Frugal Living: How do you make a living doing what you love? (Part 2)
We continue our conversation with Kevin Carroll, Executive Dice President of Carma Games, about how to build a career doing what you love. Check out Frugal Living on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Amazon, Anchor.fm, iHeartRadio, or anywhere you go to find podcasts.
It’s not just aspiring game designers who can learn from Caroll’s story. His advice applies to anyone who sells a product. Tenzi, Slapzi, and other Carma Games don’t take long to learn. And that’s one of the most appealing factors in the sales process.
Caroll’s Tenzi only takes a few seconds to explain. It only takes a few seconds for a business owner to understand the rules, and it only takes a few minutes to get a shopper excited about it. Simplicity helps these products sell.
When Caroll wanted to expand his distribution, he ended up at a trade show. Instead of waiting around for potential buyers to walk by, he enticed them with a challenge. He invited them to play. His booth soon bubbled with activity, and his business thrived.
Here’s part two of the conversation.
Read a Transcript From This Episode
This is Frugal Living. <music> Welcome back to part two of our two-part conversation with Kevin Carroll, the Executive Dice President of Carma Games. We’re talking about how to scale a business, especially as a frugal-minded entrepreneur. Here’s the rest of our conversation. <music>
There’s a thing called Toy Fair. It’s a trade show. Traditionally, it’s held in February in New York and it’s been going for a hundred-some-odd years. And it’s a big trade show where sellers meet buyers. And you rent a booth for three or four days. And you sell your wares to primarily retailers, but you might meet some reps there. Maybe some of the big-box stores would be there. So Steve and I say, “Alright. Yeah, let’s invest money.” So now it’s gonna probably cost us $5,000 for a four-day rental to have our 10-foot by 10-foot booth. And we’re gonna buy a banner and we’re gonna buy a tablecloth. We’re gonna do different things. And we’re gonna try to hawk our wares at, at the trade show. So Steve and I go to our trade show and we get set up. And you’re just amongst hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of other vendors, some which are up on the floor above you. And they’re enormous. The Hasbros. The Mattels. And we got our little 10 by 10 booth and we have our Tenzi banner. And we were just, you know, we were starting to get some traction at this point. But I would say less than probably 5% of all retailers knew about us, even though we were doing well in New England and they were selling and they were happy and a few of them would stop by. So we have our booth and I gotta tell you, a trade show, it can be pretty lonely and quiet and scary. Or if you can turn the corner and get some traction, it could be a, a great fun place. Well, in the beginning it was lonely and scary and quiet because we were standing in our booth and people were just walking right by. And we’re saying, “Hi, good morning. Hello.” “Oh, hi. Hi.” Then we said, “Would you like to try our game?” “No, no, I’m fine. No, we’re good. Then we’d say, “Oh, maybe we needed to smile a little bit more.” “Hey! Would you like to try our game?” “No, we’re good.” We’re marketing guys. We’re advertising guys. We’ve learned how to think and act in 30 seconds or less, 15 seconds. And we’d critique each other and say, “Okay, what’s not working here?” And Steve said, “Let’s not make it a question. Let’s not ask them if they wanna come over. We’re gonna make a statement.” So we changed it from “Hey, would you like to try our game?” to we’d look people right in the eye, we’d smile at them, we’d wave ’em over, and we’d say, “This is the fastest game you will ever play.” And I gotta tell you, as simple as that is, that took gumption. That’s just not my style to look somebody right in the eye and say, “Come on over and buy this thing.” But we did it in a good spirited way. And people would kinda come over and say, “Okay, what is it? It looks like dice.” “Well, it is just dice, but you just wait and see.” And then we would play the game. We’d explain it to ’em and we’d play with them. And they were immediately hooked. So then they’d play again. And then they’d scream Tenzi when they got it. And there’s a major psychological component that goes on at trade shows. And that is nobody wants to be at your booth when nobody is there. That’s how it works. One person’s there. All of a sudden, you got some validity. And people are gonna say, “Hmm, what’s going on over there?” They may not actually come. They’ll look. They may not come to your booth because it’s still a little scary for them to actually come to the booth. But once you get two people there, then it totally validates you. So what we did, and it’s worked in our favor so well, we said we’re not gonna run our booth like it’s a regular booth. ‘Cause we’d look around and see quiet booths. And people were just filling out orders or not filling out orders. We said, “No, we’re