I love a good board game. From Scrabble to Cranium to The Game of Life to Monopoly… a good board game can truly make any gathering. But how do these games come about and who are the real geniuses behind them? Well, earlier this summer I met Alison Denbigh, co-creator of Watch Ya’ Mouth. A board game that took a comedic moment in a film and turned it into one of the funniest games to play has picked up so much momentum and notoriety that big business has actually copied their idea, creating a similar product.
Alison and I recently chatted about everything from how the idea came about, her and her husband’s (co-creator Peter Denbigh) new hub for startups, and the importance of a bucket list at every stage in life.
Let’s begin with how Watch Ya’ Mouth came about.
My husband Peter has always been an entrepreneur, so he’s had a few projects before. He’s had a few on Kickstarter. You can look up Peter Denbigh and see some of his past projects. Some have done well, and some have failed. He’s always looking for new ideas. He honestly gets all the credit for creating the concept, but we were both watching the movie called The Boss with Melissa McCarthy.
It came out in April of 2016. We were watching the movie and at the beginning, probably like the first 15, 20 minutes, she’s in her office with her assistant and she has one of these cheek retractors in her mouth. Her assistant’s trying to whiten her teeth, but she’s still talking. Peter’s like what is that thing? Of course, we both had braces, so we’re familiar with the whole retractor process, but he just thought, “Let’s go ahead and order a few of those.”
He ordered a few. I think they came from China, different places. We put them in our mouths and started talking and used like Urban Dictionary and came up with some really cool phrases and then invited our friends down and our neighbors to see if they would put it in their mouths. The kids, no problem. No hesitation. They thought it was really cool. Some of the adults were like, “Uh, I’m not sure if I want to put that in my mouth,” but when they saw everybody hysterically laughing, we noticed that even the ones that were a little tight and conservative were even putting it in their mouths and having a lot of fun. My husband said that he knew to proceed with it when I was laughing hysterically to the point I was crying. Usually, it takes a lot for me to laugh a lot. I’m usually the stiff in the room. If you can get me to laugh hysterically, then there might be something to it.
We started putting a prototype together. When I would get off work in the evenings, I would sit and come up with a bunch of phrases. I had the most fun during the Not Safe For Work version phrases. I learned a lot with Urban Dictionary what some of the words mean that weren’t part of my language at the time. I just helped him on weekends and evenings, coming up with phrases and content. He worked with a guy off 99designs and found a contractor, freelancer in Indonesia that does all our graphics. He helped create the box and put it all together. We put it on Kickstarter within 30 days. The movie came out in April. We watched it probably a week or so after it came out. Then we were on Kickstarter in May. Then we had a 30-day campaign because we thought, “If we’re going to make this work, we want it to be finished so we could possibly get Christmas sales.” We’re like, “If it’s going to work, let’s just give it 30 days and not drag it out.”
How did it do?
By the end of the June, it was approved. It was successfully funded. I think we only had $6,000 as our goal. That was to make 1,000 or so. I forget what the quantity, but I know our goal was $6,000. We ended up getting $27,000. There’s about 700 backers on there. If you go onto Kickstarter, you can look at a lot of the information for a little bit more detail.
That was the end of June, so we’re like, “Okay, we got to do this.” We called a bunch of manufacturers. Usually in July is when the industry is really busy making all games, so it was really hard to find any domestic manufacturers that could meet our schedule for what we promised our Kickstarter backers. Unfortunately, we did have to go to China, but we found a fantastic partner both in cheek retractors and the final product; we have two primary manufacturers. They went ahead and made the product for us.
Before we chose our suppliers, we asked for samples and made sure that they spoke really good English so there wasn’t any miscommunication or understanding. They ended up making it for us. They air shipped it. We were in our basement fulfilling all the orders for the Kickstarter. I invited all my family down and did that. We have some pictures I believe. One of them on Kickstarter is you can just do the base game that everybody’s familiar with and then we had the adult expansion pack as the second option with the two. Then the third, the premium, was to have both, but Peter would hand sign each of the boxes inside.
Oh wow, that must have taken a long time?
