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Her day job made her ‘cry every night’, so Hazel Reynolds took the plunge, quit, and crowdfund her first board game, Randomise, which became an Amazon bestseller.
Gameley Games has since sold 130,000 games (Jibbergiggle and Frozen Unicorns are fan favourites) and turned over £1.3m.
Check out these show notes to learn about Hazel’s journey and her experiences as a business owner.
Here’s what she covers:
A business idea can come from anywhere
You came up with this incredible card game. Tell me what happened.
What prompted you to start a business in the first place. What was the catalyst?
There are probably two catalysts. The first was creating my first game, Randomise, to lure my 12-year-old sister away from her iPad.
I’d go home up to Yorkshire and wanted something to get her to play with me, so we could have fun and spend quality time together.
I made Randomise specifically for her, and it worked.
She loved it, and we played together and with other family and friends.
Everyone I played with said, “Oh, I’ll take a copy of this. Are you going to make it? You should turn this into something you can sell.”
It wasn’t until a year later that I took the plunge and decided to do something about it. At that point, I had gone from a career that I loved to a job that I didn’t love so much. I was coming home from my job crying every night.
It was my husband that said, “Why don’t you try and make something of that game?”
And I said, “OK, let’s do it. I’m going to give making games a go.”
At that point, I thought it would be something to do for a month or two, and then I’d go tail between my legs and get another job.
Two things prompted it, but I’m so glad they did.
1. My little sister is one of my best play testers.
2. The bad job, because if that job had been a little bit less bad, I probably wouldn’t be doing what I love today.
Side hustles aren’t for everybody
Did you quit the job? Because it sounds like you hated it. Did you leave straight away, or did you try and do two things at once?
I planned to do two at once but struggled.
I’ve got so much admiration for people who run side hustles. Once I’d found myself in the job, it was just sucking so much energy and motivation out of me.
I think my self-esteem was pretty much at rock bottom.
My husband said, “You know what, you just need to get out of this. You need to quit your job. Look after yourself and just focus on the game.”
That was a huge luxury to be able to quit my job and focus on something full time. It was quite a privileged situation to be in.
We had a little bit of savings. We cut out all luxuries: no holidays and no eating out. We were able to live off his salary for a short period.
I thought I’d concentrate on trying to make something of the game, and then I’ll get another job in a few months, but that’s not how it turned out.
Entrepreneurs don’t have to be ruthless
This is what I love about you, though.
What you’ve done here is talk about having zero self-confidence and that starting the business was an escape from something terrible, rather than running towards this bright, ambitious future.
That is the opposite of what you hear from startup founders, and I love that because you don’t have to fit a mould where you’re this uber-confident ‘I’m going to dominate the world’ type.
Yeah. I don’t know if I would have had the courage or bravery to go and do it. I had to be in a dark situation before I give it a go.
I think we absorb this stereotype of entrepreneurs, which is that you’ve got to be always on and working 80 hours a week. You’ve got to sacrifice your family and be ruthless in business deals. That did not appeal to me.
I don’t think I would ever have chosen to do that if that’s what owning a business was.
Having taken that step or being nudged to take that step, I’ve discovered that running a business is not like that at all. It can be completely different.
You’ve got so much choice in how you do things when you run a company.
A brilliant community of people putting people before profit, putting the values at the heart of their company, questioning what success means.
Is success all about finances, or is it about spending more time with the people you love and having a choice every day about what you work on?
I discovered this amazing community of people doing things differently.
I’m passionate about telling people that running a business is not all that you see on TV. That’s not what running a business is in today’s world must be, although you can choose to run your business like that.
Many people might have different ways to run their business, and you’ve got lots of options.
I think if more people knew that, I think you’d get more diversity and entrepreneurship.
You’d get more women and people with responsibilities thinking more about it because you can balance.
It depends on what type of company you set up and how you go about things. But there are companies you can run that can fit nicely with the rest of your life and other essential things.
You can do good with your business
Tell me about that then.
What makes your company uniquely different from the traditional idea and the stereotypes. Do you have very set working hours without burning the midnight oil?
