How We Sold Our Company Without Selling Out
The co-founder of family game company Thinkfun on the power of staying true to your core mission.
It was 1985. My wife, Andrea Barthello, and I were newly married and newly unemployed (by choice). We were disenchanted with the corporate world and had a vision of making a difference for children, so we created ThinkFun from a small basement in Alexandria, Virginia.
We launched ThinkFun with the ambition to become the world’s leading maker of logic puzzles. Our “competitive advantage” was our creative genius family friend, Bill Keister, a retired Bell Labs scientist who invented puzzles as a hobby. Mr. Keister, as well as my father and my brother, who also were Bell Labs scientists, introduced us to a world of highly creative engineers and scientists who called themselves “recreational mathematicians.” This special group of people dedicated themselves to playing and sharing mathematical ideas that often took form as puzzles or games.
Our mission statement became: “We find the most brilliant ideas from the wackiest engineers and mathematicians and translate them into toys and games.” Never mind that at the time there was no market demand for this kind of product -- STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) was nary an idea. Still, we believed that this was an opportunity for us to become the voice for an entire creative community of playful geniuses and to build market demand from the ground up.
That belief wasn’t always strong in the beginning. We spent the first five years of our business in a constant state of anxiety, culminating in a near-disaster; in 1989 our bank kicked us out and we lost our line of credit. But, in a perfect illustration of how quickly things can change in business and in life, by 1991 we were flying. We doubled in growth from 1991 to 1992.
But as we learned, even success can be difficult when you’re an entrepreneur. In the early years, we would have parts of our puzzles manufactured and then shipped to us, and we’d bring family and friends over and set up an assembly line in the basement. The problem, of course, was that the more we sold the later we had to stay up assembling and packaging!
More than 30 years after we launched, ThinkFun was acquired by 134-year old Ravensburger – known for making high-quality toys and games for the "hand, head and heart." As entrepreneurs, Andrea and I struggled with the decision to share our "first child." But as mission-driven entrepreneurs, we know that ThinkFun has great potential to grow beyond us.
And like us, Ravensburger is a family-owned company that has thrived for more than a century by staying true to its mission -- a belief in the benefits of challenging the mind and the importance of creative play. Those were all checkbox items for us that lessened the risk of sharing the reins for the next chapter of ThinkFun.
As we look back over the past 33 years, Andrea and I are proud of each step we’ve taken and believe in the importance of always staying true to your brand, but we also believe it is important to adapt, and in some places let go when others can take you to new heights. Moving forward, I have the dream job of any company founder -- retaining the parts of my job that give me the most joy, and letting go of the rest. Ravensburger has retained me as ThinkFun’s “chief creative officer,” with a mandate to drive creative development on new products and programs. With the added resources and expertise of Ravensburger and the existing team and its experience here, I can’t wait to see what the future looks like.