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How We Built a $33k/Month Business by Gamifying Positive Communication

I’ve always been incredibly passionate about self-development. The idea actually came to me back in 2004 – to create a self-development tool that would be easy, fun, and most importantly, accessible to everyone. In 2015, we combined the ideas of all three of our founders to create Totem, the communication game.

Our first sale from beyond our network actually came after a researcher in psychology shared our game on his LinkedIn profile. From then on, our game sold to therapists, coaches, and HR managers. Fortunately, we were able to sign a distribution contract to be sold in over 100 stores with our first 100 games printed.

Totem improves communication by exposing players to a diverse set of adjectives that are more positive and uplifting than the words we would generally use in casual conversation. Younger players are also given the chance to expand their vocabulary by learning new words as they play.

To this day, the most impactful and heartbreaking experience we had with a customer was when we received a call from a woman who worked at a funeral home. She had lost her daughter and son-in-law in a car accident. She played Totem with her loved ones before the tragic accident had occurred, giving her the opportunity to express her love to them. She wanted to say, “Thank you,” and asked to sell the game at the funeral home she worked at.

How did you validate the idea?

We validated the idea with prototypes that we tested within our team and with groups of friends. We did 2 preliminary versions. The first one was created with excel on plain white paper. For the second version, we created cards out of thinner carton with 2 colors.

Did you have any experience/expertise in the area?

The three of us on the founding team don’t have a background in psychology, but we’ve each leveraged our individual skills and passions to build the game into what it is. Long before we launched Totem, Tessa had already been linking animals to qualities in her painting. Carol has always been a very bold and creative thinker. And for me, I’ve always been incredibly passionate about self-development.

Have you raised any money? How much?

Initially, we were able to get a $25,000 loan for press and communication. But truthfully, we didn’t pay ourselves for any of the hours and work we put in for almost 2 years.

Who are your customers and how do you attract them?

Totem is quite popular among women ages 35 to 55. We are investing more into growing our brand on more channels as well as with Amazon advertising. We have categorized our customers into 4 main groups and our game appeals to each group for a different set of reasons.

Counselors and therapists use Totem to break down barriers of communication, establish a therapeutic alliance with kids, explore coping strategies, and to build their patients’ confidence.

Teachers and school professionals use Totem to help kids connect with their classmates, to build self-esteem, and to deepen their understanding of the impact their words can have on others

Managers, coaches, and HR staff members see Totem as an opportunity to remind team members of their strengths and to make them feel appreciated by their colleagues

Parents use Totem as a fun way to spend more time with the entire family while getting everyone to bond on a deeper level

How did you fund the idea initially?

Our founding team decided to fund the idea on our own by investing around $2000 into printing out 100 games. Once we had a better sense of how well the game would do on the market, we invested about $15,000 of our own money to get the first 4000 games printed.

Where did you meet your cofounder/founding team?

My wife, Tessa, is the graphic designer behind the brand and our products. For years, we have been working together to come up with ways to help people see the best in themselves. Carol Rancourt was a close friend of ours already.

Any tips for finding first employees?

Make sure you surround yourself with people who are inspired! And most importantly, they must also share your WHY. This means that their values align with yours. They must also be the right fit for your business, in terms of the skills they can bring into your company to drive you closer to your goals.

What is the most common service you sell?

There are some companies that want to make sure their team-building activity will be a success so they enlist us to run it for about half a day, just to make sure everything runs smoothly.

What motivated you to start your own business?

My father was an unconventional entrepreneur. Part of his job was being a public entertainer – a clown. I started following him around at a very young age. It’s a funny story actually. My father was performing as Santa in a shopping center and my mother had to be there with him for 6 weeks in a row, 3 to 4 days a week. They couldn’t afford a nanny so they decided to create elf clothing for my sister and I to dress up as Santa’s little helpers.

At the time, I was only 5 years old. We did this and many other “crazy” things for 10 years. From that point on, I was fueled with the desire to become an entrepreneur. Since completing my Bachelor’s degree, I started my own business in website and software development… and now we’re here.

What were your family and friends first thoughts you creating your own your company?

My first official company didn’t end very well. After 7 years of hard work, I decided to leave the company to my co-founder. I almost ended up going bankrupt and it was a really tough time for me. But of course, I wanted to try again.

A few years later, we created Totem. I always kept my mother updated with our project. I told her that I would invest all my time into pushing this new project and turning it into a company that would have a positive impact on millions of people.

She wasn’t too convinced with my decision but she looked at me and said, “My son, you are wise and you know what’s best for you. I encourage you to follow your own path and to go as far with it as you can.”

What motivates you when things go wrong? What is the end goal?

My primary goal in life is to be close to people I love. Totem allows me to live close to my parents, my sister, my extended family, and a huge group of my closest friends.

Working at home with my wife gives us both the chance to spend more time with each other. When our work day is over, we also get to bond with our 4-year-old son. Being able to have a global impact while working from our hometown is what motivates me the most.

Do you have any advice for someone just starting out?

On a personal level, you must have a clear vision of your goals in life. You also need to review them every now and then to make sure your goals are still the same. Monitor where your business currently stands and look for resources that are already accessible to you that can be leveraged.

On a business level, know your numbers, surround yourself with the right people, have a clear vision of your where you want your business to go, and find a good mentor!

What is stopping you from being 3x the size you are now?

The risks. I’m happy with where we currently are and I don’t want to take any risks that may jeopardize the future of our business.

What are the top apps your business could not run without?

Google drive/Dropbox: To share content.

Slack/Email: For fast communication with our team members.

Skype/Zoom: For meetings.

Shopify/Amazon seller: Our primary channels for sales.

Are there any new products/product features you’re working on?

We are working on a game for couples and a Totem deck for younger kids. We’re also creating free Totem activity guides for therapists, team-building, school professionals, and families. Totem is incredibly versatile! Our goal is to make it easier for people to adapt the game to suit their needs.

What is current revenue?

Approximately $400K/year.

Would you ever sell the company?

At the moment, I don’t see any reason to sell the company because we’re still growing. We’ve built an incredible team and we’re constantly sharing new ideas and developing new projects!



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