Andrew: Hey there, freedom fighters. My name is Andrew Warner. I’m the founder of Mixergy, where I interview entrepreneurs about how they built their businesses, and I’m doing it for an audience of real entrepreneurs. Often they’re building their companies while listening to these interviews, they’re picking up a few ideas, they use them, and then they build phenomenal companies. And then they come back here and they talk about how they did it.
No, like a lot of you, I’ve got an iPad. I’ve got an Alexa device. Well, I shouldn’t even say that, an Echo speaker, and they’re kind of fun, but it’s very much a me experience. The closest I can get to a we experience is maybe I showed my wife a photo on my iPad, or I play music on my speaker, but it’s kind of one of these devices that separates me from other people. I’d rather just get immersed in my iPad than, you know, by myself, than include someone else in the experience.
Well, today’s guest is someone who was aware of that and said, you know, “What if it didn’t have to be that way?” What if your iPad didn’t have to just be this experience that you used on your own, but actually can bring to life a game that you can play with other people, a game where you can bring other people into an experience together, and the iPad can help make it be a little bit better? What if the speaker wasn’t something that could just play music to you or occasionally shout out trivia, but can actually bring back that old . . . Hmm. I don’t even want to say Trivial Pursuit experience, because I don’t think Trivial Pursuit is nearly as good as this. And so he came up with these games that are physical, that it’ll let you talk with other people, that actually force you to get out of your device, but also accept that today we’re using our devices.
And so I invited him here to talk about how he did it, to find out if he’s got some kind of quixotic adventure here. Or if it’s actually a real business that’s growing and how he did it. His name is Alex Fleetwood. He is the founder of a company called Sensible Object. They build inclusive social games augmented by software. I’ve got a couple of them right here. This is “When in Rome,” kind of like the old board games that you’re used to. Let me show you up on the screen here. Except you can see Alexa helps by asking questions and bringing people into the conversation. Here’s another one called “Beast of Balance.” And you can see even if you’re not watching, you can understand that you get all these pieces that you can use in balance, and the device helps increase the experience. All right, I invited him here to talk about how he did it.
We’ve got two sponsors that made this happen. The first is Regus. I rent office space from Regus. I have for years. I will continue to rent from them, even if they hate the way that I do these ads, because they just give me such a great experience. And I’m going to tell you later why you should rent from them too, and the second, let me say clearly, Regus, and the second is a company that again, I have used so many times to hire from. I wish I could hire every single person on my team from them, because they just helped me hire the best of the best. I’m always proud of the people that they helped me hire. It’s called Toptal. But I’ll tell you more about those later.
Alex, I saw you smile as I was talking about this product. I feel like you have a real pride in your work that I think most entrepreneurs aspire to.
Alex: Thank you. Yeah, I am . . . it’s great to share products. And it’s great when you see that in the hands of real folks, and, you know, the games that we make, we have a lot of values about what we’re trying to do. You know, we think exactly like you were saying, you know, so much of our lives, technology gets in the way. You know, I want to be hanging out with my partner or my kids, and instead I’m checking my phone and checking my messages. And like, sometimes it’s presented as a binary, as an alternative. Like you’re either going to play this wholesome, organic board-game game that you’re kind of bored of that takes a long time to learn. Or you can have a fun digital experience. And we’re like, you know, why not have both? Why not take everything that’s awesome about video games and merge it with that face-to-face social play experience? And, you know, it’s something I’m passionate about. It’s something that I am glad to put more of in the world. And so yeah, I’m super happy.
Andrew: What kind of revenue are you guys producing with this business?
Alex: So last year, we did about a couple of million dollars. We’ve done that this year already. And we’re . . .
Andrew: Already? And we’re not even into the holiday part of the year.
Alex: No. Right. So, you know, we’re still hoping that the bulk of our revenue is going to come in Q4. We’re a pretty seasonal business. We’re scaling with some real retail partners this year. So Apple Store now has the game “Beasts of Balance.” Our flagship product is the . . .
Andrew: I could have sworn I saw it there. But you know what, I couldn’t confirm it. So I didn’t bring it up. But I was like, wow, yeah.
Alex: Yeah, so we [inaudible 00:04:30]
Andrew: Yeah, it’s on the second floor of the San Francisco Apple Store.
Alex: Yep, you can walk into an Apple Store, and they should have it. They should be able to demo the game for you. We’re just about to launch a new AR kit mode with the games so that you can actually pick up and film the tower that you build and see the world of the game you created on the table top around you, super cool.
Andrew: You know what, I actually I’m getting chills as you say that, only because I know one of the stories we’re going to talk about later is the marble story and how it could have turned out if you hadn’t said something that shocked me. But you know, let’s understand how you got to this. Because I know that my audience gets this type of game. This is the type of thing that they get excited about. But I want them to get excited about the story. And one of the things you told me before we started is that you were working at a company called Hide & Seek Productions. You’re actually the co-founder of the company. When I asked you about what you did there, and you told me about this experience you had with PlayStation.
Andrew: And what did PlayStation hire you to do?
Alex: So Hide & Seek was an agency. Our tagline was inventing new kinds of players. So we would work with clients in the film industry, brands, advertising, media, games companies to create games that serve some kind of corporate objective. And in this case, PlayStation, we’re launching the PlayStation Move controller, which was their kind of competitor to the Wii. And they wanted to do a bunch of event marketing, experiential marketing in London. And they asked us to create a game which had these ideas of like 3D movement built into it, and put a big event on in Brick Lane, which is a kind of hip area of London, in the east of London.
So we created a game called “Blocks,” and “Blocks” like “Beasts of Balance.” In fact, it was an inspiration for “Beast of Balance” is a stacking game. We built these slightly offset 3D transparent cubes. They had the PlayStation symbols printed on them. And two players would compete to build a tower against a timer. But the trick was that the symbols had to match. So when you’re placing an object in the tower, all the symbols had to match. So you could always stack up, because that was one symbol. But if you wanted to place the fourth block in a tower, you had to match three symbols, because, like left, right and below, and it just killed it. It was one of these games, there was something about this combination of like the theater and the [excitement 00:06:38] of stacking, and the puzzle of the pattern matching, it just like really blew up, and that we had queues around the block. We had people coming back who played at lunchtime. It was so much fun.
And we kind of went straight back into PlayStation the following week, and we’re like this, like this clearly a good game here, and we’re passionate about games. Let’s work together. How can we take this forward? How can we evolve it? And the thing that, you know, kind of really, was a big driver in wanting to move on from Hide & Seek for me was that we couldn’t do anything with it. You know, the thing about a marketing campaign is when it’s done, it’s done. It served its objective. The marketing is not the publishing team. They’re kind of completely different sections of the business. And so we had nowhere to go with that product, from a contractual basis, from a kind of business basis. We just had to walk away from this design that we were so fired up about. And it was a super frustrating experience as a game maker to not be able to move forward in that way.
Andrew: And that’s one of the reasons why you said, “I need to try something different with my life.” You told our producer, “The company kind of ran its course, and you eventually exited.” When you say ran its course, was it that you were lacking in clients or just didn’t have the energy to keep creating babies that companies that hired you to create them were going to kill?
