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Nashville Scene Toy Story

Four Nashville inventors try to take their new board game national

By Liz Murray Garrigan

JANUARY 24, 2000:  For a while there, things were going really well. My pest-control corporation, Roach Ridder, was fully employed and seeing semi-annual returns of $80,000, while its brother business, Rat Wranglers, was turning a pretty profit as well. I was looking to diversify into other markets, and as soon as the opportunity presented itself, I purchased Zippy Automotive from a competitor in financial straits for next to nothing. As if my luck couldn't have been any better, I took a gamble and made $200,000 on a leveraged investment. I had 500-grand in the bank and was fast on my way to making a cool million.

But then it all went to pot. The bull market went bearish fast, and I lost a number of Roach Ridder's employees to another business through a corporate headhunter. I got audited, which hurt me worse than the worst stories I'd heard. And then there was a bank collapse: Fifty percent of my savings went straight down the tube.

But everything ended up being OK, because it was, after all, just a game. I was playing Inc., the Game of Business, a brand-new board game created by two local couples: Michael and Mahsheed Morrison and Travis and Sarah Foster. The object of the game is simple: Acquire $1 million in gold and own a fully employed corporation. To win the game, a player must be the first to pass the Annual Returns space with both requirements satisfied.

The game is played on a roll-out, rectangular mat, each side of which represents a quarter of the business year; each space represents events and contingencies in the market: "business opportunity," "black Monday," "venture capital," "corporate espionage," and so on. Players gain wealth by acquiring, staffing, then incorporating businesses. Unlike that other famous financial board game, the goal of Inc. is not monopolization, but rather surviving the slings and arrows of the volatile business world through planning, luck, and pluck.

The mat is laminated and, unlike most board games, comes in a unique tube packaging. "There are a lot of benefits to the tube design," Travis says. "You can roll up the mat, drop it in the tube, and take it with you in your backpack. Plus the unit cost for a fold-up, rigid board is $25 to $30 a game. We'd double our losses for every sale."

Which goes to show that Inc. is not only a game but a business. After a two-year odyssey for the Morrisons and Fosters, Inc. is now available at several local stores and on the Internet. The two couples have formed a toy development and manufacturing company, Gas Hound Games, and since Inc's. launch over Christmas, they are in the process of developing other toy ideas. Currently, they're producing Inc. themselves; as self-publishers, they're in very successful company. (Ever heard of Trivial Pursuit?) Their hope is to secure licensing with a major toy company like Hasbro and take the game national.

Ironically, Inc. didn't start out as a business idea. Travis, Sarah, Mahsheed, and Michael had simply grown bored with the board games they were playing and wanted something new. In fact, none of them had any experience in the toy business. Michael, 29, is a Web developer and author of over 20 computer books, including The Complete Idiot's Guide to Java. Mahsheed, 29, works as an engineer for ASPEC Communications, a global telecommunications company, and spent several years as a hardware designer at Motorola. Travis Foster, 32, has had national accounts as an illustrator with The Wall Street Journal and Disney, among others. And Sarah, 32, an RN at Vanderbilt, is also a freelance photographer and mother of three. Spend any time at all with the Gas Hound gang, and you can practically warm your hands on all the creativity and intelligence emanating from the group.

But they never planned on making toys. "From the very beginning, it was us wanting something more for ourselves," Michael says. "And then, after we thought this might be something other people liked, we redirected our energy toward the commercial side of it."

When you sit down to play Monopoly, you think of the number you have to roll to land on Boardwalk. When you play Scrabble, you try to figure out how to score the most with those 10-point Q's and Z's. But you never think about how such a game came to be in the first place. And it's rarer still that the game happens to have been created by people living just a few miles from your own living room. But that's what makes Inc. so fascinating: It's the story of four Nashvillians whose entertaining pastime is fast on the way to becoming a promising business.

