Frugal Living: How do you make a living doing what you love? (Part 1)
How do you find a career or build a business that you love? This week, Jim talked with Kevin Carroll about building a business around games. Check out Frugal Living on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Amazon, Anchor.fm, iHeartRadio, or anywhere you go to find podcasts.
As the Executive Dice President at Carma Games, Kevin Carroll is uniquely qualified in building a business. He created the popular dice game Tenzi, which is sold in stores everywhere, and he grew his company from the ground up.
Carroll’s story starts with a concept. It builds with an introduction, and it expands with clever thinking. Listen to the episode for his story.
Read a Transcript From This Episode
This is Frugal Living.
Frugal living isn’t just about being mindful of spending and passionate about savings. It’s also about making money. That’s why I like talking to entrepreneurs. But business isn’t easy. It can be challenging to start a business. And what happens next? Once you’ve got a strong concept, how do you successfully scale a business? I reached out to someone who knows all about it. Kevin Carroll is the Executive Dice President at Carma Games. And he shared so much knowledge on the subject that we’re dedicating this week’s episode and next week’s episode to hearing his story. Here’s part one of our conversation.
I’m Kevin Carroll. I’m a game inventor and half owner of the game company, Carma Games.
I know this seems, like, kind of, a weird get for a frugal podcast. We talk a lot about how not to spend a lot of money, but we also talk quite a bit about how to make money and how to do something you’re passionate about. And that’s what I wanted to talk to you about. You, kind of, created a dream company. And I’d love to hear the origin story and share that with our listeners.
I’ve always loved games. And you know, I’m–Pong, by the way, I was 16 when Pong came out–so half of my games in my life were going outside playing with a rock and a stick. I mean, I sound like a caveman, but true to form. I mean, I don’t need much to invent a game. So I’ve always had that in my blood. Yeah, I used to play Monopoly and Life and all those games. But just, kind of, creating something outta nothing was always my thing. I didn’t know I could make a thing out of it, but that was in my genes I guess. And over the years I’ve come up with different game ideas and maybe put together a prototype here or there one reason or the other. But, oh, about 12 years or so ago, I came up with a game idea. Has nothing to do with Tenzi or Slapzi. And it was a letter game. And I created a prototype and I didn’t know why I did this. And people close to me said, “Why are you wasting your time doing that?” People very close to me. So I had this prototype and I was on the phone with a business coach. You know, this was a woman I had hired to help me on my other business. I do presentation coaching, motivational speaking, I guess you could call it. So that’s what I was doing full time, loving it. And I had hired her to help me with that business. But meanwhile on the side, I created this prototype. So I’m on the phone with her and she said, “So how are you coming on your objectives?” And I, kind of, mumbled, “Well I, I, I didn’t do my, I was working on a game.” And she said, “What?” And I told her a little bit about it. And she said, “Well, you should meet my friend, Mary. She lives in the town next to you. And she is a game agent.” I said, “What?” “Yeah, there are people out there, game agents, that meet people like you, inventors, that have ideas. And because they have relationships with the game companies, they make that introduction.” Sure enough, I called up this game agent. We met. She kind of liked that idea. Tried to shop it around. Wasn’t getting too much traction. And she said, “Do you have other ideas?” And I sure do. I’ve got plenty of ideas. So my daughter and I actually had collaborated on a game that I called Pickles to Penguins. So, again, this is even before Tenzi. So I had this prototype, this idea for Pickles to Penguins, which was a real simple fast card game. And the game agent liked it a lot. And she said, “Well, let’s see what we can do.” Now lo and behold, she starts to shop around and I get a phone call. I remember where I was at the time. I was driving at the time. I pulled over, she called me. She said, “Guess what? You’re in the game business now. I licensed your idea for Pickles to Penguins. And congratulations.” So you get some money up front. But now there’s an example of frugal. It cost me nothing, just the paper that I did the prototypes on. So for probably less than a hundred dollars, I was in the game business. And Mary and I got an advance. It was $15,000, which actually was a good advance in the business. Again, I had no expectations. So she and I split that. And then what happens by the way, when you reach a certain number of sales your royalties have surpassed whatever that advance is, that’s when you start to make additional money. So I’m thrilled that I’m in the game business. And I have this product called Pickles to Penguins that I’m licensing. Now here it was, it was early December, 2008. And I’m with my family cutting down a Christmas tree. By the way, Jim, there’s so many little “How the