By Paul Feinberg
Would you rather embark on what some might consider a "traditional career," working your way up the corporate ladder - or roll the dice on a board game, and live the entrepreneur's life with all the ups and downs that come with it?
For Randy Horn ('97), the choice was first debated over drinks.
As a UCLA Anderson student, Horn enrolled in Prof. Alan Carsrud's business plan writing course. However, the catch was that without a business idea he couldn't take the course. While trying to come up with an idea, he and some of his business school friends were hanging out when they started to debate the age old question: "Would you rather bite the curb and get kicked in the back of the head or get a paper cut on your eyeball?"
"We had a great time debating it," Horn recalled recently. "We were having a few beers and we actually started to take the question seriously. I thought, ‘That's my business idea, to build a business around a game based on ‘would you rather' questions."
So, he and then-partner Mike Lloyd ('97) started to write a business plan for Carsrud's course. It was still an exercise at that point. Horn remembers that their projects and presentations would be filled with "would you rather" questions, while the rest of the course was presenting serious plans filled with spread sheets. Due to the lighthearted nature of their presentations, Horn says that his classmates began to look forward to their presentations. "Professor Carsrud told me I had too much time on my hands," Horn said.
Eventually, Horn and Lloyd began to take the idea more seriously, although the two would ultimately go their separate ways. (Lloyd is now vice president and general manager at Consolidated Fire Protection in Irvine, California. He runs their national service business, in which they provide fire protection and life safety service for multi-location regional and national customers across the United States. He's been there since 2004.) What began as an excuse to take a business plan writing course, ultimately became an entry in Anderson's Knapp Venture Competition. Horn says that his ambition was buoyed by the fact that the investors to whom they showed the idea were always enthusiastic. He became to believe there was more to the idea than a way to pass a class.
The idea became Zobmondo!!, a "replacement epithet" coined by Lloyd. The rules of the game were simple. Players drew cards with a series of "would you rather" questions on them and then tried to determine how the rest of the group would respond. The fun was rooted not just in making a correct prediction, but also in the discussions. Players become almost surprisingly passionate when arguing whether they'd rather be stuck in an elevator with wet dogs or three fat, smelly men with bad breath.
After Zobmondo!!'s first year on the market, gaming giant Hasbro licensed the product. Horn says he thought he'd just sit back and cash royalty checks, but Hasbro's uninspired approach to marketing and selling the game was uninspiring. After two years, he terminated the deal and started all over, taking the product out to trade shows, trying to get retailers to put it on the shelves. It was during this period that he began to learn the critical importance of operations, realizing that retailers expected deliveries on time and in the quantities they required. He found a third-party manufacturer in China, a warehouse in Carson and eventually put a publicist on retainer.
He also began to manage the brand. "Zobmondo!!," he says, "became like Nike" - an overarching brand for all the companies products. "Would You Rather" became Air Jordan, the company's signature line of products. That line became multi-faceted. The original edgy R-rated game was aimed at adult players. They've added a more family mass version for players 12 and up, a compact travel version and a game aimed at kids, who debate questions like "would you rather eat a bowl of apple stems or 20 banana peels?"
The appeal Horn reiterates is not just in winning the game. The appeal is the social interaction. Corporations have started using the games as ice breakers; Horn gets letters from the parents of children with learning disabilities telling him their children were too shy to speak until they started playing the game.
Today, Horn's office is in an unassuming suite above some retail stores in Brentwood. He has one employee and shares the office with another entrepreneur. He says that every aspect of building the Zobmondo!! empire has been a learning experience. "I once changed the box the game came in because of how it looked in a print ad," he said. Along the way he's added a few other games to the company's line, including one invented by a young girl for a science project.
In 2009, the company was named one of Inc. Magazine's fastest growing companies for the third year in a row and he's received notices in diverse publications from the Wall Street Journal to the Los Angeles Business Journal. Sales approached seven million dollars last year and with the games going into Wal-Mart, he expects to top 11 million in sales.
"We're legit now," Horn says of the one million games he expects to sell this year. "We're on everybody's radar."