Leslie Scott got bored of a game and invented a new one, Jenga. She also almost went bankrupt trying to bring it to market.

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Dave Young:
Welcome back to the Empire Builders Podcast. Dave Young here alongside Stephen Semple. And we’re talking about empires, and the brand name that you’ve whispered in my ear just before we started the countdown to record here, I’m like, “Okay, well, yeah, I’ve heard of it. I never thought of it as an empire, but let’s chase this rabbit into the woods and see.” Jenga. And we’re talking about the game, right? The little wooden pieces, and you stack them up.

Stephen Semple:
Yeah. You take one out and you put it on the top and you stack them. And the loser is the one who makes the tower fall down.

Dave Young:
Makes the whole thing topple. I’ll be honest with you, I don’t know that I’ve ever played a complete game of Jenga.

Stephen Semple:
Oh, well, next time we get together, we are going to go to the store and we’re going to buy a game of Jenga and we’re going to crack some beers and we’re going to play a game.

Dave Young:
I know at the Fang and Feather on the Wizard Academy campus, they have it way oversized, and it may not even be Jenga brand, but it’s almost like two by four pieces that they play with. It’s actually become a word that’s entered the vernacular, because you look at things and you’re like, “Oh, well, this is like a big Jenga thing,” or, “Unraveling this problem is like a big Jenga puzzle.”

Stephen Semple:
And it’s interesting, because when I did say it to you when we were doing the countdown, you made a comment, you made a comment going, “I don’t really think of it as being an empire.” Well, here’s how big it is. In the history of games, it is number three in terms of games sold, behind Monopoly, Scrabble and then Jenga. They have sold 80 million units.

Dave Young:
What does it cost for a Jenga game?

Stephen Semple:
Oh, I don’t know. I didn’t check into that. I didn’t even look into that.

Dave Young:
It’s literally a game that if you know somebody with a table saw and a sander, you could make it. Right?

Stephen Semple:
It’s a little more complicated than that. So the game was invented by Leslie Scott. And as I said, when you are the third-largest game in the history of mankind, that’s a pretty big deal. And, like a lot of empire builders that we’ve come across, she had no background in games. She had no background in her industry. In fact, she worked for Intel.

Dave Young:
Oh, no kidding.

Stephen Semple:
Yeah. So in 1982, she finishes boarding school. She grew up in Africa, and she returns home to UK and she’s living with her mother. And her younger brother loved playing with blocks, five years old. So they would play together with these wooden blocks that she had brought back from Africa. But she got kind of bored with just stacking them up so they would create new games instead of just stacking the blocks. And Leslie suddenly had this idea of taking away a block at a time, and they played around with this, and the game started to evolve, and they started to create rules. And they started testing how unstable can you make the structure, playing with these different bricks? And of course, they decide the loser is the one where it makes it all fall down. So really, this started off as a way to entertain a five-year-old.

And Leslie, as I said, worked at Intel. She sits on this idea for eight years before she realizes the potential. She’s working in Intel in marketing, and her job is to basically explain to people what microprocessors are. This is in the really early days of computing. This is the eighties. She discovers the perfect icebreaker for getting people talking is she would bring these blocks in and she would play this game with customers. She started bringing it to work. And colleagues started asking her to do this with their teams and their customers. So she decides she’s going to make it a game, and the first thing she needed to do was decide on the name. And her mom grew up in East Africa, and so they landed on the name build, which in the native tongue, and I forget which African tribe it is, sorry, is Jenga.

So Jenga actually literally means build. But she loves working at Intel and she’s doing really well there, she’s climbing the ladder, and this is a big deal when she decides to leave Intel to sell these bricks. Growing industry, a leader in the industry, doing well, getting promotions, and she decides, “Nope, I’m going to go sell these little wooden bricks.” So she decides she’s going to apply her marketing skills that she developed at Intel, apply them to the bricks. She’s all in on Jenga. And as I said, she’s not a game maker. She’s got a communications background.

One of the first things she realizes is this cannot look like chopped up wood. She needs a design element. So she changes the size, she has them made, and they’re all perfect. Like you were saying, it was like, “I don’t want it to look like it was something that anyone can make.” Here’s the problem. When you’re playing Jenga, one of the things that you do… Since you haven’t played the game, David, I’ve got to explain it to you. But you’ve probably noticed this, is when you build Jenga, you’ll notice people tap the bricks. They’re looking for-

Dave Young:
You’re looking for one that’s slightly smaller?

Stephen Semple:
Yeah, or that you can wiggle out. Well, when they’re all perfect, it’s rock solid. They stick.

