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Eric Hautemont: Days of Wonder – an entrepreneur is an entrepreneur is an entrepreneur!

February 11th, 2009 · 4 Comments · Entrepreneurs, Talents, Innovators

Eric Hautemont – he is a high tech guy with an MS in AI and Applied Maths, who decided to launch Days of Wonder, a board game company – yes a traditional board game company, just as if we were in Persia or Egypt back in 3500 BC, and this, in the heart of Silicon Valley. What about that? Even better: the company, started in 2002, is very successful and has been profitable basically since it launched its first product. The recipe: Talent, originality, experience, common sense, and ultimately, an authentic business acumen combined with a deep respect for customers.

From Ray Dream to Days of WonderHard to “summarize” a friend. The first words that come to my mind are that he is hyper, enthusiastic, a sharp quick-thinker, rationally adventurous, funny with an abrasive sense of humor, conceptual and pragmatic. He speaks as fast as a policy debater (over 350 wpm), yet extremely clearly, and he is forever youthful. I first met him in the very early nineties. He had started RayDream, a lovely 3D Modeling software, originally on Macintosh. Then, he sold the company to Fractal Design of which he became the President. Early 1998, he started another successful venture, Ridge Ventures, a VC firm specializing in seed stage investments, that he maintained until 2005. “By 2002, though, I was already bored,” Eric says. “It’s not fun to be a VC. Yes, you can make a lot of money, not because of your performance, but simply because management fees have gotten huge. The whole system is broken. If it’s true that the return of a fund is an average of your investments, in practice, a very small number of companies yield a great return and the others are doomed to remain lame businesses that will never be profitable. These bad companies continue to get money because some of the VCs that have joined forces to fund these companies want to save face and maintain illusions to raise their next fund. Easy when you make so much money on management fees only. So the end result is that as a VC, you must play along with other VCs, all with different agendas, and you end up spending 90% of your time on the bad companies that will never go anywhere and 10% of your time on the great companies that do not really need you, anyway. They know their business much better than their VCs, whose experience is quickly outdated, if they ever had any real executive experience. Anyway, I was bored. It’s more challenging to be an entrepreneur, sure. But it’s also far more interesting.”

From high tech to board games: an entrepreneur is an entrepreneur is an entrepreneur: Gertrude Stein’s famous quote (“Rose is a rose is a rose”) meant that some things can elicit emotions just by themselves. For Eric, becoming an entrepreneur again was exciting by itself and he wanted to make it even more exciting by picking a domain that he had loved since he was a child: games and the Franco-Belgian school of comic books. “And I chose board games, because they are a lot more universal culturally speaking than most comics, at least those of the kind I favor. On top of that, long-time friends and colleagues in my prior businesses loved it too. Also, we had the same goal: build a real company, in the real world where the real performance tests were profitability and happy customers with whom you could truly bond. No matter how great a software company may be, customers do not have the type of emotional relationship with a CD Rom that they have with games made of wood and cardboard and lots of other nice and unique bits you can play with. Our 3D application was cool and we had a huge enthusiastic user base, but their engagement was not nearly as strong and infectious as what we see at Days of Wonder. First, when people play with their friends and family, they accumulate great memories. They play over and over. They speak of the game to other friends and other family members, both offline and online. And they speak to us, too! Our corporate blog was an instant hit. If virtual communities are great, real-world communities are even greater, and in our case, complement each other beautifully. In all cases, though, when you feel the atmosphere at the Essen Game Fair, which attracts 160,000 people in average, you realize how dry and impersonal the Comdex was even in its heyday.”

A glimpse at Eric’s world: you can navigate inside and through as well as zoom-in/out the pictures and videos – and also in full screen. Note on 4/6/9: Temporary problem with the videos due to an unexpected change in YouTube policies. Zoomorama is addressing the issue.

Breaking in when there are many established companies…: When entrepreneurs tell you that they don’t have competitors, you instantly tell them that this may be because there is no market. If they tell you that that they are trying their luck in a field occupied by entrenched players, you don’t give them much of a chance either, unless they explain to you how they can flip legacy on its head or revisit conventional wisdom. “It’s clear that the board game industry is very traditional,” Eric admits. “To give you an idea of how traditional it is, Ravensberger was created in 1883 by Otto Maier in Ravensburg, Germany. Hasbro was started in 1923 by the Hassenfeld brothers, who had emigrated to the United States from Poland, and the grandson of one of the founders, Alan Hassenfeld, is still the Chairman of the company and was the CEO until a few years ago. The beauty of this industry, though, is that it is a traditional world. Our challenge was leverage this tradition, because as players, we love it, but we came in with new methods we learned from our lives in high tech. First of all, we automated our business processes from day one. We knew that we had to be extremely efficient for all the operational and logistical aspects of a business where you have to produce actual goods, and therefore are exposed to innumerable points of friction because of the wide variety of raw materials necessary to build a game, the number of manufacturers you deal with everywhere in the world, the shipments you continuously manage, and tons of other critical details. As enthusiastic as we were, we knew that we had to figure this out before anything else, to be able to focus on our core business, creating memorable games that people would love and were destined to become… let’s say… evergreens or games that would last, because they are appealing and endearing.

In reality, we wanted to get back to the tradition of beautiful and emotional games. As a result also, we took the somewhat counter-intuitive step – at least in the world of publishing where most companies live off a continued stream of new publications, each of whose success is limited but sufficient to keep producing new titles – of voluntarily limiting ourselves in the number of games that we would publish; from the get go, we bet that our scarcest resource wouldn’t be cash, but rather the time we had to do what we love with the level of craft and care required to succeed. This meant picking 1 or 2 new games a year, or even possibly zero, if none satisfied us. The commonly held belief that you should publish as many titles as you can hastily, crossing your fingers and hoping for the best makes little business sense when you take the time to think about it. What would Otto Maier or the Hassenfeld Brothers have thought of the fact that hundreds and hundreds of games are thrown on the market every year and discounted the minute they hit the shelves? True, there have never been recipes to make big hits in books, films, or board games. But random production is not the way to go either. Board games are consumer goods, but consumer goods with a high emotional content; so even if it is true that you never really know if people will like a game before they actually play with it, and even more complex, how well these games will create the dynamics between players that is a distinctive characteristics of any favorite board games, you have a better chance to find a real public if you offer games that are well though-out and well produced. We look at a lot of games, but we publish one or two per year, at the most. By the same token, though, because we do not flood people with new products, each new game or sequel of a game is an event, and people feel gratified when they buy a game with Days of Wonder on (and in) the box.”

Clearly the Days of Wonder‘s passion for quality is paying off! The company has garnered several multiple prestigious awards in a record time, and is thriving.

Marylene Delbourg-Delphis

More information about:

Days of Wonder:

Some of the authors of the games published by Days of Wonder:

Alan R. Moon (Ticket to Ride):;

Richard Borg (Memoir ’44):

Bruno Cathala & Serge Laget (Shadows over Camelot):;

Bruno Faidutti & Serge Laget (Mystery of the Abbey):

Bruno Cathala & Bruno Faidutti (Queen’s Necklace)

Paul Randles & Daniel Stahl (Pirate’s Cove):;

Wolfgang Kramer & Markus Lübke (Colosseum):;

Bruno Cathala & Ludovic Maublanc (Cleopatra & the Society of Architects):

These authors are also featured on BoardGameGeek:

Scott Nicholson (see zoomorama above): Scott has a weekly show that you can read on

Tom Vasel (see zoomorama above): Tom Vasel is the host of The Dice Tower:  

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