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All fraud and games

Last modified: 2/28/2011 12:00:00 AM
Confronted by the grim reality that a Ponzi scheme had drained his life savings, John Shelley, a computer programmer from Laconia, looked for something positive.

What he found was motivation - and a marketing hook.

Shelley and his wife had $200,000 invested in Financial Resources Mortgage when the Meredith firm closed in November 2009. Shelley, a longtime entrepreneur, says the loss inspired him to breathe life into a dormant venture. Years earlier, he and his daughter had devised a card game where players earned points by stealing collections of cards. He had joked he would put her through college with it.

Shelley decided the game, Bag-O-Loot, could replenish his retirement account, and he devoted himself to its development. In May, Bag-O-Loot launched, wrapped in a shiny, golden bag and marketed with the help of Snitch, a hybrid creature who is "sly like a fox and steals stuff like a raccoon."

Bag-O-Loot is available for $7.95 at local stores and on Amazon, as well as the product's website. Shelley has sold 2,400 games and hopes to take the product national.

How did you come up with the idea? About 10 years ago, my daughter and I were sitting in a ski lodge after a ski race, bored to death. She was about 10 years old at the time. We both sort of like inventing things, and I said, "Let's invent a game." We got a couple decks of cards and threw them together and toyed around with a few different ideas and basically came up with sort of the initial bits and pieces of what is now Bag-O-Loot, the part where you're stealing cards from one another and that kind of thing.

How did the closure of Financial Resources Mortgage prompt you to pursue this project? There was just no point and no advantage in living in despair and living in the past and being upset about what happened. I had no control over that. . . . If I was to spend the same two years, as some people have, fighting it and getting all involved legally, I would have spent an awful lot of money and may not have seen any return, and I didn't see the value in

that. It was literally a financial decision that I'd rather spend my time creating something wonderful, which I think has potential for not only making my $200,000 back, but hopefully more.

After sustaining a serious loss to fraud, what kind of tone did you seek in marketing the game around theft and deception? That's really just a coincidence, something I think makes it all the more a bit of karma, that it's all just meant to be. That as a result of my financial loss, that this game, that's about stealing and bluffing and lying and all that, is what's going to actually help me recover. . . . I think it's very ironic.

How has the theme of Bag-O-Loot been received? We have a tagline, which sometimes we use and sometimes we don't, called "Being a thief has never been so much fun." And some people have said you shouldn't do that, because it's not politically correct. But the bottom line is, there's so many games out there that are totally based on illegally activity. I mean, Clue is based on murder. Monopoly, you know, the most popular board game ever, is based on monopolies, which is totally illegal. There's plenty of examples of games out there, and the bottom line is, the kids really know the difference. They do. Anybody who wants to try and say by playing this game you're teaching my kid to be a thief, that's not the reality.

Is Bag-O-Loot a game of skill? I would say there's strategy involved, not skill per se, because you're just getting cards and you're making sets and you're stealing them. The strategy's sort of in the timing. Do I want to open up with a new collection now or do I want to wait a while? Do I want to steal now, or do I want to wait a while? Do I want to bluff? . . . There's a lot of strategy there. That's why it's not a little kid's game. Kids can play, but clearly it's a game that's fun for adults.

How have you gone about launching the product? We ran test marketing through October at 21 stores all over the state, a handful in Vermont, a couple in California. With zero advertising, nothing more than getting them on the counters. . . . That's how we achieved those first 700 (sales). As we headed into the Christmas season, we wanted to really push the product more. We got it into 36 stores, mostly in New Hampshire. . . . Sales really took a jump. Some stores were selling as many as 70 or 80 a week prior to Christmas. . . . People were coming back and buying it again. . . . We had 2,400 sold by Christmas. We just got back from the toy fair in New York City, the world's largest toy fair, a convention with 10,000 buyers and retailers from around the world. . . . We got into 20 more states.

Whom did you meet at the toy fair? Interestingly enough, the Amish people took a real liking to the game. . . . We actually didn't think they'd like it, because, you know, it's kind of a game that's a little bit about stealing and lying and bluffing and all of that. But I think they liked the simplicity of it, that it's just a card game, and they clearly laughed about it. One of the gentlemen said, "I'm going to take this back and put it in one of my stores, and if it sells, well, I've got 300 stores." So we've got our fingers crossed that that'll be a great little niche market.

How have your past business ideas informed this venture? I've been an entrepreneur a lot of my life. I've always had lots of little projects, from when I was 20 years old and I opened up a hot dog stand, to a video game arcade, restaurants. . . . But they always seemed to go only so far. I'd either run out of time or energy or something. With Bag-O-Loot, right from the get-go I made a promise to myself and my family that I would do this right. That I would get a lot of counseling, that I would get a lot of advice, do all the legal work, that I would talk to people in the business, that I would spend money to make it happen. . . . I think in the long run it's going to be a very profitable business.

Where do you hope to go from here? Our business plan really calls for some national chain to pick this up. If I could get a national chain where it can be in 3,000 or 4,000 stores across the country, then I can justify a substantial enough television advertising budget that we'll do $10 million in sales the first year easily.

(Karen Langley can be reached at 369-3316 or klangley@cmonitor.com.)


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