It would be difficult to find four people who are more close-knit than the Morrisons and the Fosters. Mahsheed and Sarah have been best friends since 1984, when they became members of the first freshman class at Hume Fogg Magnet School. Sarah and Travis have known each other since they were 7 and 11, respectively, attending Grace Community Church in Whites Creek, where Sarah's father was a pastor. Mahsheed and Michael met after failing out of Honors Chemistry at Tennessee Tech; they struck up a conversation on their way to the registrar's office that's continued ever since.

But it's the differences in the group that have made for such productive creative tension. "There's a lot of yin and yang between the four of us," Mahsheed observes. "On the one hand, I'm very type-A aggressive, whereas Michael is more happy-go-lucky and fixated on what's before him. It's the same way with Travis and Sarah. Travis is more planning-oriented while Sarah's more spontaneous. Sarah and I like to joke that I married Sarah and she married me.

"But as couples we couldn't be more opposite point for point: Michael and I are very strategic in nearly everything we do while Sarah and Travis just go on impulse. They're Republican, church-going. We're agnostic atheist libertarian. But when you get right down to it..., in spite of the ostensible differences, we live our lives very similarly."

All four are also united in their adherence to the principles espoused by financial guru Dave Ramsey. At the time of Inc.'s invention, Travis was doing illustrations for Ramsey's seminar workbooks. "We try to live our lives according to a lot of Ramsey's principals," Mahsheed says. "Stay free of life's material trappings. Simplify things financially. Always try to live debt-free."

Two years ago, the couples were out together at 101st Airborne for a pre-Valentine's Day dinner. "At the time," Travis recalls, "Sarah and I had two kids, and Sarah was talking about different businesses we could start up. Not for financial reasons, but because being a mother of two was incredibly time-consuming. Sarah was saying how much of a help it would be to have a grocery delivery service, or a nanny service, or a cleaning service."

"But at the same time," Mahsheed adds, "we'd been going on a real marathon of playing a lot of couples Monopoly. And if you want to learn about another couple, all you have to do is sit down and play Monopoly with them. You learn how they make decisions, how risk tolerant or averse they are, how they interact in crisis or success. And then Sarah and I started saying how great it would be to come up with a game that could teach people how to plan their lives financially."

"So all these things were in the air," Michael says, "and I asked, 'Why doesn't anyone do that?' I work in the software business, which is one of the most dynamic businesses around. Here we are, and Monopoly has been around for 60 years, and yet everyone acts as if it's the greatest thing in the world. And then Sarah just came out and said it: 'Why don't we invent our own game?' "

Immediately, Travis became hooked on the notion. The next morning, he woke up early and began tossing around ideas. While at church later, he simply couldn't think about anything else. At home that afternoon, he began sketching obsessively, drawing rudimentary game boards and printing out play money. The designs were rough-and-tumble, but once Sarah noticed how fixated he'd become, she called Michael and Mahsheed and told them to come over right away.

"The four of us were coming up with little spaces and sticking them onto posterboard," Michael recalls. "We realized pretty quickly that the finance side of the game didn't have the hook or interest that we thought it might have. You play a game and you want to have fun. You don't want to balance a checkbook."

The group played a version of the game Travis had come up with, then began to brainstorm ideas for the game they envisioned it becoming: They wanted an aspect of the game that involved the gambling nature of investments. They also wanted the game to retain the volatility of the business world. Another requirement was that all players should be involved at the same time as much as possible, and that no player could ever be out of the game. And finally, they didn't want to have any geographic spaces for purchase.

"We had Monopoly on the brain," Michael says, "and wanted to be careful that the game deviated from it as much as possible. Because on some level we knew that even for ourselves, we'd always be comparing it with Monopoly."

By his own admission, Michael is the nerdiest of the bunch, and the first thing he did when he went home was to boot up his computer and generate game space and board designs. He drew up charts on dice roll percentages, working through statistical probabilities of landing on certain spaces and making sure that players were rewarded and punished by the exigencies and contingencies of the game as fairly as possible.

"Michael and I were e-mailing back and forth," Travis says, "throwing ideas between each other. But then Michael just ran with it. A couple of days later, we got a call from Mahsheed. And she was like, 'You guys have got to come over right away.' "

It was with Michael that the game finally crystallized around the idea of running a business. He had come up with the concept of employees being central to Inc., and that there be a limited number of employees available to the players. "After that," Travis recalls, "it all sort of gelled. Within two weeks, we had this great, playable game."

