BGBS 028: Rob Angel | Game Changer
In 1985, Rob Angel, at only 23 years old, took his simple idea and created the wildly popular and phenomenally successful board game Pictionary using only a Webster’s paperback dictionary, a #2 pencil, and a yellow legal pad. Rob and his partners put together the first 1,000 games by hand before selling the game to a major toy company in 2001. Rob’s story is one of passion, optimism, and perseverance.
Prepare yourself for a game-changer of a story. You’ll be inspired and motivated to make your own dreams a reality.
What we’re talking about
- Rob Angel’s Story: A Haphazard Bus Ride That Sparked Motivation to Always Be His Own Boss
- A Love of Board Games
- The Development of the Most Successful Board Game in the World
Rob Angel’s Story: A Haphazard Bus Ride Sparked That Motivation to Always Be His Own Boss
With a father in sales and a mother in real estate, Rob learned motivation at a young age. He was only 12 when he rode a haphazard, jalopy bus to a family member’s house for a visit. The bus smelled and the bathroom was backed up, among other problems. And all Rob could think of was having to make the return trip home on that same bus. It was at that time that Rob decided he was going to be wealthy enough to drive his own bus.
A Love of Board Games
Living in the Pacific Northwest, he and his neighborhood friends would play for hours outside. “Gaming” had a very different meaning and experience in the ’80s. It was the center of everything during the winter months, and the first one that caught his attention was a game of strategy, diplomacy, and conquest. It was the game of Risk. Others that caught his attention were Trivial Pursuit and Monopoly. It was here that his love of board games was born.
The Development of the Most Successful Board Game in the World
Rob went to college thinking he was going to be a “businessman”, even though he admits he had no idea what that meant. The only idea he had of what a businessman was, was that of his father. But after his father lost his job, Rob switched paths and decided to become an entrepreneur to have control over his future, and not have it dictated by others. He graduated college, but unsure of what to do with his degree, Rob became a waiter to have control over his schedule. In 1985, the game Pictionary was originally created with one of his childhood friends, (also) Rob, after a day of working at the restaurant. As they developed the game, he had two criteria for the words for Pictionary: 1) he had to know what the word meant, and 2) it must conjure up a picture in his mind. The first Pictionary card was “aardvark”. He and his business partners hand-assembled the first 1,000 games in his 900 square foot apartment, but demand quickly outstripped their supply, so they decided to license their game. As they sold millions of games worldwide, the partners made a conscientious choice to stay involved and support new companies as they came on board so that the new companies, and the game, stayed successful.
Are you finding ways to make your dream a reality, no matter the sacrifice?
- 8:21 – 9:09 (48 sec RA) Board games were something that were high fidelity…sense of family, and this sense of connection we had with each other lasted for years.
- 42:13 – 42:51 (38 sec RA) All I had to do was sign this piece of paper…and so we went back to work.
- 47:07 – 47:21 (14 sec RA) That’s really a point of my business…rather than getting frustrated.
- 55:12 – 55:28 (16 sec RA) One thing that’s always been important to me…and I think I’ve managed to do that.
- I was looking for the freedom to be in charge. RA
- I like to say I’m the smartest guy in the room, because I know I’m not the smartest guy in the room. I know my limitations, and I embrace what I know and what I’m good at. RA
- The more you explore, the more you experience, the easier it is to find your aardvark, your first step. – RA
Rob Angel 0:02
I get there and it’s 80 degrees and I’m sweating and I’m ready to go and I get to the front door, and I realized I forgot my sample. Okay, good one, Rob. So I go back to the car. And, of course, the cars lock and the car still running. I was so nervous, but I forgot to turn the car off.
Marc Gutman 0:30
Podcasting from Boulder, Colorado. This is the baby got backstory podcast. we dive into the story behind the story of today’s most inspiring storytellers, creators and entrepreneurs. I like being back stories and I cannot lie. I am your host, Marc Gutman, Marc Gutman, and today’s episode of Baby got backstory. How a 23 year old waiter turned a simple idea into the best selling board game in the world.
Now, if you like and enjoy the show, please take a minute or two to rate and review us over at iTunes. iTunes uses these as part of the algorithm that determines ratings on the apple charts. And ratings help us to build an audience, which then helps us continue to produce the show. So go over there and give us a good rating if you think we deserve it. On today’s episode, we are talking to rob Angel, the inventor of one of the world’s most beloved board games, and one of my all time favorite board games Pictionary in 1985. using just a few simple tools, a Webster’s paperback dictionary and number two pencil and a yellow legal pad, Rob created the phenomenally successful and iconic board game.
He and his partners put together the first 1000 games by hand in his tiny apartment, and later they ultimately start sold the business to a major toy company in 2001. Rob’s story is one of action. Getting in and taking that first step, putting yourself in motion. It’s a story of passion, optimism, and perseverance. I loved hearing how Rob took a simple idea and wouldn’t accept anything other than becoming the biggest or game in the world. And this is his story.
Rob, we’re here to discuss how passion and persistence led you to inventing the world-renowned and iconic game Pictionary. Since we know where the story is headed, let’s go back and start at the beginning. Did you dream of inventing a board game as a kid when you’re growing up in British Columbia? What was little Rob like?
Rob Angel 2:56
No, I don’t think I was in inventing mode. I was curious. I was I thought engaged and I just had a curiosity about life. And I was always poking my head in places and seeing what was going on.
Marc Gutman 3:11
Yeah. And what did that look like? What did life for? You look like in British Columbia? Can you kind of paint the picture for us a little bit? And maybe to kind of set the context to like, what the time period and what’s going on at that time.
Rob Angel 3:23
So yeah, I grew up in Spokane, Washington. And I was really engaged. It was a really, really great neighborhood. We had about 25 kids and it was in a cul-de-sac. And so the upbringing was one of fun and communication, and just really a great place to grow up really great place to to feel belong. Really.