heck did that happen?”, you know, moments here. And one of the biggest things about success is often luck and there’s a lot of it happening. So I’m cutting down a Christmas tree and, and I bump into an old advertising buddy of mine. And he said, “Hey, how you doing? How are you doing?” I hadn’t seen him in 10 years. He said, “What are you up to?” And I said, “Well, I still do my presentation training. I’m loving that. But I think I’m in the game business now.” And I explained that little story. And he got excited about that. And he said, “Well, I’ve always loved games. Why don’t we get together sometime?” “Sure, sure, sure.” Well, it was probably six months later and Steve–Steve Mark is his name–Steve calls me and says, “Hey, you know, we talked about getting together.” And we did. And we started to kick around ideas. And we had a couple of ideas. We showed it to the game agent. You know, but they were not quite right. And all her advice was all good and sound. And we’d come up with another idea and another idea. And that was, was going on for a while. And we weren’t getting much traction probably for at least six months or eight months, nine months. Steve and I were coming up with ideas. And then I was doing a little research and I discovered that one of the big game companies is looking for a dice game. So a spark went off there and I said, “Well, I can get my head around this concept of a dice game.” ‘Cause Steve and I were all over the map. So I go online and I buy a bunch of dice. And I give Steve a bunch and I take a bunch. I said, “Let’s go our separate ways, play around with it. See if we can come up with a dice game idea.” So two weeks later–Again, so many of these moments I remember–Steve walks into my house and he’s standing there smiling. And he says, “I think I got it.” And he is–big, broad smile. I go, “What do you mean?” He goes, “I have an idea that I think could really work.” So I said, “Okay, what is it?” And he explains this idea. “Well, everybody gets 10 dice and you roll them as fast as possible. And whoever can collect 10 of the same number before anybody else can collect 10 of the same number yells “Tenzi” and wins. Silence on my part. I’m thinking, “Really?That’s the idea?” There was no game there. I, I, teasingly, looking back, I say, “You know, our game, Tenzi makes, uh, Rock Paper Scissor look like a Mensa test. It’s that simple.” So Steve goes, “Well, let’s play it. Let’s play it.” So sure enough, we play it. And immediately I’m hooked. I’m like, “Oh, this is fun.” It’s like a hundred-yard dash. You know, you’re, you’re rolling as nice, as fast as possible, trying to get 10 of the same number before the other person. And we tweaked the rules a little bit. We tweaked the name. Originally I think it was spelled T E N S I. And I, maybe I have dyslexia, I don’t know what I have. But I looked down. I go, “Tennis? Why are we calling it Tennis?” And we said, “No, let’s change it to a Z.” I don’t know, Z feels like a fast letter. It feels like a fun letter. So we changed it to T E N Z I. And that was the very start of it. And at that conversation, Steve said, “You know what? And I don’t wanna license it.” And my whole mind was all about licensing. I’m thinking… And again, I encourage your listeners, Jim, to go the licensing route if they don’t wanna go the manufacturing route. Which I can talk about manufacturing in a bit. But licensing for no dollars can get you into any number of businesses. I wanna share with your listeners. On YouTube, there’s a guy, his YouTube site is inventRight, R I G H T, inventRightTV. And he’s great. He gives so much great advice about how to license ideas. So there’s some homework for your listeners. So Steve says, “Hey, I don’t wanna license it. It’s just dice. And I think we can probably do this.” So I said, “Steve, I gotta tell you, I’ve got my other job. I’ve got, I–It sounds great, but…” And he’s like, uh, Steve’s like a MacGyver. He’s like a marketing MacGyver. There’s ever been a great business partner, it’s, it’s Steve because he just figures stuff out. So he goes, “No, I think we can do this.” So sure enough, Steve starts to go off to the Container Store and he buys some containers. And he, we buy some more dice online. And lo and behold, he finds this fantastic container that just has four or five compartments and fits 10 dice per compartment. It was like it was made for it. So we have this prototype now. It’s weeks later and we say, “Okay, let’s start knocking on doors and at toy stores and see if anybody will take on our prototypes.” One of my lessons learned is if you can have a business partner, have a business partner for moral support, for intellectual support, for any number of things. Find a good business partner. So Steve and I walk in the first door and, and they go, “Nah, come back on the managers here.” The second door said, “No, no, no, I’m not interested.” But by goodness, and this is the other amazing, amazing Carma thing. Our company is Carma with a C, not a K because it’s part of my name and part of Steve’s name, Carma. So another Carma moment was when we walked into this toy store in Fairfield, Connecticut, town next to me, at 10 o’clock in the morning as she was opening her store on October 30th. And we said, “Hi, we’re local game inventors. And we came up with a game idea and wondering