November is Entrepreneur Month as well as the Month when we celebrate small business Saturday. The SmallBizRising crew is featuring success stories from small business owners and entrepreneurs from around the country and in different industries. Today we’re featuring Brian Turtle, Game Developer and co-founder of boutique board game company, Endless Games. Their story is a bit unique in that the company came together as a result of a quirky college game co-invented by accident by Brian known as Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon™ and industry veterans who developed Trivial Pursuit™, Pictionary®
SBR – Tell us about your business….how you got the idea and what motivated you to start it?
Brian – Endless Games was the brainchild of Kevin McNulty and Mike Gasser, who in 1996 were looking for the next hit board game after both had played major roles in the development and distribution of Trivial Pursuit and Pictionary in 2 prior companies. At this time, I was about a year out of Albright College where a few years earlier, I “accidentally” created the game The Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon with 2 fraternity brothers. The Six Degrees game had landed us a few TV segments as well as a ton of radio air-play including 3 appearances on The Howard Stern Show.
You could argue it was Howard Stern himself who provided the greatest motivation to start Endless Games as he enjoyed the game so much he networked us in to some people at the William Morris Agency in NYC and before we knew it, we had a best-selling paperback book all about The Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.
I know I’m getting longwinded here, but some of that “happy accident” back-story is really the critical part of our origin, as that book and those appearances all led to meetings with Mike (Gasser) and Kevin McNulty where we built the foundation of Endless Games.
SBR – What were some of the biggest challenges in getting your business started and bringing in revenue?
Brian – We sell a physical, tangible product so we needed the means of production and distribution. We negotiated with a major US production facility to help get us get started. It was almost like a “Shark Tank” procedure in that we were giving up some ownership in the company in order to get our games built. We’ve subsequently bought back 100% of the company, but it was a WIN/WIN as the production company earned a profit (as well as our manufacturing business), and we were able to manufacture a few hundred thousand games without going bankrupt before we sold our first one!
Besides the financial matters involved in starting a business from scratch, there’s the “How do we get noticed” or “Brand Awareness” element that can often make or break a young company. I must say that even though The Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon game wasn’t nearly as big as Trivial Pursuit or Pictionary, it really put the spotlight on Endless Games from the start. We had Access Hollywood, Entertainment Tonight, and other such media covering our progress at our very first trade show (The ’97 International Toy Fair in New York City). That attention was invaluable to the launch of our company as anyone who hadn’t heard of Endless Games before that show, certainly knew something about us by the end.
SBR – What public/free resources did you leverage to help you to get going?
Brian – The only thing really “leveraged” was the stock we exchanged to help us get our first production runs up and going. But we put any and all free publicity/press resources to good use as we had a good story to tell, and we were covered quite extensively in that first year and based on the strength of that coverage, we were viewed as an “up and comer” or to put it another way, we were given a seat at the “adult table” and we got to meet with studios, licensors, and retailers that we might not have been given to opportunity to otherwise.
SBR – What technologies did you put in place to help start/grow your business?
Brian – Given that Endless Games is a board game company, you might think we’re adverse to technology. I’ll confess we are pretty analog here, and we place a ton of value on “unplugged play” at home with the family. However, we have always tried to have a connection with our customer base and made the commitment early on to have a user-friendly website that would encourage feedback from other folks out there who still enjoy the board game experience. (www.endlessgames.com)
Aside from the consumer end, we had to “go digital” internally with our inventory management system as well as implementing new software to send and receive purchase orders electronically.
SBR – How did you manage your work/life balance in the beginning versus now?
Brian – The most amazing part of this whole journey is how the evolution of Endless Games has mirrored my own personal growth. We started out with a college party game in the 6 Degrees of Kevin Bacon. A few years in, we shifted to a more “Retro” identity as we brought back home versions of classic TV game shows like Password, The Price is Right, The Newlywed Game, and Concentration. Then I had kids and everything went haywire!
Our retro and party games gave way to children’s products like The Cupcake Race and the ABC Matching Game. As my daughters got older, they became our “private consultants” as we expanded that category to include card games for younger players like our Red Light, Green Light 1-2-3 game, and our best-selling Sleepover Party Game for girls ages 8 and up.