Marc Gutman 3:47
Yeah. And what took your family to Spokane,
Rob Angel 3:50
a job. My father got offered a job and he had a fascination with Spokane. And so we settled there when I was about five and It just turned out to be the best move for him and for the family for sure.
Marc Gutman 4:04
Okay, what did your father and your inner mother do for a living?
Rob Angel 4:08
Dad was a salesman at heart and worked his way up to run Alaska steel and supply which was a big scrap yard with ADD furniture and hardware, all kinds of things. And then my mom was a stay at home mom, but then she decided she wanted to work so she sold real estate work at the local racetrack. So yeah, they both were. Were go-getters. They both didn’t sit around.
Marc Gutman 4:32
Yeah. And so like when you were young, were you looking at them thinking, wow, I want to follow my parent’s footsteps, or do you have a different dream as a youngster
Rob Angel 4:39
that, you know, it’s funny hindsight, when you look back, and you’re asking these questions, I went back and looked at it. So there was a story when I was about 12 years old, and I had to go to Kimberly, excuse me to Calgary, Alberta for Passover. She might not call but I was on this bus. And it was a terrible, terrible ride. It was it smelled and the bathroom backed up. And I can think about when I got up there was I have to do this again when I get back. And so when I got back in the mind of a 12-year-old, it was, you know, Dad, I’m going to be so rich one day, I’m gonna, I’m gonna buy a bus and drive it off a cliff. Well, I think really what I was saying to myself was I’m going to drive my own bias I’m going to be in charge of my life. And that is what I was looking for the freedom to be in charge that was driving that was the driving force between everything I did
Marc Gutman 5:42
yeah and and and I can really relate and understand you know, where you’re coming from with that, that urge and that that desire to be free and to drive your own boss, but at 12 years old, I’m guessing that probably didn’t start driving your own bus either literally or metaphorically, Right then.
Rob Angel 5:59
yeah, no And this is all retrospect in hindsight because I told that story and I remember that story. And it was a little precursor and foreshadowing, I think without me knowing it at the time.
Marc Gutman 6:13
Yeah. And so Spokane at that time, and I’ve been to
Spokane today, and it’s not like what I would consider a really big town. So, at that time, it must have been a really small local town. I mean, what were you involved in as a young boy in school? I mean, did you have favorite subjects? Were you into certain activities?
Rob Angel 6:32
Yeah, I enjoyed history and I enjoyed math. I was, I have to be honest, not a very good student. The whole book learning thing went past me but I did assimilate the information and I really enjoyed the reading. And the one thing I really got into was pole vaulting. That was my sport. And I was a championship pole vaulter, which requires a lot of discipline, a lot of practice. And that kind of sets Up to, to figure out how to get things done and I wanted to accomplish
Marc Gutman 7:05
now where you pole vaulting in high school or college or both?
Rob Angel 7:09
Yeah, I was in college. And I really enjoyed it. I mean, you went fast, and I wound up in my butt a few times, you know, you don’t get the leg up and all of a sudden the pole doesn’t go the right way and your back and your back, but that was okay. So, yeah, I mean, it was just part of the process, right? It was just part of what happened. Now, it was a few bumps and bruises. But for the most part, I managed to get into pit.
Marc Gutman 7:34
Yeah. And so when you kind of look back at that time, do you remember give a first memory of your first game or your first board game that really
caught your attention?
Rob Angel 7:44
Yeah, the one that when I was go back to his risk, the neighborhood was really tight. So during the winter months when the snow would pile up, we all get together and play games and one of the neighborhood’s houses. And I just always loved playing risk was that World domination. Yes. That that really resonated with me. I just love that game.
Marc Gutman 8:05
Yeah. And for audience and people that that might have forgotten or weren’t alive, then gaming had a very different meaning and connotation and experience than it may. Many people may associate with it today, right? I mean, like, like board games, were something that were high fidelity, and we’re rich and experience relative to the time and can you kind of set the stage a little bit about how important those types of games were to your upbringing?
Rob Angel 8:36
Oh, it was really important. It was the center of everything during those months, as you say, video games were a solitary endeavor. But when you get four or 5, 10 Kids hung around this game board, that the camaraderie and then the fine and just the fun, really, there wasn’t anything dramatic was just fun to do that. And so it created a sense of a family. And, and this connection that we had with each other just lasted for years. And yeah, it was a different vibe. It was a different, a different mindset. But everybody played for the risk clue, monopoly. And eventually, Truffaut pursued and then picturing it, but back then, yeah, board games were, were quite, quite the hub.
Marc Gutman 9:25
Yeah, yeah. And so you’re playing
games you’re, you know, just like every other kid who’s who’s invested in that escapism that entertainment and you’re going to, you know, move into high school in college and where did you think you were going to do with your life at that point?
Rob Angel 9:42
When I got to college, or before college, I’ve worked for my father during my summers since I was in eighth grade every summer. And I saw him, you know, be the boss and I I liked how people were watching him. When he was in charge, he was a businessman. And so like a lot of kids, I just wanted to be my dad. So I, I went to school with the idea of being a businessman. I don’t know what that meant. But just the thought of that was what I thought I was gonna do.
Marc Gutman 10:15
Yeah. Would you think it at that time?
Rob Angel 10:17
I have no idea, right? I like the only vision, my voice just went up. the only the only, you know, vision I had was my father. And so that was my world. That was my vision of what a businessman was without really knowing the details. And so I put my mind to go to school to be a business major. Didn’t have a discipline didn’t at the point when I went at 18 years old. I didn’t have a discipline picked out but I thought I’d figure it out. Well, ultimately, in short order, the decision was made for me.
