What Does It Take To Lead A Growth Company?
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Episode 22 Transcript:
Chris Curran: Growth Igniters Radio episode 22. What Does It Take To Lead a Growth Company?
This episode is brought to you by Business Advancement Incorporated − enabling successful leaders and companies to accelerate to their next level of growth. On the web at www.businessadvance.com. Now, here’s Pam and Scott.
Pam Harper: Thanks Chris. I’m Pam Harper, Founding Partner and CEO of Business Advancement Incorporated. With me is my business partner and husband, Scott Harper.
Scott Harper: Hi Pam. It’s great to be here with you as always. If this is your first time listening, the purpose of Growth Igniters Radio is to spark new insights, inspiration and immediately useful ideas for leaders to take themselves and their companies to their next level of success. So Pam, what are we talking about today?
Pam Harper: We’re talking about what it takes to lead a growth company. Over the years, we’ve seen that it takes a particular mindset as well as strong leadership ability to successfully and rapidly grow a company year after year. This is especially as the business environment keeps changing.
Scott Harper: That’s true.
Pam Harper: We’re very happy to have with us today Shari Spiro, President of Ad Magic and Breaking Games, the largest and most successful independent printer in the US of tabletop games, including the wildly popular Cards Against Humanity and other customized playing cards and board games. Shari’s company was recently 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. Around the same time, Ad Magic was also recognized as number four in the Women Presidents Organization list of 50 fastest growing women owned or led businesses in 2015. Welcome Shari.
Shari Spiro: Hi Pam, it’s great to be here.
Pam Harper: Yes, I have to say congratulations again on all of these honors.
Shari Spiro: Thank you.
Pam Harper: Let’s began by talking a bit about your own journey of personal and professional growth. Why did you start Ad Magic? Did you always want to be an entrepreneur, or did it come to you one day through circumstances? How did it happen?
Shari Spiro: It actually was circumstance-driven, because I was working for a printing company and I loved it. I really enjoyed it, but basically that printing company went out of business while I was there working in customer service. The bank actually came to me that was managing the closing of the company, and they said “we need someone to finish this $800,000 working process that’s on the floor.” I said, “I know what needs to be done on the job because I was customer service person,” and so basically when I met with the bank, I cut a deal to finish the job and that was how I became an entrepreneur. It was pretty much an overnight step. I didn’t really have a lot of choice. I would say that circumstances, timing and experience all came into play.
If you had asked me what I wanted to be as a kid, I would’ve said the president of a record company and this is close, except we’re producing and publishing games for people to play instead of music. We’re working with designers instead of musicians. It’s close to what I wanted to be as a youngster but it was circumstance that came into play.
Pam Harper: Yeah, entertainment really, if you think about it. That’s true. When you founded Ad Magic, of course, it was a very different company compared to what it is today. What made you decide to innovate and get into publishing games?
Shari Spiro: When I founded the company, it was actually called Immagic in the beginning, and then later in 1997, we changed the name to Ad Magic. At some point in my career of making promotional items, I fell in love with playing cards. I started advertising playing cards very heavily, and it was the playing cards that actually led us into games with our first big game client Cards Against Humanity. I could’ve stopped there but I love the industry, and I love the attitude of the people inside the industry so much that I actually began to fully concentrate on games
Pam Harper: Okay, our listeners actually may be especially interested in Funemployed. I’ve been looking at these card games and Funemployed − it says on the box here, “the satirical job application party game where players make their best pitch for different jobs using four qualifications that fit for any real job interview.” It has a lot of interesting elements to it, creativity, the ability to spin a good story as it says. I say all this because businesses are increasingly turning to gaming.
Scott Harper: Gamification…
Pam Harper: Gamification − just as a side note − so I think it’s interesting that it’s not just all about entertainment anymore, but it almost seems like edutainment.
Scott Harper: Getting people to think flexibly and to really use their minds.
Pam Harper: Do you see it that way …?
