Rena Nathanson decided to start her family business after looking for riveting family entertainment while on holiday. Rena’s then 75-year old dad Abe was crucial to the lightbulb moment of its creation.  In Rena’s words: “After marathon sessions playing and experimenting with various permutations of word games and subjecting our extended family and friends to hours of testing, we finally came up with Bananagrams. The name came from Dad declaring, ‘This anagram game will drive you bananas!’ – hence Bananagrams!”

Since then, the Bananagrams business has grown incredibly fast, and our team was increasingly intrigued by the fact that we have seen this product everywhere, complete with Olympics 2012 branding. Rena has appeared in various articles including a rather prominent one as a Millionaire Mumpreneur whose product won several toy awards and brought in about $90 million in sales as of May 2012.

Bananagrams was designed by Abe Nathanson and the Nathanson family’s creation is currently showing up in shops all over the world. Rena’s hard work was rewarded last year when she won the Inspirational Business Mum award at the 2012 Mumpreneur event.

We catch up with Rena to find out her story.

1. Can you explain to me what your business does? What sector does it fit into? What makes it stand out by from your competitors?

Bananagrams is an international toy manufacturer. We produce, market and distribute family word games. Bananagrams is our flagship game and is the most well-known. It’s a fast-paced word game/race using letter tiles packaged in a unique banana shaped fabric pouch. Players have to complete a free-form crossword grid of words in the shortest time. You can play a round in as little as five minutes and it’s seriously addictive! It’s compact and easily portable so ideal as a travel game too.

We package Bananagrams in a fabric pouch. This wasn’t popular with the big chains, who put pressure on us to add outer packaging. We stuck to our guns, because we feel strongly about the environment and that there is already too much plastic and cardboard packaging out there, and because we believe the banana pouch is a fundamental feature of the game. As Bananagrams grew in popularity and distribution via independent retailers, the larger chains realised they were missing out. They accepted our packaging approach and now stock Bananagrams merchandised on a “banana tree” – just as we envisaged.

What makes us stand out is the fact that our games are created by a family, for families. In a market dominated by large corporations, we have stuck to our principles and kept control of the concept, quality, packaging and distribution of Bananagrams. I’m the CEO, but all the family is involved too and are passionate about the games. My children were the first and most critical product testers. They were with me on the stand helping promote Bananagrams (in banana costumes!) at the London and New York toy fairs where we launched. It’s a real family concern.

2. How did you go about setting up Bananagrams? What was it that kicked off your desire to create your own business? When did you decide to take that leap and just go for it?

The business was born in 2005 around the kitchen table on a family holiday. Three generations – me, my parents and my two children – love playing board and word games but found the slow pace of many frustrating. We experimented with alternatives. My dad said we should come up with “a word game that’ll drive you bananas” – so we set about developing Bananagrams. When playing one day my father exclaimed: “This anagram game is driving me bananas!” – and the name Bananagrams was born. My mum created a prototype banana-shaped pouch to store the tiles in. Originally, we just created the game for our own pleasure, and to share with friends.

My children, now teenagers, were seven and ten when I started the Bananagrams business. My 16-year marriage had just ended and I was under pressure to find a way to support myself and the kids. Bananagrams had been slowly evolving into a viable commercial product. I decided to take the next step and make it a full-time job.

We would play Bananagrams with friends and they suggested that we should do something with it. So we bit the bullet in 2005 and had 50 games made. It was agreed that my father would sell 25 locally in Rhode Island and I would bring 25 back to the UK. We sold out! We then had 500 made and again split them – 250 each. We sold out again! In 2006 we attended the London Toy Fair and officially launched the game and have not looked back!

3. Was there anything you struggled with when you started? What do you consider to have been the major hurdles in those initial 12 months?

One thing that was very difficult on the journey was in 2010 when my dad, Abe Nathanson, lost his battle with cancer. Dad had been involved right from the start in coming up with the game idea and was a tremendous support at every stage. He had a background in inventing products and his knowledge of things like patents and his belief in the game were key for us all. It has been very tough to carry on without him, although it also motivates us all because we know how proud he was of Bananagrams and how excited he would be about our plans for the future.