if you might consider carrying it.” What she said in the next moment has been a major key to our success. She said, “Guys, if you can tell me how to play your game in less than 30 seconds, I might be interested.” Now, if there was ever a game in the history of games that you could explain in less than 30 seconds, it’s Tenzi. So we said, “You take 10 dice, roll ’em as fast as you can, blah, blah, blah.” She goes, “Oh my gosh, I love it. That’s fantastic.” And here’s a, another lesson. And when you’re pitching somebody, you always have to understand the world that they live in. ‘Cause in her world, she’s at the checkout. She’s got some customers. Mom’s trying to get out of this store with kids in tow. Then the proprietor only has seconds to explain an idea, a game idea. So that’s why she said, “Hey, can you do it in 30 seconds or less?” And the truth is, it really should be 10 seconds or less. I mean, forget the 30-second elevator conversation. Forget that. In fact, we got ours down to three seconds. And our three-second pitch now is, “Hey, this is the world’s fastest game.” That’s enough to get the conversation started. And then you give ’em the 30-second and then you build from that. So anyway, we give–Celeste was her name, a wonderful woman–and we give her our prototypes. And Steve and I are hanging out in the store. And of course, when you’re doing prototypes, you’re not there to make money at that point. So for every game that we gave her, she was gonna sell retail at $10. It probably cost us $20 to put together. So you’re not in it for the money in the beginning. You’re in it for, “Hey, can we get attraction and success here?” So we’re in her store poking around, looking for other ideas. You know, we didn’t have the final packaging at that point. We’re just using Container Store stuff. And within five minutes she yells over, “Hey guys, I got your first sales.” With the very first woman who walked into her store, she said, “Hey, we got this brand new game. The inventors are over there. I think it’s a great game.” You know, the customer bought two of them. Which another lesson is the power of what happens at that retail moment, merchandising. By the way, we never went to big-box stores with our games. Target, Walmart, they’re not there. Because we have this phenomenal relationship with the mom-and-pop specialty toy stores. Because what they did, they took just a bunch of dice really. In Walmart, it would just look like, “Oh, why am I gonna spend $14.95 for a bunch of dice?” But in the hands of a specialty retailer who can demo it and have it displayed out on her checkout, it becomes this game called Tenzi. And they play it with ’em. So we got our first sales that day. And of course we’re over the moon about that. And she went on to sell 300 of our games in her two stores over the holiday period. So we’re talking November, December, she sold 300. Now I’m excited about that, but I don’t have anything, you know, to go against. Is that good? Is that not good? So I said to her, “Well, like, how many Yahtzee games do you sell?” Yahtzee’s a dice game. Yahtzee’s a great game. I love Yahtzee. That’s certainly one of my favorite games. And she looks up on the computer and she said, “52.” And I said, “Is that a week?” And she said, “No, that’s in a year.” And she said, “Trust me, you sold 300 in two months. And I sell 52 of this or other popular games.” So she then went and did a video testimonial saying, “Hey, I am a retailer. These guys came in. We have this game.” We took that testimonial and that started to get us into other stores. We walked into that store October of 2010. And we were only in her two stores for that holiday period. ‘Cause she was selling ’em and it was on Steve’s shoulder. Steve was making ’em in his garage and we were dropping ’em off to her and she was selling ’em. And we’re playing around with pricing on her side because the retail price we started with I think was $10. And then we said, “Well, let’s try it at $12.95.” And it was selling at $12.95. And then we said, “Well, let’s try $14.95. And we were trying to figure out what our cost of goods were gonna be. What kind of margin did we need? What are all our expenses? And we figured that at $14.95 retail, which would be a $7.50 wholesale–it pretty much gets double for the value that they bring to it–so we knew we’d be making $7.50 a game. And based on that and what we could get the games for from China in bulk, we figured, “Okay, we can probably make this thing work.” So she sold ’em for $14.95 retail for that first season. <music>
This episode, as always, was brought to you by Brad’s Deals. There’s a community of people here scouring the web for the best deals on everything. The site is B R A D S D E A L S.com. One trick for deal hunters: You can sign up for the Brad’s Deals newsletter. That way, you’ll have a better chance of snagging something stellar before it sells out. Thanks for listening. <music> I have very little experience with games agents and the idea of someone who’s kind of a middle man basically between you and game production companies. These companies that are going to take on those costs that eventually you and your partner came into later: production, shipping, your own time. How do you evaluate a games agent? How do you know that she’s the right person to work with?
