How A Driven Entrepreneur Made Tetris A Huge Hit – With Henk Rogers

When I asked Henk Rogers how he made Tetris a hit, he said “crazy persistence.” If you listen to this program, you’ll hear how his persistence kept helping him overcome obstacles that would have made others quit.

Henk didn’t invent Tetris, but he’s the entrepreneur who went into the Soviet Union to win the rights to the game, and he’s the man who made it a world-wide phenomenon that’s still going strong, even though the game was invented back in 1984.

In the text below, I isolated just 3 times that his persistence overcame challenges. Listen to the program to learn more.

The FULL program


About Henk Rogers

Henk Rogers - Tetris EntrepreneurTetris

Henk Rogers is a game designer, specialising in games for casual players. After an uninvited trip to the Soviet Union, he obtained a license to publish Tetris and convinced Nintendo’s CEO, Hiroshi Yamauchi, to license the game. In 2007, he founded The Blue Planet Foundation with a mission to “end the use of carbon based fuel in the world in my lifetime.”

3 of the stories in this program

Here are three examples of how Henk found a way to make things work when the situations seemed grim.

His first big game nearly failed. Read how he turned it around.

In 1984, while living in Japan, he created a role-playing game called Black Onyx. “Softbank promised they would buy three thousand copies,” he told me. But “then they came and they ordered six hundred.

“I thought ‘Oh my God we’ve completely failed!’ And I’d blown my miniscule advertising budget because the amount of money we had to start the whole company with was $50,000 (which is kind of cute). And I’d blown some significant amount of that on my first ads in magazines. But nobody knew what the hell a role playing game was!”

He told me he thought his company was “dead meat!” But soon after he said to himself, “okay, we’ve got to make it.”

“This is my entrepreneur coming through. I said, ‘We’ve got to make this work somehow!’ So I decided to go to every computer game magazine at the time and show them how to play my game. And so I went to every magazine, created characters for them, got them started on the game and so on.

“I could understand, they didn’t know what the hell this game was, and so why should they be interested if they didn’t know how to play. Well every magazine came out in March with rave reviews about the game. This is about the time I was running out of money. And so in April we had like 10,000 orders. It was just crazy. And we were consistently the number one game after that”

Nintendo wanted nothing to do with him. Read how he won them over.

Henk told me he couldn’t have gotten Tetris if Nintendo wasn’t behind him. To win over the video game giant, Henk and other game makers went to see Hiroshi Yamauchi, the man responsible for transforming Nintendo from a small card-making company to a multi-billion dollar video game company.

“Five of us — five presidents and five companies — show up at Nintendo and basically we said to them, ‘We’d like to become a Nintendo publishers.’ At that time Nintendo controlled who did what. You had to buy cartridges from them. They set the terms and conditions between us and distributor. I mean it’s something that you can’t do in the US. It’s totally monopolistic, but they controlled the whole food chain of Nintendo games.

“Mr. Yamauchi says, ‘you guys don’t know anything about how to make console games so the answer is no!'”

But he kept at it. “My wife read in a magazine article that Mr.Yamauchi played Go, a Japanese board game.” That gave him an idea. “I sent him a fax. ‘Mr. Yamochi, my name is Hank Rogers, I can make a Go game for your Nintendo machine. I’m leaving for the US on Saturday. I would like to see you and talk about it. Would you see me?’

“The next day I got a fax back. I was shocked. It takes people years to get to see Mr.Yamauchi, but the fax said, ‘Mr. Yamochi will see you tomorrow.'”

If you love business deals, listen to the full program to hear how Henk got Nintendo to pay for the development of his game and how he built a relationship with Mr. Yamauchi by playing Go with him.

Many companies wanted Tetris. See how he got the rights from the Soviets.

Tetris was designed and programmed in the Soviet Union by Alexey Pajitnov in 1984. “It spread behind the iron curtain,” Henk says. “People were playing Tetris instead of working.” Under the Soviet system, they couldn’t get fired for not doing their jobs.

There was a lot of interest in it in the Western world, but it was hard to make a deal with the Soviets. “I hired the guy who ran Andromeda in Budapest to be my agent,” he remembers.

Then he heard that another company was “dealing Tetris for Game Boy, and that kind of freaked me out. I said, oh my God. He’s double dealing. That’s what’s going on. He’s been bull shitting with other people. That’s what I thought. I don’t know whether he was or whether he wasn’t.”

So he got on a plane and flew to the Soviet Union. “I didn’t have any information on anybody and I don’t speak Russian. I needed a friend.” Once again, his knowledge of the board game Go helped. “I thought I could find a friend at the Russian Go Association. There must be such a thing.” That led to his first contact in Russia.

His next step was to hire an interpreter and — without being invited — go to the Ministry of Exported and Imported Software, a move so unexpected in the Soviet Union that his interpreter refused to follow him in. It was a gutsy move, but it worked. He got a meeting. After being grilled by people who he assumes were KGB and finally getting to meet the creator of Tetris, Henk earned a rare connection inside the Soviet Union.