Alex: So that, I started that business in my mid-20s. The kind of peak of our turnover was about $1.5 million. We had a small studio in New York and a studio in London. We won a bunch of awards, made a ton of different games. But we certainly saw a few things that the writing was on the wall. The first was it was a group of like friends in their 20s, co-founders with quite different motivations, and I wanted to scale. I wanted to kind of do a very particular thing, and other folks in the business wanting to do different, you know, like more creative different, like expressions of where they wanted to go with what they wanted to do next. So that was part of it.
The second thing was there was definitely a wave of gamification was a real trend, like very hyped in the kind of second half of the noughties, and we rode that wave very effectively. We even got some great contracts and some great gigs out of that. And the hype, you know, some companies that we’d worked with, like Nike, were bringing that stuff in-house, having figured how to do it themselves. And other companies had tried to do it and not been very effective and kind of moved on to the next cool thing. So there were a few different pieces that just kind of we looked at it and we’re like, “You know what? This has been six amazing years. We’ve learned a huge amount. We’re still friends. Let’s wrap this up the right way.” You know, like I learned a huge amount closing that first business. You know, we got everyone jobs, we paid everyone out, we finished all our projects, and we threw a really good party.
Andrew: And what’s the five-figure exit that you ended up with? You actually ended up with some money from this?
Alex: Yeah, it’s my joke. You know, it’s like a five-figure exit, big whoops.
Andrew: But to whom? Or is it just that you closed out the client work, and that’s what was left in the bank?
Alex: Got it, yeah. We co-created an experience with Sesame Workshop, the children’s media company. And it was based off of an app that we’d created. And the app that we created didn’t really do that well, but this kind of licensed version did great. And it was making revenue for Sesame Workshop. So they bought our share of the intellectual property out from us and that effectively, so we sold that IP. There was a couple of other deals like that, just wrapped up some like partnerships where there was an IP relationship. And yeah, it didn’t add up to a huge amount. But it enabled us to kind of close the company. And I was able to take like a six-month break, which was pretty great.
Andrew: You know, Alex, I’m trying to like size you up here, which is unfair to do when we’ve only talked for a few minutes, but trying to get a sense of who you are. And what I noticed is you don’t get excited so much about how you close the sale with Sony PlayStation. Like too many entrepreneurs I interview that would be the story. You got more excited about the blocks and how they connect and how the game was played. It seems to me that that is your passion, right? The creation, more than the sales and the business side?
Alex: I think like, if you cut me down the middle, like the first thing that you’ll find is a passion for creativity and product. And I was that before I was an entrepreneur. But I think that one thing I would say is, like, I care a lot about how you scale and how you reach players, like that’s . . .
Andrew: Give me an example that shows, even back in Hide & Seek that that is something that you cared about?
Alex: Sure. So Hide & Seek wasn’t just an agency. We also did, you know, like we would take the kind of six weeks or eight weeks of runway that we would get out of doing a big project. We’d like have another project starting. We go, “Cool. Right. We’re going to do something for ourselves.” And right in the early, you know, it was always on this kind of physical digital hybrid, like how do you kind of get real world play happening? So the first thing we did that was pretty successful was an app called the “Board Game Remix Kit,” and it was new rules for board games you already own. So different ways of playing Scrabble, Monopoly, Clue, [inaudible 00:12:00], Trivial Pursuit.
There was remixes, and there were also mashups. So we would like take the pieces of Trivial Pursuit and Monopoly and mash them together and give you a new way of playing with those pieces. And that, you know, we launched it, did pretty well. We did like kind of, I think about $75,000 in revenue over a year, was a really nice like, you know, we didn’t . . . There was a tension in that we never fully committed to that kind of product mindset. And it’s very hard in it. If you’re trying to be an agency and a product business at the same time, I do not recommend that, because they’re very different, like states of mind. But we were hustling to kind of shift and launch things ourselves.
The app that was based off the one that I was talking about, the Sesame Street. That was UK’s first successful smartphone app project on Kickstarter. So we brought . . . or second maybe pretty early on, you know. So we were early adopters of Kickstarter. We used that platform to reach audiences. So we would . . .
Andrew: You know, I’m still not seeing an eye towards scale in that story. In that story, I see a really clever idea for remixing games. But what did you do to help it scale that other people wouldn’t have thought of? Or what did you do to help the Sesame Street app scale? Or didn’t you guys create what is it called, 221B for the Sherlock Holmes movie?
Alex: Yeah, I mean, that was a huge projects in terms of audience.
Andrew: And it was you getting the audience for these games. You weren’t just making them. You were finding a way to get a lot of people to play them so that they all are familiar with “Sherlock Holmes,” the Holmes movie anyway.
Alex: Yeah, I mean, so with that game in particular. So that was a prequel. That was commissioned by Warner Brothers as a prequel to the first Sherlock Holmes movie starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law. And we did a bunch of technology first in that game. So it was the first project to integrate with the Facebook API. So it was a two-player game. One of you is Holmes, one of you is Watson. I would say like a lot of our work, there was more on retention and user acquisition through the product. So AKQA, the agency that we partnered with, so we provide creative direction and AKQA did a lot of the user acquisition. But we retained about 15% of our audience for who started playing on day one, were still playing, you know, on day 56. So there was a . . .
Andrew: So they didn’t produce it to their people, to who? To fans of the movie?
Alex: Yeah, there was a whole mixture of things we went to Comic-Con. We did a bunch of PR and press. We had advertising online. There was a whole, you know, but really it was intended to promote the movie. So . . .
Andrew: And that game was an online game?
Alex: Yeah. It was purely online.
Andrew: And the idea was, “Hey, look, I could keep telling you go watch a trailer, but you’re going to watch the trailer one time, even super fans are going to watch it 10 times and they’re going to move on. But if I can get you to play a game, you might actually spend more time with it. And probably even invite friend or share it with a friend, and now you’ve experienced something that will hopefully remind you to go see this movie and talk about it with your friends.” That was the thought. Uh-huh?
Alex: Yeah. So like, the first question you were asked in that game is, “Okay, let’s take a personality quiz. Are you a Holmes or a Watson?” Like someone would be [inaudible 00:15:16] like I think you’re more of a Holmes, right? Like you would say, you know, like, so you’re going to answer some questions. And you’re like Andrew is Holmes. Okay. So Andrew, I’m going to populate a page with all these cute little Victorian vignettes of all of your Facebook friends. Now, you have to pick your Watson. So who do you want to play with? Who do you want to have this adventure, and who’s your sidekick? Who’s your buddy who you want to go on this journey with? You know, so it’s again, same idea. It’s like real world social design, but baked into this digital play experience.
Because one of the most powerful ways we know for to drive that retention engagement is our relationships, right? You know, if we’re connecting with our friends, if it creates this value for us in our lives, because it means that I’m hanging out with a buddy, and we’re having an adventure and we’re in a place like sharing evidence, comparing notes, because you both got different clues. And the only way to figure out the solutions to the mysteries was to kind of piece it together as a team, that’s super sticky and super engaging.
Andrew: All right. You then said, I’m going to go and do something different. You took the six months off first. What did you do in the six months?