Pretty much everything I do in life is based on gut. You know, it’s just, “Do I like this person? Is the chemistry right?” And hopefully my ego is well enough and balanced that I wouldn’t say, “Well, let me see if there’s a better game agent out there.” If she was getting attitude from me or I was getting it from her, then we would both know, “No, this isn’t quite the right relationship.” So we just kind of clicked. She was excited about my ideas. She wanted to team up with me and help co-develop some of those ideas. So that’s what I base it on. And you know, it’s funny. Normally when you work with an agent, usually the inventor would get two thirds of whatever that is. So in that $15,000, I’d get $10,000 and she would get $5,000 traditionally. She said, “You know what? I’d like to collaborate with you. And would you consider, Kevin, splitting 50-50 the fee?” Now, cheap Kevin would say, “Well wait, wow. Why should I do that? Because you know, usually the inventor gets to, you know, blah, blah, blah, blah.” And I think I was talking to my dad at the time. He said, “Kevin, do the 50-50. She’s more invested. You know, she’s gonna appreciate that. She’s gonna work harder for it.” You know, so his experience made it so clear to me, just don’t get tight. You know, always be magnanimous and open it up. Because I used to teach a program called Life’s a Boomerang. It’s almost like the physics of human interactions that comes back. So we agreed going into that relationship, to help you understand it a little bit better, it was a whatever we were gonna make if she was gonna license, it was gonna be a 50-50 split.
Fantastic. And she had existing relationships with games producers.
Yes. And how valuable is that? And she knows, “Okay, based on this game, I think this, this, and this are the right companies. But that, that, and that are not the right companies.” That’s knowledge that took her 30 years to develop. So that’s what you’re getting through the game agent. You’re getting an objective eye. You’re getting somebody who can help improve your game. And again, if you click with them and the chemistry’s right, it’s terrific.
It’s easier now than ever to create your own business in things that had traditionally very high barriers to entry: games design, games production. But also, like, book publishing. You know, if our listeners are writers, it’s something very reasonable to do to write your own book, find your own copy editor, you know, find your own cover designer, publish it yourself, get your own ISBNs, get your own distribution network. There’s a lot of work that goes into that. But what you found essentially is like the publisher part of that relationship. You found someone who’s–or an agent part of that relationship–who can find you someone to do all that heavy lifting for you. Have you ever, you know, manufactured a product before? Have you ever outsourced to, like, a Chinese manufacturer? Have you ever done any kind of international shipping with tariffs? If not, if any of this sounds like a difficult step for you, something you don’t wanna do, or that your time would be used, you know, in a more valuable way elsewhere, it seems like an agent might be a good way to go.
That might be more a consultant. And I bet they’re out there. In a way I’m a game consultant. And I don’t charge anybody, but when people have ideas, I’m happy to lend them some thinking. So the game agent was really just about the relationship with, “Hey, you’re not gonna manufacture it. Let me introduce you to the game company. They take it all.” She wasn’t interested in being involved in any of the manufacturing of it. Her thing is about selling ideas. Perhaps there’s a game consultant out there that can help you figure that out. But again, with me with licensing it, it was amazingly simple. Which is you hand it over to the game company and they’re doing it all.
There’s still the moment of weird happenstance of you buying a Christmas tree with your family and running into someone from your past who turns out to be also your future.
There’s so many amazing moments that happen. And I have to do some research to find out who said this. Because years ago, I remember it was, like, a rock star drummer I think. Somebody from the seventies. And they said, “So what’s the secret to success?” And he said, “Well, there are three secrets to success.” So I’m like, “Well, this’ll be fascinating. He’s lived a rich life. He’s been very successful. He’s seen the world. And he has this belief system.” He said, “The number one most important key to success is luck.” And it stopped me dead in my tracks. That it is. You know, you just look at your life and you go, “Alright, either I had bad luck when I got into that car accident. Or I met that person who I ended up marrying and that was good luck.” And sometimes the good luck follows immediately after the bad luck. So luck plays a big component. And you can make luck happen. As you know, you get out there and start to make things happen. So that was number one. Then he said, “Number two is chutzpah.” And I said, “Yes, he’s right!” Just having that gumption to put yourself out there, speak up, believe in your ideas. I said, “That’s right. That is really important.” And then he said, “The third one is talent.” So number three is talent. And I think too often people are hung up on the talent part or think it’s all about talent. And as Woody Allen once said, “80% of success is just showing up.” You know, you gotta get out there and just show up. So there was a lot of karma that happened and, and these amazing moments, and that has been a big part of our success.