Marc Gutman 10:52
And how was that?
Rob Angel 10:53
Yeah. I get to college. I get to school, and mom and dad are paying for college. As you know, was was the thing except halfway through my freshman year, my father got fired. And it was like, holy crap. You know, here, here he is the president of this company. And all of a sudden he’s out of a job. And it was like, a now what everything I planned for everything that I was looking up to is now gone. And I was had to figure out not only how to pay for college on my own, but I had to figure out what I wanted to do. Because if, because I’m looking at him and remembering that bus drive, because if somebody else is in control of his life, his job his future, that didn’t work for me, I had to be in charge. So at that moment, I made the switch from businessman, entrepreneur to I’m going to be in charge of my life and not let anybody else dictate my terms.
Marc Gutman 11:46
And so what’s that switch look like? I mean, what do you mean you switch to an entrepreneur?
Rob Angel 11:50
Well, I started taking classes as I call them, without yes or no answers. I wanted to just explore and experiment with with with business or whatever was going on. And so I just started to expand my mind with the with the idea that I was going to start my own business find something to do on my own. So I gravitated toward those classes, rather than, you know, accounting or, or the like.
Marc Gutman 12:18
Yeah, and I think it’s interesting because now, this idea of being an entrepreneur is really celebrated. We actually have celebrity entrepreneurs. But back then, you know, and when I when I went to college, being an entrepreneur wasn’t necessarily like, a thing, and it wasn’t something that was necessarily cool. It was kind of like what you did if you couldn’t get a job.
Rob Angel 12:43
That is exactly right. Yeah, you put on your resume, entrepreneur, what is that mean? That you know, we’re talking 1981 there was no entrepreneurial degree back. I probably didn’t know what the word meant. Just articulating it now, so yeah, Was it wasn’t something that people strived for. They just were, then this label that everybody was going to be one kind of came out and it made it legitimatize it a little bit. But
Marc Gutman 13:15
that’s before it’s legitimatized. Like, what did your parents think of this? I mean, were they concerned for your, your path and your future at this time?
Rob Angel 13:22
No. They always were supportive of what I wanted to do. And keep in mind again, by the second year, I’m paying for college on my own, but they never put myself through but they were always supportive of me and my family, my siblings, whatever we wanted to do was okay with them. As long as we took care of our responsibilities. They were good.
Marc Gutman 13:43
Yeah. And I believe you went to Western Washington University, is that correct?
Rob Angel 13:48
Yeah. Western Washington and Bellingham, Washington.
Marc Gutman 13:50
Great. So you’re, you’re here at Western Washington, you’re like, I’m going to be an entrepreneur and you put yourself through college and you come out and I just have to imagine that you’re an immediate huge success. You probably haven’t get a huge job or buy a huge business and away you go, right?
Rob Angel 14:04
You obviously didn’t read my bio.
Marc Gutman 14:10
Or I did
Rob Angel 14:11
or you did clearly. Yeah, no, that didn’t quite work out that way. I decided to hitchhiked through Europe for five months after I graduated. So that just seemed like a nice reward that I wanted to do. So I worked through a year waiting tables. And then I went to Europe. But yeah, something Something happened in the interim, as we’re, we’ll discuss, but yeah, it was. It was, That was my immediate goal.
Marc Gutman 14:37
Okay, so you go to Europe, like most most kids around that age do and but you’re waiting tables and what’s going on with that? what’s what’s happening with with your life at that point?
Rob Angel 14:50
Well, I just graduated from school and waiting tables is how I put myself through school. And and that was For me, at that moment, the ultimate freedom. Remember, I’ve always said, and I’ve always lived freedom to do what I want when I want. And how I want to do is always important. So if I wanted more money, I would just work more hours, I wanted to take time off, I’d just get somebody to cover my shift. But I was still with always the backdrop of wanting to do my own thing. It was always at the backdrop of, I want to start my own business, create my own product. And so that was always forefront. And so I moved in when I graduated with three buddies, and we all were waiting waiting tables or restaurant work or whatever, and we get home late.
And then one day, one of my roommates says, “Hey, you want to play a game?” “Sure. What is it?” We called it charades on paper. We sketch words out of a dictionary. Okay, you know, I mean, it was like one of those. You’re looking I was always looking for an opportunity. But at that moment, the only opportunity I had saw in front of me was fun. I mean, I wasn’t thinking of a business, I wasn’t thinking of anything like that. And we started playing.
And lo and behold, We’re up all night playing this silly game. I mean, it was just a blast. And then after several nights are Oh, that’s when it started, you know, percolating a little bit or going, wait a minute, this might make a good board game. So all those board games that I played as a kid want to be an entrepreneur, all of a sudden are kind of crashing together to form a plan in my head.
Marc Gutman 16:30
Yeah, and what’s your roommate’s name? And had that game been played before? Or was it really like, just was the genesis right at that moment, like a crazy idea?
Rob Angel 16:39
That was something he played with friends at Washington State University. Yeah, he was it was a game they played and it was just an activity. There was no game it was called Word sketch word. And if you get the word right, you get high five and sip your beer Off you go.
Marc Gutman 16:56
All right, so you’re playing the game and Do you remember That that first, that first night you played and what that was like,
Rob Angel 17:05
I remember more of the feeling of it. Because I just remember, it reminded me of home it was. and Rob was his name. He was one of the kids I grew up with. He was one of the kids I play games with. So it was an immediate sense of feeling home when we started playing again. And it was just very comfortable shoe to put on.
Marc Gutman 17:27
Yeah, and so you know, to say like, Hey, I have this idea, and I want to do something and I’m going to, you know, go build a game. I mean, people say that all the time. You know, and I think that, you know, I think that’s a real kind of misconception about entrepreneurs and building a business. I think, hey, like, if I say it enough, it’ll happen but you actually have to, like, do something. So like, what did you do with this epiphany? Did you run out and build the game? Did you sit on it for a while?