Alex: Went on a long road trip around California with my family. So my eldest daughter was 4, my youngest was 18 months. And so I was on a break. My wife was like also on a break. And my youngest daughter, my oldest wasn’t at school yet. So we’re like, “Okay, cool. This is like a once in a lifetime opportunity.” So we rented a car, we went to REI and basically bought the whole of REI, filled it with camping equipment, and went on to a whole bunch of state parks around Northern California.
Andrew: That sounds like so much fun. And part of what you said at that period is, “I want to do something different. I like the hybrid of physical and digital games. I like what I did with PlayStation. I like this stuff. I don’t need clients who are going to just cancel a project once they’re done with it for its promotional value.”
Alex: And, you know, you’re right. We never achieved true breakout scale in Hide & Seek. Partly because I think of like, getting to grips with the things that really do drive those kinds of engagement. And partly because scale is partly a marathon, not a sprint, right? Like, you need to keep iterating on the product, on the user acquisition, on the engagement, on the just a way you sell it and communicate it in every aspect. And you know, I made 40 games in seven years at Hide & Seek. And I just wanted to make one game for a few years.
Andrew: Yeah, and take your time getting it right, take your time getting into the right places, improve it. I showed you my box here. And I saw you made a face when I showed you my box of “Beasts of Balance.” And you said something like, “You have a new version of it in your hands.” Is that right?
Alex: It’s like this is, you know, this is the kind of game of inches, right. So I’m just in tiny iterate . . . it’s actually cool. If you show yours.
Andrew: I can’t tell the difference between yours and mine.
Alex: So now we’ve introduced this little lozenge here. So it says app connected game, because on your box, it doesn’t have that. And when you’re picking this up in a store, some people miss the tablet in the image. And don’t fully understand that the kind of app integration, and so you know, when you’ve only got that kind of two or three seconds in a physical retail environment, you got to nail everything down. There’s just some little changes . . .
Andrew: And so for people who are listening, I will say that what I see differently in your box, Alex, is you’re first of all, you still have the same picture of the iPad, I think. But now what you have is a line, a dotted line going from the physical product to the iPad. And in the center, it says app connected game. And then the top it says it has the logo of the App Store and the logo of the Play Store, with the idea that you are emphasizing. This is a physical product that works with that digital device that you love.
Alex: There is also one thing which is there is now some blank space, some negative space in the top right-hand corner. And that’s so that when we are stickering the product in certain regions, we can put all the awards that we’ve won, because this game is now won I think, has over 10 awards, including some really big ones, like the Parent’s Choice Gold Award, and the nomination for Toy of the Year. And those things really help with the kind of social proof and endorsements in key markets. So we made that.
Andrew: You know what, I get that. I am like that too. I like small, constant iteration, keep improving. The way we prepare for guests is different. The way we edit is different. I love that constant improvement. I get it now. And I see how you were able to find it with Sensible Object. Let me talk about my first sponsor, and then come back and say, and ask you about the first step you took once you came back from this trip and what you want to do.
My first sponsor is a company called Regus. You guys have Regus here in the UK now or in San Francisco?
Alex: Yeah, absolutely. We absolutely. All over London, yeah.
Andrew: Wow. Yeah, they are all over London. They’re all over the world, frankly. And I’ve given people examples of how helpful that is. First, let me tell you that if you’re out there and listening to me, and you have an office, or even if it’s a home office, that just doesn’t feel like you’re getting the most productivity out of, don’t blame yourself, try a different space. That’s what I did. I went to Regus. I checked out their space. They showed me an office. I said, “Okay, great, I’ll try it out.” I signed up for it. And frankly, at the time Mixergy was hardly producing any revenue. I didn’t really have any advertisers. But I said, “You know what, I’m going to blow the whole ad revenue on just this office space, and see what happens.” And what I found was, I had quiet space to work and to think with no distractions, a lot of white space in my life. And I could sit there and actually come up with new ideas. Like, what if we try premium? What if we try this? What if we tried that? And it was really helpful.
I also liked, to be honest with you, being pampered a little bit in my office. I love when I have a . . . so I need a new . . . to adjust this mic, I need two pliers. I love that I sent a text message to the team, to the receptionist and said, “Do you have a couple of pliers?” And she said, “Yes.” So later today I’m going to get two pliers and I’m going to adjust my mic. And you guys might see that in the next interview the mic will be adjusted differently. I love that.
I love that I can ask for coffee. I love that I could have . . . I’m getting virtual reality goggles into the office to give as a gift to someone, I’m not going to address it to the UK. I don’t want to deal with that. I’m going to just say here, “Can you please mail it?,” and they’ll send it. I love it. This is all little things that go into being productive at your office, both you and your team. And frankly, if you’re great with your space, but you have someone who’s working at home outside of your city, try a Regus office for them and see how it’s going to boost their productivity and their happiness.
But let me tell you something that happened to me just the other day. I was in Austin, and the internet in the room, I was at the Fairmont, I paid $2,800 for four days of rooms, because I wanted a nice room for an event that I was a part of. Didn’t have internet. I put my foot down. I said I’m not paying 18 bucks for internet for the day. I go downstairs to the lobby, the internet sucked. It was just too slow. But I always knew in the back of my head two blocks away in Austin there were two different Regus offices, that if I really needed internet to crank out work, they had me covered. And I could walk in there just like it’s my main office.
And if I go to see Alex in the UK, or the two of us decide to go to Australia or somewhere or any other city just about big city in the world, I can count on having office space for the two of us to have a meeting, for me to sit quietly and work, for the internet to work, and not just have coffee, but whatever the local drink is, your yerba mate, local crackers, local whatever that people have is going to be there ready for me to get to work.
If you’re looking to be more productive, or you have a team that needs to be more productive, or you’ve hired someone who’s outside of your office and is part of a remote team and you want to get them more productive, I urge you to do what I do and have for years. I go to Regus and I sign up. And if you go to the special URL which I’m about to give you, they’re going to tag you as a Mixergy person and take especially good care of you because you’re a friend of mine or frankly I’ll give you an email address, you can email me or my team, ask my team in private what they think of me working out of Regus, what they think of Regus in general as a company, and you’re going to get an intro if you want to our person at Regus. Here it is, the URL, regus.com/mixergy. That’s Regus for you people in the Spanish world, R-E-G-U-S.com/mixergy or just email me at any one of the email addresses that you have or my team, email@example.com and we’ll be happy to introduce you to our person over at Regus and get you and your team set up a beautiful office space that will make you more productive.
Alex, I’m glad that I saw you smile as I said, because I know I went long, but our editor already said that she loves the way that I do the Regus ads. So I said I’m just going to go long.
Alex: I love it. Everything was true.
Andrew: It is. It’s so good. I’ve had people come in here for scotch night. And then they go take a tour of the office, and frankly that alone, go take a tour of the office. You’ll love it. See how the other half lives. All right, and just live there too. You had this idea. What’s the first step that you took to bring it to life?
Alex: So I think it was a couple of things, what, you know, like having run this agency, had a pretty great network. Had net network of partners, funders and critically, like designers, developers, people in the team. I knew that there were certain commercial trends that we could build a deck out of in terms of fundraising. But I also felt like there was no way we were going to be able to fundraise without a prototype. We needed something that kind of . . . It was a pretty out there idea in terms of what we wanted to do. This is like back in 2013, 2014.
