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It takes more than a great idea to get
a new company off the ground. Starting a business requires a
solid grounding in business fundamentals. Access to capital
is key. Supportive friends and family help. And above that,
you have to be willing to step out and risk it all.
In the Beginning: An Idea is Born
Dominic Crapuchettes, MBA ’04, is
betting his future on Wits & Wagers, the newest offering
from North Star Games, a board game company he created in
2004 with Satish Pillalamarri, MBA ’04.
North Star Games is the fulfillment of
a long-time dream for Crapuchettes, a guy who has always
been very driven and motivated. As an undergraduate, he
captained an Alaskan fishing boat during the summers, using
what he earned during the long days and nights of fishing to
pay for school. But all that time he had a dream job in his
head. After graduating from college, Crapuchettes worked for
a dot-com company and did some programming, but what he
really wanted was to start his own company. He thought about
starting a dot-com venture, but his true passion was for
So he took a risk, deciding to return
to business school to learn the skills he knew he’d need to
start his own business. Crapuchettes came to the Smith
School as a Dingman Scholar, which gives scholarships,
mentoring, office space and expert assistance to budding
entrepreneurs through the school’s renowned Dingman Center
for Entrepreneurship. One of the first things on
Crapuchettes’ to-do list was searching for potential
prospects for a business partner. He found his match in
Pillalamarri, who was smart, dedicated, ambitious, and a
fellow games enthusiast. Together they took the first giant
step: they developed and began marketing their very first
Unlike Crapuchettes, when Todd Wilson
’99 came to the Smith School, starting a company was the
furthest thing from his mind. He majored in finance and
expected to pursue a career on Wall Street. But an
entrepreneurship class taught by Rudy Lamone, former dean
and founder of the Dingman Center, was destined to set
Wilson’s life on a different course.
“After taking Rudy’s class, I couldn’t
stop thinking about the idea of starting my own business,”
says Wilson. “My head was full of ideas of things I could
try.” Most of those ideas never made it out of his head, and
Wilson spent a number of years working for CSTV.com, the Web
site of College Sports TV, with progressively more
responsible and remunerative jobs.
But Wilson couldn’t shake the desire to
start his own business, and he kept turning around
possibilities in his head, looking for that one perfect idea
that would capture his imagination. It came one day as he
was shopping online for sports team clothing for his nieces
and nephews, and realized that he would have to visit
several different sites to purchase clothing from different
In that moment, the idea for Baby Fans
was born, and Wilson decided he was ready to take a risk on
his idea. People thought Wilson and his wife Stacy were
crazy, but they started small, purchasing clothing, setting
up a Web site and packaging clothes in the evenings after
coming home from work.
Crapuchettes also started out small.
North Star Games printed just 2,500 copies of the game board
and box for its first offering, a game called Cluzzle.
Then Crapuchettes purchased all the components for the game,
like sand timers, separately. He spent the next three months
assembling each game by hand, often with the help of fellow
Smith MBAs who were content to be paid in pizza and beer.
Early Days: Mistakes and Mishaps
Both Crapuchettes and Wilson
encountered significant challenges in the early stages of
their businesses. Wilson found that one of the biggest early
hindrances for Baby Fans was his own lack of experience with
baby clothing—which meant that some of his early merchandise
picks were, well, less than ideal.
“Since we didn’t have our own kids to
dress, we made a lot of mistakes in the stock we originally
purchased. In fact, we still have some of those outfits,”
Wilson admits ruefully. “Not understanding kids’ clothing
from a parents’ perspective hurt us initially.”
And Wilson didn’t just have problems
figuring out what to purchase. Sometimes he couldn’t get
merchandise at all. Inventory is the name of the game for
Baby Fans, and convincing manufacturers to sell small lots
to the tiny new venture was an uphill battle for the growing
Crapuchettes ran into some similar
roadblocks. On the one hand, he knew the gaming world inside
out, and he was confident that Cluzzle would find an
audience. On the other hand, before people could play his
game they had to purchase it, and that meant he had to get
it on store shelves. It was a task easier said than done,
and Crapuchettes remembers ruefully that he focused his MBA
education on the financial end of company-building: “Now I
wish I had taken a few more marketing classes.”
Risks and Rewards
While Cluzzle was slowly getting
out into the marketplace and achieving moderate success,
Crapuchettes and Pillalamarri were busy designing another
game: Wits & Wagers. They were convinced that this
game would be their blockbuster, the game that would put
their company on a sound financial footing and establish
them as a player to be reckoned with in the gaming world.
And it seemed like many people in the
industry agreed. Wits & Wagers won more industry
awards during its first year in print than any other party
game in history, including the Mensa Select award and
Games magazine “Party Game of the Year” award.
But North Star Games had partnered with
a larger company that was supposed to provide financing and
marketing for North Star products. And when the larger
company went out of business with $2.5 million in debt,
North Star Games found itself with a hit product that, in
effect, belonged to its partner’s creditors. Although
retailers were asking for Wits & Wagers on a daily
basis, North Star Games did not have access to thousands of
copies of the game which languished in a warehouse in
Chicago. Crapuchettes knew something had to be done.
“We were down to about $15,000 in our
bank account,” recalls Crapuchettes. “We spent every penny
of it buying back our inventory. I got out every credit card
I had, increased the limit as high as they would let me, and
put $40,000 on my personal credit cards to ransom the
remainder of the games. At the same time, I wasn’t receiving
a salary. So things looked pretty bleak.”
What Sports Merchandise is Most Popular
at Baby Fans?
Yankees merchandise is the top seller
overall. The University of North Carolina Tar Heels are the
top-selling college team, Wilson reports. (Step it up, Terps!)
