This interview is with Richard Tait, co-creator of the board game Cranium, which won the Toy Industry Association’s “Game of the Year” award five times in six years, and sold to Hasbro Toys in 2008. He is currently co-founder and CEO of Golazo energy drinks.
- Dartmouth MBA
- Founded Cranium
- Founded Golazao
Q. How has your career unfolded and taken you to your current role as co-founder of Golazo energy drinks?
A. I’d love to tell you it was strategic, but that hasn’t been the way it unfolded for me. It’s often a door that closes that leads to a new door opened.
My family came from a long line of servants. My grandfather was a chauffeur and my great-grandfather was a gamekeeper. My dad changed the trajectory of our family. He became head of Polaroid in Europe and demonstrated that through hard work and perseverance, you can change the direction of your life.
As the young boy in our family – I have two sisters – when I announced I wanted to be a drummer in a rock band, my father was like, “Oh my God. I’ve got to get this kid on a good trajectory.”
My dad introduced me to a synthesizer kit so I could learn programming. In the mid 1970s, I started programming musical instruments — anything I could get my hands on. I fell in love with technology. I married technology with my passion for music, and wherever I found that intersection of a passion with a productive pursuit, I’ve realized that I have an opportunity to make a career.
So I started programming. I went to university at Heriot Watt in Edinburgh, which was the geek school. I got an honors degree in computer science there.
Upon graduation in 1986, I had an idea for a business. I had programmed an expert system in Prolog that, when a consumer came into a computer store, unsure of what they wanted in a computer – they knew what they wanted to spend, what they wanted to do with it, they just didn’t know what specific machine they needed — my expert system would solve that problem.
I realized I was on to something, but in Scotland, there was no venture capital to support a young man at 21 to solve that problem.
On hearing my dilemma, a friend said to me, “Richard, you have to go to a country that celebrates the entrepreneurial spirit, a country that was founded in that pioneering belief of a young person and an idea.” And that country was America.
In 1986, I left everything I knew – my parents, my family – and I moved to America. I enrolled in business school at Dartmouth. I was 21 years old, and I was one of the youngest kids at Dartmouth’s MBA program.
I wanted to work for Apple. Unfortunately – I didn’t have a green card – and they decided I wasn’t the right person for the job. I hadn’t applied for another job, so I was without a job, in an MBA program trying to figure out what I was going to do with my life.
A company called Microsoft called me. It was 1988; they had 2,300 people. It was like getting a call from Satan if you’re a Mac person. This woman called me and when I went into the interview room, she was so smart, so confident, so engaging. I reached across the interview table after an hour and said, “I don’t know what Microsoft looks like. I don’t even know what Seattle looks like. But if you represent that culture, please let me be a part of it.” They offered me a job in that interview.
With that sense of confidence and conviction around me, I packed everything I had into a CJ 7 Wrangler and drove cross-country to join Microsoft in Seattle. A door had closed at Apple, but another door opened which was Microsoft, and I pursued that with everything I had.
That was the start of a journey over the next 20 years which resulted in many different outcomes. I was the lowest-paid graduate in my MBA class by a vast margin, but I believed that what would make my heart happy was working with a software company.
Q. What major struggles have you experienced in your career and how did you overcome them?
A. I was going to Microsoft. I thought MBAs were smart until I went to Microsoft. Then I was amongst 2,300 of the smartest people the world had to offer, in pursuing a dream to give information at your fingertips. So many times in life, you have to figure out, “What’s special about me? What can I bring to the table?”
I wasn’t the best coder. I wasn’t the smartest technology guy. But I do have leadership characteristics. I can galvanize people around a mission. I can galvanize them around “we can make history.” I can often bring out qualities in people they don’t know they have in themselves. That was my role in the early days.
I’ve often said, “It’s not how many times you get knocked down; it’s how many times you get back up.” The first time I heard that it was 2007, a year before we sold Cranium. I was at a toy industry event in Austin, Texas, and we were killing it. We were five out of six years “Game of the Year” winner, but I was still tired and fatigued, and I wanted to get home and see my kids. I walked into the lobby of my hotel and saw this limousine with my name on it, which was going to take me to the airport.
