Scaling For Growth? Here’s What An Award Winning CEO Learned
Listen to Episode 103:
Episode 103 Transcript:
This episode is brought to you by Business Advancement Incorporated, enabling successful leaders and companies to accelerate to their next level of success. On the web at BusinessAdvance.com.
And now, here’s Pam and Scott.
Pam Harper: Thanks, Chris. I’m Pam Harper, Founding Partner and CEO of Business Advancement Incorporated, and right across from me as always is my business partner and husband, Scott Harper. Hi, Scott.
Scott Harper: Hi Pam. It’s always a pleasure to join you for an episode of Growth Igniters Radio with Pam Harper and Scott Harper. If this is your first time listening, our purpose is to spark new insights, inspiration and immediately useful ideas for visionary leaders to take themselves − and their companies − to the next level of growth and success. So Pam, what’s up for today?
Pam Harper: What it takes to scale your company as it grows so that you can meet growing demand while maintaining agility and excellence, and all the characteristics that have brought you success.
Scott Harper: Sounds like a challenge…
Pam Harper: It is; and it’s a particular challenge for mid-size companies because they face the risk of losing some of that agility they had when they were startups, and they still don’t have the resources of larger competitors.
Scott Harper: Okay.
Pam Harper: However, there are some visionary leaders − and we call them growth igniters as you know − who not only ignite momentum, they sustain momentum on the growth journey. They keep their companies agile and responsive to customers, and they’re especially good at recognizing emerging opportunities and navigating the challenges along the way.
A CEO who embodies this is Shari Spiro, CEO and Founder of Ad Magic and Breaking Games. This is one of the largest and most successful independent printers in the US of tabletop games, including the wildly popular Cards Against Humanity and other customized playing cards and board games.
Scott Harper: This includes Exploding Kittens, which we played over the holidays.
Pam Harper: Yes. We love that one.
Now, Since its launch in 1998, Ad Magic has manufactured and printed cards, customized poker chips, and board games for a host of household names and brands, including HBO, Delta Airlines, the Wall Street Journal, Symantec, Ford, Walt Disney, the Luxor Hotel, and Wynn Hotel in Vegas, AirBnB, LinkedIn, Game of Thrones, Garth Brooks, Tom Hanks − and even the CIA.
Scott Harper: Okay!
Pam Harper: Shari’s company was honored by ACG New Jersey with a corporate growth award at our association’s 2015 Corporate Growth Conference and Awards event. That’s really where I first met her. Shari was first our guest in 2015, and has been back since then to discuss how playing games can build critical thinking skills.
Over this time her company has continued to dramatically grow and win numerous awards. In fact, most recently, Shari was honored as a winner of the EY Entrepreneur of the Year 2016 New Jersey award. You can see much more about Shari’s bio and get links to our previous conversations with her by going to GrowthIgnitersRadio.com, episode 103.
Shari, welcome back to Growth Igniters Radio, and Happy New Year.
Shari Spiro: Happy New Year! It’s great to be here.
Pam Harper: Of course, we’re hearing all about customer demand for your games. We’re playing games ourselves. You were telling us that this has been an incredible year for you, right?
Shari Spiro: 2017 started off with a bang. A lot of our games are going back into Target stores this year, including some new ones. I’m happy to say that Exploding Kittens will be on the shelves this year.
Scott Harper: Oh, great.
Shari Spiro: We’ve also just been accepted into Barnes & Noble with seven of our games. We’re very, very excited about that.
Scott Harper: Terrific. That’s great.
Pam Harper: That’s wonderful. What’s driving all this growth?
Shari Spiro: We’ve increased our presence worldwide in a number of ways. As you said, I was able to get some publicity from Entrepreneur of the Year, and I also was featured in a Bloomberg Magazine write-up in September which was kind of exciting. I think that the increase of our presence worldwide through trade shows and through retail has really helped our business to dramatically increase.
Pam Harper: There’s the marketing presence; that’s good. Do you find that people are playing games more now?