As game playing became more and more prevalent at home, we got back into developing some Family Party games like Name 5. And now, more recently, as my girls have gotten a little older, we’re coming full circle back to some college style party games like our Hashtagit and That Was Awkward games.
I guess the point is that when you are in the toy industry, having a family and playing with your kids becomes as extension of work – but not in a laborious way. I love the idea that the board game is such a pure means of human connection, and I’m always looking for ways to connect! So maybe I’m always working… or then again, maybe I’m always playing! In either case, I can honestly say I’ve had a great balance of work and life throughout the history of Endless Games!
SBR – What are the biggest issues you face that prevent or slow down growth of your business?
Brian – Competition is always a factor. At the end of the day, there’s only so much shelf space to go around and there are millions of products trying to get on there.
There’s also the fact that we’ve seen a serious decline in traditional “brick and mortar” retailers. One could argue that those sales would just transfer over to the on-line marketplace and there’s some truth to that, but board games are unique in that they still sell best when folks get to play them via in-store demos or salesperson/customer referrals.
On the bright side, there’s recently been a real board game renaissance of sorts as the category as a whole has been one of the strongest growth areas in the entire toy industry. I’m hoping that folks are looking for a little less “screen time” in their lives and more of that “unplugged play” I find myself preaching about!
What outsourced services do you use to help manage your business?
We have outsouced production, warehousing, and use independent sales reps who work regional territories.
SBR – What strategies do you use to compete against larger competitors?
Brian – We take pride in being a boutique business. We have relationships with our customers. We are passionate about what we do and we really believe in the idea that board games bring people together.
When we started the company, handheld electronics threatened to make board games obsolete. It didn’t happen. Phone apps and computer games have had various levels of success and staying power, but none have taken the place of the board game. We’re in a rare niche where nostalgia and newness can coexist.
I mentioned before that games are stronger than ever. I do think this growth is a reaction to people needing to get off-line and connect on a human level. But at the same time, I think it’s because companies like Endless Games are listening to our customer needs. We’re trying to stay ahead of trends and put out products that we find fun and engaging. Being a smaller business gives us the flexibility to respond quickly to changes in the market and stay ahead of the curve.
We also try to do as much domestic manufacturing as possible. This helps us cut down on lead times, and can create “first to market” opportunities.
SBR – What role has social media played in your business growth/marketing?
Brian – We have taken a very active approach with our Facebook, Twitter, and other social media accounts. From our second catalog in 1998, we’ve been putting ourselves on the cover or throughout the pages. We wanted to show our customers who we are and what our personalities are. We’ve taken the same personal approach with social media in that besides learning about our products, our pages invite folks to find out who the people are behind them.
We’ll continue to promote our silly side in our catalogs (you can see most of them here: https://endlessgames.com/catalogs-archives/ ), and we’ll be sharing our stories on social media to stay connected.
What’s unique…and truly inspirational… about Endless Games is that in an industry that is hyper competitive with extremely large and entrenched competitors, coupled with declines in physical retail, Endless Games has managed to grow and be competitive by staying true to their Boutique roots, connecting with customers and putting a lighthearted spin on the company as a whole. We at SBR applaud them and want to see more stories like this!
About Endless Games
Founded by industry veterans Mike Gasser, Kevin McNulty and game inventor Brian Turtle, Endless Games specializes in games that offer classic entertainment and hours of fun at affordable prices.
The three have an uncanny ability for discovering and developing hit games, having been a part in past successes Trivial Pursuit™, Pictionary® and Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon™.
The general principle of Endless Games is to produce high quality entertainment in board games that are quick and easy to learn, but offer “Endless” play value. This theme runs through the line of classic games like Kismet and Mancala as well as home versions of the iconic TV game show The Family Feud. Newer, cutting edge games like Oddly Obvious and Camera Roll, and party games Name 5 and #Hashtagit! also maintain this model for instantly addictive fun!
From ages 3 to 103, Endless Games offers card games, dice games, party games, word games, trivia games, survey games, and pop culture games for everyone.
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