The driver was a young man who was stocky, strong, confident. I got into the back of the car. Our eyes met on the rearview mirror, and he started talking to me. He said to me, “How was your day?” I said, “My day’s good. How’s your day going?” But I was tired. I didn’t want to admit that I wasn’t on.
He said, “My day’s tough. I just had breakfast with three kids, all these challenges.” I said, “I have three kids.” We struck up this conversation and found a shared vocabulary that we started talking about. He told me he’d grown up in the South. He’d gone to Iraq for two years. While he was there, his wife had left him for another guy.
Our lives unfolded in this 20- or 30-minute journey to the airport. When I got out of the car, he walked around and opened the door with his strong hand, helped me out, and then looked at me and said, “Richard, remember in life, it’s not how many times you get knocked down. It’s how many times you get back up.”
As I watched that car drive away, I wanted to spend another 20 minutes with him in the car to give me more insight about his journey and how many times it takes to get back up, because that has been my life.
When I went to Microsoft, it was amazing. I was the poster child in recruiting photographs. I started 14 businesses at the company. It was fantastic. But all of a sudden, in 1998, I became old school. I was referred to as old school. I felt alienated in my own environment. I saw it go from 2,300 people to more than 80,000 people. When I felt the culture changed, I realized I didn’t feel as if I belonged, as I did in the beginning, so I decided to leave Microsoft.
I was so insecure. I wanted to reinvent myself. Growing up, I loved the DJ in Britain whose name was John Peel. John Peel broke The Clash, The Sex Pistols. He broke every major band. I wanted to be John Peel. After leaving Microsoft, I was so lost and disillusioned, I decided to try to be a DJ. I went to Bellevue Community College. Crazy! I was 32 years old and taking DJ classes because I wanted to reinvent myself with music.
I went there for seven months. I created a show. I even had a character. I really believed that I could reinvent myself as a DJ. I went to the Mountain, which is this very popular music station in Seattle, and I approached the CEO with my written proposal and my cassette tape, and I said to her, “I want to be a DJ at the Mountain.”
She looked at me so apologetically and said, “Do you really think it’s going to be that easy?” I said, “I studied for seven months. I’m ready to go.” She said, “Unfortunately, you’re not ready.” I looked at her and said, “I’m willing to come work for nothing. I’ll make coffee.” And she said, “I’m sorry, that’s not going to happen.”
I walked out of that office, that interview, and I can still see that trash can today when I drive to work at Golazo every day that I stuffed my cassette tape and radio proposal into. As tears ran down my cheeks, I realized my dream of becoming a DJ was not going to happen because my expectations were too high. I had to find a different way to reinvent myself.
Often there’s a door that opens when another closes. In my life, that’s been so true because the day the DJ door closed, in that moment of desperation, something else came into my life, and that was Cranium.
We built the third largest game company in the world. I would never have been the third best DJ in the world. Never. Something happened when that door closed. I left a footprint in the sand. My career has always been about feeling like I made a difference and brought joy in people’s lives. I don’t think I would have done that as a DJ, but I did get the chance to do that as the guy behind the Cranium brand.
Q. How was Cranium born?
A. I would love to tell you it was well calculated. It wasn’t. I never saw myself in the toy industry. But we went on vacation with two friends of ours, Dan and Maggie. It was a rainy Sunday. We’d flipped through the newspaper. We’d read a book. We didn’t have anything else to do.
Then Dan and Maggie challenged us to a game of Pictionary. I’ve never been beaten at Pictionary. I’m a maniac. You can draw a straight line and I’ll say “Mount Rushmore!” We just crushed it at Pictionary. Immediately, Dan and Maggie wanted revenge. They are Scrabble maniacs. I suck at Scrabble. I struggle with anything beyond four letters. And sure enough, Dan and Maggie just belittled us at Scrabble.