Shari Spiro: Word of mouth is always number one. Word of mouth is what has spread the word about the games from one gamer to another, and you can never underestimate the power of that. That goes above marketing, and I guess that would be the number one reason why the games are selling and why people are finding out about the games.
Scott Harper: Okay. It’s interesting that these are physical board games and card games as opposed to video games − so video gaming is not wiping out the physical game?
Shari Spiro: I think in fact some ways, video is actually helping the growth of the board game and card game industry. A lot of video games now are coming out with card game versions.
Scott Harper: How interesting.
Shari Spiro: For example, I have one sitting on my desk called Space Team that came from a video game.
Scott Harper: Okay! Now, one of the things that many business leaders face − especially in the mid-market space − is the dilemma of staying nimble and responsive as their company grows. Not over-extending, but being able to maintain that excellent customer service while they continue to develop. How has the increased demand for your company’s products impacted your scaling, and how you’ve approached getting bigger with staying really excellent?
Shari Spiro: That’s a very good question, and it’s a constant challenge. I do things a certain way, and at times I’ll still answer the phone for customer service and then I’ll have my staff just listen to a conversation that I’m having so that they understand how I respond to clients, and the excitement that I have and the passion that I have. I explain to them that when I deal with clients, if I don’t feel that excitement or passion, I will pass that project to another project manager, and I encourage them to do the same thing. I want them to have that passion for each job that they’re working on. If they really don’t have that interest in the client, then they need to pass it to someone who will.
That’s the first thing − just the spark of excitement and the interest of the client. That’s something we still work on, on a regular basis as a team. We discuss it, we take the staff to trade shows to meet the clients so that they stay engaged.
Also, I like to think that the extended part of the team, the freight team, the illustrators, the game development lab that we have out in California, I’d like to see them carry the same excitement and passion with them, so we are constantly expressing our need for that when we have meetings and clarifying our goals to remain agile and interested, and so that as we grow, we still have ways to stay in touch with our core values.
Pam Harper: That sounds like a very responsive approach to growing. What would you say is the biggest leadership lesson that you’ve learned about scaling?
Shari Spiro: I’d like to say that you really have to stay in touch with your staff. The team has to be touched upon daily. You can’t just be a CEO that is doing business from afar. You have be part of the team on a daily basis. I interact with the team when I’m here, obviously, in person, and I touch bases with everyone, see how they’re doing that day, try to keep up with where they’re at. As it grows, I stay in touch with everyone through email and make sure that we’re all up to date and up to speed and we’re constantly airing if there’s any problems, that I’m involved in the loop so that I can address them. As we grow, we do have people in management positions who are starting to deal with people under them, because we’re getting bigger.
Pam Harper: You have locations in New Jersey, in California, and you’re really all over the world in many ways, correct?
Shari Spiro: We have a location in New Jersey, which is our headquarters, and we’re purchasing a warehouse building down the road, so that’s a second location in New Jersey. We have a prototype facility in Washington State, Vancouver, and we have our game development studio in Burbank, California.
Pam Harper: You are reaching out across the distances, and meeting that challenge. That’s great.
We’re going to go into the story behind this lesson that you’ve learned in a moment. First, we’re going to take a quick break − and when we come back, we’ll talk more with Shari Spiro, CEO and Founder of Ad Magic and Breaking Games, about lessons she’s learned as her company has scaled to meet the growing customer demand. Stay with us.
Scott Harper: Thanks for listening to Growth Igniters Radio with Pam Harper and Scott Harper. We’re brought to you by Business Advancement Incorporated. We focus on enabling visionary leaders to dramatically increase momentum for game changing results, and we’re on the web at BusinessAdvance.com.
Pam Harper: Does this topic resonate with you? We have more! Check out related episodes to expand your perspectives and take away immediately useful ideas. Just go to GrowthIgnitersRadio.com, episode 103, and scroll down under “Resources.”
