained. “She said, ‘It had too much risk. You used indoor rock climbing in this program. If somebody gets hurt, they could sue the company for a million and wipe out all your gains.’”

Undeterred, he wrote a business plan and started Playtime, Inc. in 1997. “That’s when I decided that I think I could do this faster outside of the company, and that’s when I decided to leave [in 1999],” explained Chen.

He said, “I was doing it part-time, and I went full-time in 2000 after taking a little break.”

His current project, Geotouring, allows individuals to experience geocaching — an activity that requires the use of a global positioning system (or GPS) receiver and a pocket PC to find special holiday attractions in downtown Seattle.

“On January 3rd, we’re going to take 30 families from the Starlight Foundation … and we’re going to take them through some of the most beautiful things,” said Chen. “We have space for other nonprofit groups … and we’d love to give that gift to them.”

“You don’t have to bring any of your own equipment,” he emphasized. “Over time, we have taught more than 30,000 people how to use this equipment, and we do it probably in 15 minutes or less. Also, we have a telephone help-line.”

Donna Lowe has worked for Playtime for six years. She said, “[Geotouring] guides you in a way that gets you involved and interactive rather than just walking on the streets and trying to see things that might catch your eye. This actually gets you in places that you might never have known were even there for the holidays.”

“I think this [beginner’s course] is for families to spend time together to really come and see all these different parts,” Chen said. “Easily, couples can do this.”

For those experienced in using high-technology products, Geotouring has an advanced course of 32 caches or individual locations around downtown Seattle. He pointed out, “We haven’t yet had a group that got to all 32.”

“That’s how we built our corporate events, and this is how we wanted to build this event, too,” Chen added. “Only in Seattle do you have this mix of high-tech and outdoors to create this much affordable fun.”

“[Seattle] is really a walking town, but in addition, it’s known for its technology, so we think it’s a perfect mix to get people outdoors to discover a lot of the hidden sites that we have. When you’re on this tour, you’re walking by street performers and some of the most beautiful window displays in Seattle,” he said. “It is cold, so make sure you wear great walking shoes.”

If Geotouring proves to be successful, Chen says his company may offer a new geocaching tour of downtown Seattle in the spring of 2010. ♦

Geotouring runs from Nov. 27 to Jan. 3, 2010. For more information, visit

James Tabafunda can be reached at

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