In that moment where we’d succeeded, and then they’d succeeded, my little antenna went off. I thought, “Why hasn’t there been a game that allows everyone to shine?” This was at a time when, on TV, it was all about the “Weakest Link,” “You’re Fired!,” and who’s going to sleep with whose girlfriend on an island. It was so decaying and negative.
The thought of stepping forward and being positive and building a brand that stood for “everyone shines” was so contrary to everything going on in the marketplace. For me and my eventual co-founder, Whit, that was an opportunity to step forward and say, “We’re going to make something different. We’re going to create an entertainment company that stands for ‘everyone shines’ and we’re going to create a board game called Cranium.”
On the plane ride home from that vacation, I took out a napkin and started drawing with a Sharpie what the game would look like. It was a game that had Scrabble, Pictionary, Charades, Data Head trivia, all those classic game elements, and yet no one had brought that experience all together in one party game. I thought it was so simple. When I got home, I talked to Whit, whom I worked with at Microsoft. He was the genius behind the world’s most detailed atlas and an extraordinary product development guy.
I said, “What if the next thing we should do together is a board game that combines all these things together?” He said, “That’s going to be nuts. You’re going to have to explain to my father why I’m leaving Microsoft to do that.” In the same way he had to explain to his father, I had to explain to mine what I was going to do next.
My dad said to me, “What should I tell my friends?” For me, it was a moment of insecurity of saying to him, “Tell your friends I’m going to follow my heart. I’m going to be passionate about creating something different. I’m going to create something magical, and it’s going to be an entertainment company that stands for ‘everyone shines’.”
I was going to present something that galvanized families and allowed them to laugh and rediscover why they were related, and that was something different. It’s about listening to your intuition and to your heart.
Whit and I made the first games and laminated them at Kinko’s. We wrote cards and printed them on our colored printers at home. We created the third largest game company in the world simply by stepping forward and saying, “We’re going to do it.”
Q. And that mantra, “Anybody can shine,” ultimately became Cranium’s mission to the world.
A. Yeah. I love to tell my mom and dad we sold more albums than Coldplay. For us, that simple promise of “Everything we do is going to give people a chance to shine, and we’re going to celebrate what’s special inside of you” became a brand promise that people rallied around.
We had “Craniacs.” We sold our first million games with no advertising. It was just around people who loved our brand. This was before Facebook, Twitter, or any of those things. It was just people telling other people about how the game made them feel special.
Q. What was Cranium’s product development process like? How did you go from scribbles on a napkin to convincing people and inspiring them to join your mission?
A. Everyone who asks that makes it sound so hard, but to me, it sounds so easy because it’s just about creating a prototype. It’s about getting in front of people, getting feedback, and using iterative design, which I learned at Microsoft.
My biggest gift from Microsoft was not the stock options. It wasn’t anything financial. It was this experiental discipline of iterative design. It’s like going to work for Procter & Gamble and learning how to create product positioning.
At Microsoft, we learned how to go from concept to prototype to shipping product in 6-8 months. Trivial Pursuit took four years. Pictionary took three years. We got Cranium from idea to shipped product in six months – January to June.
As crazy as that sounds, during our first play test, which took place in my dining room, we invited eight of Microsoft’s hardest-core program managers who were the most critical, most insightful, most vocal about what would make this thing great. Being open to that feedback, and responding to that feedback, saved us two years in the product development cycle to get it right.
The process was, first and foremost, writing the questions. Whit and I wrote the questions. He did a fantastic analysis of the last 100 years of board games. We put in activities that were proven. We also put in some that were fun, like drawing with your eyes closed, spelling backwards. These were new things, but we found them fun in play tests.
So we complemented what was traditional and proven, and we provided a little top spin with current analysis. But the reality was, our first play test was super enlightening in terms of what it was going to take to make it successful.
But creating a prototype, testing it and just starting, getting it in front of people, collectively took maybe 30 minutes of creativity. I look back on it now, and it wasn’t that hard.
