Jump Ship

Nationwide, cubicle-bound techies are making the leap from tech exec to entrepreneur. Is it your turn?

Whit Alexander and Richard Tait, the minds behind the successful board game Cranium, both have a long history of entrepreneurial pursuits. Alexander, whose father lived down the river from Amway's founders in Ada, Michigan, would sell boat tours to visiting Amway believers willing to pay exorbitant sums to catch a glimpse of the founders' abode. Meanwhile, Tait had a gig selling fish door to door, which unfortunately proved to be somewhat short-lived. "There was a bit of a shelf-life problem," he quips.

Alexander and Tait will have you in stitches as they recount stories of these and other previous start-up ventures, but ask them about the major factors that contributed to the success of Cranium, and both will point to the years they worked for Microsoft. The partners join the ranks of many entrepreneurs who got their start as tech execs at big-name corporations and translated their experiences into innovative businesses.

In 1997, Alexander and Tait decided to leave Microsoft on a high note to start their own business and, surprisingly enough, did not start a dotcom or create a computer game. Instead, they channeled their entrepreneurial energies into a unique board game, Cranium. Since its launch, Seattle-based Cranium Inc. has sold more than 400,000 copies of the game, and Cranium has become the fastest-selling board game in history, says Tait.

So why a board game and not a computer game? Tait and Alexander asked themselves that same question, until they did some research. Apparently, no computer game had ever made more than half a billion dollars, while several board games had.

Still, everyone the partners encountered discouraged them. "We met with the founders of Pictionary, and their advice was not to do it," Tait recalls. "But Whit and I looked around and saw lots of pictures of their big boat, and we said 'Wow-it worked for them.' So we went against the face of better judgment and pushed ahead with our product."

Tait and Alexander assert that much of their confidence to take a chance and develop the game came from working at Microsoft. There, they were able to thrive in a supportive and dynamic corporate culture, developing high-profile products in partnership with the world's largest corporations. In creating Cranium, they drew from the product-development approach they had learned in their former jobs.

"You learn how to define a problem in a way that's going to satisfy a market requirement," explains Alexander. "It's the discipline of deciding on the right thing to do and getting it done."

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This article was originally published in the November 2000 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Jump Ship.

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