I know, for example, that you do a lot of work with charity, and you give away a lot of games. For many manufacturers, they feel it devalues the brand by giving things away.
What makes you unique and happy in what you do?
We do lots of big, shiny, fun, happy and good things.
But I think underpinning all of it is a genuine love for the people you work with and respect and trust.
We’re trying to set up the company that we’d like to see in the world.
What do we expect from companies? What do we think the best ways are to run a business?
We’ve got a motto which is to have fun and do good.
We try and come back to that when we’re making decisions. I mean, don’t get me wrong, we’ve grown a profitable, healthy and successful business, but that seems to be a side effect of how we’ve run the business.
When we’re thinking about doing good, we think around three significant areas:
1. Doing good for our customers
We feel so lucky to be in the business of joy and happiness.
We get to wake up and think about how to bring people together and get them laughing and making memories with the people they love.
We’re lucky that that’s at the heart of our company.
But it’s also in the way that we treat them—showering them with kindness.
If we ever get a customer who needs help with something, we try and go above and beyond what they might expect, such as extending free games, making sure they feel good.
2. Creating a good environment for the team
Our team is awesome.
We just hired our fifth person. I do a lot of work thinking about how we can make the environment the best it can be for them to thrive.
If you’re working in manufacturing and your boss is horrible to you, you could get them to make more bricks.
The old view is that you must be strict with the employees, and it’s all about production.
But we’re not making bricks.
We’re in the business of ideas, and we don’t have huge budgets and a vast team. What we’ve got are good ideas that we execute well and put out into the world.
It’s trying to create that environment where people feel happy, trusted, and loved so they can do their best work.
We’ve also got some shiny things like loads of holiday days and paid sabbaticals once you’ve been here five years. We give a thousand pounds to charity on your birthday.
All the little shiny things are like a cherry on top, but underneath is genuine caring for people.
3. You are doing good for the wider world
We feel super lucky that we can impact the wider world, and from the very beginning, we’re bringing people together to see what we could do to help more people.
From the start, we’ve given away 10% of our profits to charity, which was nice and small at the beginning, but now it’s growing, they’re going to be some quite significant sums, which feels brilliant.
We give away a lot of games.
So last year, we gave away around two and a half thousand games, and we want to double that this year.
We’ve realised when giving our games to charities that most benefit from them, it costs us the same to give a charity £20 or £100 worth of games. When they want the games, that is a valuable thing to give.
So, we’re still giving 10% of profits in pure cash to charity, but giving away the games is something we’re that gets bigger every year.
If you have a product, Amazon can handle logistics
That’s interesting and inspiring for anyone looking for the right mix to make a good impact. There are all these different ways you can contribute as a business.
You wouldn’t be able to do that if you weren’t building a big enough business to make a profit and be sustainable. I know that you have done that. One of the channels has been Amazon. I would love to talk about that because building a business on Amazon is a hot topic.
How did you make that channel work for you?
We knew from the start that we’d want to sell on Amazon. It’s a vast platform, and we wouldn’t exist in the shape we are now without it.
I found out I was pregnant the day after setting up my company, which was great but also gave me quite a deadline to get everything up and running.
We signed up for Amazon’s FBA, Fulfilment by Amazon service.
That meant that they were able to handle all the packing and all the customer orders.
From the beginning, that was all taken out of our hands, and it meant that it didn’t matter whether we’re selling three, 30 or 300 copies a day.
At Christmas, it didn’t make a difference to our day-to-day looking after the baby and running the company.
It’s about visibility.
We get access to all those looking for a game and want something to help them spend time with their loved ones. We do not have to build a platform from scratch.
If you’re selling on Amazon, understand your prospective customers
Are there any hacks or exciting things you’ve learned about how to market yourself on Amazon that you could share?
Yes, absolutely. Underlining it all is knowing who you’re talking to and having a clear idea in your mind. This is important in all marketing, but just knowing:
- Who’s going to enjoy this game most?
- What does that person think about?
- What do they feel?
- What are they looking for?
It’s about tailoring your Amazon listing to make sure you’re talking to them.
Rather than trying to talk to everyone, try and just talk to that one person and tell them why your product is the one they’re looking for.
