Be strong, especially when times are tough. You cannot be a leader if you don’t have strength. Times like these require a very strong constitution and you need to dig deep sometimes to fight down fear and move forward confidently. The team will appreciate your confidence and your calm. They need a leader who maintains focus no matter what the world throws in their path. Always remember: it is the welfare of your team that is most important and leading them is paramount. My team and I have been through our shares of the highest peaks and low valleys — whether through the recession, COVID-19, daily pressures of producing. If we didn’t believe in one another and our strength, we would not be here thriving like we are!
I had the pleasure to interview Shari Spiro.
Shari is the CEO and founder of Ad Magic Games, one of the largest independent printers of tabletop games in the US, including the wildly popular Cards Against Humanity, Exploding Kittens, Joking Hazard, Unstable Unicorns, Game of Phones and other customized playing card and board games. Shari is also the CEO and founder of Breaking Games, an award-winning game publisher and manufacturer.
Since its 2015 launch, Breaking Games has games on Walmart and Target store shelves, Barnes and Noble, Books a Million, Meijer and Game Stop- among others. Some of these have even won or been recognized by Mensa International, and Shari and her development team are responsible for the launch of dozens of critically acclaimed tabletop games like Rise of Tribes, We’re Doomed, Sparkle*Kitty, Expancity, Poop the Game, Fake News, and Mixtape.
Shari manages a staff of nearly 50 employees, and oversees the larger clients at both Ad Magic and Breaking Games. Shari also heads procedural development and implementation, and is the lead on all international customs, logistics, fulfillment services, manufacturing operations and partnerships. Shari manages marketing decisions, long-range planning, investments, public relations, social media campaigns, promotional trade shows, and more with a close knit team — many of whom have been with the company as long as 15 years.
Prior to Breaking Games and Ad Magic, Shari worked at Secur Image from 1986 — 1989, a leader in printed sheet‐fed vinyl credit cards and plastic specialties, where her clients included Russ Berrie, American Express, Herff Jones Yearbooks, and NYNEX Telephone. While there, Shari was the Customer Service Manager with a specialty in holographic applications.
In 2016, Shari was awarded the illustrious EY (Ernst & Young) NJ Entrepreneur of the Year 2016 in Media and Entertainment. In addition, she has been involved with the Executive Women of New Jersey and the Netcong Community Partnership.
Shari also has a background in radio, music TV and Media. In college, she worked at the PBS station in Chapel Hill where she worked in production running a camera and building sets. She was also the news director of the radio station, and ran an open mic night on campus.
Shari is the mother of 2 wonderful daughters: Jenni works at Ad Magic with Shari as a project manager and handles the manufacturing of special projects, and Rayne is currently a design student. Her fiancé Brian oversees building construction and expansion
Thank you for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I was in my 30’s when I was hired by my then father-in-law to work in customer service at a company that printed credit cards, plastic wallet inspiration cards and other sheet-fed vinyl items, like flexible plastic rulers and other promotional items. One year, I went to a promotional products trade show and really became interested in the industry. Shortly thereafter, I launched my own promotional organization, Ad Magic, which included printing custom playing cards. Timing was on my side as well because Poker and Custom Poker decks were popular at that time. It was then that I received a call about printing this game called Cards Against Humanity, and the rest is history. We still manufacture the game to this day and is part of the reason why I started Breaking Games, an award-winning game publisher.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Cards Against Humanity is one of those companies that relish in pushing the envelope as far as it’ll go. One year, they bought a small island in Maine and named it Hawaii. They asked me to build a safe on the island and place 250,000 Cards Against Humanity cards in it. This was part of a worldwide puzzle that, when solved, would lead the winner to the safe on the island in Maine. I went up on the weekend of my birthday to the island where we hired the local fire department to help us get the safe onto the island. We used a huge crane and lowered the safe onto a blowup boat. Working with a dozen men, we got the 1,100-pound safe off the boat using a series of pulleys. It was one of the most challenging and fun things I have ever done!
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I made a mistake and while it wasn’t funny, it definitely provided me with a life-long lesson. A well-known phone company ordered customized poker chips from me. However, instead of vinyl labels, they were delivered with paper stickers on them. The entire job was rejected and money was lost. What I learned from that experience was to be hyper-aware, hyper-vigilant, hyper-detail oriented, and to fully vet every potential partner.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
I’m willing to take a chance. Especially during these historic times, you have to be nimble and pivot quickly. A few years ago, I came out with a game called Fake News and swiftly trademarked it and got it in the market in two weeks. CNN even wrote about it!
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Ad Magic has launched an innovative new puzzle line using playing cards instead of puzzle pieces, called Puzzles for the Pandemic. These Playing Card Puzzles can be made from any photo and come in both 54 card and 108 card sizes. The front is a picture puzzle while the back is a traditional deck of cards, offering double the fun. They can also create a customized 100-piece jigsaw puzzle.
