Today I had the pleasure of interviewing Jim Moran, the founder and CEO of Semper Smart Games, and the creator of the award-winning Election Night! board game and the patent pending PlaySmart Dice system. Originally from Amherst, Massachusetts, he served in the Coast Guard for 24 years after graduating the Coast Guard Academy in 1992. A lifelong game enthusiast and father of two daughters, aged 10 and 7, he received an MSc from the George Washington University School of Engineering and Applied Science, and has tutored students for over two decades.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Ihave always loved games, and I have always loved helping people learn. After graduating from the Coast Guard Academy, I spent a lot of time at sea on large Coast Guard Cutters — sometimes our patrols would last months. During our downtime I played a lot of games and helped younger crew members who aspired to go to college to prepare for entrance exams. I was surprised at the gaps in knowledge I sometimes saw — lots of smart young people that didn’t know their times tables, or were uncomfortable with basic math skills needed to achieve higher levels of academic success. Later, when I served as a strategist on shore, I started a side-gig as an SAT/ACT tutor and noticed the same thing with a lot of high school students. When I had my own kids (two daughters), I set out to see what I could do about filling some of those gaps before they became a problem.
So I started playing a lot of math based games with my kids, and while we were playing some popular role-playing games, I realized how inefficient traditional dice are at creating combinations that make up the harder to learn number operations — the ones that people can struggle with for a lifetime. Way too many ones and twos, and even on polyhedral dice with more sides you get a ton of results that are not optimal for learning. So I began to redesign the dice by trying to optimize combinations that would produce harder to learn sums and products — the ones we know give our minds trouble. That was the genesis of the PlaySmart Dice system, which can be used in countless games you can play almost anywhere, It’s also the system we use in our recent strategy board game release Election Night!.
With Election Night!, we just took things a few steps further — into cross domain learning. Learn all your essential math facts (both addition and multiplication), U.S. geography, and how the Electoral College works while trying to win the Presidency. It was one of many ideas I had for a board game, but it was the one that had the most broad-based appeal when we tested them with kids and families. Turns out a lot of young kids like the idea of running for President — it really energizes them.
Can you share one of the major challenges you encountered when first leading the company? What lessons did you learn from that?
Nothing sells itself. If you have something new, something of value, you have to spend a lot of time and energy educating the people who would benefit from it. Messaging the value proposition can be challenging.
We set out to create educational games that were just as entertaining and engaging as games you would choose to play for pure fun. But people have lots of preconceptions when you tell them a game is educational. People think it’s either fun and not really educational, or they will believe that if it is truly educational it can’t be that fun.
I tell people a kid could play our game, Election Night!, three times and learn her multiplication tables. They don’t believe it, but I have seen it happen. It happened with my own daughter. You have to explain how it works, how we used memory science and tactile, sensory cues that also teach geography and civics. You have to show how the game play makes players target the sums and products we know are hardest to learn from learning app data, creating a long-term memory association for hard to learn math facts. It’s a lot to explain. Fortunately, I haven’t gotten tired of pitching it yet!
What are some of the factors that you believe led to your eventual success?
You have to be open to input. You have to be willing to kill your ideas if they are not working. Most importantly, you need to surround yourself with people who will tell you the truth. Helpful critics. It’s easier said than done, but when I look at all the feedback I got, it helped me more than anything else. Something that has a lot of intricate details is never right in the first iteration. You need to keep perfecting it.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO”?
1. Creating something takes a lot of effort, but running a company takes a lot more effort. There are lots of ways to get help, but you have to make wise choices, especially in the beginning. Sometimes the CEO of a new game company also starts out as the drop shipper — the person who actually packs your game and delivers it to the post office.
2. Nobody is going to sell your ideas as well as you, at least in the beginning. I think when you create something, you know everything about it. It also really helps sales when you are able to say you invented something, and give the backstory. When you tell someone you designed something during a demo, you can see their attention pique. They become more vested. It becomes more experiential. Of course, this means you have to be out there a lot. Taking opportunities to pitch, play or demo. You never know when you are going to meet the connector, influencer, or champion that will make a big difference.
3. You have to be thinking of your next big thing before you release your last big thing. Being a one-hit wonder is a lot more likely to happen if you don’t have a creative strategy. You have to find the time to do this in order to grow and capitalize on your success. You have to remember to be disciplined about this. You want to have an album worth of songs ready to release in optimal succession. Stay tuned for our next project in early 2020!
4. Trust your gut when it comes to people who offer help and services. I was pretty surprised by the type of attention you can get at industry trade shows. You think it’s all going to be about your sales, but people try to sell you on lots of things they think you need, or services they want to provide. There is a business service for almost everything today. You can spend a lot of unnecessary bandwidth on this if you are not careful.
5. Keep things simple. At the end of the day, the clarity you have at the beginning of the journey is what is going to keep you successful during the ride. For me, it’s about our motto “always smart, always fun.” If we keep it that simple, I think we’re going to be fine.
What advice would you give to your colleagues to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Know where you get your energy from, and make sure you keep a healthy dose of that in your routine. I think it’s unrealistic to think there are jobs out there that don’t have energy-sapping characteristics. I think the trick is to find a healthy mix of things that can help power you through the work that is difficult. For me, it’s spending time on new ideas. Creating things. Talking about new things. Coming up with prototypes. Trying things out. I don’t get to do that all the time, and if I did, there would be someone who would have a level of control over what I create that I am unwilling to live with. None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way.
Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Absolutely. A while back I got to have coffee with Dominic Crapuchettes, founder of North Star Games and creator of so many great classics. He said don’t try to do too much at once — concentrate on one really good game and take it from there. That really gave me a focus I am not sure I would have had so early on. He’s a great guy and has such a great company, and he took the time to give me advice when many in his position wouldn’t have.
Also, Chris Rose, our head of Creative Design. He makes everything visually possible, and is really talented. In my previous job as a strategist for the government, I was writing these big multi-year strategies for the entire enterprise. He was the designer of the public facing documents, and he made so many effective graphics and visuals that ensured our success. We have a lot of shared interests and work well together. I kid him because our relationship is a little like Kirk and Scotty’s on Star Trek. I am always asking him to do things he says can’t be done, but then somehow he finds a way. There are others who have helped as well, like my good friend Andy Howell who offers great opinions and insights and has a wealth of knowledge on games.
What are some of the goals you still have and are working to accomplish, both personally and professionally?
We’ve won a lot of cool industry awards for Election Night!, but there are some other honors I would like to achieve with future games. I won’t say which ones but I think some of our upcoming projects will create some new expectations on content and compete well for them. It’s hard for a game to be all things to all audiences, but we are really going to be aiming high.
What do you hope to leave as your lasting legacy?
I hope to have lasting impact on the people who play our games. Of course, they have to be fun to have an impact, or people won’t play them. After playing Election Night!, for example, kids are better at math, and they have learned a lot about geography and the Electoral College — things all Americans should know. They also have the vicarious experience of running for President, and that’s empowering. I think that’s a positive impact no matter how you slice it. I hope I can continue to have this kind of impact. You are a person of great influence.
If you could start a movement that would enhance people’s lives in some way, what would it be? You never know what your idea can trigger!
PlaySmart Dice games in every home! Our patent pending dice system is so much more efficient at creating combinations of harder to learn sums and products. The traditional dice we use in many of our favorite games are just not good at teaching math — way too many easy combinations! The great challenges humanity must confront in the coming years will require new approaches and solutions that rely heavily on science and technology. Having a population which is fluent in essential math from an early age will give us a much better chance of successfully solving the great challenges of our time.
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