Take a close look at Amazon reviews of your product
Because you’re aiming at families, you would put something like great for family time or fun for all ages.
Absolutely. Real family friendly focused.
We’re targeting sociable adults as well, but people who have eight to 12-year-old children, that’s our absolute core.
Be explicit about why people will enjoy it and how it will make you feel. You’ve got to have a word with my colleague Dave who’s better with the words than I am. But he’s focused on that.
We found it helpful to find out what was important to people and what people liked by looking at the reviews.
Reviews are massive on Amazon.
Looking through the reviews and seeing what other people are talking about when they talk about your products is so helpful because you can see things.
Like our games, it was always about laughter and having fun, and several of the games work well inter-generationally.
People would say, “The grandparents have been playing this with the grandkids, especially over Zoom in lockdown.”
That was important because that came through from the reviews. We thought we should highlight this in the listing because that’s important to people.
Talking about size is a learning.
All our games are pocket-sized by design. We designed them to be small because if you put them in your pocket, you can play them anywhere, and parents get lots more use out of them.
You can just take them along wherever you’re going. You use fewer environmental resources and they are easier to ship. It is generally good if they’re smaller, and in the reviews, people love the size of them.
But in our early reviews, size was hard to see online.
Everyone’s heard the story—you buy something online, you think it’s going to be a full-size sofa, and it arrives, and it’s a dollhouse sofa.
Unfortunately, when we first uploaded the game, people didn’t understand the size. The dimensions were on there, and we said what they were in the copy, but sometimes images are more powerful than the words.
Some people saw the image, clicked on it, and expected it to be a full-size board game. The contents are no different, but if you’re expecting to receive a giant board game and you receive a pocket-size one, you feel like there’s a problem.
We don’t want anyone to have a bad experience. If someone has thought it was one thing and they’ve received something else, that’s our fault.
We’ve done many things to be as explicit as possible about size. One of the main images is having the game in somebody’s hand.
We talk a lot on the listing about how it’s small, and you can take it anywhere. There’s pocket-size in the title.
So, we’ve worked hard to make sure people know what they are getting because when they know what they’re getting, they love it. They think it’s pocket size and brilliant that they can take it anywhere.
But you just don’t want people to have any surprises.
One more thing I was going to say about the Amazon listings.
Another helpful exercise is putting yourself in the shoes of somebody looking for whatever your product is. So, for us, maybe family games.
Go on Amazon, look for a family game, see what comes up and other stuff they’re going to be seeing, and then think about how you will stand out from them.
What makes you different? And highlight those points.
We haven’t cracked how to get good reviews as fast as possible. There’s no magic trick to it.
I think the sooner you can get reviews on your product; the sooner people will start trusting it and buying it.
It’s hard because unless people are buying it, there’s no one to leave reviews.
So that generally has been quite a slow process for us for new products. But we do have that brand association now, so someone might buy it because they’ve heard of one of the other games.
One of the biggest challenges is getting those first dozen reviews. And we haven’t cracked it.
My only advice is to make a great product that people will love and will enjoy. And then, eventually, you’ll get those good reviews. But if anyone else’s got any excellent hacks with that, I’d love to know.
Focus on getting genuine Amazon reviews
Can’t you cheat? Can’t you just get a hundred of your friends to buy every new game and leave a review, or is that super dodgy?
It just feels wrong. I don’t know. It’s a tricky one because that’s not what Amazon wants.
Amazon doesn’t want your friends writing reviews. And they’ve got magical algorithms that can work everything out.
I’d be very nervous.
I’m sure they could work out who knows each other. It’s a bit of a dangerous game. We’re still working on how to speed it up.
Well, this is one for the community, then. They can come back to us and say, “Right. We’ve got it for Hazel. We’ve got it cracked. This is what we did.”
So maybe we’ll push that on social media and see if we can get something useful coming back to you.
That would be amazing. Genuine reviews as quickly as possible is the goal.
Can you put a little message in with the parcel to say, “Please review us? We’d love feedback. And if you do, here are two pounds off your next purchase or something.”
