The turning point in Nick Kellet’s entrepreneurial road came when his then 6 year old daughter asked him : “how does Santa decide which gift to give which children ?”. Like so many entrepreneurs before him, Nick saw an opportunity and didn’t think twice about grabbing it. Playing games is fun and his invention, GiftTRAP, is out to prove just that.

Hi Nick, you’ve got a really interesting product here. Tell me more about it.

Sure. Have you ever played “Secret Santa” ? Most people have. GiftTRAP is simply “Secret Santa” as a board game. We’ve all exchanged gifts at the holidays or given gifts for birthdays, weddings etc. so everyone practically knows how to play.

There are a few differences between GiftTRAP and Secret Santa

  1. The gifts are “virtual” and are included in the game, so you’re saved the headache of shopping as a result you can enjoy Secret Santa all year round.
  2. Because it’s a game, you can give honest feedback about what you think of different gifts – in fact that’s how you score and win by giving people the gifts they want.

Our research shows only 1 in 3 gifts is actually wanted/appreciated by the recipient. Everyone has their own personal gift horror story to tell – this game is like a release valve for a lifetime of bad gifts. Play and you’ll discover amazing things about your friends that will influence the gifts you buy each other next holiday.

Most of all it’s a fun game to get you talking. The appeal of giving and receiving gifts is universal from boys to men and from girls to women.

Games Magazine said “Best Party Board Game of the Year 2008”, Chicago Tribune included you in its “Top Ten Games”, and the list goes on. Is it safe to say you had a smooth liftoff?

We certainly have received lots of awards and attention, but it sure didn’t feel like a smooth start from where I was sitting. We really didn’t know a soul in the game industry so we expended a lot of effort reaching out to those people to get the reviews that helped us raise our profile.

Distributors wouldn’t even talk to us when we launched the game. We needed to build some level of credence first. There are 1,000 new games launched each year, with over 30,000 games registered in an online database. It gives you a sense of the competitive landscape.

Having won 10+ international awards really does set us apart and the fact we were published in 8 languages this year is also a great validation of our success. Many games don’t make it through their first print run – we’re into our third. We’ve made lots of mistakes, but we’ve learned fast enough to live to tell the tale.

It’s funny but getting to a simple statement like “It’s Secret Santa as a board game” is a tough transition. Today people never explain new things from scratch – you never tell your friends about the plot of a movie you just saw – instead you’d say stuff like “It’s Speed but in a submarine” or “It’s Jaws in the Jungle” or “X with a Y”. We expect to communicate in this abbreviated form by explaining just the differences.

In my career I’ve always loved creating new markets. Every idea begins the same way – as the inventor you identify a need, but your challenge is to turn it into the so called “Elevator Pitch” so others can get the idea and it’s value in a few words and a few seconds.

Every pitch you try sounds good to you, but you need to obverse and understand how newcomers react to your pitch – Do they get it? Can they repeat it to others? Would they want to? The end result looks simple, the journey to that point can be very different.

Often what you think is important is not the real trigger in the consumer’s mind. Finding that real trigger is the biggest challenge. We tried all sorts of things before we settled on the Secret Santa Gift-Exchange angle.

Very insightful words Nick. When you first had the idea for GiftTrap in mind, how did you then go about concretizing it?

The initial idea came from a question by my eldest daughter then age 6. She asked, “How does Santa decide which gifts to give which children?” Not an easy question to answer !

I’d always wanted to publish a game so this question inspired me to research the theme and I found there had never been a game about exchanging gifts – only the “Secret Santa” work-based gift-exchange ritual. This struck me as a huge opportunity as gift-giving is so ubiquitous.

When you consider the range of choices that face the average shopper its no wonder that our gift-giving skills aren’t quite where they need to be. Combine that with our growing attention deficiency and it seemed the time for GiftTRAP was just about perfect.

Once we had our theme we had to create a great game to fit the theme. We consciously focused on creating a great experience as well – this is evident when you open the box and begin to play.

We also focused on building in every possible angle into the game to allow the concept to be viral. As an example we ran a contest to find photos and gift ideas for our game. We also use “Creative Commons” licensing for all the images we use. Many of the images come from – we credit the individual photographers – some of these folk have become huge fans and ambassadors for GiftTRAP.

We took every opportunity to get as many people involved in caring about the game’s success as possible. We obsessed on play testing, reaching out well beyond friends and family. Over 500 people in total were involved before we decided to go to print.

