Creativity wins

Entrepreneur Kate Ryan Reiling invented the game Morphology

Nearly 10 years ago, Kate Ryan Reiling and some friends entertained themselves while holed up in an apartment during a snowstorm. They took pieces from two different games and devised a new one that was a cross between Pictionary and Charades. “I remember waking up the next morning and thinking about how amazed I was at what we came up with.”

Later that same day, Reiling browsed through the aisles of Ax-Man Surplus Store in St. Paul and bought random objects. She went home, wrote down words on the backs of some cards, and used the objects to create a visual representation of the word. She eventually designed a paper game board using an Excel spreadsheet program, concocted some rules and shared the game with more friends. People were hooked.

“Even if I set it down when my life got busy, others asked to play it,” recalled Reiling, a 34-year-old entrepreneur who lives in St. Paul. “I thought, ‘This is really sticking for people.'”

It stuck so much that Reiling researched the board game industry while a student at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College. She graduated in 2009, and a few months later the first edition of Morphology was being shipped.

Pick, build, animate, guess
Morphology requires players to build words in three dimensions as teammates try to guess the word chosen from a deck of cards. Using objects such as string, wooden sticks, beads and colored cubes, players must create the designated object before time runs out. Players advance their pawn (a frog) once they correctly guess the word, and the first team to reach the final lily pad wins.

Reiling is still reeling from Morphology’s instant success. “It’s been this thing that I’m chasing,” Reiling said. “The game is always growing faster than I can handle. It’s like the dog walking the person.”

No wonder Reiling feels overwhelmed. Time magazine declared Morphology its No. 2 pick for 2010’s Top 10 Toys of the Year. Sales have tripled from 2010 to 2011, and they are experiencing a quick acceleration of those figures already for 2012. It’s fast, Reiling admitted, but exciting.

Reiling credits friends, family and mentors with helping bring the inventive seeds of Morphology to fruition. Early in the process, a friend encouraged her to send out prototypes to people around the country and ask for feedback. Their response was “phenomenal,” Reiling recalled. “At that point I thought, ‘There’s really something going on here.'”

That was in 2007. Two years later, while a student at Dartmouth, one of Reiling’s professors said he wanted to order games to give as gifts to guest speakers. Suddenly, Reiling’s focus shifted from getting people to enjoy playing Morphology to spending money on it. Friends crammed into her apartment and helped put together 250 games, which sold out quickly to other students, professors and in the college bookstore. They made 250 more, and sold out quickly again.

That momentum has never slowed. Reiling spends 60 to 80 hours a week overseeing a network of fulfillment warehouses across the country, processing orders, marketing to retailers and doing further product development. One other employee helps with public relations and getting the word out on social media, as well as other product development. She and Reiling are working on an iPhone application, expansion packs, travel games and are gearing up to release a junior edition of Morphology for kids this summer.

Soccer inspiration
Reiling grew up playing games and puzzles at her family’s cabin, which certainly laid some of the groundwork for Morphology. So did being raised by a mother who is a local artist. But Reiling gives most of the credit for her invention to the sport of soccer.

Reiling played soccer while a student at Macalester College in St. Paul, and was the women’s soccer coach for one season after she graduated in 2000. “I have experienced the world as an athlete,” Reiling said, “and soccer is the most creative sport out there.” She compares playing soccer to her journey as an entrepreneur. “You’ve got one goal, and how you’re going to get there you don’t necessarily know. You don’t know what you are going to do, what those around you are going to do, but there can be these moments of brilliance.”

Being an entrepreneur also means being able to follow the unexpected, Reiling said. “You have to be willing to set the map down and go chase the thing that surprises you.” Entrepreneurs need to have a curious, questioning sense of the world, she continued, and be willing to sit in the messy space between an idea and the final product. “I’m not sure there’s really ever an end point,” she said, although there are times she realizes she is actually walking the dog.