You can’t control the internet, so don’t let the internet control you. You can find all kinds of ways to get wound up in social media vortexes, but at the end of the day you can’t let them dictate what you do. I care about the people locally who we cater to and who we actually impact, but can’t let the totally disconnected people on the internet get to me.
As a part of our series about entrepreneurs who transformed something they did for fun into a full-time career, I had the pleasure of interviewing Matt Hendricks owner of Philadelphia’s first board game cafe, Thirsty Dice. Matt has loved board games his entire life. After a career in management consulting, he made his true passion a reality by opening the city’s beloved cafe. One of his biggest goals is to give people an outlet to put down their phones and connect with each other face to face.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?
In undergrad I studied communications, then in grad school I focused on business and information science. Understanding the problem and the people is really important to me. Ten years ago, my wife and I went to Toronto for our anniversary. I’ve loved board games my whole life, and I practically dragged her into a board game café there. It wasn’t like the board game stores I’d visited; we were able to have coffee, beer, even some wine later in the day, all while playing games. It was a great time just being able to talk and be with each other without any pressure.
In 2007, my friend came to me and really made me think about what I was doing with my career. He asked me to help him run and grow one of his businesses that he had recently purchased. I ended up not truly enjoying what I did there, and that was major to me. I disengaged and went back to the drawing board to find something that was more meaningful to me — something that really brings me joy, and Thirsty Dice is what I landed on.
What was the catalyst from transforming your hobby or something you love into a business? Can you share the story of your “ah ha” moment with us?
Quintin Smith, a journalist who writes about board games, is part of a podcast called “Shut Up, Sit Down”. Board game cafes are huge in England, and he was interviewed by the BBC. They asked him why he thought board games are so interesting to people, and he said, “Board games are interesting because people are interesting.” I remember seeing that and thinking, “It’s really about the people. It’s about the people and the experience, and if you tune the experience that way, it’s going to work. Board games are great, but the business model needs to be focused on the people and making the greatest experience possible for them.” When I heard that interview, I thought, “This. This is what I want to focus on.”
There are no shortage of good ideas out there, but people seem to struggle in taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. How did you overcome this challenge?
Before Thirsty Dice, I was in management consulting. I would run design sprints for companies of all sizes who wanted to hone in on their core business model. My experiences with that firm and now with Thirsty Dice taught me to realize that you’re going to screw things up, because that’s what it means to run a business. And as soon as you recognize that it’s inevitable, and important, you know you’re on the right track. Mistakes are the only way to learn.
What advice would you give someone who has a hobby or pastime that they absolutely love but is reluctant to do it for a living?
There are two types of regret; behavioral psychologists talk about regret of action versus regret of inaction. The most impactful type is inaction. People don’t regret even some of their biggest mistakes as much as they regret their biggest missed opportunities.
It’s said that the quickest way to take the fun out of doing something is to do it for a living. How do you keep from changing something you love into something you dread? How do you keep it fresh and enjoyable?
I fundamentally think doing something you love and doing it for work are two different things. Find a team of people who inspire you and recognize your passion; that’s a huge thing. Another key is recognizing that you may want to do something, but the best ideas come from the staff and the guests. If you’re really committed to your idea, you have to be willing to let other people in on it and try to continue to enjoy the ride. You have to make the time to share your passion with your coworkers, as well as your guests.
What is it that you enjoy most about running your own business? What are the downsides of running your own business? Can you share what you did to overcome these drawbacks?
The thing I enjoy most about running my own business is the learning aspect. It’s the learning, the growing, and taking on challenges that I never would have thought of otherwise. It’s changing my perspective, being able to do good things for my staff, and creating a culture that people genuinely enjoy. So many people told me that I’d be turning over my entire management staff in the first year. Yet, they’re all still here! Thirsty Dice is something that people really want to be a part of.
The worst thing, without question, is the uncertainty. Intellectually, I can understand vulnerability and uncertainty, but it still puts you on tilt. It’s so important to remember that tomorrow will be a new day.