gonna run our booth like it’s an arcade.” So when they came over we said, “Alright, now we’re gonna see if you can win this game from us.” And we wanna give this game to ’em, but we’re gonna let them earn it. We’d go, “Okay, if you can beat us…” or whatever, and we’d find a way for them to win the game. So now they won it. And then they’d say, “Well, how much does it cost to get started?” “Well, you get, and it’s $67.50 and that gets you nine games. And it gets you a free demo game. And you get this rack. And you get this (?). And the shipping is free. And they look at us like, “Wait, okay, what’s the hitch here? So I’m getting nine games, and it’s only costing me $67.50, and blah, blah.” And we said, “There is no hitch.” We’re not making money on those starter kits because, you know, we’re giving free shipping. We’re giving a demo game in it. We have the free rack. We have this and that. We’re gonna give ’em a poster. But it’s all those things that we’re gonna try to get into the retail store. And we’d say, “Just put this up close to checkout.” Do you know how valuable that real estate is? Being close to checkout? I remember my days I used to work on Ocean Spray as one of my accounts and that the amount of money that an Ocean Spray company would pay to get a promotion in a store or end-aisle display. But these store owners, the mom-and-pop retail specialty store owners, were saying, “Sure, you want it by checkout? Just put it right here?” “Yep! And here’s your demo game. And all you have to say is, just demo it just like what we did with you.” “Okay.” And so that’s how we ran it for three days. And then a rep would come up to us and say, “Hey, I heard that you’re with, represented in New England by so-and-so. He told me to come down.” Again, the value of the relationship. I wouldn’t know a rep from a retailer. And now reps are starting to come to our booth. And they’re hearing that we have a pretty good game here. Well, for three or four days straight it was nonstop. And it got crazier and crazier and, and faster and livelier. We were three rows deep at our booth, screaming and yelling Tenzi, and wanting to buy the product. I mean, it, it was out of a movie. We were having so much fun. We were absolutely exhausted. We couldn’t even leave our booth. We had no time. But we couldn’t leave our booth because we were wall-to-wall busy writing orders. We had 150 orders at that show. And we had reps all around the country wanting to rep the product. So therefore I… At the end of it, we got together and I had to figure out, “Alright, which reps?” Again, it was just based on chemistry. Who did I feel like I could deal with effectively for the next X number of years, hopefully? So that was crazy. And then we came out of it saying, “Okay, now’s the big question.” These people want these games and they want a lot of them. And Steve and I had a, an honest conversation about, “Okay, what can we afford? You know, how much are we gonna have to borrow?” We borrowed money, had some people co-sign, whatnot. And that $30,000 is now probably up to $300,000 or more. And Steve said, “Well, I encourage you to talk to your wife. Have a heart-to-heart about, you know, if this goes south, what could we afford to lose?” That’s the conversation you have to have because it very well still could go south. Even though we have every indication. And my wife Mary said, “Oh, I think we could afford to lose X.” And I told Steve, “We can afford to lose two X.” So I guess I’m more of a gambler than my wife. But she was totally supportive, all for it. She’d known what the last two years were like and everything we had built. And then we dig deep and we buy a whole bunch of Tenzi games. And now we’re in hundreds of stores around the country. And those hundreds eventually became a thousand, then two or three thousand. So probably at our peak we are in about 4,000 stores. And so at any given time, you know, maybe two or three thousand are buying it actively. And we came out with a, a set of cards called 77 Ways to Play Tenzi. So in the game itself, there’s seven ways to play. And then we came up with these crazy, silly, ridiculous, simple ways to play Tenzi. And there was this add-on pack called 77 Ways to Play Tenzi. And then we came out with a Party Pack, which was six sets of dice. That’s opposed to the original game, which has four sets. Now you can have a Party Pack and that has six sets of dice. So we did some add-ons to that. And the darn thing for, you know, three, four years just sold. And it’s still selling very, very well. The word in the business is evergreen. Can you take your idea that you’re selling and make it an evergreen product that will be there year after year? And after about a couple years or so people are saying, “Hey, I think you got an evergreen product here, evergreen product.” And that’s music. So that’s when it all exploded. And we probably had four years of just Tenzi, Tenzi, Tenzi, Tenzi. And the stores kept saying, “What’s new, what’s new, what’s new?” We said, “Nothing, nothing, nothing. It’s just Tenzi. Keep focus on Tenzi.”