It wasn't long until the group began to think that maybe, just maybe, other people might like Inc. enough to buy it. They decided to form a company, Gas Hound Games, named after a beloved, deceased, and flatulent pet dog. All that was left was figuring out how to break into the toy industry. Which was kind of like going to see the Wizard of Oz: Where to start?

"The toy business was something that none of us knew anything about," Mahsheed says. "Sure you've heard of Parker Brothers, but what exactly is Parker Brothers? Who are the players in the industry?"

Michael and Travis decided to split duties. Travis' part was to figure out the rules of engagement for pitching and peddling their wares. Michael would sort out the legal matters, to protect their game from misappropriation. So, in his usual fashion, Michael began to immerse himself in the subject matter, doing most of his research on the Internet. It was during these online reconnaissance missions that he came across the nightmarish tale of Dr. Ralph Anspach, a professor of economics at San Francisco State University who had wandered into the toy industry only to be nearly ruined by it.

In the early '70s, Anspach had come up with a game he called Anti-Monopoly that picked up exactly where Monopoly left off, with the purpose of pitting capitalist players against a monopolized market. The game was an immediate success on the West Coast and sold nearly a million units internationally. But in the process, Anspach made nearly every mistake possible: He raised capital to produce the game by giving away a controlling interest in his corporation. He managed to seize control, only to find himself in a 10-year trademark-infringement lawsuit with Parker Brothers that went all the way to the Supreme Court.

Even more remarkable was the alleged swindle by Parker Brothers that Anspach claimed to have uncovered. According to Anspach, Monopoly was not, as the famous story went, the brainchild of a down-on-his-luck Charles Darrow, who came up with the game as a way of comforting himself and his family during the Depression. Darrow had allegedly stolen the idea from some acquaintances in the Quaker community, who played the game on homemade oilcloths and hand-carved wood boards. In fact, the game Anspach claims was the precursor to Monopoly had been in the Quaker community since the turn of the century and was used as an educational game.

Michael corresponded with Anspach by e-mail. The professor sent him his book, The Billion Dollar Monopoly Swindle, which immediately became Gas Hound's cautionary tale about the toy industry. "What I took from that research," Michael says, "was that the surest way you could complicate matters for yourself was to pull other people into things that you couldn't afford to pay out of your own pocket. That, and the toy business is a lot nastier than we dreamed it could be."

Meanwhile, in an effort to determine which toy company was the major player in board games, Travis used a decidedly empirical approach: He took a trip to Toys R Us and counted the number of board games per company. When he tallied that Hasbro had the most, he sent the company a letter about Inc.

He received a form letter in return. Hasbro--as well as other toy companies, it turned out--did not accept unsolicited ideas for review. According to the company, it was a liability due to "the unfortunate experience of lawsuits being filed by individuals who allege misappropriation of their ideas." Enclosed in the letter was a list of recommended toy brokers, agents who "introduce and help sell the concepts/prototypes of different inventors to the broker's personal contacts at various toy and/or game manufacturers."

When Travis began contacting brokers, they all sang the same tune. For a mere $300, they would be happy to "review" Gas Hound's idea and supply a "critique" of the game, with a view toward "possible" representation for licensing. It was the equivalent of a cattle call audition with no hope of discovery.

As serendipity would have it, Travis was in the process of sending out quarterly promotional letters for his illustration business. He found himself in negotiations for a job with Sam Harwell, president of Big Time Toys in Nashville. The two got to talking about peripheral matters, and after telling Harwell about Inc., Travis asked him about toy agents. Harwell confirmed that they were a necessary part of concept development and licensing, then gave Travis a list of agents he respected. At the top of the list was Andrew Bergman.

Andrew Bergman is a major toy agent, a power player whose influence is present everywhere in the toy industry but visible nowhere. His company, Bergman Design Consortium in New Jersey, has created and secured licensing for hundreds of products for the likes of Fisher-Price, Remco, and Ohio Art. The list of toys reads like the inventory of a blessed child's fantasy playroom: Doughmation, Snow Dome Sky Dancers, Power Penz Air Mail, Dr. Wacky Chalk Line, Deceptor Radio Control, Snacks Like Magic.

