Celebrity Inventors: Adrienne Smith of Gridiron Queendom On How To Go From Idea To Store Shelf
Public relations strategy is critical. You can have the best game on Earth, Mars and Venus, but if no one knows about your game, then you have nothing. Find a good PR partner and secure coverage across a variety of media to garner the highest possible amount of interest from your different target audiences.
As a part of our series called “Celebrity Inventors”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Adrienne Smith, Founder & CEO, Gridiron Queendom.
Adrienne Smith is among the best-performing wide receivers in women’s tackle football history. As a Boston Renegades Wide Receiver, football advocate and spokesperson, Orange is the New Black actress, and entrepreneur, Adrienne is the creator of Blitz Champz (www.blitzchampz.com), a fun and competitive card game that teaches and tests football knowledge, strategy, and critical math skills. Ms. Smith started her football career in 2006 as a member of the New York Sharks, and went on to compete internationally, bringing home silver medals in Canada, Sweden and Italy as a member of the U.S. women’s national flag football team. In 2010 and 2013, Adrienne helped the U.S. women’s national tackle football team bring home the gold medal in the International Federation of American Football’s Women’s World Championship. Since 2011, Ms. Smith has played for the Boston Renegades, a tackle football team in the Women’s Football Alliance and winner of national championships in 2011, 2014, 2018, and 2019. Ms. Smith’s professional career began in Japan, where she worked as a translator and Coordinator of International Relations for the Japanese Board of Education. During her two years in this position, Adrienne produced and co-hosted a local television show geared towards educating Japanese people about American culture. Ms. Smith earned her MBA from Columbia Business School in Media & Entertainment; and her Bachelor’s degree in Japanese and Film, with a pre-med concentration, from Washington University in St. Louis.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?
I knew from a young age that I was meant for big things. As an only child, I grew up in Virginia and Florida, and education was a top priority in my home. Sports was a big part of my childhood as well — I could have been one of the Williams sisters, as my dad was an avid tennis player and wanted me to succeed! I gravitated toward team sports — I wanted that extended family — the siblings I didn’t have — and excelled in sports like softball and basketball. This love of sports, playing on a team, and the love of healthy yet fierce competition eventually led to playing my favorite sport of all, tackle football!
My parents and I watched football games when I was growing up, and even though women’s sports were not huge at the time, I knew in my heart I was meant to play football. I wouldn’t get my chance until many years later, but it’s amazing how we often know our destiny in our hearts, and the brightness of our future from a young age.
Since 2011, I’ve been a wide receiver for the Boston Renegades, as well as a major football advocate and spokesperson, Orange is the New Black actress, and entrepreneur. I am also the creator of Blitz Champz, a family-friendly, tech-free solution for today’s COVID age that emphasizes the importance of learning critical math skills while having fun. A fast-paced, action-packed game perfect for kids age 7 and up as well as their families, Blitz Champz can be used at school as an educational tool, and at home for fun and family bonding time. The game features 100 vibrantly-illustrated playing cards characterizing a diverse lineup of male and female players. It is something I would have loved as a kid. I feel immense gratitude that so many kids and families around the world love playing the game as much as I loved creating it!
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My parents instilled a lot of wisdom in me from a young age. My most memorable life lesson quote comes from my mother, which she told me when I was around 4 years old: “Keep your head clear when those around you are losing theirs.” This valuable wisdom has gotten me through many challenging times, a powerful reminder that no matter what is happening, stay calm, assess the situation, and respond in an intelligent manner — even when others are losing their path. This is something I have taken throughout my life. This has given me the confidence and fortitude to say “give me the ball, I can do this” — in difficult moments when things are tough, whether it’s on the football field or in the boardroom. The truth is, those are the moments of opportunity.
When there’s a pandemic, you don’t react negatively. You stay calm, do research, and learn what the next steps are toward your goals. You notice which businesses survived and thrived — for example, the entertainment industry (everyone’s watching Netflix!); spirits (everyone’s drinking more!); and games (who doesn’t love a great, fast-paced card game?). For me, I knew my product Blitz Champz was a perfect answer to nearly a year in quarantine, especially for children and families. It was all about positioning it as a solution, and a fun one at that.
Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
My favorite book of all time is A Wrinkle in Time, a wonderful sci-fi and coming-of-age story first published in 1962 but with an everlasting message. As a child when I read that, it was groundbreaking because it required me to think about the shortest distance between two points. Everyone knows it’s a straight line, but a wrinkle was much shorter than a straight line. For example, you fold a piece of paper in half, and the two locations are now closer together. From a child’s mind, this is surprising. In life, there is often something obvious that you might not see, and some not-so-obvious things as well.