Dave Young:
Yeah. Hard to play.

Stephen Semple:
Hard to play. She realizes is the magic in the game was all these bricks were handmade. They’re all slightly different sizes. And it’s the imperfections that make it work. How do you now mass produce a game where you need imperfections? So what they do is they redesigned it, and what they realize is run it through a tumbler.

Dave Young:
Oh, okay.

Stephen Semple:
So a tumbler will create all these little tiny, hardly noticeable imperfections that are just enough that you can now find the brick that you can tap it.

Dave Young:
They’re going to be more or less susceptible to the erosion of a tumbler, whether the end grain is stacked up, like if it’s vertical grain versus… Yeah, I’ll go way, way into the woods on this. Let’s not do that.

Stephen Semple:
And the interesting thing is even when you see people make their own, sometimes it doesn’t work as well. And what you really got to do is take out a hammer, slam some of them around, and it’ll actually make for a better Jenga game. The whole point is it actually has to be slightly imperfect. But she geniusly found a way that when you look at the Jenga pieces, they all look exactly the same. It’s not like you can see the imperfections, but they’re there. So she takes out a 20,000 pound loan, because she’s UK so it’s pounds, and makes 200 sets of Jengas, and takes them to this massive toy fair that happens every year in London. She takes out a booth and she’s going to strike it big. She sets up a bunch of Jenga games at the trade show booth, and guess what happens?

Dave Young:
Nobody plays.

Stephen Semple:
Zero orders, because no one plays. They look at it and they go, “Is this building blocks or a game?” No one understands what it is. And a year later, still no interest.

She’s slogging away at this. Her mom’s sold her house. Things are not looking good. Leslie’s car gets repossessed. In 1985, she does this grassroots tour of the US where she takes this game around, and still nothing. Three years after leaving Intel, she’s still trying to get it to market and is literally just about bankrupt. As I said, mom sold the house, car has been towed away, and she gets a call from Irwin Toys. And Irwin Toys at this time is the largest toy company in Canada. And they had come across one of the sets that she left behind on her US tour. Here’s the problem. They don’t like the name Jenga. They don’t like the name Jenga.

They wanted to call it something different. But she knew the name would make it stand out. She felt that the name was really, really important. So imagine this. You’ve been slogging away. You’ve been doing this for years. Your car’s been repossessed. Irwin Toys calls you and says, “Dave, we want to sell your toy in Canada, but we want to change the name.” How many people would say, “No, I’m not going to give you the rights. You’ve got to take the name.”

Dave Young:
She turned them down on their name change, right?

Stephen Semple:
She turned them down on their name change. But they did come back to her and say, “Okay, we’ll do it under the name Jenga.” I don’t know whether I would’ve held firm.

Dave Young:
Yeah, does that really matter? And honestly, once people play it and have fun with it, does it matter what it’s called? I guess, I mean, I think she’s turned the word Jenga into a household word for sure.

Stephen Semple:
She certainly has.

Dave Young:
I’d like to know what they wanted to call it.

Stephen Semple:
I was not able to come across that. I don’t even know if they got to that.

Dave Young:
Not Jenga.

Stephen Semple:
Not Jenga, I think. But I got to admire her for that’s a hard moment to stand that firm. So she held firm, they kept the name. Irwin took the toy to the Toronto Toy Fair. But here’s the thing that Irwin understood that she never figured out, is you needed to demonstrate it being played.

Dave Young:
Oh, yeah.

Stephen Semple:
So the big thing Irwin did was demonstrate the playing of the game, and suddenly people understood it. Irwin at that toy fair sold 80,000 copies in three days.

Dave Young:
Wow.

Stephen Semple:
Now, here’s the interesting thing, is at the time in Canada for a toy to become a bestseller, you had to sell 10,000 a year. They sold 80,000 in three days. Today it is the third bestselling game of all time.

Dave Young:
It’s an amazing story.

Stephen Semple:
And I’m happy she kept the name. But the lesson here is, to me, there’s a bunch of things that she had to learn in developing of the game. But her blind spot was somehow she never really figured out that to sell this game, it wasn’t just about showing people the game, is that it really is the demonstration of the playing of the game. And not even just telling people how it’s played, but having them play it.

And somewhere along the lines, clearly she didn’t do a good demonstration of that. And maybe part of her blind spot is she came from Intel and she was a communication expert at Intel. And you don’t demonstrate a chip, you explain a chip. And I don’t know whether that was her blind spot, but I wonder, because as soon as Irwin Toys picked it up and demonstrated it, it blew up.