Shari Spiro: Well, we’ve done games for everybody from Intel to White Castle to courier companies to Symantec. We’ve already been doing these corporate types of games for many years. It started years ago with simple training games and then it went into icebreaking and communication skills game; there’s a lot of teambuilding games that we have been involved with. We work with game labs and different universities that are developing games for different segments of the corporate world, so yeah we’ve seen it grow tremendously. It’s really a great way if you have a staff to train, or if you have a new product launch that you’re trying to explain. There’s just so many different potential uses for games.
Pam Harper: It’s fascinating, but it’s something that I definitely see growing. How has all of this impacted the growth of your company?
Shari Spiro: What happened is, because we printed a famous game − and it started at the beginning of the innovation of Kickstarte −, what happened is we’ve gotten a reputation for being reliable and being delivery conscious and conscious of the needs of the gamers because the game designers, they have very unique needs as clients. We’ve pretty much concentrated in that area. We’ve gotten a good reputation to help grow the company because it’s a terrific word-of-mouth business.
Scott Harper: Okay, and you’ve got actually lots of different segments your company − you’ve got a lot of balls the air. What’s the top lesson, Shari, that you’ve learned about how to use innovation in multiple parts of your company for driving your growth?
Shari Spiro: It’s interesting − once you’ve decided to pick a direction to innovate, you really need to get your entire staff on board with that innovation. That was my primary goal.
Once I was sure that games were the thing that would drive our profits and our growth for the next years to come, getting the staff behind the changes I wanted to implement was key to changing culture of the company itself. Culture, as we know, fuels innovation so our culture has always been one of hard work and loyalty, and innovation really became a big part of it because everyone bought into it early on, and the way that I had them buy into this was by bringing them to trade shows and having them actually meet the client personally. That made all the difference in the world for the staff to see and speak with the designers so they become more in tune with the designers needs and they were less resistant to some … There was a lot of resistance in the beginning to some of the changes, and the constant quote revisions that the staff had to deal with, but once they understood why these people were changing their games over and over again, and why they needed different levels added to their quotes − once they understood the basis of Kickstarter and the needs of designers, it was an amazing change that came over for the entire staff.
Pam Harper: So for you, what it sounds like is that loyalty was a real critical component for you in driving innovation.
Shari Spiro: It is a critical component, and the other thing that’s important is that the employees have to see the meaning and the fulfillment in the work that they do. Some of those are in order entry, and they never wind up seeing a finished product. They don’t understand what they’ve contributed to. One of the big things we do is we get samples of the games in the office and we encourage the employees to play the game and become familiar with them because it’s rewarding to them to see the finished product that they help make.
Pam Harper: That’s the other side of it − when you can understand and see in a concrete way how your innovation results in something that is so valuable. It’s a virtuous cycle, I guess.
Shari Spiro: Exactly.
Pam Harper: Okay, so we’re going to take a quick break, and when we come back, we’ll speak more with Shari Spiro of Ad Magic about what it takes to lead a company for substantial year on year growth. Stay with us…
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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, President and Founder of award-winning Ad Magic and Breaking Games, about what it takes to lead a highly growth oriented company. Shari, how can people find out more about your companies and games such as Cards Against Humanity and Funemployed.
Shari Spiro: Well, they can go to www.admagic.com or www.breakinggames.com.
Pam Harper: Okay. So let’s continue our discussion. We’ve talked about how you started up, and some of what it takes to engage employees with innovation and growth. We’ve also talked a lot in previous times about something that you call “response-ability.” Can you tell us what you mean by that?
Shari Spiro: I break that into two parts. Responsiveness and responsibility. In my opinion, in the speed of light environment that we’re all working in, a company needs to be able to both respond quickly and take responsibility for their actions. So with regard to responding quickly, our staff can turn around pricing and jobs very, very quickly. We can respond to the needs of designers in time because everything is a deadline with game design. There’s a lifecycle that has to be met. But not only can we respond quickly, we also take responsibility for things that could possibly happen.
For example, we take responsibility for the job we produce, and we go above and beyond to protect the client from extra fees. For example, if a custom exam comes up − if a container gets pulled over and there’s a custom exam on their job − we don’t charge them for that within reason. We’ll lay out thousands of dollars to protect them because, number one, it doesn’t happen that often and number two, it could destroy a Kickstarter. $2000 could be there whole profit margin in that Kickstarter. We tried to protect the clients. If something is wrong with the job, we fix it. We want them to feel safe so we take responsibility. We don’t just take responsibility for the clients, we also take care of our employees and their needs.
