How To Pivot A Travel Company Into Game And Toy Design.
The story of how a growing travel company was crushed by the pandemic and then evolved into a design studio for toys and games to help people discover the world.
Welcome! My name is Funmi Oyatogun and I design games and toys to help people discover the world. I’m excited to share this story with you because you’re one of our first 10,000 customers. You believed in our games and toys when they were just an idea or a new product on the market. Business of Play is our way of giving you a peek into our work. This is the newsletter curated by team members at TVP Games. As we design games and build toys, we share our insights here. Please, subscribe and share this newsletter to join a community of people who love toys and games, and want to get all up in the business of play.
Do you remember where you were when the COVID-19 disease was labelled a pandemic? I do! I was taking a water break while playing tennis at the National Stadium in Surulere. As I sat, making jest of my poor tennis swings with my friend Kola, I quickly scrolled through Twitter. “A global pandemic”, I read. Until that morning, the Coronavirus was still a fast-spreading epidemic and we all held our breaths for what the future of this virus could look like. Kola’s playlist was running in the background and as I tried to make sense of the distinction between an epidemic and a pandemic, the song ‘Jerusalema’ by Master KG came on. I got up, held my racquet like a Yoruba woman would hold her ipele, and just danced. It was a dance of silent agony and anguish, but of hope and soothesome. I thought to myself, “even if I don’t believe that all will be ok, if I believe that I believe that all will be okay, then all will be okay.”
By 2019, I had been leading a growing travel company for more than 3 years. We were determined to help people discover the world through meaningful travel experiences. What started as a medium for simplifying travel across Africa, was becoming a movement of people who wanted to build cross-cultural connections and deepen their understanding of the world. It was fun, adventurous and a lot of work. But we were doing it. At TVP Adventures, we had planned landmark birthday parties in Dubai, taken African Americans on tours across West Africa to explore their roots, explored the Indian Ocean in Seychelles and Zanzibar, summitted Mounts Kilimanjaro, Cameroon and Kenya, and so much more. Coming out of the ‘Detty December’ buzz of 2019 and riding on the wave of ‘Vision 2020’, we were ready for what was to come. As January of 2020 rolled around, we started hearing murmurs of this virus that had originated in The East and was creeping slowly throughout the world. By the end of February, it had become the hottest topic on Earth. This was a cause for alarm because our first major travel season of the year was coming up during the Easter holidays in early April and no one seemed to have enough information about this pandemic to know what to do next. It was unprecedented. As soon as we shared the decision to cancel all upcoming trips, Nigeria got our first confirmed case of the disease. It was here. We maintained clear and open communication with our community and promised to refund every last customer, whether or not we got refunds from the airlines and vendors. We didn’t get refunds from everyone (an entire airline shut down with dozens of our tickets going down with it) but we kept our promise. And it is this trust and community that we preserved through the pandemic that would prove useful to us in our evolution.
Building Despite a Persistent Pandemic
We mourned what could have been for a week or two and started to figure out a plan. For me, the biggest priority was keeping our team encouraged and making sure that we were kept as safe as possible. ‘Let’s keep busy somehow, I told them’. We planned a COVID-compliant photoshoot around Lagos to document the ‘pandemic on the streets.’ We drove around taking snaps of police checkpoints during the lockdown and empty tollgates. We created a real-life album of all the spots on the Lagos version of Monopoly. We shared these with our community. Simultaneously, I raised the idea of creating games. After all, lots of people were stuck at home (remember Love is Blind, House Party and so on) and every entertainment that was safe and exciting was welcome. By the end of the summer, we had designed, developed and produced 1,000 copies of a hilarious card game that celebrates blackness, charades-style. We called it Fill in the Black. The point of Fill in the Black was two-fold: celebrate the diversity of places and cultures of black people and help people discover blackness in a fun setting. Also, get various black peoples talking to each other not at each other.
Three months after we launched, we had produced 3,000 copies of Fill in the Black game, built a store on Shopify, set up a way to distribute in four countries (Nigeria, USA, UK and Canada), enjoyed press coverage from Reuters, Denver 9News, and even caught the attention of TikTok UK. TikTok had ordered a few hundred copies for their influencers during the UK’s Black History Month in 2020. Of course, our community was the first to show their support with over 100 pre-orders in the first few days. The entire year tested our tenacity, especially as Nigerians, in body, mind and spirit. Taking a break in October to fight for the soul of our country was tough and ended in tears but our feet are planted and our hope is steadfast. I was really proud of what we had done while staying true to our mission of helping people discover the world and shrink literal and figurative borders. Despite the challenges, in less than one year, we had multiplied our first production quantity. If you looked at our books, it would seem like our company had gone through a small bout of the flu, perhaps a minor fever, but certainly not a global pandemic.
We imagined that we would grow, that we would design more games and that we would extend our mission of global discovery offline. However, there’s no way we could have imagined what we have become. Just a few months ago, we launched our Fill in the Map puzzles that help kids discover the world and now, we are a full-blown games and toys design studio.
So What’s Next?
More games! Since 2020, our team has designed a portfolio of games that shows how serious we are about our mission and we’ve got so much more in store for you. For now, you can still purchase:
Fill in the Black - a hilarious guessing game that celebrates blackness
Fill in the Map - a kids’ line of puzzles of Africa, Europe, USA and The World
Fanboree - a new game for the most ardent football fans (coming soon)
If you would like to join our community of explorers, sign up for our weekly newsletter at TVP Games. Every week, we will share our design processes and our upcoming games and toys. You’ll be the first to hear about deals and steals. Every member of our team will contribute to this newsletter and you’ll also get a chance to tell us what you’d like to see us create.
You can also sign up to my personal newsletter - Show Me One Thing - where I answer curious questions about the world. This is world discovery and we will shrink the borders that surround us while playing and having a darn good time.
TVP Games is the modern brand that designs games and puzzles for adults and children to discover the world. Our bold and creative games turn adults and children into global explorers and cultural discoverers. We are building the world’s most diverse community of people who explore the world through play.
Congratulations 'Funmi, so proud of the work you and your team are doing. I'm very thankful for the diamond that's coming out of the rough.
Absolutely brilliant! Love to see the evolution of TVP Games and I believe it can only go up from here. Your tenacity is inspiring Funmi. Kudos to you and your team!