When he got back home to Japan, he finalized an agreement to publish Tetris in the West.

In 1996, long after the Soviet Union collapsed, rights to the game finally reverted from Russia to Alexey, the game’s inventor. Alexey and Henk ended up co-owning the game.

Full program includes

– Listen to the outrageous technique the Soviets had to employ to keep their people from playing Tetris.

– Get lots of entrepreneurial inspiration. Listen to how Henk kept pushing just a little further than most entrepreneurs would dare go and how it changed his life.

– Learn about the spreadsheet that helps Henk grow his market.

Suggested comments

– How are my facts in this interview? See anything wrong? Point it out in the comments.

– What’s your best takeaway from this program?

– What did I miss? What should have asked? What should I have included here in the text?

[Full, RAW transcript available here.]

Thank you Lorenz Sell for introducing me to Henk!

Share

  • http://www.subvertmagazine.com PaulMagee

    Thank you Andrew / Henk.
    I really enjoyed this one. It started a little slow, but don't quit, there's a lot of interesting stories and valuable lessons in here and I thought it got more interesting later on, hank is clearly an accomplished entrepreneur.

    I was getting the impression that it's his love of games and love of winning, that is the key to his skill as a business man. I've never been much of a gamer, but I think it's a world where there is no physical penalty for making mistakes, so people are far more persistent than in real life. If you can transfer that attitude over to life, you can go a long way.

  • bradfregger

    Andrew, Great job!

    Henk, one of my few regrets is not licencing Ishido to you when we met in Japan.

    Great you're doing so well. … But, as you well know, there are other Tetris stories, including a suicide. My Tetris story is in my book, Lucky That Way: Stories of Seizing the Moment While Creating the Games that Millions Play.

    Again, great interview.

  • loumindar

    Great job editing some very difficult footage. Once Henk stopped moving around the video was much better.

    Very interesting guy. I love how he always finds a way to get things done. When others quit, he's finding a way to get over, under, or around the obstacle that would have stopped others in their tracks.

  • http://www.newyorkcity-personalinjury.com/ New York City Injury Lawyer

    Wow. That's an amazing story that just goes to show that persistence really does pay off sometimes. Thanks for another great interview.

  • http://thynews.com/wrightlabs John Wright

    The flow of the stories seemed to jump around in time a bit but that really wasn't a problem. Henk's stories really make you think differently about what's possible in business. Especially considering Nintendo was the top console of that era. Amazing!
    The audio edit was great, thanks Paola!

  • http://www.attictees.com Ryan Gonzales

    Great interview, editing was done really well. Favorite takeaways: his work schedule, his perseverance (did I spell that right?), and how he seems to balance all of his other projects/businesses so well. Loved the Nintendo story.

  • http://yewhealth.com tanyewwei

    I was busy and didn't listen to the interview until today, but boy was it worth it. I thought the man was speaking too humbly for all he had done. Getting into the Soviet Union must have taken some courage. Yet I think I can tell that when you're that focused on a goal, everything else doesn't seem to matter. What I really want to know was what really was that drive. Was it as simplistic as “I don't like to lose”. Perhaps it is, but it sure shows us what one can achieve solely with that sort of drive.

    The interview went pretty smoothly, and the progression was certainly great. I think that the volume could be increased slightly though.

    But thanks for the great interview Andrew!

  • http://www.auto-insurance-chicago.com/ Chicago auto insurance

    Nice interviewing! I especialy like the section about winning Nintendo over.

  • Pingback: Daily Links #104 | CloudKnow()

  • Pingback: “Crazy Persistence:” How Tetris Founder Made a Small Idea Pay Off Big Time()

  • http://twitter.com/mjohnsonperl mjohnsonperl

    Thanks Palla, great job keeping the conversation intact!

  • http://twitter.com/levubu Louwrens Oberholzer

    Hi

    Thanks for this one. I reached a state in my website where I sort of lost hope. But this interview motivated me and I tried something new in marketing and its working so far!

    This is realy the best site for me as programmer. I searched all over the web for interviews with the big ones, but this is the best site ever.

    I listen to almost every interview you put up. Thanks!

  • http://twitter.com/KulpreetSingh kulpreet singh

    Hey Andrew, great interview! What was he using for his webcam? He was walking around outside and still maintained good connection and video quality.

  • http://vadim.oversigma.com/Tetris.htm Emre

    “programmed in the Soviet Union by Alexey Pajitnov” bzzzzzz… WRONG!

    Give credit to Vadim Gerasimov, the real man behind Tetris.

  • http://vadim.oversigma.com/Tetris.htm Emre

    “programmed in the Soviet Union by Alexey Pajitnov” bzzzzzz… WRONG!

    Give credit to Vadim Gerasimov, the real man behind Tetris.