I’m so reluctant. I worked at Which? Magazine, which does product testing, undercover investigations, and genuine, proper reviews with lab testing.
The Which? Review is the top standard for a review.
It’s instilled within me this real sense of moral duty when it comes to reviews. It’s got to be an honest review.
I think you’re right, though—you could do things. I’m comfortable incentivising people who would leave a review anyway but need a little extra nudge.
But there’s this big light bulb in my head saying fake reviews is the devil. If we can find an ethical way to get genuine reviews fast, that will just make my dreams come true.
On the point about building on Amazon, one of the things that get discussed is that because Amazon often handles quite a lot of the grunt work, it can be expensive.
So how many units at what kind of price point would you have to sell for it to be a viable model?
Because if you were selling toothpicks for a penny each and you weren’t selling that many, it would probably not be, I’m imagining.
So how would you do the sums to know whether it works for your business?
You will get better margins if you sell an original product on Amazon
Yeah, sure. I knew you would ask me about the numbers, so I’ve gone and looked at our margins to offer a worked example. But I don’t know if there’s a formula for what price we can offer.
I guess, in terms of margins, we make about a 40% gross profit margin. I can tell you how it breaks down, but that’s very high on Amazon.
It’s because we’ve got an original product that we’ve invented ourselves that doesn’t use expensive manufacturing materials. It’s just cards. But all the value of it is in the intellectual property. It’s the content on the cards and the writing.
It’s like a book. The value is not the paper. It’s this what’s written on it.
I think we’ve got pretty good margins for Amazon. I think you’re more likely to get those if you’ve got something original that you’ve created yourself. You can’t be undercut. You’ve not got many people competing in the same space, which is the challenge.
Five years ago, when I set up the company, there were many adverts about people selling on Amazon, saying you can make hundreds of thousands of pounds, using this tool to find out what products aren’t selling and what you can sell for a bit cheaper.
And that’s made lots of people lots of money.
For the long term, to have a sustainable Amazon business that will keep going, you must create new products, constantly manufacture, and constantly find small gaps in the market.
And as soon as you’ve got it working well, someone else is going to say, “Oh, I can do that for a penny cheaper.”
When you’re competing on cost, that’s always going to be a challenge.
I think we’re fortunate in that our games are original.
You can make other games, and we have a lot of competition, but it’s not the same product. With lots of consumables, you’re competing with the same kind of product, which is a challenge.
But has anyone tried to copy?
Do you have to worry about copycats, especially once you’ve got success?
I don’t lose sleep over it because no game is truly original. I think all games are evolutions of other games
To make Randomise, I picked up all the bits of my favourite party games, Charades, Articulate and Pictionary, putting a new twist on them by creating these random identities where you get three different cards.
It might be a confused octopus eating spaghetti or an angry beaver playing the drums.
I added that layer of randomness on top of what was already three established mechanics: drawing, describing, or acting it out.
Randomise has got the best of all worlds and elevates it to another level.
I think for us, we’re lucky we’ve had some good hits and games people love. Our games are naturally viral once they’re out there because you’ve got to play them with three or four people.
We’ve sold a quarter of a million games now, and all those games are out there getting played and advertising games to other people.
If someone would come along now and make another version, I think it wouldn’t be ideal, but I’d focus on making the next new best thing.
Creativity is about making connections
The next big hit.
How often do you have to bring up new games, and once you’ve had a hit, is there extraordinary pressure to try and make another hit again and again?
That’s funny because I was just thinking back. I’d made a game before Randomise that was cards that had things from the seaside you had to act out.
I came home to my husband and said, “Chris, I’ve made this great game. It’s a seaside acting game—things from the seaside you have to act out.”
He replied, “I’m not sure that’s strong enough.”
I cried, “I’ve made this great game, Chris. How can you not love it? It’s seaside acting.”
He says, “Why don’t you try again?”
I tried again to improve it, and I came up with Randomise, which sells many copies.
So don’t give up on your first idea.
After I made Randomise and got it all up and running, I thought of my business as Randomise. Now I’ve made this thing. I’m going to sell it.
I then had my son, and I had to think about making another game.
Is this something I could do again, or is this a one-off thing that I happened to make and do well?