Still, in spite of Bergman's credentials and connections, what impressed Gas Hound most was his delivery. "Bergman took our call personally," Travis remembers, "and shot us straight. He said he'd take a look at Inc., but he warned us that he picks about one in a thousand ideas. But he said if we were to make his cut--and by that he meant a game he thought the toy companies could fill orders for a million units a year--his credibility was strong enough in the industry that he was pretty sure we'd hit with it. When I asked Bergman what that meant, he said, 'You'll be sipping martinis on the beach.' "

Bergman recommended that Gas Hound make a video of themselves playing Inc. from start to finish, preceded by a short segment in which the players explained the rules of the game to the audience. A few days later, using borrowed equipment and a computer editing program, they made the video and sent it to Bergman.

Bergman faxed them at the end of the week. He loved it. He wanted to rep Gas Hound and take Inc. to the biggest toy companies he dealt with. They couldn't lose! All Gas Hound had to do was sign on the dotted line.

Connections, it turns out, are costly. When Gas Hound received the representation agreement, the numbers were staggering. Not only would Bergman take 40 percent of any advance Gas Hound received--typically between $40,000 and $100,000--he would also earn a 40-percent commission on the royalties, which, by industry standard, is 5 percent of sales. Bottom line: If Gas Hound sold Inc. at $30 a game, $15 wholesale, its gross royalty, after Bergman's cut, would come to 45 cents per unit.

"That was a really hard decision for us," Michael recalls. "It was difficult for us to swallow that this guy was walking into 40 percent while we're splitting 60 percent. We voiced this to Bergman. His argument was, 'Well, that's 60 percent of a lot of money.' The only way we managed to justify it to ourselves was that it would be millions of games."

After a period of intense deliberation, Gas Hound agreed to Bergman's terms. Admittedly, they were elated. Within a matter of months they had gone from a dinner suggestion to doing business with a major player in the toy industry. Quick as you can say "Jenga!," they were in the game.

But it wasn't long until Gas Hound came crashing back to earth. What followed was the summer of rejection. Approximately once a month, Bergman called with more disappointing news: Cadaco had taken a look at Inc. and had given it the thumbs down. A month later, he called to report that Milton-Bradley/Parker Brothers wasn't interested. University Games said no. And finally, Pressman turned it down. Not only were these companies the major players in the industry, they were the only companies that Bergman dealt with for board games.

"Bergman called us," Travis remembers. "He said, 'Guys, I'm out of the loop now. I gave it my shot, and it didn't work. But if you want my advice, go forward, don't give up. Produce the game yourselves. And if you sell 20,000 games on your own, the toy companies will come to you.' "

Sarah and Travis Foster, Mahsheed and Michael Morrison

Admittedly, the group's confidence was bruised. The beginning had been too easy and now the middle of the process seemed too hard. Mahsheed, Travis, and Sarah remember feeling pretty down, but the rejection had galvanized Michael even more. He refused to quit and told the rest of the group to remember the feeling of rejection for later. There was some initial talk about how to proceed, but it was decided that for the moment there was nowhere to go.

"So all we did after that was play," Sarah says. "We forgot about the game as a business venture for a while and just enjoyed what we'd made."

In the meantime, the group found that whenever they got together, they invented new game ideas. They were strongly encouraged by the fact that Bergman had seized on their first idea so quickly. As usual, Michael was particularly active in the brainstorming department. He had been a big skateboarder in high school, and one of the things he suggested was ramps for fingerboards--miniature toy replicas of snowboards and skateboards. He even went so far as to build a prototype. But Mahsheed downplayed the idea. "I told him it couldn't be as fun as the real thing," she says.

Within a matter of weeks, Michael was anxiously trying to rally the group around the idea of proceeding with Inc. again. But morale was low, and for Mahsheed, the idea of succeeding in the toy business had become somewhat farfetched. Then she had a revelation.