Dave Young:
Yeah. I just looked on Amazon. It’s 12 bucks, original Jenga.

Stephen Semple:
Okay. $12. Okay.

Dave Young:
I think that’s one of their discount things. But still, it’s not-

Stephen Semple:
Not hugely expensive.

Dave Young:
Not hugely expensive. And for 12 bucks, you go, “Well, I couldn’t do it myself for that.”

Stephen Semple:
You’re going to go and buy it.

Dave Young:
Oh, yeah. But there are also some really expensive knockoffs and upgrades and things you can do.

Stephen Semple:
And they’ve created other versions of it, like there’s a Las Vegas version, which has got a roulette wheel attached to it. And they’ve done some branded ones where there’s certain sports teams and things, and there’s these limited edition ones. Like anything, you’re going to do a bunch of other things along that lines. But this whole demonstration part got me really thinking. A lot of businesses, I think, struggle with the same idea, where they need to figure out how to better demonstrate what it is that they do. And it got me thinking about a client of our partner Roy Williams, Goettl Air Conditioning. So where am I going with this? You’re going, “Goettl Air Conditioning?” And one of the things I love was Goettl would talk about how a lot of people when they service an air conditioner don’t put all the screws back in and put the toweling on because it’s a pain in the neck, and that they do.

Well, how do you demonstrate that? Well, what they would do is any screw that was not replaced by the previous person, they replaced it with a red screw. So now, every time a customer walks past that air conditioner or even all the technician has to do is take a look at that and immediately there’s this demonstration of the extra work you did by these red screws. Simple demonstration. And it has less impact when you sit there and say, “Oh, let me show you. I put this one, this one, this one.” It’s just like, “Hey, let’s just go check it out. I replaced a bunch of screws.” Immediately the customer sees the three that the last technician didn’t replace that Goettl now did. Simple demonstration.

And I think one of the things that companies need to step back and figure out is how can you demonstrate, now how do you do it as a services business? We run into the same situation. How do we demonstrate our expertise? Well, that’s part of the reason why we do the starter session. So people have heard us advertise this starter session. The reason why one of the things someone has to do is fill out the scorecard and questionnaire is it gives us enough information that we can do research ahead of time, that when we get on the call with somebody, we can actually share with them some professional insights demonstrating our expertise.

Instead of going, “Oh, well, here’s a customer, been really successful,” and doing this dog and pony show. It’s like, “No, here’s something, Mr. And Mrs. Business Owner, that you can use in your business today.” Here’s an insight that we’ve brought to the table, immediately demonstrating our expertise. Yes, we’re giving away a little something for free. That’s fine. But we’ve demonstrated our expertise. And I think this whole idea of demonstration is underappreciated, and that’s what I noticed in this.

Dave Young:
I’d have to agree with that. And I think there’s great opportunity for even a mundane business to figure out how to do a little bit of demonstration. It seems like there are some things that just don’t need it. And I think that’s the mistake that Leslie made, is she thought, well, this is pretty self-evident.

Stephen Semple:
Right.

Dave Young:
Right? You stack them up and you take them apart, one piece by piece till somebody makes the whole thing fall over. But it’s almost like driving a car. You can ride in a car your whole life and then you turn 15 and all of a sudden your hands are on the wheel and your butt’s in the seat and your foot’s on the brake, and you realize what it actually means to drive a car. Because you have no idea what that feels like till the steering wheel’s in your hands and your body feels the forces moving back and forth and forward and back. You don’t understand Jenga till you’ve actually knocked a stack of Jenga down.

Stephen Semple:
So my challenge, people, is figure out ways, whether it’s YouTube videos, whether it’s part of your sales process, but really figure out what are ways that you can demonstrate the value of your product or service. And if you’re having a challenge with that, especially if you’re in the services industry, because I’ve done this with a lot of service providers, if you got a challenge with that, give us a call. We’ll help you figure out a way to do a demonstration.

Dave Young:
Absolutely. Thank you, Stephen. I’ve got to order a box of Jenga now.

Stephen Semple:
It’s even more fun as the more beers you drink.

Dave Young:
I think maybe the giant Jenga set sounds like fun. Next time we meet, sir, Jenga.

Stephen Semple:
All right. Thanks, man.

Dave Young:
Bye. Thanks for listening to the podcast. Please share us. Subscribe on your favorite podcast app and leave us a big fat juicy five-star rating and review. And if you have any questions about this or any other podcast episode, email to [email protected].