It took a little while.
We had a full board game we got excited about, but we couldn’t get it to that great level. It was good, and people enjoyed it, but we couldn’t get it to the level that we could say, “This is the best thing. People need this.”
We spent quite a lot of time on that one but paused it.
Then two years after Randomise, we brought out two games, Soundiculous and The Pretender.
And Soundiculous is now our best seller by miles.
I don’t think it’s taken over Randomise yet because Randomise had five years and Soundiculous three years, but it’s going to.
In the next few months, it will overtake Randomise for cumulative sales.
I think after having done those, I could say, “Oh yeah, this is just a thing.”
Creativity is a thing that you can practice, get better at, and keep. We’ve all got creativity inside of us.
When we’re children, we’ve got no fear about spending time painting and experimenting, tapping into that creativity. I think it’s only when we get older that we lose that bit.
I remember I didn’t take an art GCSE because my mom said, “Oh, you can’t guarantee yourself an A in that because it’s all subjective. So, I’d just leave it.”
And being quite studious, I thought, “Oh yeah, better do the objective things so I can get As.” And from that point, I think I just stopped thinking of myself as creative.
It’s been an absolute joy over the last five years, tapping back into that creativity, permitting myself to think of myself as a creative person and to be able to explore that.
People sometimes ask where the ideas come from.
I think the first thing is to stay curious and keep looking at what’s going on.
We play many other games, but outside of games—culture, movies, books, exhibitions, galleries—and noticing things. Keeping your eyes open, noticing what’s going on, soaking it all in, getting all that inspiration, and welcoming it.
The second thing I need is that time and space to let connections be made because so much creativity is about connecting. By joining things together, it turns into something completely different.
I love swimming in the sea—a time where I’m not thinking about anything else.
That’s sometimes when the connections come.
It’s the classic thing where good ideas always come to you when you’re in the shower.
And why is that? Because your brain has got time to join the dots and put things together.
Set time for creativity, but understand it may come from anywhere
Do you set specific windows of time then?
Do you have a rule where you have two hours a day to be in your thoughts, or is it not as rigorous as that?
I have tried. I’ve tried to do creative Fridays, spending Friday just doing creative stuff.
But there are two minor issues.
I don’t know if it’s my personality, but if I must do something, I don’t want to do it.
I can find joy in every aspect of my work, even if I’m doing annual accounts—there’s a joy to be had in that. Once I get into it, I love looking at the numbers and working it all out. Any aspect of my company I can get joyful about and enjoy.
I used to write at Which? Magazine, so maybe it’s a deadlines thing.
But if I have something blocked in my diary which says, “I must do this today.” Something in my brain goes, “I don’t want to do it.”
It’s the weirdest thing because even if I’ve got a day blocked out to make new games, suddenly, I get to it. I’m thinking, “Oh, I don’t know if I want to make new games today.”
Essentially where I am now is that I try and block out time for creativity, but I also must grab creativity when it comes.
Often the creative stuff comes when I’m thinking about other aspects of my business. So much of it comes from when we’re talking about our customers. When we’re really in that zone of who we’re talking to, that’s when a lot of the good stuff comes out.
Now I know when creativity comes, and I make the most of it, but creativity is a muscle and can be practised.
I enjoy those creative Fridays when I get into them.
Maybe there is a little bit of fear of what would happen if I don’t come up with anything good. What if I spend all day and Chris says my ideas are rubbish?
Google only works if you know the questions you want to ask
I must ask you about Dragons’ Den because this is such a cool experience. I know that you didn’t go on to take funding, but I think many people who run businesses wonder, does it give you that much exposure?
I know it was a long time ago but tell me about that whole experience and what it did for the business for you and your confidence.
It seems like so long ago now. I guess two and a half years ago we filmed it, and two years later, it went out.
People would always say, “Oh, you should go on Dragons’ Den.” And I just thought that’d be nice. But I never got around to applying.
It was them who approached us and said, “You’ve got a small business. Would you like to go on Dragons’ Den?” And I thought, OK.
Luckily, we’d been profitable from day one. We didn’t have high costs. We were making a profit from the first year and could reinvest that profit into growing the business.