Q. How did you come up with the name Cranium?
A. I’m Scottish, so I love anything with a long “r” in it. I was watching the movie “So I Married an Axe Murderer” with Mike Myers, whose dad is Scottish, and he would say these phrases like, “Look at the cranium on that boy!” I just loved that word. So the name came from “So I Married an Axe Murderer” with Mike Myers and the design philosophy and the illustrational style came from Giorgio Davanzo.
Q. What were some of the other potential names?
A. We had “Brainiac.” I also had a weird, funky name I loved about aliens dominating humans. But to me, nothing fit like Cranium did.
No one else wanted to call it Cranium. I was the only one. Even Whit didn’t believe in the name Cranium, but I loved that name and over the 10 years we were involved in the company we grew into that name.
It became a name that meant something to people. It didn’t mean this hard, skeletal structure in your head. It became something that represented joy and stories around your family. It represented connections. That takes courage and conviction, but also a strong sense of intuition of “that just works.”
Q. Cranium was the first game to be sold on Amazon.com, also the first game to be sold in Barnes & Noble, and the first non-coffee product sold at Starbucks. I love the story of how you thought about this retail distribution strategy. Can you share that story with us?
A. This is another example of a door that closes and another opens. I’ll be perfectly honest with you. What happened was Whit and I had missed Toy Fair. It’s a big event that happens in February every year. Sometimes it’s in Dallas, but most often it’s in New York. That’s where all the big buyers make their toy purchasing decisions.
We had manufactured 27,000 games because people were fighting us for the prototype. We thought, “Woohoo! We’re on to a winner.” But when we approached retailers, they had all made their decisions at Toy Fair, and no one wanted to buy our game. No one.
So when you have 27,000 games coming toward you, that’s a dark moment as an entrepreneur. Whit and I were sitting in a Starbucks store, lamenting about what idiots we were and what we were going to say to our families – how we’re going to have to start occupying their bedrooms with Cranium games. And I looked up in that Starbucks and saw all the people who’d been fighting us for the prototype. They were standing in line at Starbucks. We called them “dating yupsters.”
I turned to Whit and said, “Let’s take our games to where our customers are, rather than where games are sold.” That released us from the feeling that we had to convince Toys R Us to stock our product, when they had already made their buying decisions. It allowed us to turn our focus instead to people who catered to our target demographic.
At that time, in 1998, our target demographic was being catered to by Barnes & Noble, which was cool. Amazon was cool. Starbucks was super cool. So we turned our attention to those retailers that could cater to our demographic and figured out how we could get our game into that environment.
This was during the crazy days of Amazon. They were busy people. We couldn’t get anyone to return our calls. So what we did was we found out who were the friends of the buyers. We invited them to play tests and got them to play Cranium.
The next day, when they went to work, they were talking to the buyers about what an amazing experience they had the night before. It was such a great game. All of a sudden, ring, ring, ring, “Is this Richard of Cranium? This is Amazon.com….” That was the subversive way we got into that distribution channel.
For Barnes & Noble, I flew to see them in New York with my little Cranium game under my arm. When I met with the buyer, she said, “What do you have?” I laid out my game and she said, “I’m very sorry. We don’t sell games. We sell books.” I was looking at that situation and I only had 15 minutes with her.
I saw two other women standing by the water fountain, and I knew it took four people to play Cranium, so it was me, the buyer and the two women at the water fountain. I convinced them to come play with us. Not long afterward, we were in 110 Barnes & Noble stores.
In Britain, there was only one company I wanted to launch with, and that was Virgin. I learned that Richard Branson was coming to Seattle to sign his autobiography. I’d read his autobiography and I knew he loved to play games with his kids. So I stood in line at his book signing with my Cranium game under my arm.
When I got up to him signing, I said “My name’s Richard.” His name was Richard. We had a funny moment together and then he said, “What’s that under your arm?” I said “It’s my game, Cranium,” and he said, “Do you know that I love boardgames?” I said, “Yes, I do, and I’d love for you to play this game with your children.”
So he took that game back and played it with his kids and he loved it, and two weeks later, we were launching with Virgin in the U.K.
