People don’t really talk to their families anymore. Thomas Watson, CEO of Roots Family History, wanted to do something about that, so he created Pando, a game to promote conversation and storytelling among families.
“We launched it as a family history company,” Watson said. “’Let’s make a game where the siblings are competing to see who knows the most about their parents. Let’s learn about grandma and grandpa.’
How Pando came about
This is not our usual kind of story. Watson is CEO of Roots Family History (technically, he’s CEO of Media Specialties, but Roots Family History is the business name everyone knows), but it’s not a startup.
“It’s a brick-and-mortar store, and we do printing and framing,” Watson explained. “The thing that’s made us locally famous is digitizing audio, film, and video. People bring us old items and we store them on hard drives or thumb drives. That’s our bread and butter.”
But Watson thought it would be interesting to develop a retail product to promote getting to know your family better. He’d been following Kickstarter crowdfunding projects such as Cards Against Humanity, and he thought he could try the same with a similar tabletop game.
“I knew they were making a few million per month,” Watson said. “I read their story, where they only worked a few days per year. That’s a great life. What a fun challenge.”
Now, anyone who’s played Cards Against Humanity knows it’s not really something you can play with your parents. So Watson came up with something else: a game where people could compete on who knew family members best – and, in the process, get to know all of them a little better.
“A lot of times we say it’s ‘Truth or Dare’ without the dare,” Watson said. Pando has 1,000 questions, along the lines of “What brand of toothpaste do I use, what’s my favorite color,” he said. “We don’t want them to be too open-ended. This isn’t ‘therapy in a box.’”
And why “Pando”? “We named the game Pando after the aspen forest in Utah,” Watson explained. “It’s the oldest living organism on earth, and each tree is connected to each other through a massive root structure. Since Pando is all about connecting people through commonalities, I thought it would be a fitting name.”
An Idaho native, Wolin graduated from the University of Idaho and worked for Micron for a number of years before starting Aspen Labs, a web electrical engineering startup focused on semiconductors. “After I worked on that company, I moved to Hawaii for 11 years,” which is when he met his co-founder. “He was one of our first users. I connected with him on Skype and we hit it off right away. We stayed in touch, and now we’re running a business together.”
Wolin moved back to Idaho from Hawaii to be more accessible to the business. “Hawaii is a remote place,” he said. “Time zones are very difficult in Hawaii and things don’t overlap.”
In Team Procure’s headquarters in the Banner Bank building are Wolin, two salespeople, and some supporting resources, while the Istanbul office houses 30 employees, including most of the development team. “It’s where our brain trust is, and the knowledge base on procurement,” he said. “There are outstanding developers for competitive rates.”
Producing the game
The first step was coming up with the questions. “I wanted 1,000 questions,” Watson said. That involved “sitting in a hot tub for hours on end, brainstorming,” and creating spreadsheets of possible questions. He also held focus groups at Trailhead to determine which questions would be fun and interesting for people to answer.
Following the example of Cards Against Humanity, Watson then created a Kickstarter for the game. “All I knew was that Cards Against Humanity raised $11,000,” he said. “I needed $10,000, so as soon as we passed that, we were good to go.”
As it turned out, Watson raised $25,000 in 30 days.
Having determined the questions, and obtained the funding, then the game needed to be physically produced. Since it could be printed, Watson figured that would be fairly inexpensive.
“I was wrong,” Watson said.
Watson also didn’t expect how big a hit the game would be, but had the advantage of launching in 2020 in New York – just before COVID, when people stuck at home were looking for new things to do.
Once the initial sets were produced for the Kickstarter campaign, Watson settled on a plant in Vietnam, which makes 10,000 copies of the game at a time.
Watson said he hasn’t had to promote the game much. “We got approached by Shark Tank,” he said. “We were going to be on the season that got cancelled.” There were a few small articles on the company, and the publisher of Cards Against Humanity even did a piece on the company.
Beyond that, publicity has largely been via word of mouth. “I’m a big fan of guerilla marketing,” Watson said. “I did an event called Pando Goes BoDo, where I dropped in to every bar in Boise and let people play for three days. It created enough word of mouth that most of our searches are people searching for ‘pando’ as opposed to ‘party game.’ It makes our job pretty easy.”
The game is sold online on Amazon, where the plant in Vietnam sends copies by the pallet-load. “It does really well,” Watson said, noting that it hit the top 100 in Amazon toys and games for the fourth quarter. It’s also in Kroger stores nationwide, including Fred Meyer stores, and he just signed a contract with Marshall Retail Group – not the discount store, but a supplier of airports and hotel chains, for which he plans to create travel mini-packs.
Pando even made it into Walmart, but that’s a sore point that taught Watson a valuable lesson about maintaining control. Again following the example of Cards Against Humanity, he found out who their publisher was, and approached them. “A few months later, they had us in Walmart,” he said. “We shipped 50,000 games.”