Scott Harper: And while you’re there, sign up for our weekly alert of upcoming episodes, so you’ll always be up to date.
Pam Harper: Welcome back to Growth Igniters Radio, with Pam Harper − that’s me − and Scott Harper. Scott and I are talking today with Shari Spiro, CEO and Founder of Ad Magic and Breaking Games, about the lessons she’s learned as her company has scaled to meet growing customer demand. Shari − how can people find out more about you and your companies?
Shari Spiro: They can visit us at AdMagic.com on the web, or BreakingGames.com. The games are available in Target and Barnes & Noble, I’m proud to say.
Scott Harper: That’s great. Also through Amazon, yes?
Shari Spiro: Yes, everything’s on Amazon as well.
Pam Harper: Returning to our conversation − you have a story behind the biggest leadership lesson that you learned, right?
Shari Spiro: I do. It’s kind of a very mundane story, but one that really strikes a chord with me. I had written a blog post about how important my team is to me, and how important it is that we have a good and open relationship. At the same time, that day or a day before, I had written an email that was a little tough on one of my team members. The next day when I came in the office, she came in and she walked into my office and she said, “Your blog post is bullshit.” I said, “What?” You might have to bleep that.
Scott Harper: No, that’s all right.
Shari Spiro: She came into the office and she basically said, “I read what you wrote in your blog post, and here’s my problem with that.” She said, “You know, your email to me was really harsh, and I felt like you didn’t understand what I was doing.” That was the key word, “You didn’t understand.” The truth is, I did understand what she was doing, but I didn’t explain myself properly in my email. You have to really be careful − words are so powerful.
Pam Harper: They are.
Shari Spiro: Especially in an email. I said to her, “Listen, here’s what I really meant to say. I am so sorry, and I am so glad that you told me how you feel, because that’s the whole idea.” I’d rather have somebody come into my office and tell me, “You’re a jerk,” or whatever words they prefer to use, to my face so that I know what the problem is and I can fix it and apologize if necessary and clear the air and move on. Because people will carry grudges and they’ll never tell you.
Pam Harper: That’s true.
Shari Spiro: I encourage my team to tell me. It was kind of funny, because that blog post did just that. She came in and she said, “You know …” It all came out, and we had a nice conversation and we hugged at the end − because we’re huggers around here; we’re not really hand-shakers. It’s all good, and we understand each other now at a better level. I understand what I should and should not put in an email − to her in particular, and she knows that she can come to me and tell me when I’m not on track. I think that’s really important. I don’t really know how you can grow otherwise.
Scott Harper: Shari, you said this was a trivial story, but it really isn’t. It really illustrates something that Pam and I try to work on with people all the time. You have managed, one way or another, to create an atmosphere in your company where people, as you said, “feel comfortable.” It’s so important that in any company, people can say not only good things, but things that are troubling them, that they can bring up ideas that in some other circumstance, they might feel embarrassed about or they might be put down. That comfortable environment for a full and open discussion is such a critical thing for any sized company anywhere, whether you’re across the hall or across the continent. And you’re doing that, and that’s one of the true attributes of growth igniters.
Pam Harper: That’s true. So, Shari, how do you do that? How do you create that level of comfort?
Shari Spiro: You know, I remember how I was treated when I was in the corporate world, and I have vowed never to be that person or those people. I started my own business to get away from bureaucracy and unfairness, and I just feel that I’ve been blessed with this wonderful opportunity to be fair to the people that work with me.
Pam Harper: How does this work? It goes to my next question, which is, you have such a special culture, and of course every company does, but yours is a very personal culture, you’ve talked about that relationship. Now you’re starting to grow larger, you’re scaling, you’re getting managers, you’re going to continue to grow, as you’ve told us. How do you retain that very personal culture? As your company continues to grow, eventually you won’t be able to see everybody all the time.
