Emile Kalis on Moving Back to the Netherlands and More!
(Emile Kalis, Tom Selleck (yes, that Tom Selleck), Tom Rushton
at a Seahawks game against the Panthers)
MC: Emile, to begin with, I heard you relocated from the US to the Netherlands?
EK: Yes, I did. Recently I moved back from the Seattle area to Rotterdam in the Netherlands, with my wife Alice and my two sons Maas and Cameron. Would you like to know why, Mary?
MC: Yes, I do!
EK: Back in 2014 Identity Games started the distribution of Find It games in the US, out of our small office. The Find It office was in Monroe, close to Seattle, that’s why we ended up over there. The idea was to create new brands around Find It games and to sell those brands directly into retail. Last year, even before the Covid crisis, we decided to close our offices. For us, the model turned out to be unpredictable, unstable and not in line with our profit expectations. I didn’t succeed in creating a predictable, profitable business. Having said that, the US toy industry is special and is tough. That’s no news. Building your network, in general the lower margins and the mission to become more relevant to buyers every year, is challenging. It takes a long time. What does it take to reach your goals? That is a decision. Some of our titles worked very well, like Mouthguard Challenge, Poopyhead, Elmo Hide & Seek, and a couple of Find It editions. We’ve had great periods of time. And some other titles failed with all consequences afterwards. US retail has a lack of patience. The alternative model of working with partners, with the benefits of cooperation, partnership and more focus fits us better.
MC: Why is that?
EK: In general, we focus on self-made products. We don’t want that many different product lines. That, coupled with the experience of the partner, we focus on just a couple, longer term lines. Escape Room the game is a great example. In order to be able to sell those lines to Target and Walmart, we have been working with Spinmaster, since 2015 and our partnership is working very well. Our role is developing, designing, and manufacturing where they do sales, distribution in the US. On marketing we can work together, more from a global perspective regarding content, social media. We’ve built the brand in other countries. We feel more comfortable within that model. So, we were able to terminate the office and inventory in a decent way, and that’s what I did.
MC: What is the biggest difference with Europe, or the Netherlands?
EK: In square miles, Europe and the US are almost equal. In people, Europe is twice the size. In states or countries, they are equal; both 50. From there, the US has 1, or 2 languages, Europe has 225 if you count the main national dialects as well. So, in Europe the main challenge is localizing your game products. Key in the US is the difference between every store, or chain, and their way of doing business. Every set-up, every process, each box label is different. The retail space is very divided. You need to be really prepared. Given your own capacity, the number of stores you’re able to sell to, is limited. Is that limitation enough to make money? And what if your customer base changes yearly with 50%?
MC: Will you miss the Pacific Northwest, Seattle?
EK: Great question, yes for sure! The area is beautiful: around Lake Washington, the mountains and the ocean. And of-course, the Seahawks. The atmosphere in their stadium is incredible. There are so many beautiful places in the US. But business is the main thing. Being an entrepreneur can really hurt sometimes, as we all know. You have to work with the model that fits your own company best. We’ve learned our lessons. Now using the experience and look to the future, is the next step.
MC: So how long have you been in the toy industry?
EK: I co-founded Identity Games in 1992 with my business partner Albert Meuter. At that time, we started creating corporate games, or what we call tailor-made games. It is something we still do. Over the years we’ve developed hundreds of games. I ran different things in the company, such as our graphic design studio and the development department. In 2000 we started selling to retail. In 2006 we started selling internationally. Nowadays some of our titles are available in 35 to 40 countries.
MC: What makes the toy industry so special to you?
EK: To me, all the yearly novelties created by so many creative people. It’s the way inventors work with the game companies and how companies talk about ideas with each other. That is very special. When I tell friends that for example work for Microsoft that we discuss new products with competitors, they really do not understand. To me that’s a key part of the selection procedure of new products. There’s a lot of respect and fun together. The passion of making people play, is impressive.
MC: What have been Identity Games’ biggest successes?
EK: I would say products that we launched that created a trend, or were part of the beginning of a trend. So, for example games like Boom Boom Balloon in 2012, our DVD board games in 2006, Escape Room the Game in 2016, our series of hide and seek editions, Poopyhead in 2014. And there were more on a smaller scale, like some party games based on tv-stars and our card games in the Netherlands.
MC: … and the biggest disappointments?
EK: Forget about those! Don’t look back! Seriously, just do not make the same mistake twice. I remember Livequiz, a game about daily questions and finding the right answer on the internet. I worked on that, we had high expectations, and the game even became game of the year in the Netherlands. Sales wise, in stores it did nothing. People didn’t get it. Does a product move the mass, do people understand what they see? Is the graphic design supportive to that? Regarding that game, I made a lot of mistakes.
MC: What do you think will be a main after Covid effect?
EK: I wish I knew. You read a lot about that. lot of questions; if people haven’t gone out to restaurants for a couple of months, will they go more often in the near future if they can? Or is the new behavior that they stay at home, with the family and save the money. From that perspective, within our industry, what about all the shows we traveled to attend? I know the benefits of a one to one meeting. You like to feel someone’s reaction to a game during a presentation. Look at the strength of CHITAG! But, I wonder or we all will go back to the old days. We were used to making our schedules on January 1 every year, based on traveling to shows. That almost sounds old fashioned now, doesn’t it? Playing board games, puzzles; people find ways to have a good time if they need to change their behavior. I hope for a strong come back of specialty stores, specialists.
MC: What was your favorite toy or game growing up?
EK: I had a few! First of all, I played a lot of games with my parents when I was a kid. At that time a couple of Jumbo titles, like Jumbo Jet and Stratego were my favorites. Later on, Rummikub and Subbuteo. The latter is the best soccer game in the world, I really loved playing that game with my father. And until I was 11, 12 years old, I played with Lego, but who didn’t?
MC: Thank you Emile, anything you like to add?
EK: Thank you Mary! Hopefully I’ll see you soon at a show somewhere around the world!
(JM Duparc, Elizabeth Moody, Emile Kalis, Gary Piper and Who's the Dude at the TAGIE Awards!)