I mean, this is the dream for any game designer, game inventor, to see the kind of success that you saw with really the first product that you released as a company that you didn’t license out to someone else. One thing you didn’t touch on too much, you’ve mentioned a little bit, but I think is probably worth considering. It sounds like the only employees in your business are you and your partner. And you kind of outsource for a lot of the things you need help on. Is that right?
Absolutely. And I think too often people say, “Okay, I’m gonna build this business. And I need to” (either) “hire somebody” (God forbid) or “I need to get some office space.” And now with COVID and virtual world, people get that, “Oh, I don’t need to have all that stuff.” But too often, people, like, spend too much money up front when they really don’t need to. So it was Steve and I. And then my wife was helping out with it because I still was doing my other business and trying to keep some traction there. And somebody else was helping us collect bills. And somebody else was helping with our bookkeeping. Steve found a company up in Massachusetts–but maybe going into that second year where we started buying bulk dice from–and they deal directly with China. So they are the middle person. And thank goodness for them. Our partner, there is Grand Prix International or GPI up in Massachusetts. And they were fabulous ’cause they have factories they deal with in China. They have their people there. They have relationships there. And we’re able to deal with them in Massachusetts. Because the amount of communication that can go wrong between somebody green like myself or Steve dealing with China trying to find the right factory, it would’ve been a fiasco. And I’ve talked to other people who are game inventors dealing directly with China and they’re struggling. And nothing against those folks in China. It’s more just communication and breakdowns that happen. So our partner, manufacturing, Grand Prix International, have been fabulous in this whole relationship. <music>
This episode, as always, was brought to you by Brad’s Deals. The site is B R A D S D E A L S.com. Thanks for listening. <music>
It sounds like another pattern I’m noticing is you’re finding people who are already experts in the things where you lack a specific skillset. You find someone who, they know this inside and out. And then you leverage their expertise without having to hire on a full-time person. Again, to bring this back to the frugal part of our conversation: As a frugal business owner, there’s an ongoing expense with a full-time employee. Where if you’re outsourcing to another company that specializes in this, you’re paying them when you need them. You’re paying them maybe a retainer if they’re going to be producing for you all the time. But they’re not on your payroll. This isn’t someone you need to pay benefits to and expand your team for.
