As a part of our series called ‘Five Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became A CEO,’ we had the pleasure of interviewing Ariella Lehrer, CEO and Founder of Legacy Games, a leading publisher and distributor of casual PC games at retail. A well-known game industry veteran, Ariella has dedicated her career to creating and selling games that expand the market and appeal to women. Based in Los Angeles, Ariella has a PhD. in Cognitive Psychology from Claremont Graduate University and writes about games on her blog, www.ariellalehrer.com.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I was in graduate school at Claremont Graduate University studying cognitive psychology. I worked on a dissertation looking at the differences in memory and comprehension with children across different media, audio-only, video only, and text. As a result of that research, I became very interested in how media matters. It was also the beginning of the home PC revolution with the Commodore 64 and the Apple IIe. And so, it was this confluence of things of what I was interested in and new technologies. In the beginning, I was explicitly focused on learning and kids. And that is how I ended up getting into interactive games… and haven’t looked back.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
We had just founded Legacy Games in 1998. We had spent probably four years working on sequels to Emergency Room, which was one of the first computer simulations about medicine, with over 400 cases, and actually, it sold well. So we created Emergency Room, Emergency Room Code Red, Code Blue, Disaster Strikes, and all kinds of sequels and versions of that game. And then, finally, I felt like I needed to look around for a new concept that we thought would appeal to our primarily female audience.
Sometime in 2003, I happened to attend a nonprofit dinner. We were raising money for a charity, and I sat next to Dick Wolf, an icon in the TV industry. Among many other TV shows, he’s the creator of Law and Order, the original procedural crime hit. I sat next to him, and we started talking, and I said, “somebody should make a game out of Law and Order.” Dick agreed. There wasn’t even anybody at NBC Universal to speak with. Back then, I had to do a deal with the merchandise guy who sold t-shirts and coffee mugs. We ended up making four Law and Order games. That started Legacy on its path towards doing many TV licensed, puzzle adventure, hidden object games. And it started because I happened to sit next to Dick Wolf.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
When I first started in the business, I was executive producer of a product called Children’s Writing and Publishing Center published by The Learning Company. It was a big success in schools. The following product we made was Mickey’s Crossword Puzzle Maker for Disney. As far as I know, it was the first picture crossword puzzle. The product did well and was quite innovative. So I said, “Who needs publishers? Who needs licenses? I know how to do this.” We then created two excellent educational software games — Math Challenge and Word Challenge. We decided to make up our own characters for the games and called them Mutanoids. We designed these weird-looking characters made up of household item parts without doing any testing. Even though the games themselves were great, the characters and the setting (a Cantina) were a flop. I learned a hard lesson about hubris and knowing what I don’t know.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
There is a person I would like to call out. His name is Bob Wallace, the Managing Partner at Strategic Alternatives. About ten years ago, Bob took me under his wing, introduced me to many people, and taught me about running a game company and positioning a game company for sale. He knows more about selling game companies than just about anybody else in the industry. Bob is one of the most influential people in the game industry I’ve met and I’m lucky to call him my friend.
As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
Companies must have diverse executive and development teams. For many years, there were very few women on development teams. It seemed less relevant when the main games being produced were not mass-market but were targeted to the stereotypical core gamer, the young white teenager boy, who can afford the more expensive gaming consoles like PlayStations.
Now the audience is very mass market. It is diverse across race and socioeconomic levels and undoubtedly male and female. How does a company expect to market, sell, and publish a product that is supposed to appeal to an identity first audience if they don’t have that representation on the creative team or the management team? I think things started improving for women when it became clear that 50 plus percent of the gaming audience were females (thank you, Nintendo). And you know what? You need to have some female input on everything from color palette and characters to story to interactive design. So yes, it’s pretty evident that diversity is key to having a successful business.
As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.
Currently, the Legacy team has people of different ethnicities, religions, and backgrounds. Our employees come from California, Hawaii, China, the Philippines, Hungary, and Ukraine. Half are women, half are men. Our team is very diverse, and frankly, I love it that way.
On a personal note, I’ve been very involved with foster care kids my adult life and have had foster children living with us. I’m currently a court-appointed special advocate, a CASA Volunteer. It is undoubtedly one of the more rewarding things I’ve ever done. I would strongly recommend this volunteer program to anyone who wants to have an impact. In Los Angeles County alone, there are 50,000 foster care kids, and they all need attention and love.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
I think the chief executive is primarily responsible for setting the tone and establishing the culture of an organization. Whether or not it’s an organization willing to take risks without punishing people who fail or whether an organization is transparent and encourages open communication where people can state their opinions freely, or whether an organization prides itself on learning and growth for its employees. These kinds of attitudes and feelings all come from the top down.
I think that the CEO’s most significant role is to establish the company culture and then live it because, just like being a parent, you can lecture all you want. But what children do is look at your behavior and learn from that. So, you have to live these ideals and values and concretely reflect them to your employees. You can’t just talk about it.
I think that’s the most important thing an executive does, and probably the second most crucial thing is to hire good people. It’s the executive’s primary responsibility to hire the right people to make it happen.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
The one myth I hear is that the CEO does a lot of delegation and not much actual work. That’s not true. While the CEO is not in the weeds like other team members, the CEO for sure has a pulse on the business. The CEO is looking at the larger trends and how all of this affects the business.
On the other hand, I know that I’ve been less effective as an executive when I don’t know enough about how something works or the decisions made below me. You can’t be so in the clouds that you don’t know when something isn’t working or when something isn’t a great idea.