Rob Angel 17:55
I did nothing. I went, I mean, Yeah, you’re exactly right, you’ve got to take steps. And I was not ready, willing or able to do that. So I went to Europe. But the idea never left my mind. It was always in my head to do this. So when I got back, the one thing that that I couldn’t shake is that I just kept kind of telling myself, but, you know, I was just a waiter, and I didn’t have the skills. So I kind of just didn’t do much with it for a little while I had to get out of that mindset. And the other problem was the physical issue of how do I make a game? Right? I’d like it. There’s no internet. I don’t know how to fish it to put a game together. I don’t know about all the moving parts. And every time I started thinking about all the parts, I kind of, I kind of shut down. And so I had to get past that. And I did when one day my mom sends me Trivial Pursuit.
The biggest problem I had was Physically putting the game together was how do I put words into a game? That that is the physical thing I knew people were gonna, we’re going to need. And so I till I figured that out, I was kind of stuck. Well, mom says make sure if we pursue open it up. And as we know, there was six questions on the car. And the first question, I read it, and I turned it over the answer is polar bear. And I look at polar bear. Just you know, hey, you know, how you have this, this feeling that something magical has just happened? I mean, it was like, oh, okay, no, wait a minute. I’m thinking what something’s going on here. And all of a sudden, it hit me like a ton of bricks. This is aha moment. Then I’ll put Pictionary words on cards and make the game that way. I mean, it was like, it was like magic. My roommates thought I was crazy. I’m like, I’m like, yelling. But this is it. And it was really a really a powerful moment.
Marc Gutman 20:00
Yeah, it seems so obvious today. But like at the time, what was kind of like, what was the
obstacle? I mean, like, what other options were you thinking about in terms of like how to package this game?
Rob Angel 20:12
Oh, I overthought everything, and I had not put a game together. So I was thinking, all these things so the major obstacle to getting started started was me. I was the problem. Couldn’t get out of my head, however, thought everything all the steps necessary to get it out there. And so while as you said, it seemed obvious, now, that word list excuse me, the the card, that was the catalyst to getting out of my head.
Marc Gutman 20:42
Yeah, and I’m really glad that you brought up like the year is 1985. There is no internet. There’s not this idea like hey, I’m gonna go out on social media and tell everybody about it. There’s not e commerce and it’s going to buy go to the traffic store and buy traffic and pump customers. So you’re in there, you know, and a lot of times we, we don’t realize what’s possible until we see or hear someone else do it. So you don’t have that that magic of the internet where we can always go, Oh, this person in Africa did this, we can do it too. You know, the world is so small now.
So it’s 1985, you have this epiphany. I’m going to put the game on cards, and then what happens?
Rob Angel 21:22
So I had to break it down because once I saw that, I had to break down the task of creating picture. I couldn’t spend my time building a business plan, learning, marketing and all these other things. So I literally broken down to the easiest step, which as we just said, were the words. So I took about a paper, a pencil, and a little Merriam Webster dictionary in the backyard. And I’m sitting there and I open it up, and I write down the first word that makes sense to put into picture and the word was aardvark. I was at aardvark. So I write the word aardvark down.
And I literally flops, sweats. I start, I started breathing heavy. It was like, I just wrote a word I had just gotten started. And really what was going through my head was I’m no longer a waiter. I’m a game inventor. That’s all it was. It was a mindset. It was a label that I put on myself. And I embraced it. I was a gaming better. And so as soon as I did that switch, as soon as it flipped, I went on to the second word, and the third and the fourth. And from there is what everything just happened and everything built. It was from taking that one small, easiest, first step. It’s kind of like people now the first and easiest step is like getting a domain name on GoDaddy. It’s like nine bucks. So whatever it is, that just puts it Real right writing that first word made everything real was no longer just an idea rattling around in my head. That’s all.
Marc Gutman 23:08
Yeah. And what was so great about the word aardvark why is that such a perfect Pictionary word?
Rob Angel 23:13
I had two criteria. I didn’t want to overthink this process of creating words. Didn’t want to get my own way. So if I knew what the word meant, and it conjured up the picture in my mind, you know what, it was hard, easy didn’t matter. I wrote it down. And I didn’t self at it. I just kept going. And the first word, double a aardvark.
Marc Gutman 23:35
Yeah. And you talk now today, when you’re out, talking with other entrepreneurs and talking with other people about finding their aardvark.
Hmm, what does that mean?
Rob Angel 23:47
It means a couple of things, but it mostly means just taking a first small step. Now how you get there is also part of the process. Nobody really knows. I did not know that I would be inventing a game. I didn’t wake up one day and said, You know what, I think I’ll invent a game. And here I go. Most people don’t really know what it is they watch. But But I think most of us know what we don’t want. I think it’s easier for most people, myself included, to get rid of things till we can find out what we want. It’s like, I tell the analogy of a white Somalia. He can smell a glass of wine. And he can tell you in 90 seconds what it is from any vintage anywhere in the world. How do you do that? he says, I can’t even memorize every wine in the world says no, I have no idea. But I know what it’s not. That gets me to what it is. I know it’s not Merlow, I throw those out is not a Cabernet. And he just narrows it down to what it is. And that’s what he finds his purpose. That’s what he finds out what that wine is. And so finding your aardvark is going down a lot of different paths. Getting a lot of knowledge Things that that aren’t in your norm to see what resonates. So the more you explore experience, the more you explore. The more you’re curious, the more you’ll find it easier to find your artwork. Your first step.