We spent a few days just writing inside all of them and resealing them up and then shipping them out. That was a really fun time for us when we got to see our product, and we saw that they were sold and they were going to people and they were excited about having Peter the inventor write a private message to them.
Then we started shipping to Amazon in August. We were doing really well. All of our Kickstarter backers were really loyal, spread the word for us. One of the things that we had that was unique, again Peter’s idea, is to create a community card program. They can go onto our website and suggest a phrase and they would leave their name, their city or state and if they were chosen, if they wanted their name included, almost everybody does.
We hand selected really good quality phrases and on the bottom of those cards would have who suggested that phrase, so they got credit for the phrase and all of them might get manufactured. It was another way to get a loyal fan base, as they were part of the process. We still do that today. Any new expansion packs or any new products, if you submit a phrase and we like it and we select it, then your name would be on a card and all the games are manufactured with that product.
How did you all do on Amazon?
We started doing really well on Amazon in that August that we were placed in a pre-order, where we couldn’t keep up with the demand. We were on constant calls with Amazon to make sure that we could meet the promises that Amazon is giving to the customers, that when they take the order, they can still ship to them within a couple of weeks. When we were having calls on weekends with them about timeline, that’s when I decided I had to leave my job and do supply chain.
Oh woah, you were still working?
I was still working. I was fulfilling and helping out on nights, weekends. I was customer service for the first two months answering questions about tracking numbers and just questions about hygiene and how to take care of the cheek retractors, all of that. We were starting to find out what the common questions were and making sure that we put answers for all of those on our website, etc. I end up leaving September 1st at that point. That’s when things were full throttle with Amazon. That’s really when things got crazy.
We were working 24/7. We were Skyping with our manufacturers. You couldn’t let a day go by where you weren’t talking to the manufacturers to make sure that things got shipped out all the time, that the components were all making it to all the places. By October, we had four factories that were producing for us to keep up with demand. We ended up sprawling into North Carolina. We also had a domestic supplier, and it was helping with all of our expansion packs.
When did you all eventually add people to you team?
Then we had our first hire, which is customer service, mid September because I couldn’t keep up with supply chain and customer service. She came in just to handle customer service. Everybody wanted to make sure that they were getting their games quickly, that they were going to get it before Thanksgiving and etc. It’s been a whirlwind since.
Can you tell us some things you learned from expanding to Amazon?
We learned a lot through Amazon. They have a Amazon Launchpad, so if you ever come across any other small businesses. Amazon Launchpad is a branch of Amazon that specializes in helping small businesses and create more of a level platform for bigger companies. We got a contact person that helped when we had PO or shipping problems. We’d just call that one person and then they would get us to the person that we needed. We got through a lot of red tape.
When our product was running into the scale that it did, Launchpad helped us delay this to what they call the Big Dogs. That’s where Hasbro and Mattel and all of them are vendors at Amazon. They helped make that a seamless process. If we had to figure all that out on our own in the middle of the holiday season, we would have never survived. They ended up being a huge partner for us and half the reason we did as well as we did last year.
That’s great! You mentioned Hasbro now and I know that when we met you mentioned about them creating a … I don’t want to call competition, but a very similar game to your game. When you found out … Actually, how did you find out that they created one?
When you come out with a product, the standard is to send out a press release so everybody in the industry knows what is occurring, who’s coming out with what product, etc. We had done a press release for our product in July, June or July, of our product after Kickstarter was approved, but before we started shipping. Right in that timeframe, we did a press release where we were pairing up with Buffalo Games to help get us into retail stores. We had made a partnership and we were making a press announcement of our product.
Then you’ll find that a month or so later, Hasbro made their announcement of a similar product. We reached Amazon and the market before anybody else, but because we were a small company and it was holiday season, we had a really hard time getting onto the shelves of retail stores. In July is when the Walmarts and the Toys“R”Us and the Targets make their planograms, they already know what is going to be on their shelves and how it’s going to look by July.
It’s called planograms, you said?
Yeah, planograms is what they call it. It’s where the buyers figure out what is going to fill up their shelves. They only have so much shelf space so they have to figure out, “How big are the items? What all can I fit on? Do I have a good assortment that goes on the shelves?” Then once it’s full, nothing else goes on the shelves. Target and all of them have to pay cash, so they do it in July so they can plan how much they’re going to spend. It is when they do their budget.