I’m telling these stories only because I want to reinforce the sense of tenacity, the sense of relentless pursuit of your dream. Never take no for an answer. We got told by Toys R Us that they would never stock our product, so that made us try to find a different solution. We changed the dynamic in the game industry: we went to Amazon, Starbucks, Barnes & Noble, and Virgin, and we built an international game platform. We were sold in 22 countries.
If I had accepted the answer of “You’re never going to be stocked at Toys R Us,” we would have been done. But we didn’t accept that answer. We saw one door close and we pursued another door that opened. It took some work to get that door open, but it resulted in us creating the third largest game company in the world.
So I would say to anyone, “You can do that, too. Seeing a door close is hard, but don’t be disappointed. Don’t be defeated. Figure out how to get another door to open.” That’s what we did.
Q. How were you so successful in creating a great company culture at Cranium?
A. There were eight principles important to our history as a company that defined the culture we created. I have them written down on a business card I carry with me.
I had been invited to a speaking engagement where there was Howard Schultz, Magic Johnson, and me. I knew what was wrong with that trifecta, and that was me. I was in a tough place to be. Howard was talking about his first book. Magic was talking about the rings he’d won. And I was scribbling on a blank business card trying to write down the things that made Cranium special. To this day, I carry that business card as a reminder of what we had.
At Cranium, we recruited on this philosophy of betting on smarts versus experience, and so we hired people ranging from an ex-army officer to a kindergarten teacher. We found people who represented “everyone shines.” They were consistent with that fundamental philosophy.
Our eight principles were:
Have a mission. At Cranium, our mission was to give everyone the chance to shine. It was such an aspirational mission statement, and we recruited people who would galvanize around that pursuit. Fortunately, I get to go around the world, talking to companies about their culture, and for me, it starts with that galvanizing principle of “what is your mission,” synthesizing it down to something so simple and aspirational that people will respond positively to it.
Change the rules. In today’s world, there are so many opportunities to change the rules to reinforce your mission and help you succeed. The competition with Cranium was dominated by Hasbro and Mattel, and they owned Toys R Us, Target, and Walmart. Our opportunity to build a brand where we changed the rules came from our strategy to distribute with Amazon, Starbucks, and Barnes & Noble, which gave us the chance for that first three years to get traction and build momentum.
Know what you’re good at. Build within your culture a core sense of dominance. At Cranium, what we were good at was product development. Whit and I loved — and we built a culture of people who loved — to create the world’s best products. We got them done faster than anyone else had done before, but still with that high mantra that they were extraordinary. We had this philosophy that was called “CHIFF” – clever, high-quality, innovative, friendly, and fun. That gave us a way of managing the product development team to ensure they were delivering experiences that met that high expectation.
Make hiring priority number one. I still believe every great endeavour starts with extraordinary people. Machines still cannot replace the creativity, intuition, and passion that comes with finding the right people. At Cranium, I had this philosophy of “hiring for smarts and renting experience.” So I would look for young people who were passionate, who had great ideas, who were willing to sacrifice and dedicate their lives to pursuing our mission. There were two areas where I did hire for experience: finance and operations. Those are still two areas you want to find people who know what they’re good at. But you should complement that with people who have raw horsepower.
Make sure your customers are your sales force. We built Cranium when there was no Twitter, Facebook, or other social networks to benefit from. It was just people telling other people about their experience playing the game. To this day, I still believe great brands are built on humans sharing their belief and conviction about the brand, not simply liking them but actually recommending them. I think the difference between a like and actual advocacy in recommendation is a different level of brand engagement.
Avoid hairballs. You can forget everything I’ve said if you just go out and buy a book called “Orbiting the Giant Hairball” by Gordon MacKenzie, which is about staying creative in large organizations. Part of what that book taught me was the anticipation of “hairballs” — and the difference between being in the “avoidance” business versus the “reaction” business. You want to be in the anticipation / avoidance business and not the recovery / reaction business, because the recovery business is super hard and emotionally draining, and so the “hairballs” you want to avoid are the ones that are going to cost you dearly.