Shari Spiro: This is true, I can’t see everyone all the time now, because we do have people in another state. However, I try to really carefully explain to people who are hiring the impact that every new hire’s going to have on the team, and we bring them in, we give them a trial period, and they need to fit in with the team, they need to impact the team in a positive way, they need to uplift the team. So far we’ve been really fortunate that the people that we’ve hired have fit in, and you’ll hear people talk about the team like it’s family. It really is like family around here. We take care of problems for the team. We have a girl right now who is out on leave because she had major surgery. Believe it or not, she’s still working, I don’t know how she’s doing it. She just had major surgery, she just sent me an update this morning. I’m like, “How do you do this?”
Pam Harper: That’s very committed.
Shari Spiro: No, one of the girls said, “Oh, it’s just the effects of her drugs, she’s over-confident. We’re double-checking her work.” In all seriousness, she’s still part of the family even though she’s out. She’s still very much a part of what we’re doing, we’re keeping her in the loop on all the emails. We’re still paying her her regular salary; she’s not on disability or anything like that. We have a different culture; it is about really caring for the people because if I can’t do that, they are not going to care for me, and I need a lot of caring for. I have a lot of stuff to do and I need help.
Pam Harper: It goes into how you make decisions as well, correct?
Shari Spiro: Absolutely. It’s kind of interesting, I have to count to 20 before I even start an email, and sometimes I have to rewrite emails 10 or 12 times, because sometimes it’s a very high level of frustration, and that level of frustration has to be completely gone by the time you actually hit the send button. Every once in a while I hit the send before the level of frustration is completely gone, so never do that.
Scott Harper: Someone comes into your office and says *&@@#$%%%%!!!, or something like that. [laughter]
Shari Spiro: Yeah… “Why did you…” right. Or they could be writing back from across the world. It’s not limited to team members; it could be a vendor. The truth is that we’re human beings, we learn on a daily basis, and people make mistakes. I make mistakes as well.
My people have to feel safe. If they make a mistake, they have to feel safe to say, “Listen, I made this mistake. I’m owning this mistake,” and I will say, “I’m glad you own that mistake. Here’s what you do to avoid that mistake or handle that mistake for now. Here’s how you fix it, and don’t worry about it. Move on to the next task.” I think that’s much healthier than trying to condemn someone for being human.
Scott Harper: Sure. You’ve alluded to this − in addition to your employees, you have people around the world who are vendors, and who do outsource work for you. We like to refer to the extended family of a company of employees and others as a “community,” your family, your community.
Sometimes as companies get bigger, they have a harder time keeping that sense of community for their stakeholders. You have game developers, customers are also part of the community. How are you staying responsive to all of these people? And they’re obviously going to have naturally conflicting needs − how do you balance that?
Shari Spiro: That’s a very good question. What we’ve done is we’ve added project managers, so I may have an initial contact with the client, and then I will say, “Listen, your day-to-day operations will be handled by this project manager. However, I will stay in the loop, and if you have any concerns you can always come back to me, but on a daily basis, I’m the CEO. I can’t manage your project on a day-to-day basis.” We hand it off to project managers, and they have a very keen interest in each of their clients. That’s one way-
Scott Harper: You have process, essentially.
Shari Spiro: We have process, and then also we have community. We do have Facebook pages and Twitter, and we keep in touch with everyone online. That’s a lot of fun, that’s a lot of fun. We have Breaking Games which is being converted into a Kickstarter page because we’re going to start running Kickstarters and that’ll be a whole other aspect.
Pam Harper: It sounds to me like people are connected to the purpose of your company. It’s not just a job to these people, and it’s not just employees and you and some vendor − you really are that community.
Shari Spiro: Because most of the people that we’re involved with are living their dream by designing a game or being involved with manufacturing games or being an artist. We try to make their part of the dream a reality, so for the most part it’s a really positive community and people have a vested interest in being involved, they’re not just doing it because this is the only job that they could get.
Pam Harper: Okay! We’re going to take another quick break now, and when we come back, we’ll talk more with Shari Spiro, CEO and Founder of Ad Magic and Breaking Games, about three immediately useful ideas for scaling your company as it grows. Stay with us.