Marc Gutman 25:15
Yeah, and thanks for that. And you have all of you know the benefit of perspective today. So now you know what, the aardvark. Meant to you thank you for sharing that. And it’s really sound experience, share for all the listeners as well. But you’re sitting there, he just wrote down aardvark, you’re writing some other names. What happened there? I mean, did you do you incorporate a business? Do you have a storefront? Like, what’s going on with this with this idea?
Rob Angel 25:44
I like to say that I’m the smartest guy in the room. Because I know I’m not the smartest guy in the room. I know my limitations, and I embrace what I know and what I’m good at and I knew that I had to find partners to fill in not only the holes of what I didn’t know, but also were aligned with my mindset, but my vision. It’s not just finding pieces of a puzzle. It’s finding mental, spiritual, emotional pieces of the puzzle as well. And I knew that Pictionary for it to be successful, had to look good.
This was pre internet, it wasn’t me to be able to go online and find a graphics design firm. So I one of the first partners I found was a graphic artist that I worked with. He was going to design the game. That was a very key, you’re not gonna want to pick up the game. I’m not going to sell it. The other partner was somebody who run the business. Carrie Langston, I know I could, but I just didn’t want to run the business. So I found a partner that had that skill set. And so I put together this team of amazing people that have different skill sets, but the same mentality have made the picture a success.
Marc Gutman 27:04
Well, and so how did that pitch go down? You know, it’s like, Hey, I’m gonna cut you in. But I need you to work for free. Like, I mean, what’s going on at that time? Or has there been a little bit of runway established before you went out and got those folks?
Rob Angel 27:19
Oh, no, there’s, they both were after I started doing play tests. So once I developed the game, I had really bad graphics. But I did some play tests. So I said, hey, look, here’s the idea. Here’s the game. I need this, this and this. What do you think on Really? I offered them a little piece of the company without because I had no money. I think I think I offered actually, Gary, the graphic artist offered him 2000 bucks, or a piece of the company. I had 46 bucks in the bank. So if he hadn’t taken the money, I would have been in trouble. Yeah, exactly.
So he took the piece of the company So yeah, so it was it was literally just saying, hey, here I am. And I did ask one gentleman, a friend of mine to join with basically the same sales pitch Hey, I got this great game. It’s fun. What do you think you want to come on board can’t pay you? And he said no, which was fine, which actually turned in to, really to my advantage. And so they just instantly got what I was trying to do. And then it wasn’t, hey, I need an accountant was Hey, I need a partner in this business. What do you think? And after a very short conversation they both agree.
Marc Gutman 28:37
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And so what are play tests? Can you can you give us a little insight into what that looks like?
Rob Angel 29:44
Yeah, we had to physically play the game, to see if it was any good to change the rules to find out what work if it didn’t work. Maybe the words weren’t right, maybe this rule didn’t work. And so every time we would play we would take notes And it changed the rules. And we thought I should we thought when we first produced the game, we thought we had the rules just perfect. We didn’t, we had to change them four more times after four production runs. So we were, we were we didn’t quite get it right. But we were willing to adapt and listen to our customers and and change it if it made sense. And it did for different time.
Marc Gutman 30:26
Then what were some of those early mistakes or rule changes that you thought were perfect at the time but, you know, we might recognize as changes to the game.
Rob Angel 30:39
I, it made perfect sense to me that unless you guess a word, right, you don’t roll the dice. We could not get people to understand that. So if somebody didn’t get a word, the other team just automatically roll. And so we had to change the verbiage over and over till finally people understood. They weren’t supposed to go Excuse me roll the dice until the guy gets to work, right? People didn’t understand the all blame triangle. So we had to be found on that one to more explanation.
Marc Gutman 31:12
So when did you sell your very first game? And by the way was it called Pictionary from the start? Where did that name come from?
Rob Angel 31:19
It was the three gentlemen that I played with after college, one of them who we were playing and we used to look in the dictionary for words, and he’s looking up a word, all of a sudden, he starts playing this old game that he plays is getting called Pictionary, which ultimately became Balderdash, which actually laura Robinson created That and is a good friend of mine now. And it was a bluffing game. And he just said, Well, I’m playing Pictionary, and He kind of looks as you know, pictures diction. Why don’t we call this Pictionary? Okay, that was it. resonated. It wasn’t a no point in continuing the conversation. It was perfect.
Marc Gutman 31:57
Yeah, when it’s right, it’s right. So when you know you
Rob Angel 31:59
Yeah, I was like, Yeah, okay, fine. Move on. That was perfect.
Marc Gutman 32:04
So, so Pictionary day one, what do you remember that first sale? What was that like? And who did you sell it to?
Rob Angel 32:13
Of course, I remember that first sale. It was to the University of Washington bookstore. And I’ve never made a sales call before. And so I get there and it’s 80 degrees, and I’m sweating and I’m ready to go and I get to the front door. And I realized that forgotten my travel sample sample. Okay, good one, Rob. So I go back to the car. And, of course, the cars lock, and the car still running. I was so nervous, but I forgot to turn the car off. So I’m standing there, and I’m beating on this old beater car of mine. And finally get the back door open. And I I go up to this woman and we go in and I’m thinking I’m gonna be in this big office. My vision, my vision board of what this first sale was going to be, and we wind up on the perfect gun. And I’m like, swooning. And the smells are getting to me. And I’m thinking what that you know, and then I started, why am I on perfume counter?
This is this is a bookstore, they’re selling perfume. I look around, they’re selling mugs. They’re selling all kinds of different things. Now this is starting to go Okay, I got a file this way. There’s some there’s something here. And ultimately, she starts asking me all these questions about advertising landscape shipping, and I was I have no idea what she means. But I you know, I I trusted her to to give me the correct information. She filled out the form. I don’t even know how to do that. has a doomsayers, okay, send me the six games. That was it. I walked out my first day.
