Alumni Profile: Molly Zeff ’16, Co-founder and CEO, Flying Leap Games
Molly Zeff and Angus V. Stoudt the Penguin (Flying Leap Games mascot) at the UK Games Expo, a 40,000 person convention in Birmingham, U.K.
If there is any career path akin to Robert Frost’s advice about “taking the road less traveled” it is entrepreneurship. As the Co-Founder and CEO of Flying Leap Games, Molly Zeff ‘16, knows firsthand what it feels like to embrace this unpredictable, nonlinear lifestyle. While much of her success can be attributed to her outgoing personality and persistence, she also credits her time at SOM with providing her with much of the confidence, basic skills, and peer mentor network needed to sustain and grow a successful venture.
Prior to pursuing her MBA, Molly spent over ten years working in or consulting with social enterprises and non-profits. This career experience cemented her interest in companies with a social mission, which is what she strives to deliver with Flying Leap Games: games that bring families and friends (or even complete strangers) together to have fun and enjoy each other’s company. She has been excited to learn that her company’s first game, Wing It, been used by everyone from school psychologists in Boston to a marriage counselor in Hawaii, to ESL and theater teachers in Kenya and South Korea.
Molly and her co-founder, Jon Cannon, have also recently heard very touching stories about how Wing It has brought people together, including this one from a customer’s email: “I wanted to let you know: a while ago I bought Wing It for my little brother, who has a mild learning/social disability and he absolutely loves the game. It is so hard to connect with him or find things to do with him, but this is one thing we always do together. Every time we see him he brings the game -- just this week he visited from LA and brought it along. So thank you so much for designing it! It's amazing.”
That social mission seems to permeate throughout the game industry, with retailers who wish to see entrepreneurs (in this case, new publishers) succeed. Many of Molly’s retailers act as mentors, frequently providing advice and honest feedback about her company’s products. In fact, mentorship is something Molly sees as an absolute necessity for entrepreneurs.
“Find really strong mentors in your specific industry or product. And find life mentors who will coach you when things are really, really tough. It’s not always helpful to hear positive statements when you are overwhelmed.
It’s more helpful to have a mentor who can talk through these situations with you. You need people who believe in you as a person and who can push you through those harder times.”
Flying Leap Games did well early on as a company, executing both a successful Kickstarter campaign in 2017 and then growing from 11 to 60 stores in just 4 weeks, which led them to run out of their first printing rapidly. Molly and Jon put their sociability to good use while fundraising and ultimately raised 117% of their Kickstarter goal. However, Molly reiterated how rare this type of initial Kickstarter success is since only 26% of first time game Kickstarters succeed, and how important it is for a new venture to be creative on making ends meet. Flying Leap Games started with one product, Wing It, and is now looking to put out its third game this fall and will be bringing a fourth game to market next spring. Molly and Jon realize that they will have to put in endless hours of unpaid or low-paying work to replicate their initial success with Wing It, which Molly has now promoted in nearly 30 cities all over the US and 15 cities in the UK, personally visiting board game stores and exhibiting at some of the largest of the 400+ game conventions every year.
Since their Kickstarter campaign, Molly has focused on trips and regular calls to local FLGS (Friendly Local Game Stores), i.e. small retailers and local
chains, to generate interest in selling Flying Leap Game’s products. By March 2017, Wing It was on the shelves of eleven stores in just four cities in four states. She had already committed to going to the Game Manufacturer’s Association (GAMA) trade show in Reno, Nevada in an effort to expand their circle of interested retailers outside of the northeastern US and St. Louis, where she and Jon are from. She kept the trip cost efficient by staying at a hostel, and taking advantage of their discount offer: $10 for reciting the ten principles of Burning Man (an event she had never attended). Given that at that point she only had just over her monthly rent in the bank, having used up most of her savings, she spent some time on the plane ride memorizing the principles and rattled them off at midnight when she arrived at that wildly odd hostel in Reno.
A flight delay resulted in Molly missing the first night of networking, but rather than just heading to her hotel for the following night, Molly looked at retailers’ schedules and saw they were all gathered at a bar, so she set out to meet them. That single night changed the course of their company entirely. Armed with some groceries and a copy of Wing It, Molly struck up a conversation with a group of retailers. As Molly describes it, she “met the right people at the right time by accident” because as it turned out, the group of retailers she sat down with was a group of tightly-knit individuals with a strong network.
