Ex-teacher turns his game company into winner

Packaging mathematics as fun in his games has

Packaging mathematics as fun in his games has been an eight-year journey for former teacher Joe Balcuk. He introduces his games this week during the American International Toy Fair at the Javits Center in Manhattan. (Jan. 29, 2012) (Credit: Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara)

Joe Balcuk readily admits he took no shortcuts building his game company.

"I learned everything by doing it wrong," said Balcuk, 36, a game designer and owner of Moriches-based RoosterFin Inc.

But Balcuk's eight-year journey is finally showing results. This week, he launches six new games at the American International Toy Fair at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in Manhattan. RoosterFin's existing line of five games is sold across the country in more than 200 locations, including Barnes & Noble stores and walmart.com.

Balcuk's path to this point has been anything but straight. He spent years trying to sell his first game to school districts before realizing there were more opportunities in the general retail market. And finding the right network of professionals to guide him took time as well. Experts say his story provides lessons for other budding entrepreneurs, especially underscoring the need to thoroughly research their target markets.

A LEAP AND A PLAN

Successful entrepreneurs do take risks, said Alice Bredin, a small business adviser to American Express Open, but "it's the leap plus the plan that leads to an easier road."

Balcuk, a former secondary-school math teacher, developed his first game to make the subject fun for his students. In it, players earned money and bought real estate and stocks. His students enjoyed it, he said, so in 2004 he decided to launch the product on his own.

He found a company to manufacture the game, "The Spoils of Civilization," assuming the firm would offer production and packaging tips. It didn't.

The final product weighed 8.5 pounds and was costly to ship. And Balcuk spent thousands to file for a provisional patent -- advised by attorneys who didn't specialize in the board game industry. It turned out to be unnecessary; instead, he needed to file for copyright and trademark protections -- a much less expensive process, he said.

Breaking into the educational market turned out to be "a massive undertaking," Balcuk said. "I was up against Prentice Hall and Houghton Mifflin." He traveled to school districts and conferences across the country during his time off from teaching, constantly recasting the game's instructions to accommodate districts' rapidly changing educational guidelines.

Thoroughly understanding the customer's needs and priorities, as well as the competition, is one of the main lessons others can learn from Balcuk's story, experts said. Entrepreneurs "should build a customer profile, which includes who the market is, what they care about and what products are they using to meet their needs now," Bredin said.

CRUCIAL PEER ADVICE

In 2010, Balcuk, running low on funds, made a connection that helped redirect his company toward a family audience. He met Matt Nuccio, co-owner of Merrick-based Design Edge Inc., a toy and product design and inventing company, at a Suffolk County Inventors & Entrepreneurs Club event.

An industry veteran, Nuccio saw Balcuk's game had problems with packaging and was too complex -- and he said breaking into the school market is next to impossible. He advised Balcuk to keep the game simple. Balcuk returned with several other game ideas.

He "has a gift many game guys don't," Nuccio said. "He knows how to mathematically arrange a good game engine" -- the rules that make a game fair and fun.

Connecting with experienced peers as Balcuk did with Nuccio can serve an important role in developing a business, Bredin said. It's tempting "to try to figure it all out yourself . . . but why reinvent the wheel?"

In 2011, Balcuk took a leap of faith, this time with a clear plan. He invested his savings and turned to family for funding. Balcuk created RoosterFin Inc. and with Design Edge as a consultant, retooled his games.

He left his tenured teaching position last June, and drove around the country playing his games with independent shop owners. By the end of the summer, he had driven 18,000 miles and had 150 accounts. Today, he says he has paid back loans from family and friends.

The company is profitable and still allows Balcuk to do what he loves. "There is mathematics in there disguised as fun," he said.

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