How can organizational leaders prevent mission drift? In this episode of Toughest Call, Rob Angel, Creator of Pictionary, talks about how staying on mission resulted in him and his partners turning down a lucrative licensing deal.
Rob originally dreamed up what would become one of the best-selling board games of all time four decades ago. The demand on the small business they created to publish the game in 1985 grew rapidly. Rob was tired of eating ramen noodles and assembling games by hand in his tiny apartment in Seattle, so they started to explore licensing to a larger games company. And after their first candidate didn't work out, they found themselves presented with an even larger opportunity.
But along with the big bucks came a big sacrifice. What Rob ultimately faced with this extremely lucrative deal was something many organizational leaders confront: How do I ensure that I'm staying true to our mission?
Rob Angel: I don't think we said a word, the three of us. We all look at each other knowing glances knowing looks. Terry, unmuted, says, no deal, hangs up the phone.
Chaz Thorne: Welcome back and welcome to Toughest Call, a podcast for organizational leaders, where we hear stories from your leadership colleagues about career-defining decisions. I'm your host, Chaz Thorne.
In this episode, I'm talking with my friend Rob Angel, the creator of Pictionary. Rob originally dreamed up what would become one of the best-selling board games of all time four decades ago. Since then, the charades-inspired guessing and drawing game has gone on to sell tens of millions of units worldwide and has recently spawned a TV game show hosted by Jerry O'Connell. In 2020, Rob shared the whole story in his book, “Game Changer.”
I first met Rob four years ago and was immediately charmed by his boundless enthusiasm. Whether it's business, parenting, or his annual visits to Burning Man, Rob strives to be as open as possible to whatever comes his way.
Rob shares his story of a tough call he and his partners faced around the licensing of Pictionary. The demand on the small business they created to publish the game in 1985 grew rapidly. And Rob was tired of eating ramen noodles and assembling games by hand in his tiny apartment in Seattle, so they started to explore licensing to a larger games company. And after their first candidate didn't work out, they found themselves presented with an even larger opportunity. But along with the big bucks came a big sacrifice. What Rob ultimately faced with this extremely lucrative deal was something many organizational leaders confront: How do I ensure that I'm staying true to our mission?
Rob Angel: So here we are here, I still am. I'm 26. Now let's see, I'm 28. By then, I'm making $500 a month, and I was driving a crappy car living in a crappy apartment. And Milton Bradley is the next step. They are the biggest game company in the world. And we go into the meeting with golden red, and walk in on the sales guy, the executive, he's kind of stuck behind his back. And it's like Christmas. He's like grinning from ear to ear and he shakes his hand, he's got his left hand behind his back. And we're kind of looking tearing my partner and looking at each other. We go, whoa, what's going on, all of the sudden is wack. And he slaps down on the table this box, it was a square box. And it looked like an eye chart. We dubbed it the eye chart. And as we squinted, we can see somewhere in there, the word Pictionary, you got to look at him, we look at each other. What's this goes, well, this is what we're going to do for you and Pictonary. We're gonna change the packaging a little bit, we're going to change some of the words, change the rules, and do the marketing differently. And we're gonna change the box shape from a rectangle to a square. We're going to sell a lot of games by making those changes.
If you can imagine our confusion, and my initial reaction was no, effing way. And so we knew what we had with Pictionary. We knew the joy it brought people, we weren't gonna mess with it. And so we also realized they’re Milton Bradley for a reason. They're a big company. They know what they're doing. They know how to sell games now to produce games. So let's keep talking rather than saying no. So we kept the conversation going. And lo and behold, they've got some really good marketing ideas. They've got some really good distribution ideas. They've got some, some advertising spend that they're willing to put behind the brand. So now I'm stuck. Like, okay, now wait a minute, maybe I can scale the fun of Pictionary through them. And keep the integrity of the game. This is starting to make sense.