Chris Curran: You are listening to Growth Igniters Radio with Pam Harper and Scott Harper, brought to you by Business Advancement Incorporated. On the web at BusinessAdvance.com.
Pam Harper: Does your company have what it takes to meet your current commitments and move fast enough to respond to new opportunities? Take the first step to confirm your perspective by requesting our free resource, “Five Questions to Ask When You Need to Move Even Faster.”
Scott Harper: Our questionnaire will help you find out where to begin to focus your energy and resources so what should be happening really is happening faster and more effectively.
Pam Harper: We’ve developed these questions based on our work with clients in over 30 industries. We’ve helped them scale faster, make innovation happen faster, and more quickly respond to new opportunities. This has generated millions of dollars in top and bottom line growth. Now you can have this resource on a complementary basis, just for sharing your valid contact information with us.
Scott Harper: Don’t miss out, go today to GrowthIgnitersRadio.com and select episode 103. Scroll down to resources and click the link, “Download Five Questions to Ask When You Need to Move Even Faster.” And to learn more about our success stories, go to BusinessAdvance.com/client-results.
Pam Harper: Welcome back to Growth Igniters Radio with Pam Harper and Scott Harper. Over the last two segments, Scott and I have been speaking with Shari Spiro, CEO and Founder of Ad Magic and Breaking Games, about the lessons she’s learned as she’s navigated her company through scaling for its dramatic growth journey. Shari, tell us again how can people find your games?
Shari Spiro: They can visit BreakingGames.com or they can look for Breaking Games on Amazon, Target, and in Barnes & Noble.
Pam Harper: Wherever good games are sold. Okay.
Now this is the part of Growth Igniters Radio where we like to talk about immediately actionable ideas listeners can use to put the concepts we’ve been discussing to work. What is the first thing that you would do?
Shari Spiro: The very first thing I would do would be to put my goals in writing, and then send those off to the people that I’m working with to get their thoughts on whatever my actionable idea is. As a matter of fact, I had one this morning that I sent off to the entire team. It does involve growing a game in particular, and basically, you have to put the idea in writing, get it out to people who matter − get feedback.
Pam Harper: Where do you go as far as clarifying it? Because again, sometimes writing works, but sometimes people have questions, they need to get together in person. How do you do that?
Shari Spiro: In the rare event that we need to get together in person, we meet at trade shows. Our primary team building with the entire staff happens when we’re all together at a trade show geographically. Otherwise, we do Google Chat, we do Skype, and we do a lot of email and Slack. Slack is very handy because it’s an ongoing conversation.
Pam Harper: Okay, so the first immediately useful idea is get those ideas written down and also share them in a variety of ways, whether it’s in person, through social media, or some other way so that people have that ability to clarify.
Shari Spiro: Interestingly enough, I just hired a programmer because he’s helping us increase our Salesforce platform and customize it to do the things that we want it to do for both the manufacturing and the publishing side of the business and the warehousing side of the business. The platform has to grow in order to support the growth of the business, which is the most important mechanical thing that we’re doing, if you want to call it mechanical. He is working in a thing called Agile, which is a concept of how to get a team to work together. Agile is a system, and so he’s introducing us to that, and I think we’re going to probably start implementing that within the next month because it’s very simple, we can get all the team members together at once, we can have a short meeting every morning, and monitor our goals more concisely. I’m very excited about that. I have wanted a programmer for a long time, and his addition to the team is a big step in the right direction towards being able to support future growth in a smart way.
Scott Harper: Agile is a process, and again − you can have process without being bureaucratic, and that’s really important.
Shari Spiro: Right.
Scott Harper: Okay, process is not a four-letter word.
Pam Harper: That’s Scott’s favorite saying.
Scott Harper: That’s right. What’s your second idea, Shari?