So how to find a way of getting that, be able to put something in an investor’s hand and say like, “This is what we’re talking about. This is how it works.” So I managed to secure like in the UK, this still happens sometimes. There was a government funding program, it was being coordinated out of this really cool space in Bristol, and it was 40 grand of cash and a whole bunch of play testing resource. So they put together. It was called Play Sandbox. It was for small companies, startups to work with universities to develop new concepts for play products. And we got on the program and that enabled me to then recruit the founding team of employees for Sensible Object. So Tim, Lyall, George and Chris. Tim, Lyall, and George I’d known and we worked together at Hide & Seek. Chris came from our university partner. And we in four months, we built the first prototype for “Beasts of Balance.”
Andrew: Why would Play Balance care that there are more of these games in the world? What’s their point of view here?
Alex: So Play Sandbox. So it was kind of a . . .
Andrew: What did I say? Did I get that wrong.
Alex: You said balance, but that’s fine.
Andrew: Oh, thanks. [inaudible 00:25:56]
Alex: That’s the game. It’s all good.
Andrew: . . . googling it, and I still got it wrong. Okay.
Alex: So, you know, the creative industries is one of the strongest performing economic sectors in the UK. You look across music, gaming, film, you know, technology and creativity have a very strong heritage in the UK. And we punch above our weight. If you think about bands, or movie directors, or authors, we’ve always had a pretty good line in on that stuff. And I think that something’s happened in the last five or 10 years where the Treasury, who doesn’t normally think about things like creative industries, and kind of the numbers have gotten too big for them to ignore. And so there is actually a surprising amount of support out there.
And it’s all about I guess, sometimes you do need that time and space at the start of something. You know, you need to do the research. You need to make the prototype. And in this case, by integrating kind of very focused entrepreneurs with academic research partners, and other people in this network, we also created research projects for academia. So there was this kind of mixture of universities were getting something out of it. The government’s, like, funding opportunities for businesses grow as we have. So I think we’re, you know, we’re paying back that investment. And obviously, we got a chance to get started.
Andrew: Okay, it’s an investment in the future of the UK and an industry that or topic that’s done really well for Britain’s, which I’ve noticed, too, obviously. Okay, so you get a little bit of money, you start finding your team. This big prototype that you first created, the one that was especially heavy had to be turned into a real product.
Andrew: At that point, did you start looking for Chinese manufacturers?
Alex: So we did. There’s a long journey from physical prototype, that first prototype to the thing that, you know, kind of rolled into people’s hands 12, 15 months later.
Andrew: What goes into that? And do you do any testing to make sure people understand the game? Do you do any feedback sessions?
Andrew: You do? Tell me about that, if you could?
Alex: Yeah. So right from the start, there was a bunch of kids who were involved in co-creating the game. Like, as in, they told us what they thought, and they did not hold back. And there was a moment when we had the sort of early build of “Beasts of Balance” where there was this bright young kid, about nine years old, he’s playing with the game. And he just looked up to me with this look in his eyes. He’s like, “Do you know what? I don’t think this would count towards my screen time allowance.” And I was like, awesome. So he’s thinking about, like, how this game like is going to get past this battle he’s having with his parents about how much video games he’s playing. This is such a good sign. It like, really feels like we’re onto something. So then we worked on the game for about another 18 months, raised a little bit more . . .
Andrew: I’m sorry to interrupt. But I want to understand a little bit more about, how did you find these kids who are playing it? How did you watch the kids? How did you introduce it to the kids so that you can get useful information?
Alex: That was for, provided as part of the research program of Play Sandbox. So money plus play testing support, plus research partners at the University of Bath. So it was these three things, right? Cash, research and technology, and insight, and user feedback. It was an incredible program, super smart.
Andrew: I’m looking at it right now. It’s react-hub.org.uk.
Andrew: And there you are, right on the homepage. Okay, so that’s the first step, just adjusting it based on their play, what adjustment did you make to the game that you didn’t expect, because you watched them play?
Alex: So there was actually a lot of anxiety going in the game concept was too complex, like this whole idea that you could be playing a video game and this quite complicated physical game at the same time. We had a bunch of like, early investor feedback like that is not going to fly. And of course, the great thing is that kids take complexity, and they just eat it up, they just, you know, they will, they had no problem like understanding this paradigm, because they’ve grown up with surrounded by this technology. So this idea that you can sync up real world play and digital play, and imaginative play just for them makes total sense. So that was a huge, kind of reinforcing the core idea.
And then, within that, I think the imaginative play was really important. The fact that we could see them picking up these objects and telling stories with them, you know, like the different animals, different creatures, what they become, it wasn’t, we realized that we didn’t have to over invest in a fully realized like 3D digital world, because the game visuals are quite simple. And there’s two reasons for that.
The first is you don’t want people staring the screen, because you want people like interacting and being social. And the second reason is, we didn’t need to, because it was actually the imaginative play that really kind of made the whole thing take off anyway. So I think there’s a couple of big things that we took from.
Andrew: So was it just affirming your ideas, they didn’t adjust it? They didn’t help you come up with something that you didn’t before?
Alex: I think, well, those things, like I wouldn’t say they affirmed those ideas. Like there was a whole bunch of different ways that we could have gone. Like we were thinking about simplifying it. We tried different versions.
Andrew: Ah, and so you are watching them to figure out what to do. And when you saw that they were . . . Got it.
Alex: Yeah, like, I wouldn’t say like, it definitely wasn’t like, “Oh, yeah, we were right about everything, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick.” It was more, “We think it might be this, it might be that, let’s see.” And also, it’s also the confidence like, like when you’re pitching an investor, and an investor is saying, “Yeah, but is this really going to work?” And to be able to, like, show video and this will be, a total confidence, they say, “No, we’ve worked on this with a bunch of kids. Here they are. This is them playing and interacting with it. This is how it works.” That was a huge validation for us that we would not have had otherwise.
Andrew: You know, I didn’t even know that there were these schools that are almost designed to help give feedback. I remember going to, I was at Brooklyn Tech for high school, and they showed us this school that would bring in toys and bring in other things for kids to interact with. And they let us watch as the kids played with it to show us what manufacturers, what people who came in for our study were able to see. It was amazing. It wasn’t like this was all the kids did. They weren’t spending all day giving research and feedback. But they got to play with new toys. And yes, they were watched a little bit to learn what was working, what wasn’t. Fascinating experience.
Alex: Yeah, cool stuff. So then you were asking about China and how do we get to that. So this is kind of an 18 month journey. And there’s a couple of important things. The first is we worked on the game a bunch more. We actually had to throw out like, there was another set of play testing that we did after that first prototype. We simplified a bunch of things down, we worked on a kind of more refined version, and critically, I went to China with a 3D printed prototype. And we went to this factory. And they, I showed them and like, “We’d like to manufacture this. Do you think that’s possible?” And they laughed. There’s these kind of old Chinese guys just laughing like till tears run down their cheeks, because basically, they kind of translated and they kind of explained to me, like this would cost just the tools to manufacture all these different pieces that you just put on the table are going to cost you millions of dollars.