We feel a huge responsibility to our staff. Because we put our money where our mouth is, so to speak, and we do take care of our staff, we give them what they need to be comfortable, they can work in a more stress-free way. They don’t have to worry about paying their bills; their bills should be covered. If somebody has a job, in my opinion, if it doesn’t pay enough to cover their bills, and they have to get a second job, then we’re failing as a company in providing them employment.
Pam Harper: So Shari, when you talk about response-ability, in some ways, some might say it’s like empowerment? Is it similar to that? I mean you’re talking about being able to take charge and get things done, if I’m understanding correctly. Is that right?
Shari Spiro: Correct. We empower not only the designers but we also empower the staff. We do whatever it takes to empower … We have to empower everyone that we’re working with, because the more these people have control of what’s going on, the better the job is going to run, the better the game is going to do, and of course the better the company is going to run. Because the people on the staff feel comfortable; they have what they need to be successful. They’re not overburdened by worry, where their next dime is going to come from, what if their child gets sick. These things − we try to go above and beyond to make sure that our people don’t have to worry about that. They have enough to worry about.
Scott Harper: Yeah, they do. What you’re really saying here is that by taking this attitude towards your people, you are creating the sense of loyalty that “if you go to the mat for me, I’ll go to the mat for you and for our customers.”
Shari Spiro: It’s so true, because my staff has already gone to the mat for me. They went to the mat for me in 2009 by staying with me through the hardest of time. The promise in 2009 was when we turn this around − because as a team, we will turn this around − when we turn it around, we will all reap the benefits. And I’ve been true to my word.
Scott Harper: That’s great. You’ve also talked to us about your focus on looking down the road and seeing what’s coming. You’ve said you want to be the disruptor in the marketplace, not the person who is disrupted. Tell us a little bit about what that means to you and how this plays out in Ad Magic and Breaking Games.
Shari Spiro: It’s interesting, because specifically with the publishing part of it, we came into the industry as an outsider looking in. We were coming in from the manufacturing standpoint and then going into publishing from there rather than starting off with a publisher. The way I looked at the industry was completely different than I think most people do. The idea of looking at an industry in a different way is something that really excites me because if I see something broken in a model, I don’t want to follow that model. I saw certain things wrong in game publishing when I began to study it. I’m working hard to create a new model for my company and my clients because I think we can do better.
I think a true partnership rather than just a publisher-licensee relationship is something that enables the company to gain IP and gain loyalty in the same way as we get loyalty from our staff, because we become a tighter-knit organization by bringing the game designers in as partners on their game rather than just licensing and saying, “Okay, we want your game for three years and if it doesn’t do well in three years, we’re going to release it and you can do whatever you want by then.”
That to me is not the way to go. If I’m going to invest thousands of dollars in a property, I want to be around it for years to come. I want to have a life with that property and I want to build it and I want to a commitment. I want to commit on my end and I want the designer to commit back to me. That’s the first thing we’re trying to change. That is going to lead to other changes that we’re doing. For example, right now most of the contracts that you see for publishing a clause in there for auditing.
If I’m going to do what I want to do, I’m not going to have time for hundreds of people to audit my books − so rather than having auditing, we’re building a system for real-time reporting so people on their cell phones can see what their sales are daily. There’s no need for auditing. It’s automatic. Rather than auditing, we went the automatic route. Rather than licensing, we’re going to partnership route, and so we’re doing things our own way. Do we think it’s going to work? Yes. Do we know for sure? No. It’s never been done before. But the disruptor keeps doing things their own way until they actually change an industry, and that is what I really hope that Breaking Games is going to do in game publishing.
Pam Harper: That’s very exciting. Is that how you distinguish Breaking Games from Ad Magic itself − just to clarify?