Marc Gutman 33:51
Yeah. And so I imagine you’re playing it cool and, and like you’ve been there before and you get the order and your hands probably shaking and you walk out the door and What does that feel like?
Rob Angel 34:03
It was unbelievable. It was, it was validation for all the work that we’d put together my partners and I was it was validation that somebody wanted to buy this darn thing. We’ve been selling it to our friends and family was great, because we made retail it the math, but but to have somebody take six games was just an overwhelmingly positive, cool feeling. I couldn’t, I couldn’t stop smiling. It was like, okay, we’re on the way. There’s like it’s like the aardvark. Okay, that was the new aardvark was that for sale. It was an amazing feeling.
Marc Gutman 34:44
I can only imagine and so you’re on your way you’re feeling validated, but not to burst your bubble. It’s only six games
Rob Angel 34:51
Wait a minute. You know what, we only had 1000 to sell and and there were times when would stand, we can talk about it at an escalator trying to market Pictionary for seven or eight out. And I’d sell two games. I was ecstatic. Maybe it’s six games, it’s two games. Well, that’s six more games that I sold yesterday. It was an exciting, exciting time, those little numbers were really important, because that’s six more games in somebody’s hands that didn’t have yesterday at six more games that people are playing. So we were playing for the long haul. We didn’t if we had sold a million games out of the box, probably would have never continued. But by selling six games, it was so important. So liberating, to make us make us go forward. harder and faster.
Marc Gutman 35:40
Yeah, and you’re playing for the long haul, which I assume means you’re probably not making a ton of money at this point. So what are you doing for money at this time just to get by and, like, how are you keeping your spirits up and staying so positive? Like, at any point did you think this this isn’t gonna happen?
Rob Angel 35:59
All mine Yes, there’s plenty of times. I was still waiting tables Margaery my partner was still working last year in a magazine and Jerry was a controller for a company. Yeah, we, we were living on $500 a month. I was still beating a beat up car. But but we’re just so much fun, but not knowing what was going to happen one day to the next. Yeah, there was numerous times throughout this whole process where I won’t say I wanted to quit. But I will say it just became daunting and overwhelming. But what drove me through, got me through was passion. gets you started. It’s like the igniter. But passion fades and never days.
When my passion faded. Was time it was just too much. But by by going through that, I started to love what I was doing. I loved my product and love my partners. I love what we were trying to accomplish. And that’s what kept me going. And that was it was it was necessary. vision that we had that just kept pushing, pushing. It’s just it just got me out of those moments where I said, you know, I’m just gonna stay in bed today and not worry about. Yeah.
Marc Gutman 37:10
And so starting in 1985, when you, you know, put that first batch of games together, and that first run was 1000 games that were put together by hand and your apartment. How long did that take? And then, and then what was the next step after you sold 1000 games?
Rob Angel 37:27
We put the games together to say by hand, that took about 14 months from the day I said, Okay, let’s do this. And we had a few problems like collating of cars, and there was no internet. So we couldn’t give our specs to a company and say, here are specs produce a game, we had nine different companies supplying parts, and they were all shipped to my tiny 900 square foot apartment, and we hand-assembled the first thousand game. So that was That was a lot of fun. Actually it was. So now we have 1000 games. Well now I have to sell them we have to market them and that’s when the fun that’s where the fun really started.
Marc Gutman 38:11
Yeah and so maybe I miss
misunderstood I it sounded to me like you were doing most of that selling and marketing in person knocking on doors House did you did you move those thousand games?
Rob Angel 38:23
Well my Yeah, we did the first thousand games in Seattle and then we wound up ordering more and did those in sounds well kept it local, very important for our growth. I would literally take the game based on this experience. I had university bookstore, realizing Hmm. If anybody sells anything, they might as well sell picture. So I went to real estate companies. Why not? I went to pharmacies, I went to bookstores. I went to department stores. Anybody that sold anything I figured we might as well be selling Pictionary and What that did for us was people that normally wouldn’t see a game, saw a picture, people go into norstrom. And they’d see along with the jewelry and handbags and see a game, because back then the only time you ever saw game is when it was a birthday, or the holidays.
So now we are alternative distribution in all these different places. Pictionary is top of mind, people that normally wouldn’t see it, and that really, really propelled our growth getting in front of them. He The other thing we used to do, we were, we were there was no manual. Let’s put it that way on how to do this. So some people say you’ve got to break the rules. We forgot to ask what the rules were. So we just made our own. We would take the game and go up to a local bar. We’d open it up and we start playing. People go Do you know what? Hey, come play the game with us. And so they would play it. Oh, by the way, you can buy it next door. metropolis. So we were we were shameless, and getting that pencil in people’s hands.
Marc Gutman 40:06
And so you’re growing. But, you know, again, there’s seems to be a big gap between the early days and becoming the best selling board game in the world. How is how is the company growing? Like, what’s the evolution look like? Is it still just the three of you? Are things changing? Have you? what point are you able to quit your day job?
Rob Angel 40:29
When I when I was putting myself on fire when I was working in the restaurant, we used to have flaming coffees and I spilled one day almost let myself on fire. So that was, that was the physical moment I quit. No, we, we hustled our butts off in Seattle, and it took off. And so now we have to figure out how to scale the business. Demand is far outstripping our inventory and way outstripping our ability to fund our growth. So we had to license, the game. That’s the only way we’re gonna, we’re gonna propel ourselves into the big leagues. And so we were approached by Milton Bradley, the biggest board game company in the world. And they came to us with a deal. They wanted a license, and we get to the meeting, and they they go Okay, and they slapped down this box on the table. How would you look at it we go.