And here’s the problem, right? Like, as creators, we were working with 3D printing. We were just making prototypes. And you can just make any number of things with a 3D printer. And we weren’t really thinking about industrial design at all. So we kind of had to be really smart about how to condense all that down to something. We knew that $100 was like point with all the technology, we had to get it under that. And so we had a lot of iterations to go through. We found a great manufacturing partner. We found a great sourcing company in Hong Kong. And they really supported us on this process of design for manufacture.
Andrew: So how to recreate the product with the manufacturing in mind.
Alex: Yeah, and it’s all, it’s just another like domain of design. Is something that we didn’t know anything about, really, at the start of that project. And then, I’ve learned, you know, learned an enormous amount about in the last two or three years. And it’s interesting that we’re at this point in like, you know, Western startups and Chinese manufacturers are working together a lot. There’s a lot of these stories, you know, like a lot of Chinese manufacturers got pitched by Fitbit or another one of these companies and missed that opportunity because they were like, this just seems crazy. And so, there’s a lot more openness and receptivity to these kinds of collaboration. So yeah, it’s happening.
Andrew: I saw your Kickstarter campaign. I’m bringing it up on my screen right now. Was that the next step to go to Kickstarter and raise money?
Andrew: It was?
Alex: So yeah, we raised a little bit, a little bit of angel money off of the prototype. That got us to our Kickstarter in good shape. We were able to take it to some conferences, do some community outreach, do some marketing and made our first marketing hire, who’s . . . He’s revenue officer in the company now. Alex Bertie, who joined in January 2016. And then yeah, we raised about $200,000 in our first Kickstarter campaign, and that triggered some further investment from an early stage venture firm here in London.
Andrew: It occurred to me that we haven’t described the game really to people. How would you describe it to someone who can’t see it, who’s just listening to the audio?
Alex: Sure. So it’s a stacking game that comes to life. If you’re a gamer, you might think of it as Jenga meets Pokémon. So it’s a cooperative game. Players are working together to build a tower out of these colorful, weirdly shaped objects. And it’s connected to an app running on a phone, tablet, or smart TV, and every object has a magical power. So as I add it to the tower, its power like enters the digital world in some kind of way. And the theme of the game is that you got to keep the world and the tower in balance. So you have to take care of this like beasts and the ecosystem you create in the world. And you also have to take care of the tower, because if the tower collapses, the world explodes.
Andrew: And it’s for kids who are seven and older if I remember?
Alex: Yeah, we have a ton of adult fans. We have a lot of families. Yeah, 7 to 13 is the kind of sweet spot if you have kids that age.
Andrew: What did you do to get your Kickstarter campaign to take off? What worked for you that you’d recommend other people try?
Alex: So I think we built a mailing list of several thousands. We did a bunch of that day one activity. So we had a thunderclap set up, which is a kind of sort of mass social media posting platform. That worked pretty well for us. We had built a bunch of credibility, like we won awards for the technology, we taken the games to different like fan events, a lot of people got their hands on it. And then there was a couple of kind of key partnerships that really helped us there. One was with Kickstarter itself. So the game is a design object, a tabletop game, and a technology product, which is the three top categories on Kickstarter. So we kind of crossed a lot of streams for them. And you know, we were one of the first tabletop games to be featured on the homepage of Kickstarter, which was a really big deal in terms of traction and awareness.
We also did some hustle. We had an influencer outreach campaign. We actually worked with a YouTube channel in the UK called the Yogscast, who really nice guys based in Bristol, they saw an early build, and they really liked it. Said, “Yeah, we’ll cover it on our board game channel.” And one of their stars Duncan said, “I like this game. I’d like to be a lion in this game.” And he just threw out this kind of statement, and because we’re crazy, Tim our designer went away and designed his avatar onto the body of a lion. And we plugged it into working in the game. And when they made the video, we presented it within live like during the taping.
Andrew: Wow, yeah.
Alex: And then we launched it as a reward [tip 00:38:48]. So you could then by the Yogscast edition, which included this extra piece. And that actually put us over the line. We did about $20,000 on that at a crucial time in kind of week three. So, you know, there was a ton of . . . There was like that all important, day one. You know, we got to kind of a third of our goal on day one. Then it all it’s just the game of inches. It’s just like outreach, fan engagement like hustle partnerships, and then really like finding the needle movers. So the two big needle movers for us with Kickstarter and the Yogscast.
Andrew: And the email list, how did you get that?
Alex: So we built it mostly through beastsofbalance.com. We did a lot of, every time we showed the game in public, we would like offer, you know, day one discounts and kind of different sort of fan incentives if you left your email, if you signed up [inaudible 00:39:45]. So, you know, like . . . and I think just we got a ton of press. I mean, we had a great PR for that campaign, and we had a lot of coverage. So we were you getting . . .
Andrew: Was that you getting all that PR?
Alex: Excuse me. It was actually a friend of mine, guy called Alex Wiltshire, who was a Edge, was a UK games journalist. And he just come off working writing a book and he had a little gap. And he was able to come and do some work with us for a little while. But yeah, it was insane. We had “VICE Magazine” and TV coverage, radio coverage, a whole bunch of stuff. I mean, some of it was probably my press contacts, but a lot of it was down to him.
Andrew: What do you do and what did he do differently that the rest of us who aren’t as experienced with the media could learn from? What tip would you have?
Alex: It’s a good question. I would, like I definitely think CEO outreach works. Like, I think that we went through the list and there were 30% of the contacts were folks that he needed to write to. And that was fine for whatever reason, and 70% were folks that needed to hear directly from me. So actually, you know, like, certainly the start of your journey being direct and saying, “I am the CEO of his company. I founded it for these reasons.”
And like, I think that, you know, like, and we worked on crafting and personalizing those approaches. So you know, like you know, Christopher Donlan at Eurogamer is a good example. You know, like, he was somebody who we wanted to reach out to. We know that he is very imaginative and visionary about writing about new companies, and he’s somebody who can make an early prototype sound like the next great thing, and he has that kind of like vision and creativity, which is really powerful. So, you know, like, we really worked on like, getting those approaches to be very direct. I think it’s [inaudible 00:41:54]. I think, I’m not sure that I have anything on the kind of scale front. We did a lot of hand-to-hand outreach to get those pieces of coverage.
Andrew: Okay. And this was 2016, right?
Andrew: Okay. Let me take a moment . . . Sorry?
Alex: No, please.
Andrew: I’ll take a moment, we’re going to talk about my second sponsor, and then come back to what happened Christmas 2016 and how you spend it. First, I’ve got to tell you about my second sponsor is a company called Toptal. I actually recently called them up and I said, “Can I hire you guys to find me a content creator?” And the guy laughed. He goes, “No, no, we can’t do it.” I was thinking about why am I reaching out to them to do that, because obviously, they’re the ones who you go to when you’re hiring a developer, maybe a designer or finance person. I’ve hired a finance person from them, fantastic guy.
And I realized it’s because when I was hiring a developer, it was insanely difficult. Until I just called up Toptal, and I said, “Look, people are complaining. They hate the search on my site. I don’t even know how to solve it. And I’m a little embarrassed because the site is just on WordPress, and you guys deal with way better like software than that.” That guy goes, “There’s nothing to be embarrassed of. We have WordPress developers here and lots of other people too.”