And we said in the meeting, we do not want to walk away. We want to be involved. We want to be the shepherds of this brand and help you help us make it what it could be. Right? The guy's looking at us. And you could see the wheels turning. And he okay, agrees to it, because that's what we need. Great. Fast forward about two weeks, we got the contract for Milton Bradley. I mentioned they were the biggest game company in the world. And we're three guys sitting in a crap little apartment in Seattle, Washington.
So, Ed Robert brother, we are just a little over our skis at this point. And it's like, okay, that's not what you make is what to keep. Okay, we've learned our lessons, let's just do this. But we still have our overriding principle mission, right? This is why people when you're doing a business, you've got to have the right partners that you all have. Because you have to all be on the same mission, you have to have the same integrity, you have to have the same joy for what you're doing. Because when these big decisions come up, and they will, you all have to be on the same page. Because if you're fighting with your partners, trying to make those decisions, they become untenable.
Chaz Thorne: And you end up making, you know, reactive decisions instead of strategic ones. Based on stuff you've thought through. How did you define your mission at that point, Rob, when like, with your partners—
Rob Angel: By then, our mission was to scale the energy of Pictionary. We were still figuring we were trying to make money. But we've thought if not, we knew we didn't think we knew, because of the joy that we saw the people had when they played the game, it was the energy, the vibration, the positive nature, they're just having a ball. That's what we were scaling. That was our mission scale that if we knew the game sales were gone, we knew that would happen. But if we turned around and said, let's just make this a game and sell more games, forget it. That was not our mission. We never, until we started selling millions, then we go, okay, we got to sell some games. But until then, our mission was never to be a game company, never to sell games. It was to scale that energy, that excitement, that fun. That's what the essence of the game was. That's what drove us. That's what kept us going even in those dark days when everything looked bleak. And there were plenty of those days.
Chaz Thorne: So you have this opportunity in front of you. Huge game company, opportunity to scale, but you and your partners recognize the need to protect this, this mission. And you know that you need to be engaged on a go forward basis. To do that yet at the same time, you're negotiating with this massive games conglomerate, what happened next in terms of your negotiations.
Rob Angel: I can remember like it was yesterday, the whole week. Contract comes, Terry, Gary, and I and our attorney Andy, we're sitting in the office, and we have four agreements for copies. And while reading them, and at the top of the page is the royalty rate. First thing it was to that date, the largest royalty that Milton Bradley had ever given an independent toy company. Wow.
By far, and we had not sold that many games compared to what the big games were. So we were a little player, but we were making so much noise. They had to pay attention. They wanted us so they gave us the biggest royalty rate that was ever given. I'm looking at this and I'm doing math. So now I'm retired in my head, I am going to the Bahamas, I'm going to Costco and buying stuff I don't even need. I've got two cars sitting in the driveway. I've just forgotten the ramen, I’m eating steak, baby. This is gonna be fabulous. I'm like, I know that this is great. And so Terry, Gary, and I—my eyes are bugged out. This is great.
Next night, oh, they've got the marketing spent. We wanted them to make sure we didn't lose focus on us. Because you know, it's a fashion business, the toys and games. So if another product came out, we didn't want them to say no, we're gonna work on somebody else. So guaranteed marketing and have earnings advertising spend. And we said we want to control that. They said we're okay. So we're going, holy crap. Now I'm really on vacation, I'm really checked out. And then they gave us distribution, all the rest of it. And then we close the contract.
We all look at each other. And the one thing we had agreed, as I said early on was, they weren't going to muck with the guts of Pictionary. They weren’t going to muck with the energy Pictionary. They weren't going to change the packaging rules. That was our preview. That was our mission. Nobody messes with our baby, period. I don't care who you are. Nobody messes with that. So we all look at each other. And we go, it's an oversight. I'm still on cloud nine. I'm still going to be okay. So our attorney says well, let's send them a letter and all these things and we'll just check it out; let's just call them, right, they’re humans on the other end of the line, I think that's what people seem to forget is that if you just talk to somebody and say, here's the problem, here's the situation. Let's work it out rather than going through lawyers and email and all this said faxes, but those don't exist. That's how we used to do business.