Well, and again, I give Steve so much credit because he just figures out processes and systems. So where I think I might freeze with, “Oh my gosh, on my corporate training side I might have a dozen clients I’m dealing with and I can bill them. But how am I gonna deal with a thousand?” Well, through the marvels of QuickBooks and having it set up right–all stuff that I didn’t know and Steve didn’t know about it either–but he’ll just figure things out. So having processes in place has been tremendous, tremendous, tremendous. So again, partnerships all around the place that help two knuckleheads continue to run this business. As Tenzi was having its success, I said to my, my son and my daughter–I’m always encouraging them. You know, how can you do something smarter, quicker, easier? And I’d say, “There’s this model, which is licensing. And if you can come up with a game idea that Steve and I like, we’ll license it.” And I explained how. “You come up with the idea. And if we like it we’ll produce it and all that.” So. And my daughter was great too. She was always helping with ideas. And she’s one who helped with Pickles to Penguins. But my son would pitch ideas to us and they were too complicated. ‘Cause our games… You know, what we have so clear in our mind is this: That when we’re at a trade show and a retailer walks up, within 15 seconds they need to understand how to play the game. And 15 seconds later, they are playing the game and they are laughing. I mean, we are so clear on that is the hurdle. And within a moment we can just cut through ideas and say, “No, it’s not gonna work, not gonna work.” Because for us, that’s the model. Others have great, wonderful, strategic, slow-moving games. But that’s what their model is. Our model is that instant hit and energy and fun. So my son Colin would pitch us some ideas. And I said, “No, no, no, no, too much thinking.” And then I showed him an idea that was a simple card game. I said, “This is the level of simplicity we need.” And shortly thereafter he pitched this idea called Slapzi, which as you know, is, it’s basically slapjack. I guess you could say it is. Lots and lots, couple hundred picture cards. And then somebody will flip over a clue card that says, “It’s blue.” And you have to quickly look through your cards and see what’s blue and slap it on first. Or it’s something that can, you can stuff inside a backpack. And somebody might have a picture of an ostrich and say, “I can put an ostrich in.” “No, you can’t put an ostrich in a backpack.” So it creates a lot of energy and fun and laughter. Tenzi was such a clear model for us about the simplicity. And it has to be fast play. And it has to be what’s called all play, meaning nobody’s sitting around waiting for their turn. Everybody’s playing at the same time. Grandmas need to play with the grandchildren. College kids need to play it. We want simple, simple. One of the best comments I had ever seen on Amazon was a woman wrote, “Even my husband will play this game.” And that was an indication of the simplicity. So Colin pitched that idea to us and we tweaked it and we changed it. Steve liked it. And then we said, “Okay, let’s create this game Slapzi.” And essentially that involved sourcing. Rather than hiring an illustrator and taking your own photos, you go to stock photos and you look up… Okay, we wanted all these, you know, lotsa different items that were silhouetted. A clean white background looking as if they were shot by the same photographer the same way, which they were not. But we found hundreds and hundreds of items and cut them down as to the ones that we wanted. Then we came up with, whatever, 65 clue cards to go along with it, packaged it, and came out with Slapzi. And presented that probably, I don’t know, maybe year four or five. And for years the stores were saying, “What’s new, what’s new?” And then we could say, “Hey, we got this new thing called Slapzi.” We’d play. They’d immediately be laughing. They immediately understood the rules. And they immediately ordered thereafter. And they got a free demo game so that they again could play with their customers. We were so free with our sampling. We started giving them to vendors, our competition right around us. So then they were pitching for us. So the notion of getting your product in people’s hands was a big thing. And then just sample, sample, sample.
That’s incredible. It’s expensive to go out and get someone, like, to pay someone to be interested in your product. But if someone’s already interested in your game and there’s a chance that at a gaming convention, the bar at night, they’re gonna play your game, I can’t think of a better compliment to have.
Exactly. We’ve had people two years later come up to our booth and say, “You know, you gave me one of your games and I gave it to my kid and, and blah, blah, blah. My kid hasn’t stopped playing that game. And I wanted to come back and thank you again for that.” Wow. How valuable was that? And I also want to add something about customer service because, you know, we make mistakes. And accidents, problems will happen. And my philosophy has been, if we can make it up to our customer in such a way that they’ll actually hope we make another mistake because we’ve made it up in, in such a good way to them. We want them to say, “What? You’re gonna do this and this for me?” And the cheap side of me would say, “No, don’t do that. That’s overdoing it.” But just think about, let’s say they got the wrong product delivered. Well now they have to take the time to call us. We might ask them to send it back to us. They might feel embarrassed even about complaining, about getting the wrong product, feel uncomfortable. You know? So there’s a lot of hoops that they’re going through. And we made the mistake. So I think it’s important for everybody to realize on a customer service side what’s needed to repair those problems. So that’s been a key to our success along the way.
