The Driving Ambition of a Board-Game Inventor

With the toy industry's titans dominating shelf space, a young maverick roams the country to get his brainchild into stores

For many small-business owners, quiet time -- to consider the big picture or strategize for the future -- is in short supply. But not for Eric Poses, an inventor whose board game has generated more than $1 million in revenue since 1997. These days, the 27-year-old solo entrepreneur has all the solitude he needs -- and then some. That's because he's spending the next three months on the road, hopscotching his way across the country to 26 cities in an effort to jumpstart sales of the game and introduce a new item.

"When I'm driving from Denver to Kansas City, that's 20 hours of time I'm thinking about what I could possibly do with this product," says Poses, a gregarious Emory University graduate who thought up the board game, Loaded Questions, five years ago while waiting for his girlfriend at an airport.

In this up-to-the-minute Internet age, Poses' promotional trip, with its emphasis on in-store demonstrations and face-to-face meetings with store owners and toy buyers for bigger chains, is strikingly old-fashioned. (But not completely: Poses uses a cell phone, PalmPilot, and laptop to manage his business on the road.) It's also just the sort of low-budget "guerilla marketing" effort that's critical for independent entrepreneurs trying to compete against larger manufacturers, particularly in a trend-sensitive industry like toys.


  "If you can get the buzz behind the product, and then people request it from the stores -- that's the whole secret," says Kathleen Seiders, professor of marketing and entrepreneurship at Babson College in Wellesley, Mass. Unfortunately, that's a lesson many inventors never learn. "People tend to assume demand," she adds. "They invent something that's totally cool and they don't have the vision of who this product is for."

Indeed, market research is a critical part of Poses' cross-country odyssey. Store demonstrations, such as the recent four-hour appearance he made at the FAO Schwarz in Las Vegas, provide instant feedback about what customers like and don't like about the game. These "meet the inventor" sessions serve another purpose: They bolster Poses' confidence in the game's profit potential. "When they play the game, most people really enjoy it," he says.

Aimed at teens and adults, Loaded Questions tests how well people know each other. It consists of 512 questions ranging from the silly (What's the longest you've gone without taking a shower?) to the serious (If you were forced to kill one person living today, at your discretion, who would it be?). Players advance by correctly matching an opponent with a particular answer.

With no budget for mass-marketing or flashy booths at trade shows, Poses considers his extended sales trips essential to the survival of his company, All Things Equal, Inc., which is based out of his home in Santa Monica, Calif. And with good reason. His last major trip, a 13,000-mile, 32-city tour in 1997, generated reams of positive press, mostly from the local newspapers Poses phones just before rolling into town. Better yet, the trip also landed him a contract with Toys 'R' Us -- a deal that accounted for more than half of the $440,320 in revenue he earned in 1999.


  That's no small feat. Achieving such success while competing against the likes of Parker Bros. and Milton Bradley makes Poses "the exception to the rule," says Lyn Cardullo, a Mineola (N.Y.)-based marketing and product-development consultant. "He has done well," she adds. "As an independent, you're marketing, you're selling, you're doing everything."

Yet Poses' biggest challenge may still lie ahead. Last year, he learned just how quickly a small company's momentum can change. Toys 'R' Us dropped Loaded Questions, while smaller chains cut back on their orders. Suddenly, Poses was looking at a 50% drop in revenue for 2000. "I got a little lazy last year," he says, acknowledging that he was less aggressive in pursuing new orders. Adding to his troubles, a second game he had developed -- a multicultural version of gin rummy for kids -- ended in disaster because of production problems, forcing him to write off $100,000 in design-and-manufacturing costs.

While disappointing, those difficulties also served as a wake-up call. Poses says he's now determined to beef up sales and again land a major contract, like the one with Toys 'R' Us. He e-mails and calls buyers from major chains several times a month, and pins down in-person meetings whenever possible. So far, a few possibilities have emerged. Barnes & Noble, which sold Loaded Questions in a handful of its stores last year as a test, is considering placing a larger order this fall. FAO Schwarz has stocked up on the game in 13 of its stores in connection with appearances Poses plans to make.


  Poses also hopes to land a major order and a licensing deal for his latest brainstorm, a photo album with Mad Lib-like pages called PictureScripts, aimed at teenage girls. Target has expressed interest in carrying the item, and Poses plans on heading north to Minneapolis to meet with a buyer from the 1,000-store chain.

Still, securing orders from national chains isn't easy. In recent years, toy retailers have cut down on the number of vendors they work with in order to save money and win discounts from larger suppliers. "Vendors with one or two products have no power," says Seiders of Babson. "Unless a product is really hot, there's no incentive for the retailer to continue dealing with them."

The manufacturing and distribution issues are another set of obstacles. Target, for example, deals with major manufacturers "99.9% of the time," says company spokeswoman Patty Morris. In part, that's because companies such as Hasbro, Inc., which owns both Parker Bros. and Milton Bradley, have the infrastructure to serve Target's needs. (Poses insists he would need only a slightly longer lead time to handle an order from a chain as large as Target.)


  If the deck is so stacked against him, why doesn't Poses simply sell out? He has tried. Several years ago, when Poses pitched Loaded Questions to both Parker Bros. and Mattel Inc., both passed. He hasn't renewed his search, he says, because the profit margin on the game -- roughly 50% of the $11 to $12 per-unit wholesale price -- is good. "It has paid the bills, and then some," he says. Indeed, the profits helped pay for his condominium two blocks from the beach in Santa Monica.

PictureScripts, however, is another story. Because the item is expected to retail for just under $10, Poses' profit margin would be much lower -- roughly $1.25 per unit. But a larger company with higher sales volumes could lower production costs by ordering 200,000 or so of the items at a time, raising profit margins. For that reason, Poses is seeking to license PictureScripts, while simultaneously working to drum up sales from chains such as Bed, Bath & Beyond, which has ordered 2,300 of the photo albums.

Although he strives to make the most of his time on the road, Poses, understandably, is looking forward to going home. Spending your nights in an endless succession of budget motels grows old -- and costly -- after a while. Yet the biggest downside is that sales and marketing, while business necessities, are hardly fuel for his creativity. "The real fun for me is developing ideas of my own," he says.

By Julie Fields in New York

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