And so I just pick up the phone. And, and again, this moment in my life was like, 13 seconds ago. I'm sitting at the big table in the middle. Terry's by the little speaker box. Andy is standing next to that and Gary's to my right. Well, yeah, hi, this is a Pictionary. We'd love to contract. Thank you very much. The only thing that's missing is you won't touch the package and you won't change the game without our written permission. We need those guarantees. Silence. More silence. Finally, that voice, the unknown voice at the other end of the speaker box says we can't give them to you. Management won't sign off.
We all look at each other with them on mute. I don't think we said a word, the three of us. We all look at each other with knowing glances, knowing looks. Terry, unmuted, says, no deal. Hangs up the phone. Yeah, you're laughing. This was not a funny moment in my life.
Chaz Thorne: I've had moments like that. I know. They're much more complex than that.
Rob Angel: Yeah. Wow. So that afternoon, we're having a few beers. And we're going, you know, maybe they'll call back. Maybe they won't, we hope they do. Blah, blah, blah. We love Pictionary. We're going to protect Pictionary. And we did the right thing. And you know how you have those moments where, rah-rah and you're good. And your company's good, and your people are good. And this is, you know, another glass of wine and another beer, we're thinking this is amazing. We did the right thing. And then the next morning at 7 am. I'm in the storage locker, shipping out a game to Minnesota, and I'm looking at the game and going, you son of a bitch. It's like, come on, we were so close.
Chaz Thorne: I hope you're enjoying this episode of Toughest Call at OnePagePlans.ca. My team and I get organizations aligned in just two days with strategic plans that fit on a single page. And since strategy is all about making decisions, we created a suite of free decision-making tools for organizational leaders like you. So to get some assistance with your next tough call access these complimentary resources at ToughestCall.com.
How did you reconcile that in your head of going: Nope, no, that this isn't me and my ego. This is something that I'm doing for the good of this company, this product, this team?
Rob Angel: I've analyzed this one thousand ways to Sunday. Why did we sign that freakin deal? 28 years old and making no money, come on. My intuition told me not to, my intuition said one, this is not the right deal. Two, my intuition told me if I have faith, and I trust the universe, and I trust in this deal, this process, something better will happen. And it did. So we walked away.
Chaz Thorne: Looking back on it all these years later, and obviously what's great is it worked out and it could not have, right, sure, of course, but it worked out. Is there anything you would have done differently in terms of how you approached making that decision? Would you have potentially consulted with more people? Would you have you know tried to ensure that there was another potential offer in place that did have the terms that you were looking for before you turned down the deal from Milton Bradley; would you have potentially handled any of that differently?
Rob Angel: I think knowing what I know now, not about the outcome, but about business. I think we would have called Milton Bradley and said, hey, let's renegotiate. Let's do this again. This is what we need. We did not go back to them, we kind of assumed that they would call us and we'd negotiate. So I think, to do it again, whatever the outcome would have been, let's forget about that for a moment. I think logic after your motion is out of it, go back and try to renegotiate, we did not do that. So that would have been the change.
Chaz Thorne: So obviously not everyone listening will be aware of what happened next, as a result of you making this tough call of not going with this large games partner. So what did happen next, in terms of Pictionary?
Rob Angel: We were determined to slog it out, right? We didn't quit, we didn't give up. We didn't say, okay, we didn't get the deal, we’re sunk. We said, we will just plug ahead as hard and as fast as we can, given our resources, and try to make this thing work to whatever level that is. So we were risking failure for sure. But we didn't give up. It wasn't, wasn't like let's move on.
So we're now ordering 20,000 games in a throw instead of 1,000. We're getting some national distribution. We have a national sales manager now who's taking this nationwide because he has connections to all the big game toy stores. And by now we're selling like I said, department stores and bookstores and all kinds of different kinds of stores other than big box and toy stores. And so he, our sales manager, and I were talking and what had happened was Trivial Pursuit had been purchased by Selchow and Righter and fired all the sales guys. So all the guys you worked with at Trivial Pursuit, were now out of jobs. Well, no, wait a minute. Wait a minute. Let's put some pieces together here. And by now we did have manufacturing. We had 20,000 units so we could get some of that done. Now, wait a minute, you've got a whole group of sales guys who've been in the business 20, 30, 40 years, who know everybody. Okay. Now, how about the market? Oh, you know this guy? Joe Carvachhia marketing for all this. Let's just get people together and see what we can do.