Once all that’s set in stone, it’s really hard to make any changes. For a small business like ourselves, that’s almost impossible. That’s why we had a strategic partnership with Buffalo Games as they already sold puzzles and some lower key type of games at Target and Toys“R”Us already and Walmart. Target really liked our concept and was the first retail store to give us a chance, where we had moved some product in order to fit in and then we started shipping to them. They made a bold choice by bringing us on such late time of the year, but it proved to do well. Toys“R”Us quickly followed.
At that point, when we were being placed on the shelves, Hasbro had already been shelved. They were already selling and Speak Out was selling out and couldn’t keep up. They saw that there was a big demand, therefore expedited us getting onto the shelves to fill that demand. Some people misperceived that they were the first ones, but if you look at Kickstarter and our press announcements, you can see that we were the first. Since they’re a big company, they were able to get to the retail stores’ shelves first, which made some people think that they were first only because they were able to get that slot before we could.
Has there been any difficulty? What happens essentially when you create a product and then someone else copies your product? Do you just have to suck it up or can you go to court for this?
That’s where the good old American competitive marketplace is 100% business to have competition. That is what this has just become. It’s somewhat of a healthy competition. Even with both of us in the market, we still couldn’t meet the demand last year. We wouldn’t have been able to make the demand by ourselves so quickly. We have a patent pending, which no one else does, but patents take a couple of years. That’s one of the negatives about the United States patent process is that they are so slow that it makes it unfair for those who do come up with the idea, that do have patent. It stays out there for so long that people can legally make a product just like yours until it gets approved. Once it gets approved, then the person that has the approved patent will then have to go to court for all those people that are copying and pay for all of the court costs and everything to go after their sales from when it got approved on. You don’t get anything from when you started to when the patent got approved.
Wow, that really sucks!
Yeah, and patents are public knowledge because if you come up with an idea and you want to see if anybody else has a patent already approved or pending, you don’t want to pursue that idea knowing somebody got it before you. It has to be public for people to do that research. When I put out a patent pending, anybody can do it.
You mentioned a couple of difficulties. Have there been other difficulties that you all have come across from the idea process to now? Also, have there been any difficulties specifically you being a woman? Have there been moments where you have to bring in your husband and be like, “I can’t handle this because … ”
Those are really good questions. To answer the first one, difficulties. We’ve given a couple of presentations to organizations around here and they always ask that exact same question. They’re business minded. They want to know what you’re going through as well. I’m going to say our top ones were financing, dealing with counterfeits and probably getting into the stores at first. We were able to satisfy that. I come from finance background. That was my prior career. I was a controller, so that’s finance, accounting, and management.
When you come up with a product, you have to make it. If I’m making product in China and say I need 200,000 units and they make it, they require a deposit, which helps them buy all of the supplies that go into it for them, and then they bill you for the rest of it when competed and you have to pay it in full before they’ll ship it. One, where do you get all that cash in order to get it? If I’m selling to Amazon or Target, I’m on 60-day terms. I can’t pay that off until I get paid. Somehow you have to get a loan or be lucky enough to have that much money already, which is not the case for us.
If I’m going to go to a bank, a bank is not going to approve me because, one, I haven’t been around for a year or more showing that I have good credit based on this product. Two, I don’t own a building or machinery. I don’t have any assets. Banks love to be able to say, “Well, if you don’t do it, I’m going to take this from you.” We went to probably about four banks, spent weeks supplying all of this data. We would go onto Amazon. I would let them sign into our portfolio, see all the purchase orders, when we would get paid and they still wouldn’t approve us and we had excellent financials. It got to the point where I was like, “If you can’t trust that Amazon’s going to pay us, who are you going to trust?”
Seems so old fashioned, their mindset.
Banks aren’t set up for modern businesses like ours that are e-commerce, that don’t require capital assets and have high growth. They just can’t meet our needs, so we had to be really innovative with our solutions. The solutions I came up with was when we are air freighting, they’re the same, they have to have everything paid upfront before they’ll release the goods to you. I’m paying for air freight and I’m paying for all the product. You’re talking millions of dollars.