Do good as you do well. The brands that I’m drawn to today are the ones that have a sense of compassion and heart. I think Starbucks is doing an amazing job. REI is doing an amazing job. But you can also find many small companies that, as they do well, are demonstrating they can give back, too. At Cranium, we demonstrated we were an organization that steps forward with compassion. We discovered that the number one growing crime segment was after-school crime, so we dedicated efforts around after-school programs for at-risk kids. We gave over a million dollars to those programs. I would encourage those who are thinking about creating their own startup to remember that it has to be one with compassion to give back as you do well.
Lead with passion, a sense of speed, and discovery. Every day, I’ve got to galvanize myself and come to work and remember, “What do I bring?” What can the people and the team I lead count on me for, count on me in a way that I will deliver every day with conviction, continuity, and predictability? That is leading with passion, speed, and discovery. I ask that question to anyone: when you go to work tomorrow, what are you bringing? I think that’s so important to recognize what other people are counting on you for.
Q. After Cranium, you started a business incubator called BoomBoom Brands, and you also worked for Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks, for more than a year. Why did you do that and what were the important things you learned from both experiences?
A. I would have run Cranium for the rest of my life. I loved making games. There was nothing that made me happier than introducing myself as the Cranium guy. The culture of people we built was the brightest and most invigorating group I’ve ever been around.
But at that time, in 2007, we started to see the industry change. Organizations like Target and Walmart started to push inventory back on us. We saw the transactions change at the cash register. The world was starting to go into recession, and we recognized that fact.
So Whit and I went to our board of directors and said there was something changing in the environment and right now was a moment where we could capitalize on the value we built and that it was time for us to get out.
As a parent, that was like putting up a kid for adoption. That was the hardest thing in my life, but it was the right thing to do for all our investors. So we ended up selling to Hasbro, which was the right harbour for us, based on the alternatives.
I look back on that with a sense of accomplishment that we got it to the right place, a sense of disappointment with what happened after we sold to Hasbro, which meant it was hard to find a Cranium game anymore. They didn’t continue to pursue the brand with the same passion and conviction we had, and they ended up focusing more on the other brands they had.
The reality for us was we found a safe harbour. For me, I became untethered. I was meant to stay with the company for 6-9 months. After three months, I just decided I wanted to go and reinvent myself again.
I decided I was going to pursue the next dream for me. I set up BoomBoom Brands, which was an incubator in Pioneer Square, so aptly named in Seattle, so that I could start coming up with another idea. During those years of 2007, 2008, and 2009, it was so hard as an entrepreneur to get people to back an idea. I was fortunate that Howard came to me and said, “Why don’t you come to Starbucks?”
I saw there was an opportunity to revolutionize some of the baked goods and healthier options Starbucks was offering. Howard came to me and said, “Why don’t you come in and help me re-invigorate the company?”
My first day at Starbucks was a day of lay-offs, so as I walked in the elevator, there were people leaving with mascara running down their eyes and feeling such a strong sense of betrayal and fracturing of that culture. I was the guy coming in to try and provide some kind of inspiration and rebirth. I’ve never been called on as a professional to walk in with such a sense of expectation of, “How can you help?”
Q. Was that at the low point of the Starbucks stock?
A. Yeah. The day I started, the stock was less than $7. That was an historic low for the stock. The day you were describing actually came after, which was the re-galvanization, a re-commitment to the values to try and rebuild the culture.
Wall Street had lost confidence in the brand. There was a risk of being acquired. There were all sorts of things happening in the culture at that time, and it was an opportunity to start rebuilding the company. I was very fortunate to step into a role, into a culture, where they were accepting of someone like me, who was presenting a different way of thinking, to help show people that it’s not how many times you get knocked down; it’s how many times you get back up.
I’ve used that phrase on a personal level, but it also applies to an organization like Starbucks — the opportunity to get back up. And that’s what we did. We started to get back up. The path I took was around healthier baked food options and beverages. I worked with a fantastic team who had already accomplished a huge amount within Starbucks and was able to galvanize again around the mission, which was, “Real food. Simply delicious.”