So we got everybody together. And we go to the meeting, and we say you, you, you, and they're looking at us, and we're looking at them. And the pieces were magnificent. But the best part about it was every person sitting at that table was an entrepreneur wasn't a business guy. It wasn't a big corporation they had even formed, they weren't even incorporated, they had no business going yet. There's just a bunch of guys sitting around figuring out how to make this thing work.
And so we're having the conversation, but by now everybody, particularly Tom McGuire, our sales manager, knew what we needed and wanted was no compromise. Don't come to talk to us if you're not going to give us what we need and want and what Pictionary needs. And once they gave it to us, everything we asked for, because they wanted to be entrepreneurs just as badly as we did. They saw the money. They saw the energy, they saw everything we saw and were visionary. They saw the same thing. So now instead of just having Rob, Terry, and Gary, the three partners on the mission, you've got the sales force, you've got the manufacturer, you've got the marketing guy, they're all on board with the mission.
So when everything formed, it was a collaboration. It was not we're gonna do this, you do that, everybody was just like a startup. We were helping with marketing, they were helping with manufacturing, they were helping with distribution we were helping with, I mean, everybody was just the moving parts were absolutely perfect. And because everybody saw the benefit and the beauty and the money of what we were trying to do. Everybody was motivated. And so we did that deal. And because they were entrepreneurs, that first year, we went from 8,600 games out of my tiny little crackerjack apartment, to 350,000 games nationwide. Wow.
That second year of the joint venture. We sold 3 million games. To put that in perspective. Today, if somebody sells 100,000 games, they're a huge success. Three or 400,000 games now you are a massive success. We sold 3 million in our third year. That's just in North America. Wow. Then they decided because they're entrepreneurs instead of manufacturing to orders which is how it usually works. They Pictionary became a year round product. It wasn't just sold the holidays, which used to be 70% of the market during the holidays, so they just turned on the speaking, instead of holding back production, which the big game company would have done, they would have covered their ass, they would have not been quite entrepreneurial, they would have managed it, as opposed to just hey, let's just see what happens.
That third year, we sold 11 million just in North America. And we wound up selling another couple of million in Europe. Now we're worldwide and for the next 10 years, we're the biggest-selling game in the world. All because we stuck to our principles, stuck to our guns, knew what we had known what our mission was. And I know that sounds cliche, and it worked out and it absolutely could have gone the other way.
Chaz Thorne: Rob, we're now almost 40 years after you first dreamed up, Pictionary.
Rob Angel: Thank you for pointing that out. I really appreciate it go for decades, about—
Chaz Thorne: Four decades. So we're almost four decades after the original creation of Pictionary. When you just realized that this was a fun thing that a bunch of friends loved to do when they got together. And you iterated on it and ended up becoming Pictionary. How does it feel all these years later, to know that Pictionary is still out there? People are still buying it. People are still playing it.
Rob Angel: It is pretty fantastical. It’s beyond my realm. Sometimes. I mean, even sitting in my little crappy apartment when I was 26. I did not envision 40 years later. But 37 years let's not give me those extra three years just, yeah.
Thank you, bro. 37 years that I would still be talking about this freakin game. No way. No possible way. I was so present. So at the moment. I was so head down for those 20 years. The first 10 years, after 10 years, I kind of realized Pictionary was going to be around forever. But those first 10 years it was like even though we're selling 11 million games, I still didn't know, think, or believe that Pictionary was gonna be around for 30 years. It just was. It wasn't even something I thought about. But then as time goes on, and all of a sudden, it's been 20 years. 30 years now it was 40.