You say, you know, it’s possible to make luck happen. What did you have to do to make it possible to run into this business partner? Like, how did you know him in the past? How did you ensure that relationship was something positive? What steps led to that?
We had worked at the same ad agents. He was a copywriter and I was a suit. You know, I was an account guy. And we always had a good working relationship. And it’s funny after we did this whole Tenzi thing, I was digging through some old photos and I found a picture of he and I at some office party chumming around. I go, “Oh, I guess we were kind of buddies back there.” So we had always had that good relationship. Hadn’t stayed in touch. And part of it was just getting outta the house that particular day to cut down the Christmas tree being willing to share my story and not feeling, like, “Well, that’s egocentric.” I was excited. And I shared that story with him and he got excited. So being willing and, and open and talking it with people. Which another thing I’ve found is that when I’ve come up with ideas in the past, my instinct has been to keep it really tight. And don’t tell too many people because, “My gosh, what, what are they gonna do?” I just haven’t found that to be the case at all. If there’s ever an idea that is more ripoffable, it’s take 10 dice and roll ’em as fast as you can. I mean, there’s nothing proprietary about that. But there is once you brand it, and you build the name Tenzi, and you package ’em a certain way, and you do all the other things that come with it. That’s what you can hold on and protect. So generally people I think wanna help you be successful and they’ll connect you. So I’d encourage those that are tight with their ideas to be more open and be willing to connect.
Building these types of connections doesn’t take money. If we’re a frugal-minded audience, we can be frugal with our funds, but it can be very lucrative to not be so frugal with our ideas. I like that a lot. What happens next?
We’ve established that we’re in two stores. And we’re selling like hot cakes. And good old Steve is, is in his garage. And we’ve changed our packaging from these containers to this vertical container. So Steve is now feeding dice very carefully into a vertical container. And we’re knocking on more local doors to try to get in there. And we’re excited because we have a track record and we can say it sells well. And then that first store owner, she said to us, “I want to introduce you to my rep.” There are toy reps that call on her and they represent different lines. “So I want you to meet Carl. He’s one of the reps that I think your game would be a good fit with his line.” So we meet with Carl. I think it was at a Starbucks. Yeah, we’re at a Starbucks meeting Carl. We showed him the idea and he goes, “Yeah, this is kind of good.” He just was a character and a good guy. And he said, “Yeah, yeah, I like this.” So he introduces us to his boss, so to speak. And his boss is a game representative as well. He has contacts throughout New England. And he has a team of people that work with him. And we meet with Alan. His name is Alan Bloomberg. We meet with Alan over, uh, Swedish meatballs out in Ikea in New Haven, Connecticut. And we pitched the idea to Alan. And we said, “You know, we’re in X number of stores now.” Which may have been a dozen or so. And it’s selling well. And, and he said, “Well, yeah, let me think about it. Let talk to my partner. You know, usually we don’t take on one game. You know, we usually like to have a variety of games.” Thankfully, you know, after they processed it, they said, “Yeah, we’d be willing to rep you.” So now we have a rep team in New England that’s willing to knock on their doors. Now again, think how valuable that is. They have these relationships throughout New England. So the value in that was fantastic. And generally you’d probably pay anywhere from 10 to maybe 15% where you’d pay to the rep firm out of the wholesale. So let’s say the wholesale cost is $7.50. That’s what the retailer’s paying us, $7.50. Ten percent of that or 75 cents would go to the rep firm. And so that second season with this rep firm behind us, we probably got into probably, oh, I guess it was maybe a hundred stores. And now we’re upping our order. And now we’re digging deeper in our pockets. You know, we probably spent $300 the first time. Then we spent $3,000 for that first holiday season. Now we’re looking $30,000. It almost multiplies by 10. <music>
That was part one of our two-part conversation with Kevin Carroll of Carma games. You can check out Kevin’s site, ilovetenzi.com, to see all the stuff they produce and to get a visual on some of the things we talk about in this show. Check out the show notes at frugal.fm. And we are now on TikTok at frugallivingpod. We’ll be back again next week with part two of the conversation. <music>
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Frugal Living is a podcast for smart consumers. How do you spend less and get more? The show, sponsored by Brad’s Deals, features interviews, stories, tips, and tricks. Jim Markus hosts season five, out now.