Patience. Persistence. Teamwork. Claudius Mbemba might as well have been building another startup. Instead, the co-founder of Seattle-based Neu was describing what it took to stack dominos as a competitor on “Domino Masters,” a new Fox reality series that premiered Wednesday night.
Mbemba and two other Seattle geeks who are competing on the show — Luke Greenway and Tanek Ballachanda — played host to a watch party among dozens of friends at Rhein Haus on Capitol Hill.
Amid tables topped with beers and colorful piles of dominos, partygoers cheered and laughed as the show aired on multiple televisions.
“Domino Masters” features 16 three-person teams tasked with constructing elaborate domino structures with a hefty dose of Rube Goldberg engineering. On Wednesday, four teams competed in a sports-themed episode in which they were given 16 hours to set up and then knock down their creations. Two teams advanced and the show will progress bracket-style toward playoffs and a finale — and a $100,000 prize.
Mbemba wasn’t looking to be on reality TV. He was never a secret domino geek. He replied to a DM in Instagram and thinks the show came looking for him because of his tech and STEM background.
“I consider myself a lifelong learner,” Mbemba said. “The biggest challenge is always to see how quickly can you learn something and this is one of those challenges for me — how quickly can I learn to be a domino builder and compete on a big stage.”
He said his tech background helped with planning and logistics.
“It also helps to have a steady hand,” Mbemba added.
Greenway echoed that point.
“It’s pretty easy to keep a steady hand for a minute. It’s really hard to do that for 16 hours,” Greenway said. “I normally drink a cup of coffee a day. But in the weeks leading up to the show, I weaned myself off coffee and shaky hands.”
A Seattle native, Greenway is a creative events producer, educator and storyteller. He caught the show creators’ attention because of a viral moment he helped orchestrate several years ago involving books as dominos at the Seattle Public Library.
Greenway MC’d Wednesday’s party with a clear flair for highlighting the drama and the intrigue behind competing on reality TV.
While building sets and being filmed in a hangar in Southern California, Greenway said he always knew he was in trouble if he looked up and there were five or six cameras trained on what he was doing.
“There’s a moment in one episode where my palms start sweating,” Greenway said. “And I say that, and they hear me on the microphone. And all the cameras come over!”
Avoiding knocking over a chain of dominos under construction is clearly a key objective for the players — and a tragedy producers of the show wouldn’t mind capturing. Making sure everything falls like it’s supposed to at the end is also key, and in Wednesday’s episode the crowd groaned each time a team had a feature stall.
Ballachanda, the third Seattle competitor, is a mechanical engineer at USNC Tech in Seattle. He considers himself a Rube Goldberg pro, and was captain of a Rube Goldberg team at the University of Texas, where building the chain-reaction machines was a competitive pursuit.
“It’s really something I love doing,” Ballachanda said. “It definitely takes a lot of imagination. You have to dream big and you have to have the dedication to make what you’ve envisioned come to life.”
Along with the imagination and joy that the three men clearly possess, Mbemba said that constructing the sets required a good deal of physical endurance. The first episode shows competitors sprinting around to collect pieces and assuming odd positions as they worked on their builds, trying to set up without falling down.
“I played college athletics,” Mbemba said. “This was some of the toughest, physically enduring competition to partake in. At the end of the day, those muscles that you never really use were really worked.”
Mbemba started Neu, a Seattle-based marketplace that connects Airbnb hosts with hotel-grade cleaners, in 2018 with Kwame Boler. The two were nominated in 2020 for Young Entrepreneur of the Year at the GeekWire Awards.
Asked what he learned about himself on the show, Mbemba said he learned that he’s capable of emotional breakdowns — and dominos can get you there. But he said he picked up skills on “Domino Masters” that he can bring back to his startup, including dealing with things that go wrong, fixing it as fast as you can and getting back on the horse.
As to whether the “fail fast” mantra could be applied to dominos, Mbemba laughed.
“You don’t want to fail slow. If you could not fail, that would be ideal,” he said. “Fail and pick up fast, that’s the mantra.”
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