We’d been growing quite nicely, organically.
I didn’t go on it for the money. What I did go on was for the advice.
We did some soul searching when they contacted us and thought we don’t necessarily need the money, but we would love that expertise, if we could get a good dragon that could help us with international growth.
Google’s amazing. I’ve built my business on Googling stuff—I taught myself business accounting. Everything you want to know, you can just basically get from Google.
But you don’t know what you don’t know. I can’t google something when I have no idea what I should be asking.
Getting an investor on board with a wealth of experience would’ve opened those doors for us and given us a shortcut to a lot of that information that we were grappling for when it came to international stuff.
We decided to go on, and we got an offer of investment. It wasn’t from the two dragons that we were hoping for, and it also wasn’t a great deal in the end.
We didn’t think it made good financial sense.
In terms of exposure, it was brilliant to go on there and to have all those kinds of people see our games and hear our story. That was amazing.
It went live a few days before Christmas. It was just one week too late—it was too late to order from Amazon.
We’d thought maybe we could see a massive increase in sales, and we didn’t. It was a few hundred copies that we sold on the day.
However, there’s ongoing brand awareness with people being aware of us. They might see our games and think they’ve seen that somewhere.
I think that’s stuff you can’t measure. I didn’t regret it.
I like talking about my business in case you’ve noticed!
I was on Dragons’ Den to talk about the business for an hour and a half. It’s funny because what they show on TV is 10 minutes, and it looks like I walk in and say, “I make games. I’d like some money. Can I have some money, please?”
And they say, “Yeah, have some money.” And then I reply, “No, thanks.”
Which is excellent TV.
They were asking loads of good questions that I loved answering. And there was a long negotiation period between Jenny and me, trying to work out whether we could make it work and what she would be bringing to it. All that stuff gets cut.
But I loved it. It was a brilliant experience and so much fun.
Nice. That sounds cool. And I’ve watched the clip, and I thought, “Wow, she’s done so well.”
I know. It looks surprising to turn them down, but it didn’t feel that at the time.
Business success doesn’t need to be all about profit
What are your ambitions for this business?
I mean, when I was thinking about games, do you want to be bigger than Uno? What do you have as your big lofty, hairy, audacious goal, I think they say in business land?
Life’s great, to be honest. What is our big, hairy, audacious goal?
Pretty much to keep doing what we’re doing, make more awesome games and get our games to more people. That’s the key to it.
Keep making good stuff and using that creativity, keep making fun new things, and get to more people.
We are expanding internationally in US, Australia, and Europe.
We’re printing 14 different language versions of some of our games this year. Six different languages and three different games. We’re signing them off today—it’s an epic project we’ve taken, and it’s exciting getting to reach new people in different places.
But the biggest goal I’d say is our impact outside our company.
During lockdown last year was when the Games for Good programme stepped up. We’d always given games to charity, but we realised the value of it last year.
We ended up doing lots of different kinds of game donation. I think that’s the area I would like to increase.
Our business is at a stage now where we can live comfortably, and we’ve got everything we need. We’ve got a roof over our heads and food to eat.
Hopefully, we’re going to get to Cornwall in the camper van tomorrow!
I want to grow the company bigger, and it looks like it will grow pretty much whatever I do. I always thought I’d run a charity rather than a business when I was younger. I didn’t ever think I’ll end up running a business.
I’m interested in what can you do with running a business that can have an impact and contribute to the redistribution of wealth, supporting the causes you think are important.
If anything, that’s the area I’m most excited about, seeing what our company can do for good. I don’t know what exactly that looks like.
I think the charitable money in the games is increasing through working in partnership with different charities. I’m not dreaming of a Ferrari or anything.
That’s not me. I’m content.
For me, success means getting to spend the time that you want to with the people you love and being able to choose every day what you want to spend your time on.
I love growing my company. I love my team and what we’ve made, and I would choose to spend more time on that. I value having the choice.
I’m interested in how we can grow the impact and bring more people joy, by making more good games.
But no, I don’t have any big, hairy yacht plans.
Has Hazel inspired you?
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