We did encounter some growing pains initially as we got to know our new industry. In the second year, we met with a major manufacturing problem. We received a delivery of 21,000 units. The logos were printed on the pouches and sewn in the wrong place so that a part of the logo was lost under a seam! Disaster! This looked awful, so we had to have 21k new pouches made, shipped from China and we had to manually re-bag and retag 21,000 games. That was a huge learning curve on the quality control side of things and needless to say, we now monitor this much more carefully!

4. How did you manage to deal with those hurdles?

I’ve learned not to get overly emotional about business issues. There is always an answer to a challenge…it just may take a little while to find it and think outside the pouch – so to speak – to get there in the end. Keeping things in perspective is key. We are a game business and nothing we do is a matter of life or death. It should be a FUN journey!

5. What do you think was your best decision? And what do you think your worst decision was?

Putting together an ensemble team is/was very important. I can’t take credit for all of the good decisions regarding our staff but putting together a great team is paramount and I feel we have an incredible team (on both sides of the Atlantic!). I am very lucky to have people I trust on hand to help me wade through some of the tougher challenges that crop up.

I think some weaker decisions made out of naivety have offered the steepest learning curve. I have had to learn quickly about the legal aspect of owning a business and am learning to take my time and not rush into things.

6. Who would you look to for inspiration when those moments are tough?

Believe it or not, I still look to my Dad for guidance and inspiration. I stop, think, and really try and figure out what he would have done in any given situation. He was incredibly ethical, a hard worker and wonderfully funny man who built a wonderful life for himself and his family. I continually remind myself how lucky I was to have him as a father and mentor.

7. Do you have any advice would you offer someone who is looking at setting up their own business?

Do something you’re passionate about. Bananagrams is rooted in everything that is dear to me about my family – when you feel that strongly, you find reserves of determination and are endlessly motivated to put in the hard work that will see your product succeed.

It is also very important to stick to your vision. If you passionately believe in something then do not let yourself be bullied or swayed. Follow your gut, be more confident and try to have a more visionary approach. We (Bananagrams) were told to do and/or change various things earlier on in the business and I am glad I went with my instinct. Also, don’t hesitate to ask questions of those who you feel can help. None of us knows everything and I am grateful for all the advice I have been given. I still ask a lot of questions! Also, listening to your customer base is very important, as they are ultimately who you rely on most.

8. You won the Mumpreneur award for The Inspirational Business Mum in 2012, what did that mean to you as a mother?

It was a great honour to be recognised as an inspirational business mum, as I have worked hard to build the business whilst raising my two children and I’m proud of the balance I’ve achieved in life. I think it’s important for children to see their parents working – it teaches them that life comes with responsibility. My father worked so hard to provide for us, I learnt a lot from that and feel I’m passing on the baton of a strong work and family ethic to my two children.

9. Did winning the award help anything with your business?

I believe that winning the award was more about helping other mothers with their businesses than about helping mine: I would hope that the story of how we invented Bananagrams and grew it in such a short space of time into the global success that it is today serves as inspiration for a new generation of business people who have a vision and the passion to see it through. Bananagrams started at the kitchen table but has since sold more than six million units in 31 different countries.

10. Almost a year on from the awards now, how are things going with Bananagrams?

Things continue to go from strength to strength. We successfully relaunched both Appletters and PAIRSinPEARS after an exciting and extensive market research project, and have attracted a raft of new stockists including some major department stores, Tesco and Waitrose among others.

11. How are the other games doing and what inspired their creation? Do you have any others in the pipeline?

We have five table-top games – Bananagrams, Appletters, PAIRSinPEARS, Fruitominoes and ZIP-IT. In addition, there are also Jumbo versions of Bananagrams and ZIP-IT, which are great for the garden or playground, plus six foreign language editions of Bananagrams. Our family of games is aimed at preschoolers through to adults so there’s something for everyone! At the moment, we’re working on increasing the number of foreign language editions of Bananagrams.

12. What are the next steps for Bananagrams?

I would like to strengthen the core family of games. Our marketing team is working very hard on brand awareness and growth. We are also exploring some new game ideas and hope to bring some new fruit to the basket!

If you’re looking for some more toy based entrepreneurial inspiration why not read our article on thing to learn from Lego about expanding your business.


Published Saturday January 18, 2014