And so he introduced me to a couple of people. I said, “I don’t know who to hire.” I said, “Can you just have them talk to my brother? Michael’s a developer. We cofounded a company together. He’s helped me out with tech in the past.” Said, “Yeah, sure.” Michael gets on with both of them, and he says, “They’re both really good. Here’s the one person I think you should hire.” And we hired that person. And that guy redid our search so beautifully, that suddenly you can search by tags, you can search by words in the site, you can actually search by topics. Like if you just want to find someone who’s a physical product founder, we can help you do that. So great. I said, “Michael, now you and I are going to design it nicely so that we can show off this stuff,” and our design was awful, because we can’t design for jack.
So then we hired a design team to do it. What I realized was Toptal just solved it, within a couple of days, no searching everywhere and frankly I always talked about Toptal and heard about Toptal as this high end company, so I thought it was going to be super expensive. It wasn’t. I don’t remember what the number was. If anyone wants it, I’m sure I can find it. It was just peanuts compared to like dealing with a bunch of nudnik developers who I’d find on some other sites. This way . . . I was about to mention a competitor, but I feel like Toptal wouldn’t like that. And I think I’m being a little bit of a wuss, so I won’t talk about their competitor. But it’s way better.
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What do they call your company? And what do you feel when you hear it? What’s the mistake that people make?
Alex: Sensible Objects, with an S on the end, and I mostly think, damn I should have, we tried to name defensively so that it was hard to make those kind of errors and we didn’t anticipate that that was going to be the one. Maybe you can’t. Maybe there isn’t a way of like ironing out those kinds of mistakes. With Hide & Seek we definitely have it because people will get confused with that one, so yeah, anyway.
Andrew: You guys were hideandseek.net and I think there’s like a couple in the U.S. that has hideandseek.com or something, right?
Alex: Oh god, yeah. We spoke to them they wanted all of the money and we’re like, “It’s fine. We’ll just have to . . . ”
Andrew: Right. Yeah, I’ve got a feeling the Warner Brothers is not going to go to that couple by accident and have them design this game experience for them. They’ll find a way to get to you.
Andrew: Yeah, I’m checking out to whoever has Sensible Objects is I feel just sitting on it, but it’s a . . . Where is it? Yeah, someone in Great Britain, but I think we’re finding frankly, we’re just going to go to the Apple Store when we’re looking for you.
Alex: [inaudible 00:46:40]. Now that we have two products, it’s the first moment in our history we were like, actually we need a studio brand. Like we actually have to have a company brand as well as a product brand. Like we made a decision in 2016, nobody cares about Sensible Object. Nobody, you know, nobody like we’re trying to make a company brand like that. We just want to make a brand for “Beasts of Balance,” and we’re makers of “Beasts of Balance” for now. But it’s yeah, like you know, like sensibleobject.com is a pretty sad website right now. We have not invested a huge amount in it, because we’re putting all of our effort into telling the story of the product, but it’s on the road map for next year to get that figured out.
Andrew: All right. So far, we talked about a lot of wins. Let’s talk about one of the challenges, and then I’m going to get into why I’d like to, to get into Alexa because I know that you and Amazon have done some work together and they helped you put bring this to life. I want people to understand how Amazon’s helping creators like you build on their platform. But first, Christmas 2016 really tough for a couple of reasons. One of them is this thing I mentioned earlier with Marbles, what happened with Marbles? What is Marbles for people who don’t know it?
Alex: So Marbles is yeah, it was a boutique retailer of games and educational products. They had 45 stores across the U.S. They were founded by a great team out of Chicago, and we encountered them through our Kickstarter campaign. They reached out to us. They said, “We love the game and we think it’s perfect for our stores, and we want to buy a bunch of them.” They wanted to take quite . . . they took a big order. They basically tripled our Kickstarter backer orders. So we were like, “Wow, this is a good. This is great.” We felt pretty nervous about it, because like that slice of order right out of the gate felt huge to us. But we did a very careful deal with them that they basically they had no return right, you know. If you’re working with a retailer, often they will just be able to send any, stop, and they didn’t sell it back to you. And we made sure that that was not part of the deal. And it was great. We did some pretty decent revenue in our first year.
But it seemed like the deal was too good to be true. And it guess it kind of was, because Marbles was in the middle of a very aggressive private equity backed growth strategy, and that growth strategy did not pay off. And we, it became apparent, we heard on the grapevine that Marbles was going to be filing for bankruptcy shortly after the Christmas period. And this was an issue because they still owed us a bunch of money, you know. The payment schedule, we had about I think 60% of the PO but, you know, our cash flow required us to get 100% of the PO you know, like the story of any physical product business is one of cash flow, right?
I mean, any businesses or cash flow, cash flow is one of your number one things. But, you know, every year there is a cycle where September, right now we’re in it, you know, we’re at the bottom of that cycle. You go right back up, again, over the kind of Q4 and then, you know, you hope you land up in the right place for Q1 so that you can invest in innovation.
So, yeah, Christmas Day, I didn’t call them, but I was on the phone with the CEO, basically, the whole of the Christmas period, basically just trying to get us paid, saying, you know, you’re going bankrupt, you know, this is happening to you. I’m really sorry about that. But this is life or death for our company. So can we find a way of getting this done?
Andrew: You know what? I wouldn’t have thought that there’d be anything you could do at that point, or I would have just been angry, and you’re showing me a different way, which is to call them up and say, “Look, you are now making or breaking my company. Your decision is going to determine whether I, whether this business lives or not.” That’s what you said?
Alex: Yeah, that was it.
Andrew: And he could actually do something about that? He couldn’t just say, he didn’t just say, “Look, you are where you are in line. I can cut the line for you”?
Alex: Well, you know, like, I can’t speak to exactly what happened in terms of the line and how it got done. All I can say is we were a relatively small client, you know, they had much bigger partners, but, you know, I wanted to leave. You know, like it was, yeah, it was definitely like, it’s not a negotiation, right. Like, it’s not like I had any, I didn’t have anything to do here. And what am I going to do, take my stock back? Well, it’s in 45 warehouses across the U.S. That ship had sailed. So it was just, yeah, it was CEO to CEO. It was just kind of heartfelt plea, you know, we’d spent two years building this business and it all rode on what we could do in this scenario. And, you know, we managed to . . . We didn’t come out with, you know, 100 cents on the dollar, but we came out with enough to be able to regroup and move into Q1.
Andrew: This is Lindsay Gaskins, is that right?
Alex: No. No, Lindsay was the founder, but . . .
Alex: Girisha, yeah.
Andrew: Oh, he came in afterwards when things are starting to get tough. Got it.
Alex: Well, he was, yeah, he was recruited. He was part of the package with the private equity firm. Yeah.
Andrew: It’s why I’m surprised that you were able to get anything at that point. He’s not brought into to make nice or build on relationships. He’s not founder to founder. I’m impressed. Just goes to show really, as a founder, you can always just keep asking, you could always keep looking for a way. Is that also the year that you had that Christmas where you couldn’t even afford customer service? Or was that another Christmas?
Alex: Yep. No, that was the same year.
Andrew: Same year? So after doing, tell people what happened with customer support that year.
