“They” say we’re most creative when our backs are to the wall. It may not be a universal truth, but it was key to my success. This is my story.
It was 1984, I had just finished my shift at a nearby family restaurant, and I was looking forward to an evening of reading. Tonight, it was an Agatha Christie novel. I was about a quarter of the way through, and I still hadn’t picked up a single clue as to who-dun-it (the murder, that is), when I was suddenly struck by what I could only call an epiphany.
I sat bolt upright, realizing I had just thought of a brilliant concept for a board game. My mind raced: Why do people read murder mysteries? Why are mystery movies so perpetually popular?
Because we love the one chance to guess the who-dun-it before the author reveals the perpetrator.
It was so obvious. Why not give people a chance to guess the guilty culprit in a minute or two rather than spend hours reading a book or watching a movie for that one chance? Even better, why not put it into a game format for a fun, competitive edge?
That was it! I would write a thousand short murder mysteries, and my game would be an instant best-seller. My excitement was beyond anything I had ever experienced. This was a gift from the gods. I couldn’t sit. I paced around my room, as euphoric as if I had just won the lottery.
At that time, Trivial Pursuit was in its heyday, selling millions of games a year, and I was confident that this concept would be just as appealing.
For the next few weeks, I couldn’t even discuss this idea because I was sure that if anyone so much as heard of the concept, they would mention it to an established game company that would quickly turn my idea into their best-selling game.
Before Long, I Began to Understand Why Ideas Alone Are a Dime a Dozen
Within a few weeks, I began to see the validity of that old adage about the worth of an idea alone. Time has a way of bringing reality back into focus, and I soon realized that writing a thousand murder mysteries wasn’t quite so easy because two weeks had gone by, and I had written precisely two.
Nonetheless, I was still sure that my idea would work because I wasn’t inventing anything; all I had to do was package a proven concept. After all, the guys who created Trivial Pursuit didn’t invent trivia; they simply took a popular concept and packaged it into a competitive game.
Since riddles, conundrums, and mysteries have captivated people in mythology, tales, and folklore for centuries, simple logic would suggest a game containing puzzles, riddles, and mysteries couldn’t miss.
So, for the next six years, I scoured libraries, magazines, books, and anything I could find that might fit the profile of a question that would work, which meant it had to draw a reaction … that was key. If a question was too easy, it was boring. If it was too hard, people lost interest. The best questions were the ones you got wrong but would elicit a laugh and a response such as “Okay, give me another one; this time, I’m going to be smarter.” That was key.
An Idea’s Just an Idea; Execution is Everything
Within a few months, I had gone from keeping my game idea top secret to gladly buying my friends beer all night just to listen to my brilliant, no-fail game concept. Realizing I would need help beyond writing and collecting material, I recruited a fellow waiter who was just finishing up his last year of law school and a talented but reluctant artist who agreed to come on board after I assured him that I would not give up on the concept until it was a success.
Over the ensuing years, my interest peaked and waned. In fact, there were times when months passed without any progress, but something compelled me to press on because I couldn’t shake this nagging certainty that if I just completed the game, it would succeed.
What fueled that certainty was constant testing along the way. As my inventory of material grew, I arranged for focus groups and feedback from family and friends who were anything but shy in telling me what was wrong and what wouldn’t work.
Focus groups often reported (reluctantly) that they only played ten or fifteen questions because the game often provoked discussion, and sometimes, it would be five or ten minutes before they picked up another card.
Hearing that was gold to me. I knew that that was the whole point. It wasn’t about the game; it was about the experience.
Frequent testing eventually showed that 500 cards were plenty, but it also revealed another problem; people invariably said they liked most of the cards, but there were always 50 or so … not so much. However, when I asked which ones they didn’t like, they were never the same 50, so I shrugged it off.
By 1989, with the help of my “legal” partner, MindTrap received trademark approval, and we were ready to launch.
Thanks, But No Thanks!
Armed with a pretty decent-looking prototype, I was sure that all I had to do was show it to several game companies and then sit back and oversee the inevitable bidding war.
It wasn’t long before I returned to Earth with a hard landing. No one was even remotely interested. I had pitched my prototype to 13 companies, and the responses ranged from “nice concept but not interested” to “we think it’s too difficult, the public will never go for it.”
I Had One Thing Going For Me … Proof of Play
Because we had diligently tested MindTrap with focus groups in endless situations and because the response was undeniably positive, the corporate rejection was nothing more than a disappointment.
Refusing to give up, we followed the classic entrepreneurial format. I wrote a business plan and raised $85K from testers, family, and friends. The first production run of 2,500 games was printed in September 1991.
My confidence was so high I remember thinking how terribly unfortunate it was that I couldn’t afford a larger run because 2,500 games seemed like such a minuscule amount; if Trivial Pursuit was anything to go by, MindTrap would sell out before the end of the month.
Little Did I Know That I Was About to Incur a Revision of Belief
In early October, I began knocking on retailer’s doors, and every response was the same: “How big is your TV advertising budget?”
“What?” I thought, “You’ve got to be kidding; I can’t even afford a TV, much less advertise on it!”
The first lesson I learned about retail was that the annual Christmas budgets are more or less spent by April, and trying to sell a game to retailers in October – without heavy advertising – was delusional.