What’s that? You know, well, this is a new picture a box. We’re going to design for you guys. Oh, yeah, we’re gonna change the, the graphics and the rules, and we’re gonna change some of the words we’re gonna sell a lot of these. What do you think? No, this is not what our Pictionary is. This is not what we envision. So we finally got a deal on paper. And they give us the biggest royalty rate. They’ve given anybody I’m 26 years old, I’m I’m beating driving a beater car 500 bucks a month, and I’m ready to sign this deal. But the one thing they wouldn’t put in the contract is they would Production packaging without our approval. And I look at that, partners Look at that. And that vision was not aligned with our vision of Pictionary. And we didn’t sign. I didn’t sign it. All I had to do was sign this piece of paper and my life changes. And because it wasn’t in the best interest of me, my partners are Pictionary. We didn’t sign it, and we had no plan B. This isn’t like, we don’t sign this, we have to go we’ve got this other deal. Our other deal, going back to work slogging it out playing games in public, whatever we had to do to sample that game. But we were willing to do it.
And as Simon Sinek calls it, you know, you’re just cause it’s when you’re willing to sacrifice everything for your cause. fixturing was our cost. We were willing to sacrifice, that financial gain. And so we went back to work. Okay, okay. There was a couple of days of like, what have we done, but it was the right decision and Two weeks later, three weeks later, we get an offer, from a joint venture that we never would have gotten had we accepted the first one, we wound up with a bigger royalty rate, all our guarantees, and the guarantee they wouldn’t touch the bags. And that was the genesis. And that was that propelled us into the big leagues. Very, very quickly.
Marc Gutman 43:20
Yeah. And so I’m totally just impressed and kind of dismayed and, you know, like, you’ve worked so hard and you have this opportunity, and I get principles and I get values but to leave a deal on the table. Were you all thinking rethinking, like look, we’re happy with this being small and what smaller and what it is and us not, you know, having a life our own lives our own livelihood built off of the these efforts, or did you just have faith that you knew that there’d be another deal coming down, you know, into the deal flow?
Rob Angel 43:57
We had no idea no, we are We weren’t, we weren’t happy the way it was because we could see we had this this game it was resonating was going to go huge. And the fact we couldn’t do it on our own was frustrated. I mean, it wasn’t like, okay, you know, let’s let’s just see what happens. It’s like crap. Let’s make it happen. Let’s keep working hard. Let’s find another deal. So we didn’t just sit back, and it wasn’t us, saying let’s keep it small and keep control. It was us saying this is the wrong deal. And so we waited for something else to come along. But if it did, we would have been okay. We were willing to roll the dice. So no, it was it was clear we needed a deal. But it it just didn’t present itself for a while.
Marc Gutman 44:44
What was so awful about the packaging?
Rob Angel 44:48
You know, like, you know, there’s certain memories that you have in your business life. This is one of the top four five from Pictionary. They slap it on the table. We dubbed it The eye chart. It had two problems with it. One, it was back then the trigger pursuit boxes which were square and had a fourfold vote for fold board. That’s what they presented Pictionary. The original version was a long blue box that looks like a long shoe box. That was unique. We had to keep that uniqueness. And two, didn’t look like in hindsight result it was black and white and it had swirls and you could barely read the name Pictionary. And they. They dumbed it down. We wanted Pictionary on somebody’s counter, play plant in see it all the time. This was just ridiculous. It was just bad packaging.
Marc Gutman 45:44
Well, it sounds like you’re all made the right decision. So you have a licensing partner that they come in. They start to give you the capital that you need to grow and breathe. And what does that run look like for you and the team
Rob Angel 45:57
looked amazing. Let me I’m gonna Back up. Just a quick quick side story about the original Pictionary box. It was a long blue box, which we loved, and thought it was great. But we didn’t design the box. And then everything in between we see in the packaging. We didn’t want to be like everybody else. We wanted to differentiate ourselves. And everybody was doing a fourfold. So we’d wanted something different. So we’re talking about it, we’re yelling at each other in a very collaborative way. And finally, I get overwhelmed. I go, I’m not feeling anything.
So I go and sit at a desk by myself. I call it taking a time, I was just taking a break. there happened to be a picture of excuse me a piece of paper on the desk in front of me. I’m not thinking about the board design or anything else. But I pick it up and all of a sudden, it folds on itself, right folds into thirds. And I look at this thing and I go, Holy moly. That’s our new board. That’s our differentiation. So we designed the packaging. Round that board, but it never would have happened. Had it not taking that time out and just stop thinking about the problem. And that’s really a point of, of my business life is whenever I got overwhelmed, whenever things weren’t going right, I would stop. And then creative juices started flowing rather than getting frustrated. Just wanted to just wanted to share that with everybody.
Marc Gutman 47:24
And I appreciate that. That’s a great piece of insight.
Rob Angel 47:27
Yeah, it was it was it was a lot of different things happen because of that. So yeah, so we did a licensing agreement with a joint venture. And they saw the, the trajectory of Pictionary. And so we just started selling the heck out of it all throughout the world. And they turned on the spicket. And the public responded, the public responded, and we just started selling millions of games over the next five years within the United States and an equal amount in Europe.
Marc Gutman 47:57
And what are you doing? What’s your role with the company at this time?
Rob Angel 48:00
My partners and I were unique in that. Normally when a license happens, the license or they just walk away, but we started working harder. We didn’t want anybody in charge of our futures. So we didn’t want them riding off into the sunset and doing what they want with Pictionary. So we made sure to stay involved. We’re coming up with new board games, we’re coming up with new words, new packaging, whatever was required to make Pictionary success and keep it a success. We were there. And we would do things like when a new company would come on board in France, please do have us again on a plane, fly over, tell them, tell them what worked, what didn’t work. And we supported them because we wanted them to be successful, rather than just hoping they were successful. So we stayed very actively law.