It was an opportunity to demonstrate that we were an organization that was going to change, and we rallied around that statement and offered healthier baked options and changed the caloric content of some of the beverages.
Then I worked with Michelle Gass, who Howard has credited and was much of the flywheel beyond his vision of what was going to change within the company. I hitched my wagon to Michelle’s and we worked on the rebranding for Seattle’s Best Coffee. I also worked on the branding for Tazo Tea. I feel so fortunate that I was there during that time.
But I also recognized after 14 or 16 months, when I was invited to stay within that organization, that being part of a larger organization is not what I love to do. And so, for all the time I spent at Starbucks and all the fun I had, it was once again a door that closed for me, and I jettisoned out and said, “I’m going to do something myself,” and had to search for that next idea.
Q. What was it like working with Howard Schultz and what was the biggest lesson you learned from him?
A. On a very personal level, it was that conviction of “This is not going to happen on my watch. This is my brand. This is my company. This is me.” His dedication and conviction and galvanizing the culture around “the world hasn’t seen the best of us yet,” for all those e-mails at 4 a.m., all the late nights, he and his leadership team re-committed to delivering the Starbucks we now know and enjoy today, and it took a person to step forward with that flag and lead. That person was Howard Schultz.
I considered it a privilege and incredible opportunity to be in the front row of that organization. We’ve seen leaders like Steve Jobs come through, but few and far between have led and come back from that level of despair to deliver a brand with such hope that Starbucks has.
He led us through the darkest of times and asked us all to make personal sacrifices and have conviction beyond what any of us thought was possible, but it resulted in the stock price now getting close to $50 from $6 and Starbucks being credited as one of the greatest brands we’ve seen in this millennium.
Q. Tell us about how your new company Golazo energy drinks was born.
A. I’ve played soccer since I was a little boy. It’s been my game of choice. I’ve played since 1968. For me, it’s part of my life.
My office at BoomBoom was across Qwest Field. On April 16, 2010, Mexico was playing China there. Cesar Villaluz, who was the youngest striker at 18 years old, chipped it over the Chinese goalkeeper and Mexico won 1-0. There were 60,000 people inside the stadium and 30,000 people outside the stadium, and the place went nuts.
I started to hear a word that I wasn’t familiar with, and that was the word “golazo,” which means “super goal” in Spanish. And when I watched the World Cup on Univision, I heard over and over again this word called “golazo.”
With my buddy Alex, I said, “Let’s create a passion brand for soccer,” and that brand would be called Golazo. So we had the brand first. Then we started to study big trends. One was the popularization of soccer. We also saw the growth in the Latino population. And the third dynamic we saw was the growth in all-natural. So we married those three things and said, “Okay, we’re going to create a passion brand in beverages for soccer, and it was going to have a Latino influence, and it was going to be called Golazo.”
Two years ago, we launched the beverage brand and it has now become in the Pacific Northwest the number one selling energy drink in Whole Foods, and we’ve got an extraordinary track record in a very short period of time.
Q. I found it really interesting that your insight for a hydration and energy drink combo first came when you saw soccer kids mixing Gatorade and Red Bull.
A. Kids were actually publishing these recipes on the Internet. They were looking for a product that was hydrating and provided a lift, and they were mixing Gatorade and Red Bull. So we decided we were going to create an energy beverage – all-natural, no GMO, gluten-free – that was a much healthier alternative for them, that provided both energy and a lift.
We found ourselves in our office, formulating. We drove to Target and came back with a carbonator and started carbonating the drink to make sure we could find the right carbonation level that soccer players could quickly consume the product but wouldn’t feel gassy.
Clearly for something that gets put in your body, you want to find people who have credibility, so we partnered with the world’s leading formulation company that allowed us to develop the beverage, but at the start, it was just two crazy guys with an idea. Eight months in, we realized the biggest growth category was youth soccer, so that’s when we launched a non-caffeinated product, which was our coconut water-based isotonic, our sports hydration product.
That allowed us to have two different platforms for the brand that has clearly defined where we are today, which is selling ahead of 70 percent of the category in QFC and 50 percent of the category in Safeway, and creating that passion brand.