Shari Spiro: Ad Magic is the printing and manufacturing company. Breaking Games is the publishing company. What that really means is the publishing part is promoting and marketing and designing and handling the game. If you could liken it to a record company, it’s the people that get the … they get the music played in the same way we get the game played. We’re bringing the games to conventions all over the world. We’ll bring games to Germany, and Australia, and Seattle, and New York, and Chicago, and Dallas, and introduce them to people all over the country and all over the world − so that’s what we’re doing with Breaking Games.
We’re literally breaking new games into the marketplace. We’re also meeting with retailers and we’re meeting with wholesalers and distributors to find new ways to partner with them so that the designers can actually make some money on their games. Some of the bigger companies pay the designers like 5% of wholesale which comes to very, very little
Scott Harper: What you’re saying is “let’s look at this in a holistic way and how can we really make it work better for everybody. In that way, everybody wins.”
Pam Harper: Exactly. Because if everybody wins, everybody’s happy − and why would they want to do anything else.
Shari Spiro: This is a lesson that can be applied across any industry.
We’re going to take a quick break, and when we come back, we’ll continue our conversation with Shari Spiro about things you can do starting as soon as you’re done listening to support growth as well as entrepreneurism. Stay with us…
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Pam Harper: Welcome back to Growth Igniters Radio with Pam Harper and Scott Harper. Over the last two segments, Scott and I have been talking with Shari Spiro, president and founder of Ad Magic and Breaking Games, about her company’s growth story and her unique and highly innovative approach for leading rapid and disruptive growth. Shari, how can people find out about your companies?
Shari Spiro: Easiest way is to go to www.AdMagic.com or to http://breakinggames.com.
Pam Harper: Okay, so now we’ve come to a part of Growth Igniters Radio that really has become our place to share immediately useful ideas.
Scott Harper: Let’s get real − yeah.
Pam Harper: We’re starting to come up with a name for it here. But in this case, it’s to drive higher levels of successful growth in everyone’s company. Shari − based on your experiences, what is the first thing that you would recommend?
Shari Spiro: Number one: find the thing that makes you passionate, the idea or the activity you never tire of doing, and then try to find a way to capitalize on that. Because if you love it, then you get excited about your growth. That has to be step one, because you will never tire of growing it if you love it.
Pam Harper: In your case, it was the entertainment focus of sorts − is that right?
Shari Spiro: In my case, it was printing in general; I loved that to begin with. But what really got me excited, what really led to this new level of growth, was the games, playing the games, meeting the designers. I got so excited about the way that the people in the industry interact and they share their ideas. They’re not afraid to share. “Look at my new game,” it’s not … “No, I haven’t copy written it yet,” but, “No, look at my new game,” because you know what? You can steal rules, but you can’t steal the overall concept because even if you do, it’s never going to be exactly the same. That’s what I loved about the industry. It made me so passionate, because they share ideas freely, and they’re just all coming from a great place of excitement about their games and you never know what the next great big super-successful game is going to be. It could be the one thing you never thought would be successful. Being open-minded and being passionate about it has just given me a much higher level of energy than I’ve ever had.
Pam Harper: Sounds like every day is a new adventure, huh?
Shari Spiro: It is. Very exciting.
Pam Harper: What’s another thing that our listeners could start doing right away?
Shari Spiro: You have to get your staff excited about your idea too, even if it’s only one person on your staff. You have to have somebody who’s on board with you. You have to get that support so that you can grow the thing. If you’ve try and you can’t get somebody excited about the idea, maybe it’s the wrong idea, because it should be so contagious that they see it right away because your level of passion for it is so strong and you have a clear vision. Because when you’re passionate about something, the vision comes with it.
Then, I think one other thing is even if you don’t have staff, you can hire outsiders to bring your company to a new level because, they will always give you input from an objective outside perspective that you may not get from people who are too close to you and so I think it’s always good to bounce your ideas off of an outside professional if possible.
Pam Harper: That’s true. We are big advocates of that, but you know what’s really interesting − because I do know you − is the level of innovation and connectedness that you have with your outsource providers such as manufacturers. I think that’s a fascinating piece as well, when you talk about getting your staff involved, because they really are your staff in the sense although they are separate, right?