Marc Gutman 48:53
And so the company’s doing well. I imagine the original founders are making a good living at this point from the board game. You’re not waiting tables, as you mentioned, and doing some other things. And so the game continues to rise and you continue to do Wow. And again, is there any moment during this period, rethink where you get in trouble or things just get sideways?
Rob Angel 49:15
Yeah, it was 1987. We’re already selling millions of games. And when loser draw, comes out the television show, and they launched their board game, as well. And for whatever reason, I thought they were going to wipe us off the mat. They have this television show, and it’s a half hour commercial every day. And I think we don’t have a chance. It’s Burt Reynolds is celebrities. It’s all these things. And my mind just couldn’t get around it. And I started to panic. And here we are the biggest selling game in the country. But I still had my doubts and a beautiful thing happened. People start didn’t know the difference between when loser draw and Pictionary because we were so friendly. established, people thought it was Pictionary with another day, our sales increased, not decreased. So it had a very positive influence on us. Where I originally thought we would do
Marc Gutman 50:13
well. And that’s, that’s a piece of good fortune. So you ride that wave, you ride that wave.
Rob Angel 50:19
I one thing we used to do is when when the show came out, we would advertise picture on either end of it. So, before or after, they’d be a Pictionary, TV commercial. People really emphasize that that drawing was Pictionary.
Marc Gutman 50:33
And so you make it through that that phase and you keep growing the business and you keep growing the business and, and eventually you come to an exit.
Rob Angel 50:48
Yeah, we did. It was time 17 years, from when we launched in 1985. I was but 43 by now and I’d been with The product and the business for 17 years, 16 years. And I’ll just be honest with you, you know, I developed other priorities I got married, I had some kids, and my, my passion hadn’t faded. And so it was time for me to go in a different direction. And my partners felt the same way. They were ready to move on with their lives as well.
Marc Gutman 51:22
Yeah, and so in 2001 you make a deal to sell the business to Mattel. Like, how did that feel? Was it hard?
Rob Angel 51:31
Yeah, it it wasn’t it wasn’t. I mean, you can hear me just kind of stammering a little bit because it was so powerful that when it was going on, and it absolutely at that moment in my life and in time, was the right decision was the right thing to do, because I really did feel I wanted to sell but after being with my partners and and this game and this life for all that time, it was tough. I mean after after the sale, it was like losing a limb was actually Calling I was I was kind of a little wobbly trying to find my way again. So I took a little time off, which turned into several years. But at first, it was hard to refine my way. The family was great. Everything was good. But a little piece of me was gone.
Marc Gutman 52:16
Yeah, imagine was really hard. I mean, you had not only built a business, you not only realized your dream, you did it in a way where Pictionary became the best selling board game in the world. So not only like, are you achieving all these goals, but you’re like, kind of the king of your category. I mean, that’s pretty awesome. pretty rare. Not a lot of people make it that far. And then you’re not doing that anymore. So So what did you do?
Rob Angel 52:47
I like that King of the category I’m gonna use that. I was pretty good. I decided to basically go back to my roots. So I talked about the bus and talked about being freedom And being in charge of my life. And I went back to them. I continued with that, rather than doing what everybody kept saying, I needed to do a rock, you’ve got to find a new business, you’ve got to find a new passion. You’ve got to start a job and be an entrepreneur all over again. No, I don’t. That’s your vision of what I should be doing. For me. I want to wake up and take my kids to school. I want to mentor people, I want to be involved in nonprofits. I want to enjoy my life, how I want to enjoy it. So I was plenty busy, but I didn’t really need to start a new business. I kept my freedom while giving back and and as you say, being of service to other people. And for me, it worked out really well. And it gave me gave me purpose.
Marc Gutman 53:44
Yeah. So what is life look like for you today?
Rob Angel 53:47
I’m, I am. Back to that again. I’ve just finished as you’ve referenced a book on the Pictionary experience, called game changer. It was a fascinating process to write the book over five years remembering all these stories. And now I am, you know, marketing and promoting it. But it’s, it’s more just trying to get my story out of how, you know, a 23 year old waiter from Spokane, Washington, had a dream had an idea had a vision, an ally I got started with, with no plan. I didn’t know what I was doing half the time. But it worked out. I made it work. And it’s just it’s just a great story. I think for anybody that has an idea or just wants to be inspired to try something new, or just likes Pictionary and want to know what happened. And so it’s, it’s been a really, really fun process.
Marc Gutman 54:50
And we’ll make sure to link to that in the show notes so that all our listeners have access to the book and and know where to find that. Rob as we wind down our time here today If the 20 year old self, your 20 year old self ran into you today, what do you think he’d say?
Rob Angel 55:08
You know, I think he’d say, you know, well done. One thing that’s always been important to me is to be me, be authentic, Be true to who I am. And I try not to buy into other people’s vision of what I should be or shouldn’t be. And I think I’ve managed to do that. So I think the 20 year old Rob felt the same way. And I think it’d be pleased with who we met.
Marc Gutman 55:40
And that is Rob Angel. I loved his idea of finding your aardvark, getting started and never looking back. I also appreciate his experience of taking a time out when struggling with a problem. It seems as though the answer you’re looking for never comes when you’re trying so hard. So often the breakthrough happens when you stop and take a time out. I’ll try to do that myself the next time I’m struggling to find a solution.
Thank you again to rob Angel. Rob’s book can be found at Amazon by searching for game changer, Rob Angel. And you can connect with him on social media on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Instagram at the ROB Angel. Apparently the person with Rob angel is a hairdresser. In case you need that too. We’ll make sure to link to all those resources in the show notes. Well, that’s the show. Until next time, make sure to visit our website www.wildstory.com where you can subscribe to the show in iTunes, Stitcher or via RSS so you’ll never miss an episode. Big stories and I cannot lie to you other storytellers can’t deny