After two weeks of visiting every possible game retailer in southern Ontario, I had placed a grand total of 20 games in the market – and those were on consignment! It was amazing how 2,500 pieces suddenly seemed like I was warehousing Mount Everest.
I Had No Way of Knowing It At The Time, But Having No Money Would Prove to Be My Lucky Break
Of the $85k raised, I had precisely $15k left for advertising, and by now, I knew that wouldn’t do spit.
Knowing that publicity was my last hope, I contacted a husband-and-wife marketing team, who, in retrospect, were as desperate as I was but, nonetheless, quick enough on their feet to convince me that, depending on my budget, they could easily solve my publicity problems since I was giving them such a “fantastic” product to work with.
Miraculously, when I said that I had up to $15k available, it just happened to be the very number they required to get me all the publicity I needed.
Ten days later, they presented their plan. They would invite the top 100 radio, television, and print people from the local media to attend a lavish MindTrap party at a Toronto bar where I was working.
The general idea was that following the party, everyone invited would gush all over the media about this must-have board game invented by some local guys.
If I Hadn’t Yet Woken Up to the Fact that I was Completely Screwed, the Alarm was About to Ring
After reviewing their plan, I was physically sick. What had I done? How could they possibly believe that the press would bother showing up for this party, much less hand over free publicity to a games company that was too cheap to advertise?
Besides, it began to dawn on me that between October and Christmas, the media get hundreds of invitations from companies, authors, and inventors begging for publicity, with most of them having the wherewithal to do some advertising on their medium in exchange for a hearty plug.
When I asked my marketing couple what made them think the press would show up for their proposed MindTrap party, much less promote it, they said, “Oh Richard, we’re going to have balloons with MindTrap questions written on the outside and pins to break the balloon to get the answer on the inside … oh it will be so much fun!”
“Yeah, that sounds great,” I said, “but what makes you think they’ll even come to this little soirée in the first place?”
“Oh, Richard, just you wait and see. We’ll have lavish hors dóeuvres and pink tablecloths that go to the floor and …”
Admittedly, I was slow on the uptake, but it was now evident that their best idea was getting me to hand over the last of my funds.
Faced with telling my trusting investors their money was gone, I kept asking myself what had I been thinking? What made me believe this game idea had the slightest merit?
The Second Epiphany
So I went back to the beginning. I could still vividly recall my original epiphany. All those years later, I still knew that what I had experienced was more than wishful thinking; it was a surreal feeling, an indescribable knowing. Okay, but so what, I asked myself.
Tracing my journey over the previous years, I reasoned that my faith in MindTrap wasn’t based on wishful thinking; it had been thoroughly tested, and the response was overwhelmingly positive. Besides, the very people who had participated in testing the game were our investors, so I couldn’t possibly be deluding myself.
My next line of reasoning was going over the response I witnessed time and again, and it was always the same; whenever we first gave a MindTrap question to someone, and they would invariably answer it wrong, it always elicited a laugh and a response like, “Okay, give me another one this time I’m going to be smarter,” or, “Oh, I just gotta try this on so and so, they’ll never get it!”
And that was my Aha moment – I realized that the answer had been right before me all along. Forget the party! I had just stumbled upon a free marketing concept I was sure would work.
I immediately phoned the marketing duo and told them to nix their party idea and get ready to start licking envelopes.
We were going to take those 100 press people, and instead of inviting them to a party, we would send them a MindTrap question in the mail.
This envelope would contain a card from the game and nothing else. The envelope would have no return address, no mention of who we were or what this was about, just a single MindTrap question card.
Two days later, we sent another envelope containing a different MindTrap question, and then two days later, another and another. Then, miraculously, within about ten days and numerous mailings, radio hosts and media personalities began saying, “We don’t know where these MindTrap cards are coming from or what this is about, but here’s your MindTrap question of the day.”
The last and 10th mailings revealed that MindTrap was a board game created by some local guys who just happened to be available for an interview.
MindTrap was getting feature write-ups in all the major papers, television newsreels, and daily radio plays during the coveted drivetimes.
Within days, I was getting calls from retailers across Southern Ontario, who had been inundated with calls from people looking to get MindTrap for Christmas.
For the next several weeks, we were shipping games across the province; many of them I was delivering from the trunk of my car.
By late November, we had sold the entire print run of 2,500 games.
Frantic for more games but out of cash (retailers were on 30-day terms), my manufacturer generously financed another production run of 2,500 and gave me 60-day terms.
The second run began shipping on December 9, and by the 20th, we had completely sold out.
In fact, days before Christmas, I got a call from the president of CBC, who said his daughter had MindTrap at the top of her Christmas wish list. He had a problem, though; he couldn’t locate a game anywhere and wondered if I couldn’t be kind enough to get him a copy. When I told him all I had left was my promotional copy, which was a little beat up, he said he would gladly take it.
The Toronto and New York Toy Fairs are held each year at the end of January and the beginning of February. By the time the New York Fair was over, we had signed licensing agreements in the U.S., Germany, Australia, France, Sweden, and the U.K.
By June of 1992, MindTrap was about to be sold in 11 countries and was being translated into six languages.
All Success Involves a Degree of Luck. Mine Happened to Be That I was Too Broke to Advertise
As the royalty money came in, I eventually turned to more formal and traditional forms of media advertising; in other words, I started spending money, and oh, boy, did I learn some expensive lessons. But that’s a story for another day.