Anyone can send in a photo and have it made into a puzzle and deck of cards! In addition, to help raise money for those fighting COVID-19 — frontline responders and the WHO — Ad Magic has partnered with UTA for PuzzlesforthePandemic.com. Celebrities and influencers have their photo made into puzzles that their fans can buy for $20 — $25. A minimum of $5 and maximum of $10 per puzzle is donated to the charity of their choice. Their first customer was extremely popular The Odd 1s Out.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
Make sure you communicate with your team fully and honestly. If you see trouble within the team, confront it head on. If there are people who don’t get along, bring that problem out into the open and have an honest, productive discussion. And if my anyone on my team has an issue with me, I encourage the same. Honesty is the foundation of any relationship.
What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
Since the quarantine, we use Zoom for our meetings and find it immensely satisfying to be in direct contact with my team on a daily basis. We have an all-office meeting on Tuesdays, then we break out into smaller team meetings throughout the week. It helps us stay in contact, celebrate people’s accomplishments, create a sense of community, and it keeps people focused during a very challenging time.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
My fiancé Brian has always been my biggest supporter. From the moment we became partners in business and in life, he has always encouraged me to meet more people, travel around the world, think bigger, invest, and take risks that I never would’ve taken. He’s also always been there for me in terms of helping with warehouse construction, business layout, electrical, plumbing, organizational suggestions, IT, and other needs that I could never have handled on my own. He’s brilliant, and together, we are an amazing team. I appreciate him more than I could possibly say here.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I know the games we have manufactured, designed, developed, and put into mass retail have made millions of people happy. They entertain, bring families and people together, make people laugh, and provide happiness. What could be better than that … especially in these crazy times?
What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
Be honest but be careful how you say things.
I am a very honest and direct person … sometimes overly so. I’ve learned throughout the years that honesty must come with empathy.
I’ve raised my voice when I shouldn’t have, I’ve said things that were taken out of context, I’ve said some things that could’ve been tempered in more helpful and positive ways. While still being very open and honest, I’ve learned to do in a way that is helpful and more solutions-oriented.
Never assume that someone understands something until they have proven that they do.
There have been times when I have given people tasks and it failed because I thought they understood more than they did. And it wasn’t all their fault — we should always strive to be clear and transparent in all communications. There was a time when I asked someone to run a detailed operations report for me. After not hearing from that person for a couple days, I reached out and realized the report was incorrectly done because the person didn’t know how to obtain the info. Now, we immediately raise the red flag — and I encourage it — when there is an issue or challenge and we solve it as a team.
Fire fast, hire slow.
What I mean by that is sometimes, you know when someone isn’t working out. It could be because of their work or they may not get along with the rest of the team. By the same token, when you’re hiring someone to be a part of the team, I recommend taking your time and having a probationary period. Your new hire not only has to prove what they can add to the work but also, how they work with others. We had a man with immense talent but he just didn’t mesh with others, so I moved him from department to department. In the end, I realized that even though he brought a lot to the table top, his approach was toxic to the team and I had to let him go.
Listen to the advice of others but trust your gut.
I make hundreds of decisions every day, some are based on fact and some are based on projections. But at the end of the day, I go with my gut and what my intuition tells me. I have faith in my decisions and I don’t second-guess myself.
Be strong, especially when times are tough.
You cannot be a leader if you don’t have strength. Times like these require a very strong constitution and you need to dig deep sometimes to fight down fear and move forward confidently. The team will appreciate your confidence and your calm. They need a leader who maintains focus no matter what the world throws in their path. Always remember: it is the welfare of your team that is most important and leading them is paramount. My team and I have been through our shares of the highest peaks and low valleys — whether through the recession, COVID-19, daily pressures of producing. If we didn’t believe in one another and our strength, we would not be here thriving like we are!
You are a person of great influence. 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. :-)
During this time, I would like to inspire people to donate to first responder causes and food banks as much as possible. I am hoping that Puzzle for the Pandemic does its part to help first responders during this crisis. We are also ordering masks and donating some to hospitals.
Can you please give us your favorite. “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Treat every person with respect and listen more than you speak.
When I first got the call for what was to become Cards Against Humanity, it came from a very young person with no printing experience. It would have been easy to dismiss him and not answer the hundreds of questions he asked. But I listened carefully and realized how intelligent and smart the questions were, so I made it a point to answer every single one, no matter how many times they came back to me with a new set of questions. If I had listened less, or if I had shown less respect to these “beginner” entrepreneurs, I never would have landed Cards Against Humanity as a client, and I would never have been able to build my business into the family of companies it has become.
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 with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them :-)
I am a huge fan of Bill Gates and Richard Branson. They both lead in a way that is inspirational to me. I hear that Richard Branson is a fan of tabletop gaming. In case he’s reading this, we have a couple of games we could play over Zoom — like MIXTAPE or Game of Phones — since we can’t go to lunch for a face-to-face meeting during this lockdown 😉