A few months back I was approached by Leslie Scott’s publicist about setting up an interview with Leslie regarding her book About Jenga. At the time I had no idea who Leslie Scott was or why I would be interested in a book about that I assumed to be a history book for a board game.
But, luckily for Leslie, her publicist had clearly done her homework and was on target with her pitch. I kept reading and found out that Leslie was the creator of the popular household game, Jenga, and her book is packed full of stories and lessons learned on her lifelong journey with the game. Leslie’s extraordinary experiences fit nicely with unique approach to content I try to provide here at The Fresh Peel.
Jenga is a game that has always intrigued me because of it’s simple complexity. It’s such a simple game to understand, but a complex game and somewhat stressful game to master. And Leslie’s story has taken many twists and turns, with many great lessons learned along the way. (Disclaimer: I received a free copy of About Jenga from the publisher.)
In this interview, I quiz Leslie on a variety of topics that she touches in the book, everything from her experience working at Intel to her intuitive understanding of the need to maintain the Jenga brand.
Also, Leslie’s publicist sent me a signed holiday edition of Jenga that is signed by Leslie herself. I’ll be randomly giving this away to anyone that comments at the the end of this post. You have until Friday, November 20th to leave your comment for a chance to win!
Q: Where did the idea for the game Jenga come from?
Leslie: Jenga was based on a game that my family devised in the mid-1970s using my then five-year-old brother’s wooden building blocks. We played this game within the family, and with friends, for several years before I decided to modify it, name it, manufacture it and take it to market in 1982.
Q: What triggered Jenga’s rise to its iconic status in the world of household games?
Leslie: This is a difficult question to answer in just one sentence as it begs further questions, such as what makes a good game in the first place, and even why do we play games at all? But in brief, I think Jenga satisfies all the basic requirements we have of a game. It demands skill, involves interaction with other players, provides suspense, and takes place within a finite period of time.
Q: In the book you stated that you were, “convinced that once buyers saw it, they would tumble over each other in their eagerness to put Jenga on the shelves in their shops.” That wasn’t exactly how things played out. What additional steps would you have taken in the beginning if you knew what you know now?
Leslie: I started a company with the sole purpose of taking Jenga to market. This meant that when I launched Jenga at the ’83 London Toy Fair, neither my company (Leslie Scott Associates) nor the product I was trying to sell had any name recognition in the business whatsoever. With hindsight I now know that it is exceedingly difficult for an unknown business to break into any market with an entirely novel product. At the time, I had naively assumed that the toy and gift business thrived on novelty. If I had been aware that this was not the case, I may have tried to license the game to an established company, one that had traction in the toy trade. But would they have been interested in this unknown game? Probably not.
Q: I was surprised to read that you worked for Intel for quite a long stint early on in your career. This was before Intel was the chip inside the world’s computers. How did this experience prepare you to become the creator of Jenga?
Leslie: Whether this was deliberate policy or not, in the early days, Intel fostered a culture of entrepreneurship within the company. By this I mean, employees were encouraged to take risks, and make their jobs their own. I discovered that I thrived in this environment. As Intel expanded and my job became (by comparison) a little more structured and lot more routine, I found I wanted to recreate the excitement of those early years, and did so by starting my own business; to put Jenga on the market.
Q: What lessons can we learn from games and gameplay that can be applied to the world of business?
Leslie: Games can provide an environment in which we can test ideas, or carry out thought experiments without risk of causing any real harm. There are lessons that one can learn from playing games that might be applied to the world of business, providing great care is taken never to fall into the trap of considering business as ‘ just a game.’ It is not. Business is real life, with real life consequences.
Q: How did you come up with the name Jenga? How important do you think the name has been to the games success?
Leslie: I wanted to give the game a name that would not mean anything, at least not in English, so that in due course, the definition of the word Jenga would be my game. I was born and raised in East Africa, speaking Swahili, from which I ‘borrowed’ the word Jenga. Jenga means ‘build!’ in Swahili. The fact that Jenga is now synonymous with the game (to the extent even that the word is frequently used as a metaphor for a certain type of instability), is certainly very important to the continuing success of the game.
Q: You have had some interesting experiences with trademarks and patents throughout the course of your career. What advice would you give to those interested in legally protecting their work?
Leslie: If you have invented a new device (for example, a new kind of randomizer); then patent it, if you can afford to do so. I filed a patent pending on Jenga, but could not afford to take it any further. If the word(s) you have chosen to name your product are not descriptive of the product; then trademark the name. And always copyright your rules.
Q: When it comes to branding Jenga, you said that there were, “two key moments in the history of the game, that were decisions as a result of an intuitive understanding of the art of branding.” Can you tell us about those two key moments?
Leslie: The first ‘key moment’ came when I refused to allow either Irwin Toy or Hasbro Corporation to drop Jenga as the name of the game. Both companies wished to acquire the rights to the game (Irwin for Canada, Hasbro for the rest of the world) at a time when I was up to my ears in debt from having published and marketed the game for three years entirely on my own. Both companies loved the game, but both ‘hated the name because it didn’t mean anything’. It was a potential deal breaker, but I stuck to my guns.
The second moment came when I begged Hasbro not to publish a range of ‘Jenga wooden puzzles and games’. I was certain that this would be entirely missing the point that Jenga was known as a very specific game.
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