Be scrappy and be confident. A lot of what you don’t know can be used to your advantage because you then avoid biases and preconceptions. A lot of our end consumers and sales channels go against the typical advice we initially received, but ended up working out better than our initial expectations.
As a part of our series about entrepreneurs who transformed something they did for fun into a career, I had the pleasure of interviewing George Li.
George Li is the co-founder of Rabble Media, a venture redefining the at-home entertainment market with innovative consumer products solutions. His company launched a new party game called Rabble in 2019 which sold out its first production run in less than 16 months. Rabble’s mission is to “have fun and do good.” George is an entrepreneur with a passion for building mission-based brands. He is an alum of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and is currently based in the New York City area.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?
Thanks for including me, happy to talk about my childhood a bit. As a kid, I enjoyed starting businesses. In elementary school, I started a trading cards business where I sold a fantasy card game I made up to my classmates. By high school, my business instincts had evolved to selling late-night snacks to other students at my boarding school (quite the captured market when it comes to hungry teenagers). As an Asian American kid growing up with a foot in two cultures, I experienced many of the pressures of other immigrant kids, but luckily my parents were very supportive of my early entrepreneurial ambitions.
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?
My co-founder Jake Vizek and I first met at the same company in our first jobs out of college. We decided to be roommates in New York City and quickly became great friends as we explored the city. We enjoyed the usual bar-hopping and checking out new restaurants, but we were both also interested in the local gaming community. I played quite a bit of Magic: The Gathering and we both played Settlers of Catan.
Jake introduced me to a game he played growing up with his family. The game has many folk names — people call it Fishbowl or Salad Bowl- but at its core, it’s a word guessing game similar to Charades. After playing, we had so much fun that the game became our go-to whenever we had a group of friends over.
Those game nights sparked the initial idea for creating a card game. We knew that more young people were enjoying staying at-home (even before the pandemic) but there were really limited options for convenient, easy to learn, inclusive, and affordable at-home group activities outside of Netflix or old-school board games.
We also saw multiple areas where we could improve the gameplay and add new aspects (what we eventually called Challenge Cards). Over the next few months, Jake and I created a game prototype on notecards, found dozens of people to playtest our idea, and eventually funded and produced what would become Rabble.
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?
I think the key is to take the first step of trying out an idea, even if it’s not perfect. Do the research and learn as much as you can about the industry and the consumer problem. There is often a paralysis in ‘not knowing what you don’t know’ which I think is a huge reason so many good ideas don’t move further than the drawing board.
For Rabble there was an overwhelming amount of information about what it takes to create and launch a game. We were hearing advice from board game blogs, podcasts, and other experts. It was all valuable information, but taking into account everyone’s advice was an impossible task.
Everyone has thoughts on the “right” way to do things! So at a certain point, Jake and I just created a prototype of the game using notecards and started playing with our friends and the larger gaming community. We must have play-tested that notecard version of the game over a hundred times.
Along the way we made mistakes but we also learned about what worked specifically for the vision we had in mind. So it was more important that we started doing anything rather than endlessly planning. That initial feedback loop and traction gave us the confidence to keep moving forward.
What advice would you give someone who has a hobby or pastime that they absolutely love but is reluctant to do it to make money?
The best advice I received when we started Rabble was from an entrepreneurship podcast. The speaker said that not everything you love to do needs to make lots of money, but there’s no harm seeing if you can make some money.
I also remember reading somewhere that the ideal job is something you’re passionate about but also something you’re objectively good at and is also valued by other people. I really relate with that quote. For me, the only way to figure out if I’m good at those last two things is to try and figure out my own passions.
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?
Great question. I think finding ways to continually see progress and improvements in the business is important to keep the work challenging and interesting. It’s really not so different from most jobs — the only caveat being that those ‘challenging’ aspects may at first feel totally foreign. The key is to set challenges that stretch yourself but still are achievable. This way, even the parts that you don’t enjoy as much become more enjoyable if it feels like you’re making tangible progress.
For Rabble, some of these stretch challenges included building our own social influencer network from scratch (two years ago, I barely even used social media) and getting our first retail partnership in the middle of a pandemic when most brick-and-mortar stores were not adding new brands to shelves.
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?
Hands down, the best part of being in the games business is seeing other people play Rabble and hearing their stories about how they had a great time. When people tell us how much fun they had playing the game, especially in such a tough year where so many families felt shut-in at home, it’s been a great feeling knowing I helped create a product that sparked those happy memories.
The downside of running this business is feeling like I have to constantly juggle several (metaphorical) hats — which I normally have no problem doing — but there are always those uncomfortable ‘hats’ that don’t come so naturally. For example, in the initial stages of developing Rabble, I went to dozens of meetups and game nights across the different boroughs to chat with other board game enthusiasts about Rabble and ask them to playtest for us. I don’t consider myself the best at immediately hitting it off when meeting new people so that was a skill I had to quickly learn and adapt to.