Shari Spiro: No, it’s true. My designers − I have two designers who basically branded the company, and now they’re moving on to branding the games. As we started working together, we were feeling each other out, and the work started, very simple − the Ad Magic logo; the initial logo looked very corporate, very nice. I said well, this is a good look for us, and then we moved on to more things, and then letterhead − standard things. Then I started to get a little creative with them and I said, hey, and I threw things at them. I threw games at them; I threw other ideas, and tradeshow advertising.
They started getting more and more excited and then after about a year, they said, “We really don’t want to work for anybody else; we just want to work for you. Can we have some sort of exclusive arrangement?” I said, “Yeah. That works for me.” That’s the kind of relationship I want to have with everyone who works with us, because we get into a symbiotic relationship. It grows us both and we all get excited about it and we can see a future in it. That’s the most exciting thing, if you can see the picture coming together with all these different people.
Scott Harper: So it’s really bringing everybody together and being very holistic and organic. It’s not, “Well, this is my company and you’re going to do what I say.” It’s this is, “We’re in this together.”
Shari Spiro: Yeah, but there is a little bit of “you have to do what I say,” because in the end, somebody has to call the shots. You do have to have that backbone that says, “You know what? Your idea is good, but we’re going to go with this idea instead,” because you do have to have that strong compass of where you’re heading and you have to lead …
Scott Harper: And this is a company [after all].
Shari Spiro: However yeah − it’s how you finesse that decision. It’s how you get your way when somebody specifically wants to go another way and also about acquiescing to somebody else’s idea if it’s better. You have to have the strength to say “you know what, I thought about it, and I was wrong. We really should do it your way.” I think it’s a very sensitive thing but as long as you’re giving enough thought, and you really go with your gut, I think that the right decisions can be made as a team.
Scott Harper: Focused flexibility….
Shari Spiro: Great terminology.
Scott Harper: I just made it up.
Pam Harper: There you go. We’ve talked about focus. We’ve talked about the passion. We’ve talked about our relationships, focused flexibility. What is one more thing?
Shari Spiro: Oh well, the big thing is − I can actually give you a couple of things − one thing is you have to have a tremendous amount of energy. You really do, because leading people can sometimes be draining. There will be times when people come up to you and they start pouring out negativity. You have to be able to turn that around and you have to have a tremendous amount of energy inside as a store against anything that’s going to drain that energy. That’s very, very important to me. I try to keep my energy level very high by taking care of myself.
The other thing is you have to remain positive and keep that capacity to feel awe and to get excited and then to communicate inspiration. When you surround yourself with people who believe in you and people who are supportive and truly are loyal, it’s incredibly exciting.
Then organization will have to be the number one thing − you have to be organized above all else. You have to answer those emails and you have to get the correct systems in place. You have to reach out beyond your comfort zone into the future and beyond, and think as far down the road as you can picture without losing sight of the present. I would have to say besides passion, you have to have a lot of energy and a lot of organization.
Pam Harper: Shari, do you have any last thoughts that you’d like to leave us with on what it takes to lead a growth company?
Shari Spiro: I think that taking chances on your ideas and then following them through is the single best thing you can do for any company. Taking my ideas into venues all over the world has been one of the most exciting things I’ve ever done, and I look forward to continuing this journey with the most supportive staff and family that anyone could ever have.
Pam Harper: Well, we appreciate your thoughts. Thank you again for being our guest today on Growth Igniters Radio.
Shari Spiro: Thank you. I really enjoyed it. Thank you for that catchphrase. I’d like to be able to borrow that “focused flexibility” down the road, if I could.
Scott Harper: You’ve got it. It’s copywritten between us; we’ll share it with you.
Pam Harper: There you go. Okay.
Shari Spiro: Thank you both so much.
Scott Harper: Thank you. And thanks to you all for listening to Growth Igniters Radio with Pam Harper and Scott Harper. To check out resources related to today’s conversation, share on social media, find out about upcoming episodes or open a conversation with us, go to wwwgrowthignitersradio.com and select episode 22.
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 discuss with your team:
Scott Harper: How can we increase our flexibility and responsiveness to the growth opportunities that are right in front of us − today?