Can you share what was the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
I think I’ve come to a different understanding of what leadership is. It’s clear to me that I’m not the most valuable when I’m in the back polishing glasses. I used to think I was being helpful when I did that, but truly focusing on the bigger issues by prioritizing my time and problem-solving for my staff is much more significant. Talking to people and forming an emotional connection, and helping my staff with their personal struggles and how to overcome them is way more meaningful.
Has there ever been a moment when you thought to yourself “I can’t take it anymore, I’m going to get a “real” job? If so how did you overcome it?
There hasn’t really been a point where I thought I can’t take it. Instead, I take every day as it comes. I think there has to be some realism that’s brought to the entire experience. You have to recognize that you can’t do it all in one day; it takes time to build a successful business. Making that time, allowing for it to happen — there’s just no substitute for time. Additionally, remember that what’s a roller coaster to you was a straight line for those who came before you. You have to maintain that context. There will be good and bad days, and in retrospect, you have to really look at those days. It’s a straight line for people who have done it before, but the variability and anxiety that comes with it is part of the game and what you signed up for.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
When we first opened, we hadn’t gotten all of the permits together to hang signs outside yet. People didn’t understand exactly where we were located, since we say we’re on the corner of 17th and Fairmount, but it’s technically 1642 Fairmount. We literally had rotating staff members standing outside and guiding people in to play some games. Lesson learned — make sure you’re prepared, and have an awesome staff!
Who has inspired or continues to inspire you to be a great leader? Why?
My dad. He, in so many cases, has been able to provide me with such great advice because he’s removed from the situation. He worked a lot with business as I was growing up. In the midst of me opening Thirsty Dice, my mom passed away. She’d been sick for a while, and when she passed it had a huge impact, especially on my dad. I get him involved with Thirsty Dice whenever possible in order to bring him into something new. He really inspires me to make my life the best it can be.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
The thing that I get the biggest kick from is when people come in and realize people aren’t on their phones. They’re actually talking to each other! Technology isn’t bad, but like everything else, you really need to manage it and take it in moderation. You have, unarguably, the brightest people in the world engineering these devices to make us feel the need to use them more and more, and it negatively affects consumers in turn. People need to realize, “Hey, I need to make time to spend time with other people.” A board game café on the corner of 17th and Fairmount is the solution to so many.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- You can’t control the rate at which people come in your door, and when. That’s pretty straightforward. One day will be great, the other won’t. There’s not even a common factor; it just goes up and down.
- Sometimes, you’ve got to let people do your job. Let them have their own flow.
- All models are wrong, though some are useful when it comes to what we think people will do, what they’ll spend, and what they’ll enjoy. Just because it looks good in an Excel spreadsheet doesn’t mean there’s any basis in reality for it.
- I knew going in that relying on family was really important, and life doesn’t stop when tragedy occurs. However, I learned that family isn’t just an important thing, but the only thing.
- You can’t control the internet, so don’t let the internet control you. You can find all kinds of ways to get wound up in social media vortexes, but at the end of the day you can’t let them dictate what you do. I care about the people locally who we cater to and who we actually impact, but can’t let the totally disconnected people on the internet get to me.
What person wouldn’t want to work doing something they absolutely love. You are an incredible inspiration to a great many people. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
For me, it all goes back to putting down your phones and being present with one another. We all talk about it, but actually being proactive and taking steps toward being in the moment with our loved ones will inspire a huge ripple effect — even if one of those steps is sharing a beer over a board game.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
There’s this Aziz Ansari comedy special on Netflix. At the end of his show he says, “All we really have is the moment we’re in and the people we’re with.” And that’s really the truth; we’ve got nothing else.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
I’d love to have breakfast or lunch with Nolan Bushnell. He’s the founder of Atari and Chuck E. Cheese. I heard a podcast interview with him that focused on Atari, but also discussed his struggles with Chuck E. Cheese. I think the ethos of what he was working for in getting people to actually want to enjoy each other’s company is something I could learn a lot from. I remember listening to that podcast like it was yesterday. I thought, “This is one of the most under-appreciated entrepreneurs out there.”
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.