Q. What’s your mission for Golazo?
A. As a soccer player, your games are won and lost by scoring goals, but so is life. We wanted to create in the same way we’d seen Nike with “Just do it,” provide a sense of aspiration and personal conviction. We wanted to create that same brand for soccer players.
This conviction of “born to score” is within both your soccer life and your personal life. How do you get the most out of life and instill in people this belief that’s being associated with our brand and the sense of conviction we have toward our customers? We can instill in them this belief of “born to score,” and we believe that’s true.
The marketing and engagement of the brand is about investing in our consumers. We’ve never talked about them being a fan of us. We’ve always talked about us being a fan of them and doing everything we can to celebrate the amateur soccer player, the fan of Golazo. Everything we do is about shining a light on them.
Our “born to score” philosophy is one where we will continue to invest. It’s about celebrating people’s passion for the brand with incredible quality, all-natural, non-GMO products, and creating the best platform for human potential where they’re born to score.
For all those people who said, “You’re crazy for putting a soccer ball on a can. You’re crazy for calling it a Spanish name,” I want “born to score” to be this rallying cry where soccer fans and players celebrate what we stand for and say “Yeah, those guys stand for what I love. They stand for soccer.”
Q. What do you wish for in the future?
A. Nothing makes me happier than meeting someone in the airport or a vacation place, where they say to me, “Oh, I played Cranium. We played Cranium as a family. We love it.” Today, I heard from a woman who said to me, “My daughter came home wearing a Golazo shirt. She loves Golazo.” For me, feeling like you’ve created this emotional connection with the art or product you’ve created makes me happy.
In some way, connecting with people makes me feel like I’m leaving that footprint in the sand. To have that opportunity to be remembered for something is what I hope for, that people will look at me and say, “He made us happy. He made us laugh. He made us love soccer more than we knew we could. He was a good dad. He showed us a good path.”
Q. You’ve often said it’s rare to combine a professional pursuit with a personal passion. You’ve been able to do that twice now, with Cranium and Golazo. What advice do you have for folks who would like to create career opportunities like those you’ve had?
A. The biggest hurdle they’re going to face is, one, the doubt of those they love and are surrounding them the most, and secondly, self-doubt. The biggest defeats for an entrepreneur are those two things. Believing in yourself that you can do it, and then telling somone you love and having them question it — that’s two levels of doubt.
I’m someone who has constantly pursued the intersection of personal passion with professional pursuit. I am the person who’s telling you, “Make the cards at Kinko’s. Get the prototype done. Get it in front of someone.”
The most common question I get is, “How did you make a game? How did you make a beverage?” And it wasn’t that hard. It really wasn’t that difficult. The most important thing is getting it in front of people, making it fantastic. I believe our products at Cranium and Golazo are brilliant, fantastic. It took getting it in front of people and iterating it to make it happen.
If you have an entrepreneurial fiber in your body, then the first step is creating that prototype. As daunting as that might feel, whether it’s software, a service, or a product, it’s just creating something that you can start putting in front of other people and seeing if they like it. If they like it, it helps you get over that sense of self-doubt, that sense of criticism from others who are questioning why you’re even dedicating your life to doing it.
Then, slowly, you get a little bit of self-confidence that you can actually do it. This isn’t about working for Howard, creating the world’s greatest games, or the beverage industry. It’s about taking that first step as a person who’s trying to leave a footprint in the sand. It’s getting over the hurdle of self-doubt. I believe creating that prototype is the first step to getting reactions from other people that, “Oh, I love that,” or “You should change this.” And then, you can start making progress.
You can maintain a full-time job while you’re doing it. The crazy part is leaving something that has a sense of security to go pursue something else. You can do it in evenings. You can do it on weekends. You can start to build up your own self-confidence before you make the leap. Then, when you’ve got a little bit of traction, make that leap and feel the wind under your wings because that reinforcement of “you’re on to something” is so invigorating.
That’s the magic. That’s when you really feel that opportunity to fly.