Donald McNeill founded McNeill Designs for Brighter Minds in 2005 in Wilmington, Delaware.
Tell me about your current business. What are you doing exactly?
At McNeill Designs for Brighter Minds, Inc., we manufacture, market and distribute family/educational games and have two hit products. We are available in B&N, Borders, Books a Million and 1,000+ toy game and educational supply stores in the US and have distribution in Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand.
How did you come up with your business idea?
6:30 AM December 29th, 2004, after doing a Madlibs in the back of the kids menu at a restaurant the night before, I had an idea in my morning shower. (Sorry for the bad visual.) I had never seen language as a game before and I even knew the name was going to be called You've been Sentenced! I quickly ran out of the shower and woke my wife Susan with "Honey I have an idea!!!" to which she groggily replied "No, not now!" In a slightly less excited tone I began to explain a game where you had to make sentences to which she slightly more eagerly replied, "I haven't had my coffee yet but that sounds like a pretty good idea." That day we searched the internet and could not find a sentence forming game – We knew we were on to something.
What were you doing before this, and is this your first business?
I sold commercial printing for 20 years but concurrently started and owned a hot sauce manufacturing/marketing firm and when I was 14 started an apple cider sales business out of the back of mom's station wagon.
Did you write a business plan? Was it an effective tool for you?
A business plan is a living breathing document. It is not static and must always be updated to reflect current climates and opportunities. It is critical to have a plan and to maintain it. Ours grew from 4 pages to 40 pages and of course has smaller 1-2 page versions for investors. You will need both - the short version and the investors.
Did you operate your business from your home? What were the challenges and benefits to this strategy?
Yes. Every Tuesday night we held a meeting in our dining room and every week the size of the meeting grew as we added more people who could help us. We did not get an office until we had an order from B&N in March, 2006 and even then we did not pay rent. The office space was already being used for a non-profit organization Success Won't Wait! (SWW) and the owner of the office allowed us to move in if we would help run the organization. You can learn more at Success Won't Wait!. McNeill Designs for Brighter Minds, Inc. donates a portion of the sales of the You've been Sentenced! game to SWW.
Did you have a partner when you started your business? How did you select a partner?
In 20 years of selling commercial printing I have never burned a bridge and every time we needed the next talent to help us I would contact one of my printing clients and ask them for help in exchange for a small portion of ownership in the company. I am still the majority owner but I have 30 partners that all own a small slice of the pie. I find that people put forth their best work if they take ownership in the project.
Social marketing is consistently being written about in the small business space. Has it worked generating business for you?
Yes! We have never advertised nationally yet but would certainly like to with investment. Currently we have a website, Facebook account, Twitter, Ning and blog. Along with reaching out to the mommy blogs we have been able to create an effective grass roots campaign that has helped our sales grow.
You've been Sentenced! has also won 9 national awards and Susan continually writes press releases with all of our news that helps with all of the social marketing.
What advice would you give to somebody else who wanted to start a similar business?
Examine the current market first and then get as much help and advice from professionals in the market before spending any money.
Thanks for the great advice, Donald. Best wishes marketing your successful game, You've been Sentenced!