I love reading and keep up to date on current events, as well as watching good movies and TV shows with friends and family from time to time.
Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion. What was the catalyst that inspired you to invent your product? Can you share the story of your “ah ha” moment with us?
Uniting sports, entertainment, and education has always been my mission. In 2013, I started a company called Gridiron Queendom, with a mission to support women and girls in football. I thought it would be cool to have a fun game, in card format, something like the football version of UNO. One night I prayed about it and the next morning I woke up with the main concepts for Blitz Champz. Essentially, my “ah ha” moment came during my sleep, similar to what happened to Dmitri Mendeleev, the Russian chemist in the 1800s who woke up one morning and immediately wrote down the periodic table of elements after having dreamt about it. Sometimes, your mind is working on problems and is more receptive to creativity when you’re sleeping!
Today, Blitz Champz is a fun and educational football-themed card game that blends the excitement of football with critical math skills, and is a perfect gift for special occasions — from seasonal celebrations like Super Bowl parties and Father’s Day, to events like children’s birthday parties and sleepovers — that empowers, educates and inspires kids age 7 and up. Blitz Champz is available for purchase on Amazon and its print-and-play version is available at www.blitzchampz.com.
There is no shortage of good ideas out there. Many people have good ideas all the time. But people seem to struggle in taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. How did you overcome this challenge?
Something that was instilled in me by my mom was: write it down! When a person has an idea, the best think you can do is write your idea down in as much detail as possible. Let it sit there for a week, and look at it again. Some things will stand out as being appropriate for pursuing right away, other parts will need to be deferred until year two or three of your business. It helps to draw a roadmap and develop the idea a bit before jumping into testing.
I have notebooks upon notebooks of ideas and strategies. This process has helped me create Blitz Champz. Blitz Champz is unique in that it was my first product, derived from the desire to bring the experience and competition of football to all kids, anytime, anywhere.
Often when people think of a new idea, they dismiss it saying someone else must have thought of it before. How would you recommend that someone go about researching whether or not their idea has already been created?
Today, we have Google and Alexa and we can find out just about anything online. Research your idea and learn if it’s been done already, or if there is a concept that may be complementary or fills a similar need. Think about classic products, like the Scrunchie — a simple rubber band with fabric — as a classic women’s hairstyling tool, or simply a new kind of craft beer, there is always room in a category for greater innovation and evolution. The great thing about an idea is just because it exists, doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for your concept as well. Don’t get discouraged; simply research your audience in more detail, tweak your product, and pivot as needed until your idea is a winner.
Did you have a role model or a person who inspired you to persevere despite the hardships involved in taking the risk of selling a new product?
My mother was my role model and the life lessons and nuggets of wisdom she instilled in me continue to inspire and encourage me in my experience bringing Blitz Champz to market. As Blitz Champz’ popularity grows, I receive even more inspiration from the incredible community of children, educators, parents and families who play and enjoy Blitz Champz.
What is your biggest lesson learned since founding Blitz Champz?
It’s very important to assemble the right team. Vet people as much as possible who you are bringing on board to your new idea. Starting out, you’re in a very vulnerable place; it’s like you have a delicate plant in your office you’re trying to grow. The beginning of the life of that entity is crucial; you must surround yourself with the best talent who share your vision.
The early stages must have been challenging. Are you able to identify a “tipping point” after making your invention, when you started to see success? Did you start doing anything different? Are there takeaways or lessons that others can learn from that?
For me, the tipping point was in 2017 when Blitz Champz was selected as a National Parenting Product Awards winner. Winning an award was validating! I had spent almost two years in my lab by myself trying to push this idea forward, reaching out to people here and there. For the first time, I had a third party vet the game and say this is worthy — it’s fun and educational. To have a venerated third party bestow that award on Blitz Champz was monumental for me.
The second tipping point came in 2018 when Walmart invited me to pitch Blitz Champz at their Open Call. I was sitting across the table from execs that specialized in toys and gaming. Having these grown men and women excited to play a game that came out of my head was incredible! To hear from them that there was merit to Blitz Champz, and for them to then give me suggestions on how to improve the packaging so that it more accurately reflected the awesomeness of my game, was helpful. I knew I had something big.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Invented My Product” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
Marketing, marketing, marketing, marketing, marketing! Marketing is the single most important aspect to any success story, because people have to know about it if they are going to buy it. Also, getting the word out in a positive way. Here are the five most important things when it comes to inventing a product:
- Public relations strategy is critical. You can have the best game on Earth, Mars and Venus, but if no one knows about your game, then you have nothing. Find a good PR partner and secure coverage across a variety of media to garner the highest possible amount of interest from your different target audiences.