Wilson lives in Georgia now, but he is
still a Terp at heart. Despite the fact that he knows it
would sell well, he refuses to carry Duke merchandise on the
Baby Fans site.
The Wilsons don’t have kids yet, but
when they do have a baby, what team clothing will he or she
wear? Definitely Maryland gear, Wilson assures us, but also
Red Sox gear. It’s the only team Stacy, a 49ers fan, and
Todd, a Giants fan, can agree on.
The 2006 holiday season represented an
important turning point for the company’s fortunes. The game
found a home on the shelves of 1,600 Target stores across
the nation, and sales were good enough to keep the company
solvent—and in Target stores—for another year.
Like Crapuchettes and Pillalamarri,
Wilson also had to make significant sacrifices to get Baby
Fans off the ground. After some discussion with wife Stacy,
the pair decided to commit to the dream of Baby Fans by
selling their house and “downsizing” their
lifestyle—whatever it would take to get the company off the
Wilson continued to work for other
people during the day, turning his attention to the Web site
at night. He spent his evenings packaging baby clothing,
folding each outfit, meticulously wrapping it in tissue
paper to complement the team colors and then boxing it by
Inventory began to take over the
couple’s now significantly smaller living space. During the
holiday season, Wilson would press his wife and both their
families and friends into folding, wrapping and boxing
duties. “It was like living in the middle of a warehouse,”
recalls Stacy Wilson.
For a long time, most orders came from
people Wilson knew, and he remembers as a milestone moment
the first day he received an order from a stranger. “My
proudest moment was when we got our first order from someone
we didn’t know,” laughs Wilson. “My in-laws were visiting
and I screamed at the top of my lungs, I was so happy. I
still remember the person’s name. And then the same person
ordered from us a week later, and I thought ‘This is
Despite some early encouraging signs,
Wilson knew that success wasn’t guaranteed. He slowly and
carefully built the business over several years, all while
working during the day. Wilson and his wife decided that
when the company made a certain amount of money three months
in a row, Wilson could quit his day job. It was just this
past year, after several months of record profits, that
Wilson finally came to the point where he could make Baby
Fans his full-time gig.
A Little Help from My Friends
Both Crapuchettes and Wilson credit the
Smith School, and their connections within the Smith
community, for helping them make it through their company’s
tough initial days.
Crapuchettes relied heavily on the
resources of the Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship, which
is one of the oldest entrepreneurship centers in the nation.
“I had a lot of guidance from the Dingman Center on how to
write a business plan and how to raise capital. Any time
we’re trying to go back to capital markets to raise money,
that’s all things I learned here,” says Crapuchettes.
The Dingman Center has had a central
role in North Star Games’ ability to get funding. The
company won the Dingman Center’s Cupid’s Cup competition the
first year, which garnered it $10,000 plus needed exposure.
In the competition’s second year, Crapuchettes was invited
to speak, which introduced North Star Games to angel
investors who invested another $100,000 in the company.
Wilson took his early inspiration from
Lamone’s undergraduate entrepreneurship course, and one of
the key things he learned, he says, was how to ask family
and friends for money. But he’s also found that his alumni
network has provided an important source of talent and
expertise. One fellow Maryland alumna did all the design
work for Baby Fans free of charge. Another Maryland alumnus
is now working for Wilson.
The Next Big Thing
In Wits & Wagers, players guess the answer to a question and
then bet on who they think came closest to the correct answer. North Star Games’
newest offering, Outta Your Mind, is similar to Wits & Wagers but uses questions
with subjective answers rather than objective ones. In Wits & Wagers, you might
pull a question that asks “What year did the bikini swimsuit come out?” But in
Outta Your Mind, the question might be “What’s the most important innovation of
the last 2,000 years?” or “Who’s the most annoying person in show business?” or
“What would be the coolest thing to have at a mansion?” Crapuchettes is hoping
the game is another big hit for the company. Look for it in stores next year.
Looking to the Future
So where do they go from here?
Wilson spoke to a class of Smith
students recently about his experiences as an entrepreneur,
and while he is excited about the future of Baby Fans he is
also realistic about some of the challenges he sees just
down the road.
“Our biggest challenge right now is
that we’re growing so fast it’s tough to handle it all,”
says Wilson. “If we keep growing at this rate, we may find
ourselves in trouble. It’s a tough time for us as we try to
figure out what to do next. Our next expansion is going to
be a warehouse. I learned a lot in school, but applying it
and figuring out when to make decisions is difficult.”
Wilson has found a ready ear and source of advice in Lamone,
who is still active with the Dingman Center.
Crapuchettes is excited about his
company’s prospects, especially if Wits & Wagers
becomes the next board game blockbuster; that would give
North Star Games the sound financial footing it needs to
grow into a major international game company. Crapuchettes
continues to develop innovative board games, but the biggest
opportunities are in licensing the Wits & Wagers
brand. North Star Games has licensed a video game version of
Wits & Wagers for the Microsoft Xbox, is working with
a production company to develop the game into a television
game show, and is pursuing international licensing
opportunities in Europe.
So why do they do it? Why toss away a
steady job with a stable income and health insurance for the
chance to max out your credit cards, work terribly long
hours and fill your home with merchandise? “I love knowing
people are having fun playing my games,” says Crapuchettes.
“And it’s very fulfilling to build something from the ground
“It’s really rewarding for me to know
that this company is something I created,” agrees Wilson.
Like Smith entrepreneurs who have come
before them and Smith entrepreneurs who will come after
them, Crapuchettes and Wilson hope that they can take North
Star Games and Baby Fans to the next level, with help and
support from the Smith community. It’s a risky proposition.
But who knows? With a little luck, they just might become
the next big thing.