After chatting with Matt - a retail store owner in Vancouver, WA - he looked at the game Wing It while Molly ate her block of cheese (her grocery store purchase). After briefly examining the game, Matt asked, “Are you on Paypal? I’d Paypal you for ten of these. I could sell five right now.” Considering that an order of ten games would be a large order for the company at that point, this was music to Molly’s ears. Matt got everyone’s attention and the group played a round of Wing It. This was followed with more rounds of playing and free-flowing advice; calling over distributors, who are key for getting games into stores; and even getting one retailer out of bed to come check it out [That particular retailer, Andrew Zorowitz, has become a regular advisor to the business].. The group kept at it until 2:15 a.m. Unbeknownst to Molly, Matt went on to tell other retailers about that night and their game as well. It was only after a retailer she had never met, John Stephens, told her the next morning at the convention, “You’re the one with the cheese. I know you; I’m going to buy your game,” that Molly quickly realized what a fortuitous decision her trip to that bar turned out to be.
Due to her new connections at the GAMA trade show, Wing It began selling all over the country the next day and sold every day for four weeks straight. Then an Australian distributor bought 275 copies and they ran out of stock.
By then, Flying Leap Games had an order for 48 games that they couldn’t fill. They were faced with backorders as they quickly got ready for a reprint of 5,000 copies and struggled for weeks with complex contract negotiations with their shipping company. Running out of product, being unable to ride the wave of excitement due to shipping delays, delaying with contract negotiations when you can’t even afford a lawyer - these are the type of challenges many new entrepreneurs may be faced with, which is why it is essential to really believe in your dream because, as Molly shared, “Your motivation is more than just earning a paycheck, and reframing success to be about more than money, or a promotion at a big company, is key to being a successful entrepreneur.”
Molly also stressed how important making genuine connections during business school is, particularly for entrepreneurs. One of the aspects of Wing It that made the game so successful is its distinct branding and penguin mascot. Flying Leap Games’ art designer, Yuliya Kim, is the sister of one of Molly’s SOM classmates. Yuliya has also become the designer for another SOM venture, Triple Bottom Brewery, which shows how important these relationships can be.
In fact, Molly has found that her relationships with retailers are what keep the Flying Leap Games team going - both financially and psychologically. She feels very supported by her network and their willingness to give critical feedback on new products and ideas. One particular retailer in Oakland, whom Molly met at the bar during the GAMA trade show in Reno, said to Molly, “You just sat there at the bar with your cheese. You were really authentic.” By being herself and simply passing on her passion about her mission, products, and venture, Molly has ended up creating an incredible network of advisors who are always offering advice and feedback to ensure Flying Leap Games will continue to succeed.
When asked what final advice she would give for current entrepreneurs, Molly replied, “Use every tough moment as an opportunity to make magic happen. Let it push you to try something new, some new way of selling product or marketing you’ve never tried before.” She also stressed that entrepreneurs will ideally, “take a hard look at what skills you possess and put those to good use to make money. Knowing what kind of work you can do remotely can be your backup plan when you need it financially.”
And lastly, “utilize your time at SOM to develop strong relationships, especially with other entrepreneurs.” Molly credits many faculty with helping her to develop the knowledge necessary to pursue this career path, particularly Zoe Chance. Molly also stressed the importance of putting your health first. Entrepreneurs often feel guilty in taking a break, but investing in your well-being is a way to ensure your venture will be a success in the long-run.
So what’s up next for Flying Leap Games? Molly shared that they are planning another Kickstarter campaign this summer for their third game, “The Million Dollar Doodle,” a game inspired by entrepreneurship (think “Shark Tank” meets the game Telestrations). She is also currently reading Storynomics by Robert McKee and Thomas Gerace because she wants to be able to tell her venture’s journey through a vlog, which will focus on funny, inspiring stories related to “winging it” as an entrepreneur that will help other game publishers and entrepreneurs succeed.
Her company is still selling primarily to retail stores since they simply don’t yet have the capital necessary to pay for marketing that would connect them directly to individual buyers. This means Molly is actively looking at accelerators for help with raising the needed capital to expand marketing to individual consumers -- and they’re looking for marketing advisors as well. All in all, the team has been doing quite well; they just had their best months of the year in May and June, and Wing It is still constantly reaching new stores and continues to sell to current retail customers. Molly is currently doing two game store tours this month - one to 25 board game stores in the UK and one to 34 stores in Ohio and Michigan. Given that 10 new board games are released every single day, Molly has learned it’s an accomplishment to still be selling successfully in stores 1.5 years after first making it into retail, especially since many indie publishers never reach stores with their games.
It is clear that there are a lot of exciting updates to come, so to keep up-to-date on Flying Leap Games and what Molly is working on next, please follow their social media accounts on Twitter and Instagram. You can learn more about Wing It and purchase a copy on their website.