"I travel a lot for my business," she says, "and flying back from Seattle, the stewardess gave me a copy of USA Today. And there on the front page was this story about an independent toy company that had hit it big with fingerboards. I called Michael right away and said, 'Honey, I am never doubting you again.' "

It was the spark the group needed. "We didn't want to walk into a toy store six months down the road and see Entrepreneur, the Game," Michael says.

So with their usual resolve and meticulousness, Gas Hound began investigating self-publishing. But after they found a number of manufacturing companies able to mass-produce their game, they discovered all over again how daunting the numbers could be. They began by taking their target retail price and working backward, coming up with a production cost of $14 per game. It seemed feasible. But all indications were that they'd have to start with a production quota of 5,000 games. Not even figuring costs for marketing, shipping, and warehousing, that added up to $50,000 Gas Hound didn't have.

For most start-up companies, it would be time to secure investors and raise capital. But Gas Hound had a hard and fast rule that went straight back to Dave Ramsey. "We said that we were never going to start a business borrowing money," Sarah says. "If we as two couples weren't willing to take the risk out of our own pockets, we weren't going to ask anyone else to. We were idealists in that sense, and we were going to achieve the ideal our way."

The couples decided they would open a joint savings account when they were each ready to commit $8,000. The goal would be to save $40,000 in two years for the initial production run. But the idealists' way can be very slow, and Michael in particular was champing at the bit. "I'd walk into a toy store," Michael recalls, "see these games on the shelves, and think, 'What are we waiting for?' But then I'd get a calculator, do the numbers, and say, 'Oh, that's what we're waiting for.' "

The group sat on its hands for a few months, until Michael had lunch with a friend named Joe Moore, a graphic designer. "When Joe asked me what we were doing with Inc., I said we were sitting around and saving up 40-grand. He said, 'Why does it have to be 5,000 games or no games? Why don't you just start with what you can afford and build up from there?'"

It was the kind of thinking Gas Hound needed to hear. A few days later, the group went to the bank and each couple contributed $1,500 of their own money to a joint account. Almost immediately, the game went through a number of design changes. Michael then found a parts supplier in England whose pieces he was able to incorporate into Inc., allowing Gas Hound to cut production costs significantly. Within a few weeks, the group had produced their first 1,000 units. Inc., the Game of Business, was now Gas Hound's full-time business.

These days, Inc. has all the earmarks of a success story in the making. Before Christmas, Gas Hound was able to get Inc. into Phillips Toy Mart and the Games Store. They came up with their tube-design packaging, another innovation that saved them money and makes Inc. more visible on the shelves. For marketing, Travis traded a number of his illustrations with Dave Ramsey for no less than 20 60-second radio spots. The ads reached a million listeners nationally. It was exactly the kind of advertising Gas Hound needed. In a two-week period during the Christmas season, they moved almost 200 games locally.

Now Inc. is available at Davis-Kidd as well; last Monday, the Morrisons and Fosters kicked off the store's inaugural adult games night. Their Web site, designed by Michael, is up and running, and they monitor the number of hits daily. E-commerce, they are hoping, will level the playing field.

And now Bergman is calling again. As a result of the excellent sales during the holiday season, he is once more interested in taking Inc. to the major toy companies. Does Gas Hound continue to self-publish or try again for licensing? All the members of Gas Hound admit they're at a crossroads, but that it's not a bad place to be.

"Our goal remains the same," Michael says. "We want to see Inc. on the shelves of every game store out there. But we're at a point right now where we want it to pay for itself. We feel like our strength as a company is as a think tank, not as manufacturers. If that means taking another run at licensing, so be it. We'll watch the numbers grow until we decide."

Those are the strategic, considered thoughts of someone figuring out how best to grow his small business--or they could be the thoughts of someone in the middle of the game of Inc. That's the most interesting aspect of the Gas Hound gang's odyssey: It's no longer clear whether life is imitating the game or vice-versa. What's certain is that Gas Hound will succeed or fail according to their own rules. And if they're lucky this time around, they might get to take a stroll down Boardwalk.

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