But because the publisher controlled the manufacturing, they produced cheap cards in a small box. “We went on the shelf with a far inferior product,” Watson said. “It was the smallest game on the shelf at the highest price. My failure was losing control of manufacturing. I assumed they would produce it the same way they were seeing it, but they cut a hundred corners.” He severed the contract with the publisher.
The result is that while the 50,000 copies sold quickly, Walmart didn’t renew the contract. The upside, though, was that the game got a lot of exposure. “People have heard about it who never heard about it before,” Watson said.
Fortunately, Watson had retained the rights to the game. “Part of the agreement was that I would keep Amazon and the other accounts,” he said. “It was a Walmart-specific issue.” But it still hurts when he sees the cheaped-out version on eBay, he said.
That said, the game is still available on Walmart.com, and it’s likely to go into Walmart again, though probably not until Q1 2025 or so, Watson said. And this time, he’ll control the manufacturing.
Currently, Team Procure has two versions of its E-Auction product, one for enterprise companies and one geared toward small to medium businesses (SMBs). “It doesn’t have the same sophistication when it comes to sourcing,” Wolin explained. In both versions, the product invites multiple suppliers to bid on an RFQ, but the SMB version is more of an out-of-the-box solution, while the enterprise version has more configuration options for a customer’s specific needs.
“The enterprise product has very sophisticated capabilities,” Wolin said. “They get an entire instance of the product on their own instances of servers that’s tied in with their enterprise resource planning system.”
For example, one customer, Milwaukee Tools, has Canadian offices with trucks that visit customer sites to demonstrate tools. “They were able to use our enterprise platform to create an internal point-of-sale system and inventory management for the tool trucks,” Wolin said.
The SMB product also has integrated warehousing. “A lot of times those are disparate systems,” Wolin said. “There’s a nice warehouse tool, or procurement, but they’re not integrated.” The software also includes bar coding that lets customers check products in and out of the warehouse, he said.
Team Procure’s software runs on the Amazon Web Services cloud and is licensed as a service, and its customers typically have annual or monthly contracts priced on the basis of the number of people using the product. “We provide support and service,” Wolin said. The company doesn’t charge vendors or suppliers, and doesn’t take a percentage of procurement sales.
Now, Team Procure is meeting with customers to find out what the holes are in current products in the market. “As we’re growing our product, we’re converging on the needs of the customer and what competing products can do,” Wolin said.
Now, Watson is looking at expanding the product line. The flagship “family” version is intended for people 14 and up. This year, he launched a kids’ version in a yellow box, intended for kids from 7 to 12, and an adult version, in a red box. In terms of question topics, “The adult version goes everywhere,” he said. The kids’ version is intended to go into the mass market this year or next, with the “red box” version is intended to hit the mass market in 2024, he said.
Watson is also looking at international distribution, including producing Pando in different languages. “It’s all over the place in Canada and New Zealand,” he said, which use English; distributors deal with issues such as local spelling. But a Spanish language version is a possibility, he said.
Other possibilities include expansion packs and licensed versions for people such as Jeff Foxworthy. “Every new thing you do costs money, so we want to make sure we have enough market presence to justify it,” Watson said. “’Kids’ and ‘adults’ were obvious. Expansions will be next. But we won’t do that until the kids’ and adult versions have landed in mass market and mid-tier accounts.”
There’s a lot of options. “We have a spreadsheet of products, and we’re going down the list,” Watson said.
Ironically for a startup, there aren’t any immediate plans for an electronic version. “I have a programming background,” Watson said, noting that he studied mechanical engineering and computer science in college. “Making an app felt harder to get it to rank in the Apple store. I didn’t want to waste hundreds of thousands of dollars on another app.” That said, that may change in a few years, he said, noting that Netflix now has a new platform for games.
Beyond the initial Kickstarter campaign, Watson hasn’t had to do a lot of fundraising. The brick-and-mortar store provides the funding the game needs beyond what it earns, as a sort of silent partner. “I would say most of our customers have no idea we made a product,” he said. “The product doesn’t say anything about the store other than its address in tiny print. I don’t think many customers have made the connection.” At this point he doesn’t think he’s going to need to fundraise, he said.
And the company’s future? Watson might end up selling Pando in a few years. “Right now, I’m too caught up in the adventure of wanting to land every mass market account in America,” he said. “I want to get all the mass market, then the mid-tier, and then talk about selling or staying with it forever.”
But in the meantime, it’s just Watson and his wife. “It’s become so hands-off,” he said. “We don’t need a constant team and constant development. The plant is in Vietnam, and with Amazon fulfillment, we don’t need employees. We’ve sold tens of thousands without employees. It’s like Monopoly. All we’re going to have to do is update the questions and graphics every few years.”
Written by Sharon Fisher, a digital nomad who writes about entrepreneurship.