I told all of them that our product is not helping us grow. It’s helping them grow too. They need to have some skin in the game as well. If they do want to produce our product, they’re going to have to allow me just to make a deposit, pay a little bit more, but 60 days to pay the rest of it when we get paid. I said, “If you don’t do that, then I’m going to stop production period and any growth from next year won’t happen because the Hasbros are going to take the whole market share. If you’re going to be partners with us, you need to help us.”
By doing that, I got into about October and I still needed to find two more months of financing. Then we looked into some private loans knowing that I could get them paid off in about a month or two so I wouldn’t get charged too much interest. Then there’s what they call invoice factoring. This gets really boring, but a lot of people don’t know about that as an option, where pretty much a company can pull your invoices, do a check with like Amazon make sure they’re valid. They can loan you the money based on the value of the invoices and then you just pay interest off of it. The money goes straight from Amazon to this other company. Then once it’s paid off, you get the rest.
It’s insane there are alternatives like this.
Yeah, it’s really expensive to do that, but they move fast if you need it. That was our very, very last option. I just needed that for about three weeks in December to get me through the holidays. Then all of my shipments sent in September were then being paid, where I could pay that balance off. That was the number one issue. I think a lot of companies would have never survived or made it if it came down to that. I think just because I have a strong finance background and I can negotiate fairly well it got us through it. Now we finance ourselves.
The second problem would be counterfeits and knockoffs. Some counterfeits are healthy and are okay when it’s competitive. Counterfeits are when they try to scan our product and pass it as ours. Same package same name, same everything. Knockoffs are people taking our concept, giving it a different name and so on.
So like Hasbro!
Knockoffs technically are legal as long as they’re not using any of our trademarks, graphics or anything like that. China was producing games that were just like ours in different sized boxes, but they were carrying our graphics on there. They were passing as ours. Amazon has a third party. They were pretty much ripping off our product pages, pasting under their third party, selling and shipping their product and people thought they were buying our game and they weren’t. Those cheek retractors hadn’t gone through all the safety protocols.
Half of the cards were misspelled or duplicated. We started getting bad reviews under our product page for the third party counterfeits, which is a huge problem because if people start thinking that your product is a counterfeit or if you’re getting bad reviews, your sales plummet. We were on the phone with Amazon constantly because they’re not set up to really handle taking down counterfeit reviews. They’re really safeguarding the customer feedback. There’s a lot of products out there that actually are bad products. We want those reviews to stay up there so you don’t keep selling it and it looks bad on Amazon.
Oh man, it puts both parties in a tight spot.
I completely understand that and I value that as a consumer, but it’s different if you had valid proof that is indeed a counterfeit and it’s not your product. We spend a lot of man hours buying these counterfeits and taking videos and proof of how they’re different in order to have those third parties taken down, but they still can’t take down reviews. A customer service person would have to go in and respond to every single one saying that, “You have a counterfeit. You need to return the product. It needs to be sold and shipped by Amazon in order to know that you have the correct product, not a third party.
That was an issue that people don’t foresee. We ended up having to hire a company that would take down e-commerce sites for counterfeits on eBay, Amazon, Alibaba, all of those because we just didn’t have the manpower to keep doing that. They have a program that will scan your graphics, the color, location, everything and they’ll flag anything that doesn’t match it perfectly and start taking them down.
Oh, that’s a lot one doesn’t think about.
It’s not something that you would budget as a small business. You don’t think of things like that. There’s been a lot of surprises that I consider problems that, again, can really make or break a small business if it’s not handled quickly. Some of them weren’t handled quickly enough just because of the constraint of labor energy, but eventually were.
As for being a woman, this particular business, not so much because my partner is my husband. He and I have full respect for each other and know that we’re fully capable in our positions. I don’t battle that so much in this position and the role that I play here is exactly what I do, so there’s not much out of the comfort zone for me. Prior positions before, definitely. It’s interesting. I’m working with a Mary Baldwin professor in a university here. She teaches feminine entrepreneurship. She had reached out to quite a few women in business that had worked their way up the ladder to ask about their stories and their experience of being a woman in a male world. It was interesting where I had to experience some of the difficulties that I’ve had, but I think as long as you are confident in your capabilities, that you have a backbone, you will make it to where you need to go. If you allow people to really question your capabilities or question your competence, then you’re opening yourself up to be put down.