As a CEO, there’s a balance there that you have to strike, and it also greatly depends on the company’s size. For a small company like Legacy, it’s much easier for me to keep track of things and do the work shoulder to shoulder with our employees when necessary.
Another myth is that the CEO is always working 24 hours a day, seven days a week. I think that that’s a terrible example. You don’t want your employees to feel that if they’re not working 24–7, they’re not doing a good job. I try to exemplify a work-life balance. It doesn’t mean that I’m not demanding at times. But employees have more in their lives than work, hopefully, and they need to have time to pursue their other interests. It’s just better for the business and for one’s mental health.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
When I started my game company right out of graduate school, I didn’t have much of an expectation about what it would be like to own a company. I definitely didn’t appreciate the importance of data and finances. I hadn’t used Excel extensively. I didn’t know about HR, employees, and all of the minutia, both legal and otherwise, involved with running a company. If I assumed anything, I thought I would be spending all my time creating products, i.e., the fun part.
But when you start a small business and you’re a founder, you often put your own money into the company. You quickly learn that most of your time is not spent on the fun part. You worry over payroll, taxes, contracts, personnel, etc. You need to be prepared for that and if not, find a great partner who actually likes the operation side of the business.
Presumably not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?
I think this gets down to leadership and the characteristics of good leaders. First of all, they should be the type of person you want to follow. They need to be someone you can respect both on a personal level and business level.
They are the kind of person who will listen to your input. They might not do everything you want them to do, but they will hear you and respect you back. Also, they won’t just tell you to do something. They’ll explain the why behind it, so you understand the bigger picture, how it fits into the overall goals of the organization.
I believe that a good leader is transparent, clear and truthful in their communications.
What advice would you give to other business leaders to help create a fantastic work culture? Can you share a story or an example?
Creating opportunities to get to know your team outside of the work setting, is a tried-and-true technique. I recently organized a retreat with the Legacy team at my house. We had a massive sushi lunch, which was so wonderful. Everyone was very appreciative. (I explained that after all the money we’ve saved on lunches this year, we could afford something elaborate.) And then we took a walk in Griffith Park afterward all together, which was fun. This was the first time everyone met everyone else in person, due to the pandemic. So that made it very special too.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
There are two things that I love about being a CEO of a game company. The first is that I love our customers. And I know everybody says that, but these women are very similar to me in terms of demographics. I feel that I know and understand them. They are so appreciative when there is a game that they like. It’s rewarding to see how much they enjoy our games; it makes me feel good.
The second thing that I love about my job is mentoring young people. So many kids want to break into the games business but don’t know how. They don’t have enough experience to land a job at one of the big game companies. So, they start at Legacy, get extensive experience in testing and production, then leave Legacy to graduate to big game companies. Legacy has former employees working at Disney, Warner Bros, Microsoft, you name it.
Fantastic. Here is the primary question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
The first thing is it’s essential to find a mentor early on. When I started, I did not have any mentors, male or female. I think a woman mentor would have been super helpful, but there were so few women in the games business when I started.
The second is to keep an eye on technology trends. It’s always much better to be ahead of the curve rather than the long tail. I’ve been at the front of some trends, like TV licensed games and augmented reality, and also at the end of a trend, like mobile and free to play, and I much prefer the former.
The third is to have a good team behind you in terms of finance and legal. Often startups think that they can’t afford these people who tend to be very expensive. The reality is you can’t afford not to hire good people in those two categories, or otherwise you endanger your future.
The fourth is to take a long view of your career. Even if you jump around, company to company, chances are you are staying in the same industry. As a result, your reputation will follow you and either make or break your ability to climb up the ladder. The games business is a vast multi-billion-dollar industry, yet it’s a pretty small industry in the sense that people know each other. Guard your reputation fiercely.
The last takeaway is to figure out what part of the business you’re excellent at and what part of the business you’re not so good at. To the extent possible, focus on what you’re good at, because that is also nine times out of 10, the part of the business that you’re going to enjoy the most. The earlier you learn that in your career, the better.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
Being in the games business, I have to express my admiration for the Humble company. https://www.humblebundle.com/
They started in 2010 with one bundle and have grown to the point that they have given away almost $200,000,000 to various charities. There is nothing like it in any other industry, as far as I know. I love the model. Without coercion, deception, or confusion, gamers have willingly donated their money while enjoying the games they love. That seems like a great model. If I could create a movement that was something akin to that…have fun while improving the lives of others…I would love to do it. I hope that a version of this is something that Legacy can do in the future.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I like the famous Rainer Maria Rilke quote, “Trust in what is difficult.”
I think that’s a wise quote because it is rare, at least in my experience, to achieve significant success without a great deal of persistence, hard work, and struggle. I think that my accomplishments that have been most meaningful to me have been some of the most challenging things I’ve attempted.
On a personal note, marriage is a great example. I’ve been married for a very long time with four children and eight grandchildren, and marriage is one of those things that’s quite difficult but very rewarding, at least in my case. It is also entirely related to how much effort and work my husband and I have put into it. I believe the same applies in business.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them
The person that comes to mind is Laurene Powell Jobs. In the past year, she has donated so much money to great causes, and she’s done it in a way that is exemplary. I admire that she said, “This is a pandemic, the world is suffering, the need is now, and I’m going to find a way to get this money into the hands of people who need it right now.” She seems like a fascinating person, especially with her interest in education and kids.