So why did I know Pictionary, who's going to be around? Let me tell you a story. Several years back. I was at a restaurant and the waitress comes up. And she finds out I invented Pictionary. And while she's writing down the order, she starts to cry. I let her collect herself and I said her name and her name is Jane. See what's going on. I said what’s going on? She says, well, Pictionary saved my life and changed my life. Okay, she's said she was a foster child years ago. And she bounced from house to house. And all she wanted was a family. But every foster home didn't work out. So instead of getting happier and getting the love she wanted and needed and deserved, she felt more depressed than ever. And she leaves that house and go to the next. And one day one time she goes to yet another house, mom and dad and three kids. Same stuff, she gets in and the kids won’t except her. And she's feeling more depressed than ever, more sad and closed off.
One night mom and dad bring out Pictionary, the family game. It's mom and dad and Jane against the other three kids. And so they start playing and guess what? She can draw. She's good at this game. Mom and Dad kick the shit out of the three kids. But because of Pictionary, what it is, nobody cares. They're all having a blast. All of a sudden, she started to come out of her shell, she started to have fun. The kids are kind of noticing her for the first time. And they go you know, let's play again, but we want to be on her team. So now they're switching up teams. And because of this game, this silly little game that I invented, she got her family. Those are the stories that I hear over and over and over and that's why I know Pictionary. And that's why I stuck to my guns. That's why I kept to the mission, those stories over and over, or why Pictionary is what it is. And why I knew my mission, without knowing it 40 years ago, was to keep the integrity of that game. So that kind of joy, love, and happiness, gonna go throughout the world.
Chaz Thorne: Rob brings up several times throughout this episode, his desire for him and his team, to stay on mission. And that mission of wanting to scale the fun, scale the energy of Pictionary, which was deeply meaningful to Rob and his other partners, whether or not that's language that you particularly understand or agree with isn't really relevant. It was extremely meaningful. And they all understood what that meant for them.
So that, of course, brings up the question, how do you stay on mission? And how do you help the others in your organization stay on mission as an organizational leader?
So I've been thinking about this. And I think it really comes down to a four-step process. I've defined these four steps as debate, define, declare, and defend. And I kind of see that as the overall structure that you take.
So you need to first start off with debate and by debate, what I mean is, you if you're leading an organization, it can't just be you imposing the mission on your partners and, or colleagues, there needs to be some debate around what your focus is, what it is you're ultimately trying to achieve with your organization,
Then you need to move to define. So after you, you know, come up with some ideas, and you have some loose language around it, you need to define it really succinctly and succinctly is not several sentences, or 50 words, get it down to as tight of a statement as possible. So that way people can actually remember it, and it will therefore, guide their day to day behavior.
Then you need to declare it. So declare it is really making sure that everyone else in your organization knows what it is, and if appropriate, even declaring it publicly like on your website, and, and things like that. So people really know what it is that you're trying to achieve.
And then this very important point comes up, which is defend. And that's what Rob and his team were ultimately doing. When they decided not to take that licensing deal, they were presented with this opportunity that they saw as violating this mission that they had all agreed on. And they decided to defend it by going no, we're not going to take that route. And keep in mind that that's where the real work happens is you know, debating it and then defining it and then declaring it is all well and good. Where the rubber hits the road is really when you very clearly start making decisions, especially when you start making tough calls that ensure that you stay on mission.
And if you'd like some assistance with your own tough calls, we've compiled a collection of free tools just for you. Go to ToughestCall.com to check them out. If you're not yet a subscriber to Toughest Call, please add us wherever you listen to your podcasts. Thanks for listening. I hope this conversation helps you when faced with your next tough call.
Rob Angel is an entrepreneur, philanthropist, speaker, and author of “Game Changer,” the story of Pictionary. Putting together the first 1,000 games by hand in his tiny apartment, Rob mastered all the needed business skills including sales, marketing, and distribution. For the next 17 years, Rob shepherded Pictionary to sales of 38,000,000 Pictionary games sold worldwide in over 60 countries.
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