This goes back to another pattern that we started this conversation with. And that’s building relationships. If you didn’t have this type of relationship, you wouldn’t have a business partner. If you didn’t have your business partner, you wouldn’t have met Celeste. If you hadn’t met Celeste, you wouldn’t have ended up, you know, at this New York toy convention. All these things are relationship building. And what you’re talking about now is just continuing that with customer service. These positive customer service experiences get people talking about your game and your company. And that’s how you end up on a podcast like this talking about it to someone who’s a fan. I’d like to get, if possible, general advice from you. For someone who’s starting, you know, it’s probably not a games business. It’s probably something else that they’re passionate about in their lives. But as a frugal-minded person, you know, what do they need to keep in mind if they wanna start their own business? What tips can you share with them?
Keep your day job. And it’s actually, these days with virtual everything, it’s a lot easier to keep your day job. You don’t have to show up nine to five. You can do the work, but you don’t have to be there. So keep your day job. Keep that sustained while you’re doing the other. So that’s one lesson. Another lesson is, and we talked a lot about this, is try the licensing route if possible. Think about it. So whatever that product might be, do some research on it and see… First of all, go to that place inventRight. That guy’s great. Learn about licensing. ‘Cause a lot of times the companies want to buy good ideas. And that’s a way to do it on the frugal side and get you introduced to that business. Because you’ll have other ideas. So licensing, I think that opens up a whole place to people that they never thought about. “You mean I can get a product out there and not spend a penny?” “Yeah, if you have the right idea and pitch it.” And I would add to that, find out what they want. Like that company that wanted that, we could probably have walked in there and sold that idea to them because they wanted a dice game. So find out what companies are looking for. Let’s say you have a new kitchenware appliance or system, whatever it may be. Find out who wants what and find the right match ’cause that’s gonna increase your chances of hitting rather than just pitch what you want. Just start somewhere. Just start somewhere because it’s so daunting. How do you, how do you take an idea to a multimillion dollar game business? See, you can’t do it. But if you just start somewhere, just start somewhere, come up with a prototype, buy some dice on Amazon, play it, tweak it, write some rules, knock on some doors. It builds. So just start somewhere. Don’t take on the whole thing. You don’t have to have it all figured out. Start somewhere. You’ll learn as you go. Find the right partner. I mentioned this once or twice. And it’s hard to know what the right partner is, but it’s that chemistry. Steve and I have complementary skills. And, you know, there’s so much value that can come out of that partnership, as I talked about before. So I wanna underscore that. And then the last one I’m gonna say is, I would say get down to your three-second elevator pitch. Not your thirty-second, which is hard enough for people to do, but your three-second. In three seconds, how can you say the essence? I have the attention span of a gnat. A lot of people do. So how could you pitch whatever you have with a value proposition so somebody could say, “Oh, that’s interesting. Tell me more.” That’s when you get into the thirty-second and you tell ’em a little bit more. What I’ve learned from teaching years and years of presentation skills is people really do struggle with, “What is your point?” And they’ve gotten so lost in the details because they know so much, that somebody coined it as–and it’s a great term–“Beware of the curse of knowledge.” When you suffer from the curse of knowledge, you know too much and it’s hard for you even to articulate at the simple idea that you’re talking about. So having that really short, short, short, short three-second pitch. That can lead to the thirty-second pitch and then to the three-minute pitch. It’s all about getting a conversation, going back and forth because that’s when you’re gonna discover what’s of interest to them and all those other things. And then the sale becomes easy. It’s really about helping rather than selling. <music>
I learned so much from this story. Keep your pitch short, shorter than you thought possible. Hook your audience. And then get them excited about your product. I’m looking forward to applying these principles in my own life. Huge thanks to our guest, Kevin Carroll. You can find his games at ilovetenzi.com. And shout out to another of his games, Slapzi, which I’ve played a bunch and recommend for a fast-paced option to start game night. And special thanks to you, the listeners. Interacting with you is the reason it’s so much fun to make this show. If you wanna join the community, we’ve been having some fun interactions on TikTok at frugallivingpod. You can find us at Frugal.fm where we have show notes and transcripts of each episode. Today’s show was edited by Jenny Blauvelt, and I’m Jim Markus. If you enjoyed today’s show, please leave a review on iTunes. We will be back again next week with more Frugal Living. <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.