So what other things do you have in the works?
In the relation, in this industry, we do have a couple of additional games. We have some licensing as well for this particular brand with WWE. We’ll be doing a game for them. Then we have a few that haven’t made it as far. Each of them are going to be slightly different. They’re going to have a little bit of game play, where it’s not just slapping on a different label. They will be uniquely different than our original games. We want to be able to bring value with any license that we have. We are working on a large project so we’re at a royal town. That’s one of the nice things about the internet in a small business is that you have global potential, just the power of the internet and all the people you can reach. Through the internet, we have our Indonesia guy that does our graphics. We have a digital app on both iPhone and Android of our game. We have a guy out of Russia that helps us with that. We have background marketing. If you do a Google search and you have certain things that pop up first, that doesn’t happen magically, there’s background on marketing things that happen. The guy that does that for us is out of Toronto. We have a little bit of a global freelancing team in addition to our core team here. We wouldn’t have been able to meet those experts in their areas without the internet.
Our project is we’re creating a stand innovation hub. We’re going to be closing on a commercial property here in about 30 days. It’s going to be everything under one roof that a small business needs. If you want to create a widget, you can go to the Makers’ Space on the first floor and between our 3D printers, there are fabricating machines and woodworking machines, etc. They can help you make a prototype. Then you go upstairs to the Community Creative Find. Their purpose is to help small businesses with business plans and to make sure that your concept is healthy and ready to go to pursue financing. Then you go across the hall to a group that has angel investors and has connections with banks that can help you get in contact with the best source of financing for your project. Then you go downstairs and rent a desk in our co-working place. You do well, you move up to a suite once you hire another person or two and then we have anchor tenants. All our anchor tenants are specifically there for their business and for mentoring. When I said that small businesses and people just need mentors, there’s something for everybody in that building. If you’re running into a problem, somebody in that building is going to help you fix it. We’ll have a CPA that’ll help and then we’ll have a lawyer that’ll help, that donate a certain amount of hours. Everybody has an hour or two like a month free with your membership that they can help you with. We’re doing that right now at the same time.
Your place is essentially going to be a one stop for people who have an idea?
Correct. It’ll be an event space as well, so we can have … We want to have TEDx talks and have different enrichment and growth opportunities for everyone in the facility. Then on weekends and evenings, we want to have a nonprofit arm where we can get grants to help with development of minority groups or do Lego Robotics for children. We’ve been working on it for about a year. The city and county and all the colleges and everybody wanted to be a part of it. We have the support and the people willing to have leases and tenants over there. We’re about to start the closing and actually break ground and then it’s actually real.
Now we have a 12-month project. We’re taking this current facility that used to be a old newspaper building, where half of it is where the old presses used to be. That’s where all the loud machines where, but then you go over to the next side of the building. It’s where offices were. It was built perfectly for us to have a maker space and office space. We’re putting in a whole new green plaza and really helping to bring our community up just a notch, a little bit.
That’s so ideal for any small business!
It’s a small town. We’re not New York City. We have banks and churches and all the normal stuff, but our population, it’s probably medium size. It doesn’t have any of the big city amenities or anything. We’re bringing that in, where people don’t have to go to Charlottesville or Northern Virginia. They can live here for a much cheaper living and work remotely in our facility. That’s what we’re hoping to do. We’ll have a few just freelancers that will do co-working, but our main objective is to help small businesses get up and running.
Via email, you mentioned a Growth Initiative list… Is this a way to constantly challenge yourself?
Yes, I have a list of books to read, seminars/conferences to attend, study for CPA exam and necessary classes remaining and it goes on. We use Trello boards for each area of life for personal, team and company goals. My personal is family, health, house, marriage, personal development, travel and a few more. It just helps keep the big picture in perspective and creates some accountability. I highly encourage motivated individuals to have a bucket list of some sort.