My background was in software, so fixing a bug costs a dollar to burn a CD (or near zero if you upload it to a website for customers to download). 10,000 games with a bug or an inconsistency are much harder to fix.

And what was the startup cost for GiftTrap?

That’s a hard question. Getting to make a game is just the tip of the iceberg. The cost of promoting it, attending shows, sending out samples etc. is much greater. I’ve heard different people quote a number of $250k+ for launching a game and that’s not a grand launch.

How successful has your business been since the day one?

To be really honest it’s been a hard slog. It felt like a rollercoaster ride full of ups and downs. After every “up” you knew there would be a “down” along shortly and vice versa.

Overall we judge our success based on units sold and on our ability to build our brand globally. We try and compare ourselves to other game companies and see how we have done. After 2 ½ years and 44,000 games, I believe we compare favorably to most new board game companies.

Our website is our secret weapon. It helps us generate a lot of traffic and interest in the game. It’s also allowed us to test different forms of copy and taglines.

What was the biggest fear you’ve faced in striking out on your own?

GiftTRAP wasn’t my first company, so I didn’t find the idea of starting a company to be scary. I’d been in B2B software before (just O’s and 1’s), so I really wanted to create something more personal – something physical for the actual consumer.

It was scary to create a new product, but fun too. I’d done a lot of research so I had a lot of belief that it would work and lots of supporting data. That said it was a daunting task to sell the first 10,000 games stacked up in your garage.

With hindsight, switching from Business to Business to Consumer and switching from software to board games was a huge shift.

And what consequences to your personal life has the move towards entrepreneurship brought about?

Someone once told me don’t turn your passion into your career. I must admit I waver on if I agree or not with that sentiment. It does become harder to control the borders between work and play.

It feels like I used to play strategy games more before when games were just a hobby. Sometimes it feels like my life is a game where every move you make has consequences and your score is number of copies sold. There are no real rules, just a few laws. The rest is up to you.

It’s a lot of fun, but it can be a bit all consuming. I’m pretty much a compulsive “all or nothing” kind of a guy, so it’s hard to switch off until the millionth copy is sold. I couldn’t imagine doing something I wasn’t passionate about.

Passion is indeed a great motivator. What were the 3 toughest challenges your company has faced so far and how did you surmount them?

I’d mentioned the messaging challenges earlier, but that’s what so wonderful about the web and selling online – you can test different copy and different messages so we were able to crack our messaging challenges.

Beyond that we found getting distributors was very hard – mainly because we didn’t know who was who in the game industry.

They wouldn’t talk to you until you had proof of the game’s appeal/credibility. We solved this simply by sending out lots of review copies – of course prior to that’d we’d designed a game that was highly reviewable.

Not all distributors turn our to be good – some don’t pay and some don’t follow through on their commitment. There’s not much you can do when a company goes bust on you. Brush yourself down and get back at it. As I said before something positive seems to come along just after every disaster.

That’s a really great advice. So what else can we expect next from your creative mind?

We have some expansion packs in the works and some brand new games in mind. We’re very excited about our new GiftTRAP Facebook application – we’ll announce it on our homepage when it’s ready.

I love the whole invention, development, testing and launch process. It’s funny but it should get easier to have more products. People prefer to buy from multi-product companies. We have got many elements of our brand in place for the new products, simply building on the approach we used to launch GiftTRAP.

I get a sense that many games are inspired by the mechanic, but we strongly believe in starting with the marketing and the theme. It’s so much more powerful to pick a highly marketable theme having first assessed the completion in the field and by evaluating their weaknesses and ways for you to differentiate yourself.

I can’t confess to liking the way the world has become so attention deficient, but when it comes to marketing new ideas you simply have to embrace it and explain your product as its an “X” but with a “Y”.

Even if your idea is really unique you’ll make more progress by learning to market yourself by referencing yourself to other products or services that have the right positive connections in the consumers mind. 

I’ll definitely keep that in mind. Lastly, what advice would you give to a young person with entrepreneurial ambitions?

Don’t give up, but equally don’t begin until you are certain. Be prepared to walk/stop your investment if it isn’t working or if you don’t get the validation you need, but if you have done your research and tested in excess then keep plugging away.

It’s a very competitive world. Try to be honest with yourself and your goals. Finding a niche is just the first step on a very long journey.