Shari Spiro: My second idea is to do a team building exercise, which I’ve wanted to do for a long time, to bring the entire team together. We’re going to do a D&D [Dungeons and Dragons] exercise with one of the biggest dungeon masters in the business. We’re very excited about that; I think that’s going to be interesting. It’s also game related, so as far as team building and as far as our growth goes − programming, sharing ideas, and then team building − those seem to be some of the strongest moves that I can make.
Pam Harper: I like what you’re saying because you’re really a product of the product. We were talking a while back with you about games as a way to develop your team’s strategic outlook and problem solving and all the rest of that, and you’re living it.
Shari Spiro: I really am living it.
Pam Harper: I think that’s wonderful. Now, what’s an immediately useful idea for minimizing the risk of scaling? Because a lot of people say, “How do we stay nimble? What is it that we can do so that we don’t become this bloated bureaucracy or expand too fast, overextend or whatever?” What’s something you can do to minimize that risk?
Shari Spiro: The way I do it is this. The need has to exist for the position to be filled prior to hiring the person. I hate to say this, but my team has to be overloaded before we expand the team. Once the team is overloaded in a certain area, we have to expand. I feel like the “We have to, we have no choice” is a big part of the equation. If it’s optional, don’t do it. Don’t fix it if it’s not broken. However, if it’s stressed and it’s starting to strain and you have to do it, then you have no choice. You have to hire someone. I love doing it that way, it’s worked really well for us. It’s a little hard on the team because you do almost have to get to the breaking point. But, you have to know that if you do it that way, you’re never over-hiring.
Pam Harper: You’re looking for the signals that would say, “This is it. This is as far as we can go, but we’re not going to sacrifice our quality or our responsiveness in the process.”
Scott Harper: And it’s a sustained need; it’s not cyclical.
Shari Spiro: Exactly. The other thing is, you’ve got to always look ahead. We’re really busy now, what happens if we’re not quite as busy? How do we support that moving forward? What safety nets can we put in place? Diversification is the safety net that I have put in place.
We have a warehouse now, the warehouse allows us to do a lot of things. Actually, one thing that I’m very strongly considering going into is framing. I know that sounds funny, but we manufacture pieces of art. There are so many pieces of art in this office because every card, every board, everything, has art on it. We have a lot of need for framing, and we spend a lot of money on it, and we think it’s a value-added service for some of our clients that may want to have a frameable item at their booth. We still have promotional items, many promotional items that we manufacture on a regular basis. We have not given up that part of the business, and in fact, we are expanding that part of the business now, because we’ve hired people to do that. Sustained growth, diversification, and controlled growth – that’s our future.
Pam Harper: Looking ahead for what’s next − that’s what I’m hearing, that you’re picking up on these different possibilities. You’re not just resting in one place even though you have that successful business. There’s definitely a next chapter to this story.
Shari Spiro: Definitely, looking for strategic partnerships, expanding our minds to think beyond the way the business normally works, doing different kinds of publishing instead of just saying, “This is the system, this is how the bigger companies have done it in the past,” experimenting with people from different walks of life who are interested in getting into this space, it’s been quite the adventure.
Pam Harper: Okay. Are there any final thoughts that you want to share with us about scaling your company for growth?
Shari Spiro: Be careful what you wish for. If you get what you wish for, then always be careful to think farther ahead, to make sure that you’re going in the right direction, and never lose touch of the people around you.
Pam Harper: Thanks so much again for being our guest today. We look forward to hearing more from you in the future.
Shari Spiro: Thank you so much for having me, and happy 2017.
Scott Harper: Happy 2017, Shari. Thanks a lot, and thanks to you out there for listening. To get show notes and resource links for this week’s episode, go to GrowthIgnitersRadio.com, select episode 103.
Pam Harper: Until next time, this is Pam Harper…
Scott Harper: And Scott Harper…
Pam Harper: …Wishing you continued success, and leaving you with this question to reflect on:
Scott Harper: As your company is scaling on your journey of growth, how are you going to stay nimble and responsive to all of your stakeholders?