My Interview with ThinkFun’s Bill Ritchie and Andrea Barthello

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ThinkFun-Lead
Husband and wife team Andrea Barthello and Bill Ritchie are not only the founders of highly successful ThinkFun but two of the most fascinating people you are going to meet. 
They are brilliant, caring and dynamic as individuals and as a couple. They were recently featured in a Wired Magazine article by Cade Metz, “The 75-Year Saga Behind a Game That Teaches Preschoolers to Code,” I thought it was past time to do an interview.  Here is my conversation with Bill and Andrea:

Richard:

I find you to be extremely unique and incredibly smart (okay brilliant) as individuals and as a couple.  What role do you think your relationship has played in your company and your products?  Is it a manifestation of who you are?

Andrea:

Interesting one – thanks for the compliment!  The fact that Bill and I are very different from each other and that we are good at different things – as well as the fact that we approach problems in very different ways has been incredibly important.  We are approaching our 30th year in marriage and in business – because of who we are individually and as a couple we have problem solved and remained curious about the world of business, products, company dynamics and life in general.    Neither of us likes to fail – we will work thru a situation until we succeed in coming out the other side or recognize that a pivot of some sort is what makes the most sense.

At this point in our business and our personal lives we are more and more confident in each others abilities and instincts – we try to make sure we remember the lessons we have learned over the years and apply those learnings forward – What a gift to have been in this business for this long and to be happily married with an incredible family – grateful we are. 

Bill:

Right.  What Andrea is really saying is that we are both really stubborn.  And we share the same core values.  That helped us build and maintain a mutual admiration society with each other even during the tough times.

What is also important is that we each are mission driven… not necessarily the same vision, but it keeps each of us humming.  I continue to believe, always have, that games can be used for the greater good… Andrea has been getting more involved with mentoring.  Overall the ThinkFun brand is very much a natural extension of our relationship, certainly.

Richard:

One of your biggest creations was your son who has worked both on the physical and the digital sides of play.  Do you think that he is emblematic of the future of play?  Is he finding lots of other people out there who are like him in finding play to be a seamless digital / physical experience?  

 

Andrea:

Well the real story is that we are most proud of both of our sons – each has weighed in on our business in their own ways.  Sam created MathDice and then Bill and Mike together evolved it to be an actual tournament – and its gone on from there.   When Sam graduated from college he asked us if he could program Rush Hour for the iphone – he wanted to teach himself to code – well he did, however he became such a good coder and strategist that he went on to his own adventures – then ended up at Twitter and now has his own business called PaddleGuru – an online registration system for paddle sports that will evolve into other areas.

Mike has just joined our business in the role of analytics in the social, digital and online space – he has an amazing mind for connecting the dots and coming up with unique approaches to complex problems – and he brings a smart and fresh approach to the evolution of our business.

Maybe for each of the boys the fact that they were always around problem solving and critical thinking games sunk in to their everyday lives – they are each unique, confident and witty.  

Let’s see – seamless digital/physical experience for play – Mike likes the NY Times crossword puzzle and likes to write it – online is not as appealing for the crosswords.  He was and may still play words with friends.  Sam likely doesn’t play too many games – but I have seem him enjoy family card games – and he was really into Settlers – maybe each of them spend enough time on the computer that they prefer some hands on games.  I think they might say it’s good to have a balance. 

At think fun we feel the physical games should offer something you can’t play as well online and the online should offer something you can’t seem to get out of the physical game.

Bill:

How can I add to that? 

Richard:

You are by no means finished but at this point but I think you can begin thinking in terms of your legacy.  What is your legacy vies-a-vies the children who have enjoyed your products and the industry for which you have dedicated time and resources?

Bill:

What a great question.  We came into the toy industry from an unusual angle back in 1985… we wanted to champion the ideas of “recreational mathematicians”.  These were people that I knew about because of my own father and his friends from Bell Laboratories, super smart people who believed that toys and games could be used to demonstrate deep science principles.  Right from the start, we’ve always said “Our mission is to translate the best ideas of the wackiest geniuses into simple puzzles and games to be played by all the boys and girls of the world.” 

About 10 years ago we started working on a bigger idea, that we could leverage our games somehow into organized programs and use them to teach these deep principles themselves.  This is a long-term idea, we have been working on it steadily since 2003, the pieces are finally starting to fall into place.  We have also gotten very lucky to have STEM and Coding become trends!  And there are now online communities of people who talk to each other and share ideas together across the Internet, who support the kind of learning experiments that we do. 

I’m not ready to think legacy until we have created programs that achieve this goal.  We need to do this, and we also need to successfully re-engineer ThinkFun into a social media company that makes and distributes traditional games.  These are turbulent times, traditional toy and game companies will have to change, we have a plan for how we want to accomplish this.  When ThinkFun gets transformed, if we really nail it, that will be our legacy.  Once we do that, then we will have done something worthy of that kind of talk.

Andrea: 

Bill is indeed a visionary – and I am all in on what we are building – couldn’t have said it better myself!

Richard:

What is the toy industry going to look like in 10 years both on the production and selling sides?  Can you imagine a company that does not currently exist but will in the year 2020?

Bill:

I’ve put a lot of thought into five years out, but you’re way ahead of me with 10 years! 

Actually, I believe that right now is a pretty amazing time… to me it feels like 1994 just before the Internet took off.   There’s a firestorm of new ideas out there for how to change your life, mainly through new technology.  And our social attitudes have become very accepting; we as a society have gotten comfortable living with fast paced change as a fact of life.  

The biggest specific change right now is that the world is moving to mobile.  This is huge, and it is just getting started.  It’s not just a phone or a tablet or Google Glass, it’s a new personalized way of socializing with the world, people are just learning how to do it.  This will keep changing everything for a long time.

To answer you specifically… Retail:   In the next five years we will see a complete merging, or at least a mashing, of traditional and online retail… the system is broken now and something new has to emerge.  The upshot of this is that all of us, manufacturers, retailers, everyone… we must develop our own social relationships with our own network and fan base.  A new world is starting to emerge about how to gain exposure in the new mobile age… and all of us who plans to survive will need to figure it out.

Manufacturing:  This is a tough situation we are in now.  We rely on products made halfway around the world, prices are customarily rising and there is not a pot of gold at the end of that rainbow.  These ways aren’t going to sustain for five or ten years out, something is going to change no matter what.  Ideally if it can do so, manufacturing will become more customizable, fluid and individualized in a similar way to retail.  That’s my prediction anyway, that this will happen. 

This is one reason people are so excited about 3-D Printing.  The best of these companies now are starting to think of themselves as the new age replacement for the TV… front and center in the living room.  Is this good for the toy industry?  That’s up to us.  New ideas are flying, which is great because they have to.  Five years is not that far away! 

Finally… Yes I can picture a new company that does not exist now but that could do so in 2020.  Imagine a company setting up shop in the cloud, using social media to market Multi Media Play Experiences that can be downloaded to families and built at home (3-D printed and paper printed and whatever else, done by the customer), then wired into the family and friends network, ready for action when needed.  Product offerings would be customizable, continual improvement through feedback loops, information driven.   No UPS truck, no warehouse, no inventory, no chargebacks, cash up front. 

Richard:

What non-ThinkFun games or toys do you have in your house?  We won’t tell anyone

Andrea:

We have Settlers, Legos, Cards, some amazing wood puzzles from puzzle collectors – but we have to fess up here and say that we don’t play a lot of games at home – we like to get outside!

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