- Optimize social media. Everyone loves social media, so do your best in capturing your audience there. I probably spent 8 months of my life researching and watching webinars on Facebook advertising alone, in order to determine an efficient advertising strategy. It definitely paid off, and it’s never too soon to start learning.
- Create an Amazon strategy. Amazon is a great partner in that they have significant reach, but there are things to know as well before getting started. For example, I got slammed with Amazon storage fees. It would have behooved me to be aware of some issues before starting with any online retailer.
- Learning quickly is challenging, but necessary. I have always been a fast learner, but as an entrepreneur, sometimes it’s faster than you think. My dad taught me how to ride a bike, one week with training weeks, and the next week the training wheels came off. I ran into a thorn bush, but this experience made me learn quickly how to brake!
- Have fun with the process. You want to achieve success, but it’s important to have fun with the process. I’m grateful to be both a professional athlete and entrepreneur, both aspects of my life which require an incredible amount of work — but bring me great joy and gratitude as well.
Let’s imagine that a reader reading this interview has an idea for a product that they would like to invent. What are the first few steps that you would recommend that they take?
Step one, write the idea down fully. Take a week off, re-read what you wrote, add anything new you missed the first time. Don’t scratch anything out because you never know.
Second, research and see if that product exists. If it does, write down the competitors, look at the competition’s pricing and their social media, and see if anything is patented or trademarked.
Third, research the market. Are you dealing with a 10-thousand-dollar market or a 10-million-dollar market? You need to know if there is room for your product to enter into the space.
If things still look good, you have free and clear reign legally, and the market is large enough to sustain another product, go ahead and create the product!
Lastly, ask yourself if you didn’t get paid for bringing your idea to fruition for 10 years, if you had to live on a tight budget, would it still be worth it? You have to truly want the idea to work, and be willing to give everything to make it happen. You might be creating the next big thing.
There are many invention development consultants. Would you recommend that a person with a new idea hire such a consultant, or should they try to strike out on their own?
I’ve been an eternal bootstrapper because in the beginning, I simply didn’t have the funds to hire outside help — like so many inventors in the beginning, I had to work with what I had. I did research with game consultants, but they were asking for too much money or wanted a certain percentage of the game. I’m a pretty industrious person, so I didn’t mind doing it myself, everything from concept to coming up with the drawings and packaging. I would say, for those debating whether to do it yourself or get help, for the first 6 months try to do it yourself — this will help you understand the nuts and bolts of the industry overall. Plus, the more you learn, the more you are able to vet the legitimacy of any future consultant you hire.
What are your thoughts about bootstrapping vs looking for venture capital? What is the best way to decide if you should do either one?
Both bootstrapping and securing venture capital can be great options, depending on your business. I think it comes down to what your idea is: if you’re in tech, and the only way to get a prototype is to have a cash infusion, then you have to go the VC route. However, if your product is something you can build or mock-up yourself, and it will take a couple of dollars and you have that, then by all means, bootstrap it. You want to retain as much equity in the product as possible. As soon as you get VC funds, you get less equity. However, both routes can be a great choice in bringing your product to the world.
You are an inspiration to a great many people. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I would love to inspire a movement of all people having the opportunity to live in different countries around the world to learn about other languages, cultures and ways of life. I lived an incredible three years — a year in college and two years post-college — in Japan, and it was life-changing. I also spent significant time in Guatemala, Canada, Sweden and Finland. As a Black American woman, living in these other locales was truly eye-opening. Having a global perspective is something that is beneficial for all people, both in business and life. Whether it’s a student exchange program, where the student goes and lives in a host country, or a professional exchange program, all people should have the opportunity to learn about the world.
Most importantly, I now have friends all over the world, and feel truly part of a global community. If something happened in another city, chances are I would know someone there and would check in with them right away. I feel a connection to my global network of friends and family. If everyone had this experience, it could potentially lay groundwork for greater world peace.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
I’m a longtime fan of Oprah. She is an incredible businesswoman, entrepreneur, and inspirational leader who has transcended challenges and created an amazing business, brand and movement toward greatness and personal betterment, which is complementary to my brand and mission. Oprah is someone who leaves you feeling positive, inspired and wants to leave the world a better place. I’ve been waiting for Oprah to call me — I would absolutely love to take her out to lunch!
How can we keep in touch with you and Blitz Champz?
Check out my website at http://www.adriennethe10.com, or find me on Instagram and Twitter at @giqueendom and @adriennethe10. You may also check out Blitz Champz on Instagram at @blitzchampz and online at www.blitzchampz.com. I would love to hear from you!