Can you share what was the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
I thought that the actual job would involve more “big picture thinking” than in actuality. It turns out that while it’s great to think about market strategy, route to market options and consumer behavior, a consumer products business very quickly shifts towards making incremental, sometimes tedious, improvements day by day. It’s so much more micro and about compounding small wins than implementing major changes.
So that could be sending an extra email to a retailer to try and convince them to carry our product or reaching out to an additional influencer even if she has only 1,500 followers. One Wednesday, I had to scramble to figure out how to rush ship samples to California amidst the extreme weather disruptions — not exactly strategic stuff.
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 were in the prototype phase, I tried creating a drinking version of Rabble. In hindsight, maybe I was too influenced by the popularity of other party games which heavily lean on attaching drinking rules. I had a grand vision of how fun the game would play out and over-promised to a few initial consumers that our expansion pack would be a drinking game.
But once I started actually playing with consumers, it was terrible. Let me tell you, it is really hard to remember the game rules, give out clues for words, and act out challenges when people are inebriated. Rabble’s mechanics just made adding a required drinking component a drag.
That wasn’t an area where we wanted to compromise, so I had to walk back our expansion pack with those initial consumers. I certainly learned that sometimes what I think works in my head is often wrong — the only way to actually know what will work is to test it with consumers.
To be clear, I’m not saying you can’t play Rabble without drinking! It’s a rowdy game which can certainly be enhanced with rowdy adult beverages — but trying to tie down the game’s mechanics for the sake of drinking wasn’t worth the sacrifice.
Who has inspired or continues to inspire you to be a great leader? Why?
Adam Grant is an author I really enjoy reading who has helped shape my definition of a great leader. He’s a Professor of Organizational Psychology who has written several books which re-examine common notions about leadership and what it means to be a leader. He has been really revolutionary in turning a lot of those commonly accepted concepts on their head, particularly when it comes to building a modern, agile business. I really enjoy how he shows that a great leader isn’t necessarily someone who is dynamic and bold, but rather can be someone who builds trust and thinks critically.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
Having a mission-oriented game was really important to Jake and me. We actively designed Rabble to not only be a fun product but also as a way to promote values we ourselves find important and which we hope our consumers agree with too.
So in our most recent edition, we made the choice to use environmentally sustainable paper and minimize plastic, even though it would raise costs and could result in a higher percentage of un-sellable product. We also partnered with guest illustrators, many of whom are female and/or come from a diverse background, not only to support them amidst the pandemic but also to underline how Rabble is modern and inclusive. Lastly, we plan to give back a portion of proceeds to educational and youth services organizations within our own community in NYC.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Everything comes down to marketing or sales. It’s never enough to only build a great product (although certainly very helpful) and expect people to find it. You have to use every opportunity to convince people to try and buy it. We initially planned to use Kickstarter as the platform to raise our initial seed money, thinking it would be easily funded once people saw our brilliant video showcasing the game. Nope. It turns out almost every successful Kickstarter gets users to commit to making a pledge before the Kickstarter even launches. Thankfully, we realized this in time and did enough marketing beforehand to meet and surpass our funding target.
- Not about racking up big flashy wins, but building up small wins. We’ve had successes come in different sizes but most of our progress has been made by compounding small successes. No one retail partner or selling event is in itself a homerun — but altogether, the impact has turned the tide of our business.
- People generally want to help so just ask. We’ve emailed a lot of friends, acquaintances, and strangers for advice. While many did not pan out, a few did that we didn’t expect. These asks led to our early pitches, helped re-imagine our supply chain, and introduced us to influencers in completely new areas. My takeaway is people mostly want to help but often do not get asked.
- Have a clear proposition and know who it’s for. We spent months at the beginning of our venture trying to market Rabble to tabletop board game enthusiasts only to discover that board game enthusiasts don’t typically enjoy party games. It was only after we realized that our true audience was a mainstream consumer with a strong affinity for lifestyle brands did we see our current traction.
- Be scrappy and be confident. A lot of what you don’t know can be used to your advantage because you then avoid biases and preconceptions. A lot of our end consumers and sales channels go against the typical advice we initially received, but ended up working out better than our initial expectations.
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.
Empathize. I think people are generally good and the more we can try to genuinely understand where someone else is coming from and treat them like a human, the better the world would be.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Ideas are worthless. Execution is everything.”
I used to spend a lot of time trying to think of a foolproof idea that nobody had thought of before. Then I realized that almost all the obvious ideas are taken! Just because something has been done before doesn’t mean you can’t do it and do it better. Having an idea is just the first step; having the courage, ability and focus to act on it makes all the difference.
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 spent a lot of time debating this question with my co-founder (he’s partial to burgers with Warren Buffett), but I would say I would be thrilled to have a chat with Sara Blakely. She is someone I really admire as I relate to her story about how she started out with little experience, bootstrapped her business, and turned an old-school industry on in its head. Her philosophy around embracing failure and taking risks is something I resonate with as well.