Bob Moog: He Who Laughs, Lasts
The cofounder of University Games discusses two keys to success: smiles and cash flow.
Bob Moog, MBA ‘84, is CEO of University Games. The San Francisco company employs 70 people and sells 300 products, including 60 board games and other kid-friendly hits such as Colorforms and Glow-in-the-Dark Stars.
In 10 words or fewer, what is the big idea behind your business?
An entertainment company focused on learning and fun for all ages.
What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
It is easier to be critical than correct. It was originally said by Benjamin Disraeli, former Prime Minister of the U.K., but my father must have said it to me hundreds of times growing up. For example, I would come home from school and say a teacher is dumb because she gave me a bad grade. My dad would say, “Well, maybe she was right. Did you proofread it?” Or I would overgeneralize. I would say, “No one ever listens to me!” or “Everyone is going to see ‘Easy Rider!’” He would also say, “Generalizations are generally wrong.”
It is very easy to criticize but it is very hard to be correct and figure out how to move things forward. Being correct when you are making decisions or analyzing facts is difficult because the voice of judgment takes over. Most people go straight to criticizing an idea and saying why it won’t work, rather than being objective and accurate about the plusses and minuses. Most people are partisan about everything in their lives. If you can be open to new information, you will have a happier life overall.
What was the most difficult lesson you have learned on the job?
People will let you down. Some people don’t honor contracts or employment agreements. It has been painful for me to learn that. You want to trust people’s words and integrity but you have to have a plan B in case people do not do what they say they are going to do. I start every relationship believing we are going to go forward and build something great, but often the other side has a different agenda.
When we raised venture money I believed our investors were aligned with what we were trying to do, and it became evident they cared about themselves first. Many things went wrong. We were closing a round of funding where we were selling 20% of our company. The closing check showed up $30,000 short. They deducted their legal fees without discussing it with us first. I told my attorney I was not going to sign the contracts. The investor said, “Bob, are you really going to hold up a $3 million funding over a lousy $30,000?” I told him, “Yea, and we might not do it at all. I’m signaling to you that I’m a businessman who crosses his T’s, and you are showing me you are disingenuous.” We really needed that money, and it was a big risk to take. We waited three hours for another check to arrive and then we signed the deal.
What advice would you give other entrepreneurs on how to build a great business?
Our motto at University Games is: “Learn the rules and then break the rules.” A lot of entrepreneurs are comfortable breaking the rules before they learn what they are. To be successful you should first know the best practices, the industry’s history, the current climate. Look to industry leaders to learn what they are doing but do not simply adopt best practices. If you do that you will always be behind. If you learn how to break the rules you will go where no one else has gone. Also, if you really want to make it, you need to work really hard for the first two years. Then work harder. No one seems to follow this. I see all these young companies installing foosball tables and big screen TVs. And don’t be afraid to be creative. We sell a lot of board games in car washes and airports and luggage stores. Those are not obvious places for distribution.
What inspires you — how do you come up with your best ideas?
The first thing I always do is think about the consumer. For us it’s usually a mom or grandmother. I think, if I were a 25- to 45-year-old woman, what would be interesting to me? How do I spend my time? Where do I go? What do I read? I look at fashion magazines and change the colors of our boxes as fashions change. If lime green is hot then I change our packaging. I spend a lot of time at parties talking to women. I ask where they go on vacation, what are their kids like, etc. If you talk to 10-15 people you get a picture of what’s going on. I also spend a lot of time watching people shop.
What is your greatest achievement?
I haven’t had it yet. I am working on a musical. I have no background other than playing the beer keg in the Stanford band. I can’t read music and I sing out of tune, but I wanted to write a musical and so far I’ve written 12 songs.
What do you consider your biggest failure?
When we started University Games my cofounder and I said we have three goals: always be profitable, maintain our friendship, and have fun every day. We haven’t succeeded in having fun every day. Other than that I don’t think about failure. I’m always redefining success. Business school people often define success by what grades they get or what job they get. When I was in school I defined it by how much I could help people laugh.
What values are important to you in business?
Integrity. Doing what you say you are going to do. I have relationships in business that go back 25-30 years and most of the business we have done together is on a handshake. With some people that means more than any other contract. I did a deal with Disney and they broke contract. I called to talk about it and they told me: “Contracts are intentions. If the business opportunity of breaking the contract is greater than the cost of breaking the contract, we will break the contract.” To me that is not integrity. I also think quality of work is important. These days, people are OK being sloppy.
What impact would you like to have on the world?
I have three daughters. I’d like them to live happy, satisfied lives and help other people to live happy, satisfied lives. And I hope the work we do becomes part of people’s memories of being happy, smiling, and enjoying life.
What was your first paying job?
When I was eight I started a neighborhood newspaper called The Moog Gazette. It was two cents a copy and I wrote everything and ran sales, marketing, and delivery. I did it for three years. In high school I drove an ice cream truck around St. Louis. I learned how important it is to smile and to be extroverted. I also learned basic cash flow. I had to buy the ice cream each morning with my own money. I came home the first day and told my dad, “Look! I made $30!” and he said, “Well, how much will you have left after you buy the ice cream for tomorrow?” I was 17.
What is the best business book you have read?
Jumping the Curve, by Nicholas Imparato and Oren Harari. It helps you understand not how to look at current trends but how to start a new curve by innovating.
What businessperson do you most admire?
There are many people I admire. Claude Rosenberg built companies in the 1930s and 1940s. He used his success in business to make changes in the Bay Area. He also has a Stanford MBA. I also admire certain things about Richard Branson, Steve Jobs, and Jack Welch.
What is the most valuable thing you took away from your time at Stanford?
The friendships — and I don’t mean networking or connections — are by far the most valuable thing. One valuable thing I learned was critical path thinking. Whenever I get into a new situation I build a chart of all the things that could happen, both good and bad. If X happens, how will we react? How can we be prepared for it?
What do you think is the greatest innovation in the past decade?
I don’t have an iPod or iPhone. I think Skype is really cool. I have daughters in England and Thailand and it’s neat that I can keep in touch with them over Skype. In 1966 I went to Chicago, and The Museum of Science and Industry had a TV where you could see a person on the other side and talk to them. I sat there for an hour trying to absorb the concept of what I was looking at. It reminded me of Dick Tracy wrist radios. I told my parents I wanted to buy one of those. They told me, maybe someday. Today, you can do that with Skype.
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