Alex: Well, we, you know, we had between the units we’d sold through Marbles, the units we sold in the UK through Amazon, and a department store here called John Lewis, and the Kickstarter backers between kind of November 2016 and December 25th, was about 8,000 folks. And no one had, you know, we had the analytics, right, because, of course, we have the app and we know when you’ve downloaded it, and we know when you’re playing the game, and no one had played it. You know, 8,000 people who had it, but no one had played it, you know, and of course, right, because it’s just sitting under Christmas trees all over the world.
And I’ve never been more stressed out on any day than Christmas Day 2016. Because I was like, “What is wrong with you.” Like, this should be like, the happiest day of your life. Like, your product is out there. And I’m like, I know it’s going to work. But what if it doesn’t, like, you know, like, it’s all of this hardware and all of this technology first time and it was a scale, you know, you just never know, as a product developer when you hit scale, is it everything and harder? But it did. Yeah.
But we were, you know, like partly because of the situation with Marbles and partly just because of being a, you know, startup and have been tied to cash. Yeah, we just traded out customer service sessions among the team. Everyone took a couple of days, couple of evenings, and we just triaged the feedback. And we were braced about halfway through Christmas, we were able to dial back. We actually like had two people per shift. And when I, we only need one person, which if there’s not that much of this stuff, and the stuff that’s coming through is mostly good. Like, mostly, it’s like, “This is great. We’re having fun with it you guys. This is awesome.” So, you know, fortunately, we’d done a good enough job with the design and the user experience with this game that people were having fun with it. So it was good thing.
Andrew: All right, one more challenge, and then we’ll get into the next game, “When in Rome” and Amazon’s product. I’m afraid to actually mentioned her by name, because I don’t want people’s computers to go off. Hey, speaking up. Yeah, come on.
Woman: You see me hovering?
Andrew: Yeah, I did see you hovering. Thank you very much.
Woman: You’re welcome. Whenever I hear you talking I just . . .
Andrew: That’s usually when I’m on, but I actually wanted to talk about this, talk about Regus. Look, Lily came in, she brought the virtual reality headset. And now I’m going to give her the address and she’s going to mail it out.
Alex: Cool. It’s beautiful.
Andrew: Look at that. She was just standing at the door to make sure I wasn’t interviewing and make sure that she wasn’t interrupting. But I said this time do interrupt. I want to make a point of [inaudible 00:55:08] people. This is efficiency at its best. Okay. Which is manufacturing. That’s the thing that I wanted to come back to. Man, do I hear some real pain stories, I’ve got to tell you. I feel like this is a huge opportunity too, for somebody to make manufacturing in China easier for creators like you. Talk about what happened when you went to China.
Alex: So we knew that. Like we’d heard the war stories. We were aware of the pain points and the risks. And of course, the thing about running a successful Kickstarter is, you know, the day you finish your Kickstarter, you feel king of the world. The day after, you’re like, congratulations, you just promised 2000 people on the internet, who gave you their money, that you’re going to deliver that thing, and you know, nobody wants to be those guys who take their Kickstarter money and don’t deliver. So the pressure is on from that whole process.
We were very lucky in that we are part of a hardware startup community called Hardware Club. It’s run by [a prison 00:56:08] VC. They have a whole mixture of consumer B2B, AI and research hardware companies all over the world. I think there’s like 400 startups in the club now. And there’s an amazing Slack channel where founders and CEOs, folks from the companies are trading information, getting support, really great genuine community, because hardware is hard. And everyone is doing it, you know, from the ground up.
So one of the founders of Hardware Club helped us get connected with an incredible Hong Kong based company, I can tell you the name, but they’re not online, because they basically took their website off because they just had so much interest. They didn’t know what to do with it. They’re a family business. They work with a handful of Western design companies to help them like do Chinese manufacturing right.
And I met with the company. I showed them the prototype. I met with the chairman, and he just got it from day one. He was super supportive. And they’ve been an incredible partner to us from the beginning. So they took a huge amount of risk and pain out of the process. It was still incredibly risky and painful. Like we ran so close to missing our ship deadlines. And we were working around the clock, you know, soon as you take on Chinese manufacturing, get used to 6:00 a.m. conference calls, and, you know, emails at midnight, because, you know, you’re getting, you know, it’s like any international supply chain, you’re getting into those sort of time frames.
Yeah. So I would say like, there was still a huge amount that we . . . It was a mixture of luck, some judgment and a lot of support from our partners. So for example, the first pieces that came off the production line were slippy, very slippy. So like friction is an incredibly important part of being able to build a tower out of something, right, because if you sort of think about our 3D printed prototypes, they have that kind of grainy field. And so, if you put something on an angle, it’s not going to fall off. And the first towers that we were building and don’t forget, this is from the injection molding tools, we’ve spent a ton of money on them, and you can’t change them. The towers were just kind of exploding. You would put a few things on it, it would just go, “Psh.”
With about six weeks to go before we had to ship, we had to introduce an entire extra procedure into manufacturing. There is a rubber spray finish on the pieces. So they have this matte spray. It’s transparent. It goes over the hero pieces in the set. And it gives them this lovely, quite premium, tactile feels. People often think these are silicon. They’re not. They’re ABS with this matte finish, and they made the game playable again. It restored the frictional coefficient to what it needed to be to make the game fun to play with.
And that was, you know, like, it’s all of the pressures of any design, any product team knows this, you know, you’ve got a deadline and you’re hustling, but when you’re doing it across eight time zones, and with four factories, complexity of that goes up to a staggering degree. And my team were incredible, you know, like the level of transparency and communication in the team to deliver was so huge. Every single problem we ever faced, we named it, we talked about it, we figured it out. We never shied away from any of those issues. And I think that was what really did it. It was that level of communication.
Andrew: Can you say the name of the manufacturer? Or is it . . .
Alex: I mean, I can, the company’s called JDH.
Alex: Yeah, they’re not the manufacturers. The manufacturer is a company called Capable, but JDH is the sourcing company. So they work with not just our manufacturers, but also our logistics partners, our components sourcing, all of the different aspects of our supply chain.
Andrew: Okay. And I want to give people the URL of Hardware Club. It’s hardwareclub.co and they’re a venture firm. So all those people in the Slack channel are all founders they invested in?
Alex: No, they invest in like, less than 5% of the companies in the community. It’s a kind of interesting, like, they’re getting deal flow and knowledge by creating a community. And not all companies in the community fit the thesis, but the value of the community is part of the whole mix for them.
Andrew: Yeah, I get that. And that explains why I saw that they do seed funding series A, and pre-seed, but there’s so many companies, I said, “How do they even invest in all these?” Now I understand it. Okay, then let’s just quickly wrap up with, “When in Rome.” Why follow up with an Amazon Alexa device, instead of doing another iPad device, another tablet device?
Alex: A bunch of reasons. The first is that Alexa is a technology and a platform that fits with our philosophy of face-to-face, not face-to-screen, right. You know, like, one of the things I love about Alexa is I can access a whole bunch of information and experience online without pulling out my phone, finding the app, pressing the button. You know, it takes this kind of experience that takes me away from the people closest to, and I can still get that digital access that I want.
But the second is that, you know, Amazon is a pretty important retailer. And it’s, you know, it’s that they shift a fair amount of product. And there was something really important for us about working with Amazon as a tech partner, and a retailer. Like, what happens if you vertically integrate that stack, where you’re delivering the experience on this platform, which is important to Amazon, and then retailing through the same channel.
And I think the third reason was that voice is an input device that extends across the way we play games with friends, trash talking, you know, learning the rules, talking with each other, planning what you’re going to do, and the interface, which meant that we could extract the hardware from the product and offer it at a much more competitive price point. So “Beasts of Balance” is a $99 product. We’re doing great with that, but it is a niche product, right? There’s only so many folks in the world who want to drop 100 bucks on a game. “When in Rome” and the future titles in that series are $30 products. So we can offer . . .
Andrew: And I can actually get it for 20 bucks right now on Amazon. I think, yeah, on Prime Day they offered a big deal on it, too.
Alex: Yeah, that’s right. We’re doing a whole bunch of these, like time promotions with Amazon. So we’re having it on the Today Show last Friday. And we timed this deal promotion to go with that. And so, we’re seeing great traction with price point.
Andrew: And they invested in you, didn’t they?
Alex: Yeah, so Alexa Fund is Amazon’s corporate venture fund. They ran an accelerator program in Seattle two years in a row. We are part of the first cohort, nine companies last year. I went over, worked with the design team to like, get to grips with the platform, getting network with Amazon and build a prototype for “When in Rome.”
Andrew: You know what’s it’s interesting? It’s listed as Voice Originals as the maker on Amazon and on the box.
Alex: So Voice Originals is the publishing brand that we’re rolling out for a whole series of games at this price point.
Andrew: Okay. All right. I just, you know, what I love about this is every little bit I can see you think through even the way that the box [feels 01:03:50] is different, even the way that you just showed me about how you’re keeping space open for stickers, it just like such a, I don’t know what the word is there, you’re just like a not a perfectionist, but somebody who really cares about the product, you can feel it in the product itself, you can feel it in the way you talk about it.
Alex: I would say like everything, all of our success starts from that point, right. Like, I talk about the fact that like the first thing we were was a making company. So in 2015, 2016, the only thing that mattered was, can we make an incredible kick ass world changing product. Then we had to be a selling company, because you know what, you make a product, congratulations. Now you’ve bought yourself a ticket to a much bigger game, which is competing with a whole range of distributors and publishers for shelf space, eyeballs online, all of those different challenges.
And now we’re starting to get into being a scaling, a scaling company. Like that’s the next challenge for us, multiple product lines, multiple skews, a bigger pool to target and re-target, different kinds of communication and growth strategies. A bigger, more diverse team, you know, we have done a huge amount of work in the company on values and diversity and hiring this year to kind of open out that, you know, like bunch of founders, like fighting with each other and arguing around the kitchen table, to a company where anyone is welcome, and can add their talent.
Andrew: You guys used to argue that much?
Alex: Oh, God, yeah.
Andrew: What did you just stop arguing? I feel like that’s huge.
Alex: It’s like so much work. It’s really . . .
Andrew: Do you guys go to therapy?
Alex: We didn’t go to therapy, but we certainly have worked like, there’s a few, so it’s a few things that we did. We kind of had a Viking burial for the old company, like, so we went out, we booked the chef’s table at one of the best like small restaurants in London. And I bought the team like the original founding team, the most ridiculous dinner and, you know, and we toasted this incredible thing that we had as a group, and also just burned the company. We were like, okay, that company is dead. And like the feeling that we have that this is our company is dead. Now we are part of something bigger now and that’s what we’re all kind of buying into. So that was like a really important thing.
I have refactored the leadership team, we had a CFO and COO who were both like portfolio company, portfolio career guys, they were like giving me two days, two to three days a week, amazing guys, ran through walls, super talented. We needed specialists in those positions. And that was a huge change. It happens, it wasn’t intentional, but happens that those two leaders are both women, so now we have representation in leadership at the top of the company that’s more diverse. And I think that’s a big step change.
And then we’ve done a lot around values and process. So we wrote down the values, like, what makes that company tick, this company tick. What did we do to get as far like, and how would we describe that to somebody who doesn’t know those people and wasn’t there when we forged what this company is about. So that we can kind of back off a bit, like that kind of passion that you defend your company with is partly because you believe so deeply in what you’ve achieved. And if you can kind of create process that means you can step back, means you can kind of create distance between you and it. And so we’ve worked a lot on that over the course of this year.
Andrew: When you say that you buried the old company, it was Sensible Object. The first version that was like the chaotic mess that we were is now gone, let’s enjoy the chef’s table meal. Let’s enjoy the fact that we’re here, mourn and say goodbye to the past and move to the future.
Alex: Yeah, I mean, it was like a good, it was just a good thing. Because we had a lot to celebrate. We had a lot of champagne to drink. And a lot of reasons to feel very proud. You can’t let that dominate. You know, because the thing that was happening was a kind of venomous dynamic, when people who are new to the company didn’t feel they could challenge the people who had been in the company since day one. And we just had . . . Everyone wanted to kind of change that. But it was a mixture of like, introducing this process, but also like I’m saying, we didn’t do therapy together, but we did do this thing. We like had a little ritual that just kind of like, “Okay, it’s a new world. How do we live with that?”
Andrew: All right. If anyone wants to go check it out. Apparently, the website is not the best place to go. Amazon or the Apple Store are the places to go. And I got a sense that as we’re getting close to Christmas, this is going to be right up the alley of the people who are listening. But I also don’t sense that’s why you’re here. I feel like you’ve accomplished something, you’re ready to share your story. It’s not about selling a few more boxes of toys. It’s about letting other people know, here’s how we did it and hopefully encouraging them to do it too.
Alex: Sure. I mean, I think that we want a ton more entrepreneurs coming into the space. I think the whole toy market is ripe for disruption. There’s a lot of badly made products out there. And I think you know, we want to support other companies, different companies doing different things to come and join us in this exciting world.
Andrew: And a lot of Fortnite out there. I mean, the truth is, I think Fortnite’s great, I’d love to interview the founders, but it really is a computer game. I was at my cousin’s house and his son was just sitting staring at the computer the whole time, and you’ve got a different vision. You want people talking to each other, being a part of the conversation. Thanks so much for staying up late and doing this. I know considering the time difference that it really is a commitment and I appreciate you being here. If anyone wants to go check it out. Go check them out at whatever, actually Amazon and Apple I feel are really good places to go get this.
Alex: beastsofbalance.com and voiceoriginals.com. So the product side is pretty awesome, it’s just our company side needs a bit of work, but [beastsofbalance.com 01:09:55] and voiceoriginals.com
Andrew: All right. There you go. And I want to thank the two sponsors who made this happen. The first is Regus, where I rent office space and where they send me boxes and make sure that I’m taken care of. You guys always see me with coffee. They make sure whatever I need, coffee, tea is always here. Really, if you want to get more productive, want your team to be more productive, go check them out at regus.com/mixergy or just email me and the team, firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll introduce you to our person over there.
And if you want to hire a developer, designer, finance person, really, there’s no other place that I know of that is like hiring from Toptal, because they’ve got a network of people, as soon as you call them up, they’ll think through their network. They’ll research their network and they could get you started with someone fast. Often within a couple of days. That person could get started. Go check them out at toptal.com/mixergy. Alex, thanks so much for being here. Good luck.
Alex: Pleasure. Thank you.
Andrew: Bye. Bye, everyone.